Commencement Address

University of Wisconsin – River Falls

Dec. 18, 2004


What I have Learned


Dr. Edward N. Peterson

2004 Distinguished Teacher



Those of you who know me realize that I am distinguished only by trying longer to get it right. I always wanted to be able to say I was one of the Distinguished Teachers, and I shall never forget how Chancellor Lydecker invited us to a lunch and with a very happy face, said I had gotten my wish. After that peak of pleasure came almost immediately the abyss of her tragic death. The challenge of the award itself was that I knew that I would have to try to amuse hundreds of students, whose real desire is to get “the fool thing over with” and impress the parents who are waiting to cheer their beloved children walking across this stage.


Some problems turn into opportunities. An old dog teacher can learn new tricks from students, in this case one at the Spring celebration who spoke on “What I have learned,” by which she did not mean what she had learned in class, rather how to get out of this place in one piece. I am going to tell you what I learned outside of class, mostly in the time I could have been in college and risk being honest and tell you what I really think.

OK, What do I know, for sure?


1. I have been very lucky beginning with loving parents who got me going with a sound body and an apparently sound mind, and who would do everything for me to do well in school. They had not been able to finish high school, but made every sacrifice that I would get the education they had been denied. I don't think I ever thanked them enough, which should remind you graduates to thank your parents before it is too late.


My father was a model of the work ethic, because he was forced to earn a living for himself and his mother when he was 15 and worked 50 years, 60 hour weeks, at the same store, not missing a day. Because my mother was essentially an orphan and deaf, society gave her little help, but she taught herself to play the piano well enough to be church pianist and was always cheerful.


To create my own family, I looked for a person who was hard-working, smart and had heart: I found her in 1945 far away in Germany. She became a stay at home mom, produced and raised two fine sons and they produced four wonderful granddaughters, from whom we have already two very interesting great-grandchildren. She also produced 8 scholarly books and a variety of scholarly tools.


She smashed any illusion of male superiority, that a man even with Ph.D., is smarter than a woman whose schooling was interrupted by the war. I learned that someone who grew up under Hitler could think so critically that my thinking is daily challenged. She had also more civil courage to oppose people with power than anyone else I knew, as in Saving South Hall.


I feel also lucky my DNA destined that I would “like girls,” which is so much easier for a male in our society. I have learned that there are human beings who love persons of their own gender and want to live with them. They are good people and being in a legal union with the person I loved was very important to me and that was for a time forbidden by the army. I decided to follow the Golden Rule because a lifetime commitment to me is being moral.


2. The public school system has been to me the best part of America, it takes in any child and tries to give them all an equal chance. I also observed that the rich kids were sometimes dumber or lazier than I was and if I worked harder I could beat ‘em. I concluded that if I worked pretty hard I could also be somebody.


I was lucky in having some wonderful teachers, with the chance to be in plays and debate. The best was a creative writing teacher, and I learned some of my peers could write beautiful stories and poetry. My talent was limited to writing book reviews, for which she gave me books to challenge my assumptions. In high school debate I argued for world government and welcomed the United Nations, and have observed that any country which tries to ignore world opinion gets itself into trouble.


In the band and orchestra as third trombonist I was not only learned to love classical music, but I remember a boy, who was clearly learning disabled but who could play his violin so much better than I my trombone. I learned that some young people who seem “dumb” can do great things.


The science classes persuaded me that science was believable, partly because they had so much evidence, and the fact that when a scientist saw more evidence he would change what he believed. I distrust people who will not look at facts they prefer not to see. The Public Library was a wonderful place to learn, except that the books on sex were locked up.


3. I was lucky to have to work for what I needed, first at a clothing store, in a packing plant, later in a grocery store and a dairy. In the clothing store I could observe one of the richest men in town, who was sometimes unable “to hold his water,” and his poor employees had to scurry around to wipe it up. He had all that power but did not have power over himself. I also learned that advertising is not based on facts, but on illusions.


Working in a packing plant, pushing hog carcasses, showed me how hard some people have to work doing the most essential things for our survival. I concluded that the most important people are those most underpaid and thought society should help. I learned at the store that the first minimum wage law raised my hourly wage from 10 cents to 25 cents. (To put that into historical perspective, it cost me 5 cents for a hot dog. ) I learned at the packing plant that since it was unionized, my wage was 50 cents. I concluded unions were useful to the poor. After my hard-working grandmother was threatened with being forced to sell her little house and go to the poor farm, I formed also an attachment to the idea of Social Security, which did well for my mother.


4. As a child I felt blessed that I had been born into the right religion of which my father was a pastor in the slums of St. Joseph, Missouri. In the congregation, I observed many hard working people who were poor though no fault of their own in the Great Depression. I concluded that everybody should be able to find work and that government should help them.


