Valedictorian Zach Baldwin’s Commencement Speech

On Sunday, May 11, Valedictorian Zach Baldwin ’14 encouraged graduates to embrace childlike curiosity.

(Video by Jennifer DeWitt)

Rollins students, faculty, staff, family, and friends, it is an honor to represent the Class of 2014 this morning.

I want to begin by taking a quick survey. By show of hands, how many of you have watched a Disney movie in the past two months? Okay. Now, how many of you sang along with it? Even better—how many of you have either built with Legos, flown a kite, held a water gun battle, read a storybook, or played with anything labeled for ages four and up in the past eight weeks? Excellent.

Accordingly, I want to address a quotation that you’ve likely heard during this graduation season, if only a variation of it: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.”

We often take this quotation, found in the New Testament epistle of 1 Corinthians, to mean that all elements of childhood are to be abandoned, Legos and Disney movies included. Yet, in the original Greek, the specific word Paul uses for “child,” nepios, refers to an unenlightened, unintelligible infant—not childhood in general.

I believe it is in our fear of seeming childish and unintelligent that we often add to the original meaning of Paul’s illustration. “When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so,” reflects C.S. Lewis, “Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

Ironically, through the very effort to seem grown up, to appear of age, we reveal our immaturity. Tragically, in our childish pride, we lose something precious. In our fear-driven crusade against appearing like the unenlightened infant, we accept as a permissible casualty the childlike, that unique characteristic of being able to see the world through inquisitive, wonder-filled eyes.

Yet, to take the loss of the childlike as tenable collateral damage not only fails to reflect Paul’s intended meaning, but it also undermines the spirit our education at Rollins. After all, a true liberal arts education whets the appetite for inquiry and provides a lifelong feast to satiate our childlike yearnings. 

Regrettably, as we grow older, the temptation is to ignore curiosity for pragmatism, to forgo the contemplation of beauty for expediency. Gazing with fresh eyes at the shimmering bodies of the night sky or marveling anew at the ingenuity of telephone lines—these moments of wonderment become petty activities in the name of mature enterprise.

Class of 2014, we are graduating to a world of careers, graduate studies, and much more. While these are things worth celebrating, remember that you were made to do more than a job, that you are more than the sum in your bank account or the title that you hold. You were formed with a tremendous propensity to marvel at the world around you. Grow up, we must, but we must not let go of the childlike, lest we slip complacently back into unenlightened slumber. Remember, though we put away the nepios of which Paul speaks, it is the childlike, declares Jesus, who will inherit the Kingdom of God.

Friends, let us put away childish things such as arrogance, gossip, greed, and bitterness. But, by all means, let us embrace the childlike—inquisitiveness, compassion, humility, and loving kindness. Let us defy that grotesque form of “grown-up” reasoning that bids us abandon our curious nature and proclivity for awe. Together, Class of 2014, may we step boldly out from the halls of Rollins College into the wide world, tenaciously maintaining our childlike wonder.  

Congratulations, classmates. May God bless each and every one of us.