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Distributed May 28, 2006
Contact Molly de Ramel

Orations of the 238th Commencement
Greta Pemberton ’06: “Consider Play”

Greta Pemberton, daughter of Miriam and Alan Pemberton of Rockville, Md., delivered one of two senior orations to the Class of 2006 during Commencement ceremonies Sunday, May 28, 2006, on The College Green at Brown University. The text of her address, titled “Consider Play,” follows here.
[See also the student oration news release and text of the oration by Ari Savitzky.]

Good morning. You all look very proud, and a little scared, and a little bored, and just radiant. Thank you so much for this opportunity.

I want to be a Unitarian minister some day, so this sermon is something of a trial run for me. If you don’t know anything about Unitarianism, I can catch you up pretty quickly. If all the religions are sitting along a continuum from agnosticism to faith, we Unitarians are seated squarely on the agnostic, questioning end, and we’re leaning back. We’re living the dream of Brown’s motto: “In God, we hope.”


Greta Pemberton ’06
“Consider Play”

“That’s the beauty of play ... In a really good game of pingpong, you start out wanting to win, but when the game heats up, the real joy comes in maintaining the rallies.”
Image: John Abromowski

Unitarians are not too selective when it comes to source material for sermons. We’ll take our revelation from anywhere. I once attended a Unitarian service and the book the minister was drawing lessons from was – no kidding – The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. But the great Unitarian sermons, they’re about Hafiz, they’re about neutrinos, and Leviticus and Lot’s wife and Ida B. Wells, they’re about how Anne Carson’s simple weirdo prose poetry can make you nice to people for days.

I wanted one more revelation to take with me as I left Brown, but as a Unitarian, I didn’t know what book to thump.

I started asking around at office hours. I mean first of all, it’s just sad not to go to office hours – this place has big minds stocked so thick in their departments, it’s like a fish farm. They’re just sitting there, big glassy eyes, mouth slightly open, waiting to be caught. But no – I really did want to assemble a collection of Brown’s secular scriptures. I asked every professor I talked to, “What’s the one ‘holy’ text of the class you teach and what is its core revelation?”

Humanities professors loved those questions. This was play time for them, so they sent me off with reading lists the length of several Bibles.

On the other hand, science professors generally weren’t too impressed with the question, or with me.

It makes sense – when texts or ideas get too sacred in science, the method suffers. Science relies on the turnover of ideas. A certain beloved chemistry professor patiently walked me through what science is: You experiment, you observe, and then you think up models to explain what you saw. Models can predict, but they’re not laws, certainly not sacred truth, so even if a model has worked a thousand times, one (valid, repeatable) exception and the model has to be thrown out, or reworked.

All the science professors I talked to had the same line. You’re missing the point, looking for texts. It’s method.

So what’s the revelation in the method of questioning? There’s progress in disproving. Take measured steps. Poke at things under surgical light. Evaluate. And then question again.

I have nothing but questions on my mind right now, and I’m sure the same is true for most of you. How far will everybody scatter? Which friends will we hold on to? Which ideas, which ideals will we hold on to? What work will we do, what good will we do, and how the heck are we going to afford health insurance?

Luckily, we don’t have to answer these questions scientifically. Each discipline we’ve studied here has taught us to ask different questions, each one has taught a new method to climb toward revelation. Science is one method, one that lots of other disciplines try to emulate to seem more legit, but it’s not the only way.

I want to suggest one more discipline, one more way of asking questions, one more path toward revelation. I want to preach play.

In life, the method doesn’t have to be meticulous and the results don’t have to be repeatable. From here on out, we get to figure things out playfully. We can teeter around, arms outstretched, until we find those good balances between isolation and community, between service and self, between action and contemplation.

Play meanders and snaps and leaps without agenda. It’s mathematicians letting questions spool into other questions before they try to apply them, journalists scrapping the story they had in mind when the sources lead another way. All that endless criticism that MCM majors are so fond of? If it’s done right, that can be play, too – not polemics, not interview, but dialogue.

I think intellectual play is rare, especially outside of academia, so we have to bring it there. Here at Brown, the structures of play have been provided. They paired us with roommates, they sat us down at seminar tables, and said, “have at it.” Conversations got away from us. We wrestled with ideas until they became something new, or we did.

Wrestling is what keeps ideas alive, and I think – I hope – it’ll keep our ideals alive, too. Generations of Brown students before us strode out into that world with our same dogged idealism. For many of us, it will fade. We’ll start to separate work from play, we’ll start to work toward weekends. We’ll burn out.

When it feels like work would shoot straight to goals, deadlines, recognition, when it feels like work just weighs your outbox and pays you accordingly – or doesn’t – that’s when you need play. Play isn’t frivolous. It’s sustenance.

At the last session of office hours I went to, I talked to a comp lit professor about his holy text, Absalom, Absalom! He loves the book for the way the characters figure things out, how it makes you figure things out as you read it. Lots of it is narrated in a freshman dorm room as one of those late night back and forths between roommates. That’s the beauty of play, he said. In a really good game of pingpong, you start out wanting to win, but when the game heats up, the real joy comes in maintaining the rallies.

Finding revelation is a backdoor science. Use the methods you’ve learned here and the disciplines you’ve picked for trajectory, but when you get stuck – and you will – put progress and answers and trajectory on hold. If you’re out to climb a mountain that’s as steep as “changing the world,” you’re going to need some switchbacks.

The good news is we’ve got work to do, we’ve got ideas to test, methods to try, and a whole slew of people who are dying to play with us. Class of 2006, let’s go out and play.


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