Most of us know Kurt Vonnegut from his science fiction classics, such as “Slaughterhouse Five” and “Player Piano.” But his fame as a commencement speaker almost overshadowed his fame (notoriety?) as a shrewd and caustic master of fiction. As Maria Popova illustrates in her review of “If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?,” Vonnegut’s collected commencement addresses, the author generously shared not only his hard-won wisdom, but also his stubborn optimism.
At the heart of Vonnegut’s talks, as in his fiction, is the urgent warning that we’re in danger of losing our humanity. We lose it, he says, by isolating and distracting ourselves. As Popova writes:
This, in fact — this passionate advocacy for the value of community, of finding your tribe — is something Vonnegut reiterates across his many commencement speeches. In another address, he, the father of seven children, argues that the modern family is simply too small, leaving too much room for loneliness and boredom, and advises: “I recommend that everybody here join all sorts of organizations, no matter how ridiculous, simply to get more people in his or her life. It does not matter much if all the other members are morons. Quantities of relatives of any sort are what we need.”
Vonnegut often preached the gospel of art, including music, theater, and literature as a catalyst for emotional and social well-being. But only human contact can facilitate the growth of human, and humane, souls. As Vonnegut counseled the graduates of Agnes Scott College in 1999:
Only well-informed, warm-hearted people can teach others things they’ll always remember and love. Computers and TV don’t do that.
A computer teaches a child what a computer can become.
An educated human being teaches a child what a child can become. Bad men just want your bodies. TVs and computers want your money, which is even more disgusting. It’s so much more dehumanizing!
It is no coincidence that the same runaway market forces threatening the environment also threaten our humanity. If we are self-serving consumers with no bonds to others, we are left with nothing to strive for other than maximizing our exploitation of nature and other people. Vonnegut advises his audience to nurture ties with the “extended family,” even if it’s an a “synthetic extended family,” such as clubs and sports teams.
Of course, rebelling has its dangers, as Vonnegut warned in such stories as “Harrison Bergeron.” After all, we live in a world where going against the grain will get you branded as a threat, a theme I explored in my dystopian short story “Snake Heart.” Sometimes we lose. But as Kurt Vonnegut reminds us, the risk of mindless conformity to “the cultural current” is even worse.