Mission accomplished

Tomorrow is graduation, and it might be a weather disaster given the 60% chance of thunderstorms predicted. The University of Chicago has no inside alternative: they just pass out plastic rain ponchos to keep you dry.

I couldn’t help but feel a twinge as I walked home by the empty venue, which tomorrow morning will fill up with happy graduates and their relieved parents.

IMG_1092 (1)

I went to such a ceremony twice, and no matter how jaded you are, it’s a thrill. Feeling insouciant, I almost didn’t go to my Harvard graduation, but at the last minute two of my pals and I decided to rent caps and gowns. All that was left in the bookstore on graduation day were remainders—way too large. But I was glad I went, for Alexander Solzhenitsyn spoke, his famous address rebuking the laxity of Western societies. Here at Chicago, the tradition is to have only academics and intellectuals give the graduation address—no movie stars, authors, or entertainers. Solzhenitsyn would not have been invited.

When I remembered the “mission accomplished” feeling I had back then, I remembered that I am still fulfilling a vow I made when young. Observing how stimulating the University was, and the joy I got from a life of learning, I vowed that, as far as I could, I’d never leave college.

I’ve succeeded. 49 years after entering college, I’m still here. I’ve had only about two years of respite—when I worked in a hospital as a conscientious objector and then, after 13 months of that, traveled to Europe for ein halb Wanderjahr.

I’ve been at it nearly half a century—even rock stars can’t keep it up that long!



  1. Greta B
    Posted June 10, 2016 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

    Unless, of course, the rock stars happen to be the Rolling Stones. Fifty years and counting.

    • Posted June 10, 2016 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

      I knew someone was gonna bring them up!

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted June 11, 2016 at 2:06 am | Permalink

        And on the first comment, too.

        Well, what did you expect? 😉

        If, when the Stones first crashed into view, anyone had been taking bets on them still being alive 20 years later, I wonder what odds they would have got?


        • E.A. Blair
          Posted June 11, 2016 at 7:39 am | Permalink

          As Stephen Write once said:

          “The Stones! The Stones! I can’t believe they’re still doing it after all these years! I love that Fred and Barney.”

          • E.A. Blair
            Posted June 11, 2016 at 7:39 am | Permalink

            Wright, not Write.

    • aldoleopold
      Posted June 10, 2016 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

      I was going to mention McCartney given your recent post 🙂

    • E.A. Blair
      Posted June 10, 2016 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

      Robert Fripp turned 70 this year. John Cale is 74 and still going after 51 years in the business. Peter Gabriel is in his 49th year of active work and will be appearing at Milwaukee’s Summerfest in three weeks. Tony Levin is also 70, and he’s appeared on over 500 albums (but he’s four years shy of the 50-year mark)

      I’ve always thought of rock stars being my contemporaries (more or less), and it’s sometimes startling to see how old they are – then I realize that I’m getting pretty far up there myself.

      • Diane G.
        Posted June 12, 2016 at 3:44 am | Permalink

        Roger Waters is 72–still touring, gives a great show.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted June 12, 2016 at 7:36 am | Permalink

          And Dave Gilmour is 70 and still recording/touring.


    • Jeff Chamberlain
      Posted June 10, 2016 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

      Little Richard has been singing professionally since about the time you (we) were born. Fats Domino started recording in 1950. Chuck Berry made his first musical appearance in 1941, and recorded “Maybelline” in 1955. Jerry Lee Lewis released “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” when you were 8 (and I was 9). All are still performing.

    • Kevin
      Posted June 10, 2016 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

      I was about to analyze if bass or guitar players live longer and I realized I still need to wait for more musicians to die before I get better statistics. Yeah they can go past 45+ years of jammin.

  2. keith cook + / -
    Posted June 10, 2016 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

    even rock stars can’t keep it up that long!

    yeah and they would need a few pills..
    nice one Prof(E)

  3. Joe Dickinson
    Posted June 10, 2016 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

    I made 45 years from entry to retirement but a bit over fifty if you count hanging around the lab as an emeritus. Two years out for a tour of duty in three navy, but I managed to have even that be in a research lab. Of three graduations, I made only the bachelor’s – at UC Berkeley with, if memory serves, JFK as speaker. A favorite quote from a retiring faculty member speaking at commencement: “Read my lips! No more committees!”