I absorbed the Ten Commandments, the Thou Shalt Nots and many things not mentioned in the Bible, but forbidden. It has not been that difficult to avoid the forbidden things, which I thought were dumb anyway, like gambling. Getting drunk was not only pain but an embarrassment. Following the Golden Rule and the Sermon on the Mount has been more challenging and inspiring. There was also the concept of stewardship, meaning God had given us talents and that those to whom much had been given should give much to others. That is one reason why I don't miss classes; the other is that classes are my fun.


When I was 15, the leader of my church, whom I had heard giving prophecies and “speaking in foreign tongues,” said that God wanted me to be ordained to preach and when I was 17, he said that God wanted me to be a missionary, so I worked in Missouri and Illinois, which was my learning experience being on farms. But in school debate I had learned to look for facts and some very disturbing facts, I encountered in a library when I was 18, persuaded me that my church was not the true one. I could not prove to myself or anyone else that I was doing what God wanted me to do. Since then, I have been very careful of the many people telling me that they speak for God.


So I stopped preaching and therewith was taken into the U.S. Army, doing what the president I believed in I should do. I have since learned to be more careful about doing what politicians say I should do.


5. I learned as soldier that I could not always trust my government to know what it was doing, that the glorious American Army could also be characterized by mismanagement, for which the soldiers had the word SNAFU, Situation Normal, All Fouled Up.


My country assigned me to be combat infantry, ammunition bearer in an anti-tank platoon. Without anything approaching real combat training, I survived only by great good luck and did nothing to prevent my country's “victory.” Equally luckily, I never had to decide about violating the commandment against killing.


At first I could be too afraid to get out of a crack in a rock, but I learned to live with the danger and realized that, by being careful, I could avoid most of the bullets and shrapnel, countless numbers of which missed me. Lesson: be careful and be lucky. Sometimes even on the front it could be more boring than exciting, so I learned chess in a cave and began learning German in a bombed out school, which was the smartest thing I ever did.

In the army I was exposed to “superiors,” non-coms and remotely officers. I observed that the democracy, which I believed was the “American way” did not operate in the army. I had also assumed an egalitarian society was American and was shocked suddenly to be treated like a servant, to which the best strategy was to hide in the back row. It was of some comfort when I was at the front to see that none of my superiors showed the courage and/or desire to experience the danger I could not avoid. In that sense, there I was free and equal.


I have since been uncomfortable about older men, particularly those who avoided front duty, sending young men/women off to be risk death, which in battle is never glorious, always terrible. War means mostly good people killing other mostly good people, after propaganda has persuaded them that the other guy is evil, not even human.


In 1945 when the army tried to stop us GIs from associating with the evil Germans, I learned the limits of generals' power. They could not stop humans behaving like humans, in this case young men behaving like young men, when there are young women around. I learned that people in power can be really stupid, but powerless people, even in a dictatorship, can avoid following them.


I immersed myself in a different culture, began to see the world from a different perspective, which is a learning experience which I would now describe as awesome. I could see that my government had not told me the whole truth. Governments do not tell the whole truth, particularly in war time. I could see we had bombed helpless civilians without mercy and destroyed countless cities, because we had the power to do it and hitting specific targets was more dangerous. But we won the war, and Hitler's crimes obscured ours. I learned that controlling the truth is one advantage of winning a war, but otherwise wars solve one problem, and immediately create another problem.


6.: I began to see that most Germans were not the monsters pictured in film and the media. I have since been skeptical of movies and most news sources. Most Germans were ordinary people. some good, some bad, some were better than some Americans I knew and that some features of German society were better than some features of my own country, the most obvious example the super highway system. It was a society where people were assured of medical care, whether they were rich or poor. It was also a society which subsidized the fine arts.


I discovered that I had been culturally deprived, being able to see more theater, opera and music in one year in a German small town, right after the war's destruction, than I had seen in 18 years in America's heartland. I also discovered that subsidized German radio that told me what I wanted to know and played the music I wanted to hear, all without commercials. I did not meet that again until I found WHA in Madison, Wisconsin.


I learned that millions of good people for reason of patriotism can follow a leader who can force them into a war and in their name kill millions of innocent humans. Following a “strong leader” can be very dangerous. I later had to admit that I had already followed a president in 1942 who had arrested innocent Japanese -Americans on the false ground of national security. It was one of many dubious policies made on the grounds of national security.


Speaking of racism, I must admit that I accepted a racially segregated army, just as I had a racially segregated society at home. I had made no effort to correct that enormous injustice, so I could scarcely blame ordinary Germans for not having prevented the holocaust. I would not have risked a concentration camp for criticizing racism, only the disapproval of most of my peers.


Because I had broken the rules against talking to Germans, I gained the ability to be assigned to Military Intelligence. Stationed on the Iron Curtain, and seeing unsmiling Soviet soldiers with their tommy guns, I accepted an assignment to spy on the new Communist enemy. I learned that communism as practiced by the soviets was something that should be opposed. I reported weekly, passing on “top data” by “my agent,” who was surely making it all up. I also learned in blackmarket, VD raids and a “drug bust” that locking up people, in particular for drug possession, is something to be approached carefully.


