- Son of August and Ella Nacoste
- Louisiana bayou-black-Creole
- U.S. Navy Veteran (1972-1976)
- Fan of poetry, music, literature
- College graduate
- Ph.D. Scholar
How do I put all that together? How do I make all these parts of myself coherent to me?
That was the question I decided to take on when I was asked to give the keynote address at the University Honors Program (UHP) Convocation. My only instruction was to somehow deal with the question, “…what is the point of education?” So the night before the beginning of classes for our Fall-2012 (August 15, 2012) students in the honors program gathered to hear me speak.
After being introduced by UHP Director Dr. Larry Blanton, I began with the statement above about the many parts of my social self.
Then I went on…
Professionally, I am a social psychologist. As a social psychologist, I was trained by John W. Thibaut, one of the most important theoreticians of the field.
What was the point of my education under Thibaut? Was it to be like him? Why do I even ask that question?
Well, lately, it feels like people have been hunting me down. I try to get a moment to myself, and out of nowhere, I hear a voice… Dr. Nacoste. People want to talk to me. A lot of those people say they want to learn from me. Lately, too many have said they want to be me.
Now when a student says that… I kind of understand. Even so, the desire is out of order. But here’s where I go from feeling hunted to feeling stalked. This summer, I was walking into Wholes Food and it happened.
I don’t teach in the summer. But it’s more than not teaching. I hide in the summer. I avoid the campus and except for a few close friends, I avoid people.
You see I know too many people. Actually, to be honest there are too many people who think they know me when in fact the truth is they know about me. Even so, that doesn’t mean people won’t run up to me and start talking to me as if they know me.
So, I hide in the summer. I use my summers to give myself time to myself; to read novels; to work on writing projects that are not academic; to travel. This past summer I did all that. That’s why when I was heading into Wholes Food, I was all relaxed.
In case you didn’t know, in North Carolina the heat of this past summer was unbearable; 5 days at 105 degrees. So to beat the heat, I went to Wholes Food in the morning before the temperature made being outside unbearable. I thought I was safe. Just as I got to the door, there came a voice from an SUV that was sitting there. “Dr. Nacoste…”
It was a relatively new NCSU faculty member. This faculty member said, “…I know when you heard my voice you had to be thinking, who is this person stalking me.” Then this faculty member just started talking.
I guess to explain themselves, this person said, I have people in my life, mentors that I look up to, and look to learn from. You are one of my most important mentors… I want to learn from you… I know its summer but could you meet with me… you have to understand… this is so important… I just… I just want to be you.
Now, as a psychologist, I am worried… maybe even a little frightened. What the hell is going on? No one should want to be me. Not if you know my history.
Happy to be born and reared in the bayou country of Louisiana, I joined the Navy at 20 years old. I was in the Navy during a hell of a time; race riots about ships carrying weapons of mass destruction. I was onboard the USS Intrepid, an aircraft carrier with 5,000 men, at sea in the Mediterranean, when a race-riot broke out that lasted for three days; at sea, weapons of mass destruction all around. Same aircraft carrier, same deployment, we did search and recovery of bodies from a commercial jet crash.
When I was 23, I took my friend Benson home in a coffin…
I experienced all that, and more, while in the Navy.
Later, while a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Michigan, I set myself on fire. My left hand was so severely burned the doctors thought they might have to amputate it. Later, when an assistant professor at Auburn University I had knee surgery and developed a blood clot, that became a pulmonary embolism. I experienced and survived that.
I don’t think people who say “I want to be you” really mean that. It took me a while to figure out why someone would say that. And part of that was a conversation I had with a really close friend. Basically my friend said that when people on campus observe me, they observe someone at ease with who they are, and someone who does what he thinks is the right thing to do. My friend was saying that people look at me and see someone who lives their authentic self.
Ok… I thought… that makes sense. Most people want to live that way. But too many people want a short cut to get there. Those people say, “Dr. Nacoste… I just want to be you.”
But that’s not how it works. We all have a history that brings us to where and who we are. To be me would mean having the same experiences I have had; burned hand, blot clot and all. It would mean having those experiences and finding a way to integrate those experiences into a coherent self.
Each of us has to develop our authentic self. There is no short cut to your authentic self.
For me, that’s the point of education. The point of education is to develop your authentic self. A good education is the pot in which the individual explores and integrates their experiences into a coherent self; a gumbo self.
I loved my parents. My parents loved me. I learned from my parents. I am the son of August and Ella Nacoste. When they died, I felt a hurt like no other. Even so, I never wanted to be my parents.
I was John Thibaut’s student. He was a major part of my educational, intellectual learning. He was one of greatest minds ever in the field of social psychology. I learned from him. I admired him. I came to love John as a friend. And he loved me likewise. But it was never my goal to be him.
Hear the poet Sterling Brown:
Oh I shall meet your friends, and chatter on
As trivially, as sillily as they,
My talk resembling much the rattling way
Of an incessant mower on a lawn.
Oh I shall smirk, and prink and scrape and fawn
And listen to the nothings that they say
And answer less. And for a juvenile play
Shall all matured integrity be gone.
And there are very many things beside
That I shall do. And one of these will be
When you reward me for rank cowardice.
I shall call back, to fretting memory
A hut, pine circled, on a wild hillside
And peace thrown lavishly away– for this…
Don’t put yourself in that position. Don’t give up on yourself. That’s what that poem is about.
The poem is the lament of someone who gave up on themselves to follow someone else. They followed someone else’s goals; they followed a path chosen for them by that someone else. And in the end they felt empty and cheated.
But they had done it too themselves; when you reward me for rank cowardice. They had behaved cowardly and now, too late, realized what that cowardice had cost them. Don’t put yourself in that position. Don’t give up on yourself. It is true what Nietzsche said: “No price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”
That’s the point of education; owning yourself.
The point of education is to develop your authentic self.
Be not afraid.
 “Nous n’irons plus au bois…” The collected works of Sterling Brown (Michael, S. Harper, Editor; p. 123). Evanston, ILL: Northwestern University Press.