  4. µ
    Posted June 10, 2016 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

    “ein halbes Wanderjahr”

    Everyone should do walkabouts regularly, whether “halb” or “halbes” does not matter.

  5. chris moffatt
    Posted June 10, 2016 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

    Solzhenytsin not an intellectual? Why? He didn’t go to some tinpot school? Methinks the definition of intellectual needs to be revised.

    • Jonathan Wallace
      Posted June 11, 2016 at 1:26 am | Permalink

      Yes, I was a little surprised to see him labelled as ineligible. I’m just guessing but I’d imagine that the U of Chicago would not deny he was an intellectual even if he falls outside their criteria for graduation speakers. I guess that by insisting on drawing their speaker from the ranks of university academics they may rule out some potentially interesting thinkers but they also avoid getting pressured into inviting the latest tv/film/pop star who confuses being famous with having something interesting to say.

    • chris moffatt
      Posted June 11, 2016 at 8:16 am | Permalink

      From what I can glean the U of C since 1970 has only had university members perform this function.

  6. DrBrydon
    Posted June 10, 2016 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

    I know the College was smaller in my day. We had graduation in Rockefeller Chapel. I can’t remember if they broke us up by Division, though. They might have.

  7. john switzer
    Posted June 10, 2016 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

    John (JJ) Weldon Cale died I think 2 or 3 years ago.
    There is a nice YouTube video, maybe his last recorded with Clapton who stands back and says you are on and plays mild back up. Plays The Breaze and maybe After Midnight. Go and look for it.
    Honesty in art.

    • E.A. Blair
      Posted June 10, 2016 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

      The John Cale I mentioned is John Davies Cale, founding member of the Velvet Underground, producer for many other musicians and onetime talent scout for A&M records. John Weldon Cale changed his professional moniker to JJ Cale to avoid being confused with John Davies.

      Whenever I mentioned J.D. Cale as one of my favorite musicians, people always said, “Oh, you mean JJ Cale, so I guess the name change wasn’t that effective.

      • Jonathan Wallace
        Posted June 11, 2016 at 1:29 am | Permalink

        “I guess the name change wasn’t that effective”.

        Though both pursued long and, deservedly successful, careers in music.

  8. Randy Schenck
    Posted June 10, 2016 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

    It is the fortunate person who gets to do what they want from beginning until end. Some will say luck but I don’t think luck plays much of a part in this. There is too much work and determination in it to believe luck had much hand – only around the edges. The luck was in being born and not getting run over by a truck along the way.

    • Jonathan Wallace
      Posted June 11, 2016 at 1:32 am | Permalink

      So in other words Jerry is not a ‘fortunate person’ (except to the extent that he avoided being flattened by a truck). 🙂

    • Posted June 11, 2016 at 4:36 am | Permalink

      No, it was pure laws of physics: my genes and my environment. I had no choice about what I did or what I became. So I shouldn’t be lauded!

  9. Filippo
    Posted June 10, 2016 at 9:46 pm | Permalink

    “I’ve been at it nearly half a century—even rock stars can’t keep it up that long!”

    I’m glad for your sake that you’ve been able to rise to the occasion.

  10. johnjfitzgerald
    Posted June 10, 2016 at 11:21 pm | Permalink

    Keep up the good work. In biology and philosophy, you are doing good work. Provoke, dissent, protest, argue, criticize, question, challenge common sense, etc. are all good words that describe your enterprise. Keep up their!


    John J. Fitzgerald

    • johnjfitzgerald
      Posted June 10, 2016 at 11:23 pm | Permalink

      Correct the last line. “Keep up the fire.”

  11. Posted June 10, 2016 at 11:50 pm | Permalink

    A year ago it was members of my family who were sitting in those seats, as my son graduated. In fact, we were very near the foreground seats in your photo. We felt terribly vulnerable, as a major thunderstorm was reported to be bearing down on us. Fortunately, it never materialized and, amazingly, our son did graduate. So here’s to equally good luck tomorrow.