7. The U.S. government had promised me as much paid education as I had served, which meant 48 months and soon after I got to Madison in 1948, I was lucky to sign up for a class with the right professor, who happened to teach the right subject, European and German History. I knew then that was what I wanted to do with my life and I have never regretted it. History is eternally fascinating, because human beings can do the most creative and beautiful things and can do the most awful and cruel things. Some of the most beautiful things - like a Mozart opera - were created far away and a long time ago and best create the feeling of pride of being a human.


I wasn't sure I could be a teacher - I had been unable to inspire a Sunday School class, but the first experience at the college level, showed me that if you think about what works and what does not work in a classroom, you can survive and experience much pleasure working with young people. It also keeps you young. It's a bit like being a vampire.


By extraordinary good luck - unless one wishes to think that God sent me here, which many students have reason to doubt - a job opened up at River Falls, at the precise time I was looking for one. What have I learned as a teacher here is that there are lots of good young people who want to discover things. Show them where they have to go with you, most will follow you if you don't slam doors in their faces.


I learned something about my colleagues. We are human, we make mistakes, we often are not as smart as we think we are. I do not have to tell you seniors of our limitations, but at our best we search for truth, and as the Bible says, “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.“ I have felt very much at home among people to whom telling the truth and creating beauty are more important than big salaries.


8. About democracy I learned in the Joe McCarthy era, that supposedly smart Americans, and the smartest Americans, Wisconsites, can vote for someone whose policies are based on a nonsensical fear. Claiming that American teachers and public officials were not patriotic was nonsense and remains nonsense. Intelligent people here, President Kleinpell and Walker Wyman, meant that River Falls could be declared, “The campus where the free spirit prevails.”


As for fearing outsiders hurting this immense country, I remember my father doing his patriotic duty in 1942 and telling people to pull down dark shades to avoid German bombers finding St. Joseph, Missouri. People can be fooled into fearing some alien danger, when the real danger is with other Americans who use ignorance and fear to make themselves powerful and impose their values on the rest of us. As the hero of the great cartoon series, Pogo, said. “We have met the enemy and he is us.”


What I learned in 1945 that I could be misled by politicians and media, I had to learn again in the Vietnam War. With the best of intentions to spread democracy, we accomplished no more than lose many fine young men and to kill many innocent civilians. There are some things that my country neither can do nor should try to do. As I learned in Sunday School, “The Way to Hell (as in Vietnam) can be paved with Good Intentions.” I learned that the minority who dissented from our policy were the wise ones.


When we say blithely that we are God's country, it means as a country we have been blessed with enormous resources, much of which we have squandered on ourselves. In that sense God blessed America, but there is no evidence that God has blessed us or our leaders with the wisdom to tell the world what it must do, and if they do not listen to us, to hit them with our bombs, which are also not as smart as we are.


In such times, I am reminded of a sermon, quoting the highly Christian general Oliver Cromwell dealing with his religious politicians who claimed to speak for God, “I beseech you in the name of the bowels of Christ to consider that you may be wrong.” I beseech all of you here, to consider whether we can sometimes be wrong.


For all of the good effort of teachers and good journalists. I sometimes think that we have failed. The search for truth and getting people to realize it are not easy. The people in power are afraid of the truth and do not like to have their policies questioned. Many ordinary people are afraid to face the truth, which could force them to think.


I would like to believe that people like me have improved my country. I am no longer sure, although the great bulk of the 15,000 students I have come to know were good people. I would like to think that in my long life, I and my country have done more good than harm. I am no longer sure. I would like to think that my country has become wiser and more democratic. I am no longer sure. It bothers me deeply as American that my country which used to be admired and beloved is now very widely seen as arrogant and dangerous. Worst is that so many Americans do not seem to know or to care.


My last story, in 1960, we traveled in Communist Russia, the bright spot of which was meeting a 20 year old chemistry student Viktor, who was enamored of American culture. He gave us a great tour of St. Petersburg. As we were leaving, he said to us simply, “I know my country has very big problems, but I will do what I can to solve them.” Until 1990 he could not write out, but then we found out that he had risen to be the man in charge of improving the environment of his city.


The future of our beloved country is up to you that you will do what you can to improve your country. I hope that you will take seriously your being blessed as American citizens, you have been given much and from you much can be expected. I should hope that you will take that “Where the Free Spirit Prevails.” ideal with you and support us in the effort to save this country from ignorance and prejudice.


I hope when you are old and you are looking at a mass of bright young people, as I am now, you can say better than I can, that the world is better and some part of that is because of you. May God really bless this country with your being wiser and more unselfish than we have been.