Stories (and a "Little Red Riding Hood" for our time): Commencement Address, UC Davis, 2014

Ralph J. Hexter, Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor, UC Davis

. . .

I know that your priority in this ceremony is to receive your diplomas, and my primary responsibility is not to stand between you and your diplomas for very long.

But it’s traditional for a provost to keep you from your diplomas for just a few minutes, if only to make you value them that much more. The other reason is that someone, a long time ago, thought that a provost might actually have something valuable to say to new graduates at the moment when they are about to successfully escape from the clutches of their beloved alma mater. Clearly, past ideas are often very odd, and I urge you to ignore as many of them as possible.

In any event, the more I thought about what sort of speech might be truly useful to you, the more I knew that I wanted to talk a little about stories.

I’m perfectly aware that my topic will strike many of you as an odd choice for an august occasion such as this one, partly because we tend to think of stories as pretty trivial in the big scheme of things. If the only good that comes from my remarks is to disabuse you of both of those notions, they will not have been in vain.

This is not the occasion to delve deeply into history, but it’s worth remembering that Socrates regarded stories as so powerful that, when he imagined his ideal Republic, he advocated banning poems like the Iliad and Odyssey because he believed they had the power to corrupt people. It’s also worth noting that the world’s great religions have always been built upon stories—though in these cases, the idea has been to use the power of stories for good.

You may have the idea that the world’s stories are like books in a library; if you go to the trouble of checking one out, there’s some meaningful contact; otherwise, no. In fact, it’s not that simple.

Stories, we might say, are like the dark matter of our social world—they’re pervasive, they’re mostly invisible, and they’re always exerting some sort of force on us. For everything we think about—for example, a war, or love, or a different religion or culture—there are always stories at hand telling us how to make sense of it. Often, perhaps usually, facts are secondary; it’s stories that primarily tell us what to think, and therefore also what to do.

It’s interesting to me, as a teacher of classical literature, how many of the types of story that have the strongest hold over our imaginations today can be traced back to the ancient world.

Today, we seem to like nothing better than stories about prowess in battle. The Greeks had their legendary warriors Achilles and Ajax. We have our Katniss Everdeen and Spiderman.

Another influential type of story—which we tend not to think of as a “story” at all—focuses on extraordinary individuals who build empires. The ancients had their Aeneas, who founded what would become the Roman Empire. We have our Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, our Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg.

The last type I’ll mention is the sensational tale of an exalted personage. The Greeks had their scandalous trio of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, and Oedipus. We have our Miley Cyrus and the Kardashians.

Just these three story types deliver a host of critical lessons: to name but three, they teach us the best ways to resolve conflicts, what constitutes career success, and which personal qualities we should admire.

Obviously, I’ve barely scratched the surface of all the lessons in all the stories we currently consume—and scholars will probably be working for the next several centuries trying to figure out exactly which admirable qualities we saw in the Kardashians. But you get my point.

You’re right to detect some concern on my part about our contemporary viral narratives. Nevertheless, I don’t think the picture is all bad.

In fact, I strongly believe that many of today’s most prominent stories are superior to their older versions. For example, we now have a story in which a person of color becomes president; with luck, before too long we’ll have a similar one about a female president, or a president belonging to another underrepresented group. Other valuable stories that are increasingly being heard show us that healthy, loving relationships and families can take different forms, and that people’s voices and actions can dramatically influence social opinion on such issues as privacy and climate change.

We also have less happy tales that serve as a necessary call-to-arms: for example, there is one that shows us it’s indeed possible to work hard for 40 hours a week in a job that the rest of us depend on and still be trapped in poverty.

All of these stories, and many others, are remaking how we think about our world and creating a new foundation for the future.

This brings me to the single piece of advice that I’d most like to leave you with today: Make it a habit to step outside of the stories that are shaping you; once you have that distance, give some consideration as to whether what they’re teaching you is true and good, or false and harmful. Your future, as individuals and as a society, depends on how well you’re able to do this.

Here a logical question arises: How does one learn to read well enough to be in intelligent dialogue with stories, not their victim? One answer is: Study literature, and the arts and humanities in general, at a university like UC Davis—and, after you graduate, continue that study in some form throughout your life. If it sounds like I’m exploiting my opportunity to speak to you today to make a pitch for the value of the arts and humanities, you’re right. But I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t believe that this was a message that urgently needed the widest public exposure—even among those who, like most of you, will go on to do important work in a different field. My remarks today can be seen as a counter-story to the mistaken idea that the arts and humanities are only for a few of us, and more or less disposable.

I’ll finish with—what else? A story. It’s a familiar one to most of you, and it has a lot to say about your lives. It’s called Little Red Riding Hood.

If you think that this story is not your story, and yet another wrong turn your provost has taken, consider that Red Riding Hood is famous, like you today, for wearing a cap and gown. Coincidence? I suspect not!

Let me refresh your memory on the plot.

“Red” goes into the forest because she wants to deliver a piece of cake and a bottle of wine to her grandmother, who is ill. (Not being a physician, I can’t say if this is sound medical practice or not—but it certainly seems a nice gesture!)

In the forest, Red meets a wolf, who encourages her to spend a little time enjoying the wildflowers; while she’s doing that, the wolf races to the grandmother’s cottage.

When Red finally arrives at the cottage, she finds the wolf disguised as her grandmother, whom the wolf has just eaten. The wolf then eats Red, too.

Fortunately, a hunter comes by, and Red and her grandmother are cut out of the wolf’s stomach, apparently no worse for wear. The wolf dies, and the rest live happily ever after.

There is an obvious lesson here for the Class of 2014, one that I’m sure you’ve heard from your parents and professors many times. It might be phrased this way: “Stay on your career path, and don’t lose yourself among the wildflowers; if you do, you’ll be eaten by a wolf—and so, apparently, will your grandmother.”

Another lesson seems to be: “If you’re a woman, be wary of men who are wolf-like.” Or perhaps: “Be wary of wolf-like men who dress like grandmothers.” Or even: “Be wary of wolf-like men who dress like grandmothers in a way that would never fool anyone . . . ever”!

Probably these questions should be the subject of an academic conference. For our purposes, I’d rather make this observation: Among the things that make stories so powerful are their openness to different interpretations, and their simultaneous resonance with many different subjects and situations. Because they can be about many things at the same time, stories have an extraordinary power to immerse us in highly productive contemplation about all sorts of real-world ethical issues—even issues we would never expect to find there.

Take Little Red Riding Hood. Besides offering a timeless lesson about duty, isn’t it also curiously applicable to our world, in the second decade of the 21st century? Consider some details.

Notice that the wolf does not attack Red outright, but first cleverly extracts from her certain pieces of personal information—this information includes her “likes” (cake and wine) as well as her future geo-location (where she’s going). The wolf’s plan is to use this information for a purpose that Red neither suspects nor would authorize if she did—that purpose, of course, is to eat her.

As the tale continues, we see the wolf stealing the grandmother’s identity, hacking into her personal site (otherwise known as her cottage), and then deceptively friending Red herself—all with disastrous results.

In other words, what is this folk tale if not a pointed condemnation of our danger-filled Internet society?!

Am I serious in my reading? I’ll leave that question for you to debate with your loved ones and friends later this evening. I will say that your ability to do something resembling this with texts may, one day, determine whether you’re eaten or get to enjoy cake and wine.

Thank you all for giving me so much of your attention today—and, once again, my heartiest congratulations to the Class of 2014!