  12. Scott Draper
    Posted June 11, 2016 at 12:50 am | Permalink

    “no matter how jaded you are, it’s a thrill.”

    Not for me. I skipped my college graduation. I don’t understand the attraction of ceremonies, much less sitting out in the hot sun wearing a hot robe listening to boring speakers.

    • Filippo
      Posted June 12, 2016 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

      Same here. Had them mail me my diploma. (I was high school class president but didn’t know that came with having to give a bloody speech at graduation. Doesn’t mean a bloody thing. I tried to get out of it, but faculty wouldn’t hear of it. Predisposed me to have nothing further to do with such events.)

      I wasn’t pleased with my college career, and consequently with myself. (Confessed to myself the middle of my junior year that I did not want to be a pillar-of-the-community doctor – what’s “Plan B”?) NOT the university’s fault that I couldn’t focus on a major and make and commit to a longer-term career plan. Got a mediocre grade in that last required biology major course, botany. I love and respect plants. They can do something I can’t do – make food. Wasn’t interested in memorizing a bunch of binomial nomenclature. Got lectured by the prof about that; he apparently was born to immerse himself in cladistics. (Having to memorize in alphabetical order all 95 counties of my state in my 7th grade state history class set the stage for my getting burned out on memorizing stuff I wasn’t interested in.)

      But time has passed, and one day I got inspired to write some alternative lyrics to “Carolina in the Morning,” which I could easily-enough be persuaded to sing at a graduation:

      “(A Grad in) Carolina in the Morning”

      Nothing could be finer
      Than a grad (from) in Carolina
      in the morning;

      Nothing could be better
      Than to get my arts and letters
      in the morning;

      Hear the halls of ivy,
      as in days of yore,
      Whispering campus stories,
      I long to hear once more;

      Strolling the quadrangle
      Watching grads from every angle
      in the morning;

      Academics near and far
      And even those who passed the bar
      are swarming;

      As into the air my mortar board I now lob,
      Mom and Dad with joy exclaim
      “NOW GET A JOB!”

      Nothing could be finer
      than a grad in Carolina in the morning,
      The MORNING!__________

      • Scott Draper
        Posted June 12, 2016 at 11:07 pm | Permalink

        Universities could do a better job advising students about what sorts of careers they’re likely to find satisfying. I was into computers, but I found the lifestyle of a software developer utterly miserable. A large part due to my coworkers being really boring. It’s said that those without enough personality to be accountants become programmers.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted June 12, 2016 at 11:42 pm | Permalink

          “It’s said that those without enough personality to be accountants become programmers.”

          That’s really sad. I’ve done a little programming (self-taught) and it’s really satisfying when something works as designed. I’ve also read a very few programming manuals and they can be as deadly and mind-numbingly opaque as tax regulations.

          I’d say that, for anyone who doesn’t have a natural aptitude for programming, trying to be a programmer would be the most soul-destroying drudgery possible.


          • Scott Draper
            Posted June 12, 2016 at 11:52 pm | Permalink

            It can be soul-destroying even if you have the aptitude. The psychological testing I did after college said that I had engineering aptitudes, but not the right personality…a dislike of structured environments.

            I’m unusual in that I view writing code as similar to writing an essay. It must tell a story and be beautiful, but I get a blank look when I tell most developers that. Even so, I can only do it for short bursts and then I have to go work in the yard.

            • Posted June 13, 2016 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

              My first experience programming, as a child, was an aesthetic reaction – I thought (and still do) I had discovered the most amazing art form ever.

              See also http://shop.oreilly.com/product/9780596510046.do

              • Scott Draper
                Posted June 13, 2016 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

                I think you’re more likely to encounter that point of view in the programming meccas of the world…San Francisco, for example. Places that attract the best. My experience has been almost totally in corporate computing, which are run more like sweatshops. “We don’t care what it looks like, just get it done.”

                “Code Complete” is the title of a book that understands the aesthetics of coding, but I seldom run into anyone locally that’s read it or even heard of it.

                There was an article in the WSJ a year or so ago talking about how programming has become more of a trade than a profession, and this is true in some segments of the industry. A weekend hobbiest can put together a functioning web app.

                Thanks for the book link.

              • Posted June 14, 2016 at 11:16 am | Permalink

                (Replying to myself to reply to Scott, below)

                I’ve read Code Complete (2e) – a colleague recommended it a few years ago.

                All my programming career proper has been not in corporate settings or a “programming mecca” – I’m a public servant. It has made me realize a lot of it is grunt stuff, even more than I sort of appreciated.

                But so are arts – I draw, badly, and see the same thing there. I have to do a few to get something that looks good enough.

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted June 14, 2016 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

                I’m fortunate in that, as an engineer, all the programming I’ve attempted has an immediate real objective. Which is not to say it hasn’t been frustrating at times when the program won’t do what I want it to do.

                My experience of corporate computing has been as a user, first in a relatively relaxed environment (IT guy: I don’t want to know what you’ve got on it but don’t expect us to fix it if you break it. Me: Fine. (And I was super-careful not to break anything) and later in a bureaucratic one (Head of IT, by email: You are to remove any unapproved software from your computer forthwith. Me (ignore). Obviously he had bigger bugs to battle because ten years later the offending software was still there.


      • Diane G.
        Posted June 13, 2016 at 2:34 am | Permalink

        RE your lyrics–strikes me as a very odd inspiration, but great job! 😀

        “They can do something I can’t do – make food.”

        Well, you do photosynthesize Vitamin D. 🙂

  13. Anonymous
    Posted June 11, 2016 at 12:50 am | Permalink

    What a bullshitteer this guy Solzhenitsyn was! “Moral poverty” of 20th century in the West, compared to 19th? Are monarchies violently suppressing broad national movements and denying basic rights to most people more “moral” than democracies?

  14. skiptic
    Posted June 11, 2016 at 12:50 am | Permalink

    You ARE a rock star, Jerry Coyne.

  15. Peter
    Posted June 11, 2016 at 7:58 am | Permalink

    When I retire three years from now it will be 46 years after first entering college. My congratulations to all who persevere!

  16. David Klotz
    Posted June 11, 2016 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    After years of being only a lurker on this site, this post caused me to go dig around in the basement, where I found my convocation booklet (second session) from June 8, 1968 (well, yes, I am something of a packrat). The College (me included), the Division of Physical Sciences, and the Law School graduates and guests easily fit into Rockefeller Chapel. The convocation address was given by George W. Beadle, President of the University, preceded by a prayer from the dean of the chapel. I hope to see you in two years when I come for my 50th!

  17. Diane G.
    Posted June 12, 2016 at 4:11 am | Permalink

    I didn’t want to go to my graduation either, but finally did so as I felt I owed it to my parents and I didn’t want to hurt them.

    I ended up being glad I went, though I remember very little of it, and the parts I do were only incidental bits.

    We graduates had to first assemble on the quad in our caps and gowns to get in line for our procession to the stadium. As we were ‘processing’ we passed a dorm, from a window of which someone was blasting the I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag. “Give me an F!” Some marchers spelled something different…

    “And it’s one, two, three, what’re we fightin’ for…”

    Then when the ceremony had finally proceeded to the passing out diplomas stage, the musical accompaniment began with the stately Pomp and Circumstance. As time wore on and still an endless stream of grads were crossing the stage the music got livelier an livelier–and the line began to really pick up speed as we marched along to the National Emblem March (“oh, the monkey wrapped his tail around the flagpole”) and the like.

    (Hmmm, guess my memory is musically inclined.)

  18. Posted June 13, 2016 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    I didn’t go to either of my graduate school graduates, but I went to my undergraduate. It was for that reason I skipped the other two. It was long and boring. Mind you, it was *all* of McGill undergraduate Arts … (Since split, I think.)

    • Posted June 13, 2016 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

      Er, second “graduates” should be “graduation ceremonies”

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