College of St. Joseph: Commencement Address

10 May 2009

This is a day of joy and celebration for all of us—and, possibly, one of relief.

For myself, I can enjoy the honor shown me by the Board of Trustees, the President, the Academic Dean and the Faculty of the College of St. Joseph in conferring upon me the honorary degree of Doctor of Humanities. I sincerely and humbly thank them all.

But the honor which has brought us together is that accorded me by the invitation to address the Graduating Class, whose educational achievement does honor to them, to their families, and to the College of St. Joseph. All glory to them.

There is really only one Commencement Address, and all the particular addresses that are given say ultimately the same thing. It goes something like this. The world is in a mess, and needs to be set to rights; its beauty and its justice have deteriorated, have been sullied because of inadequate leadership—old, old-fashioned, complacent, cynical, self-serving, ‘political’, and incompetent leadership. It is up to you—every graduating class is told—it is up to you to remedy the defects of past leaders and to brighten the world with your shining, new-burnished ideals and energies.

That’s the message. But it is not the one that I will bring you, for it is grossly unfair. It expects you, the new leadership, to do what we—the old—could not or did not do, and it is unjust to lay our burden upon you. As graduates, you inherit a world that is less than perfect, as I did nearly sixty years ago, and as every generation does in its due time, but our problem is not primarily to reform the world—although it needs to be done—but first to reform ourselves, to make and re-make ourselves.

I thought then, as perhaps you think now, that we need to go back to our origins, to the beginning, as it were, and try to discover how we and the world got this way. But the word ‘origins’ has many meanings, and I have chosen to go back to our origins in the Book of Genesis, for in the beginning, we are told, God created the world. He not only created the world but He also

        created man in his own image: in the image of God created        he  him;                male and female created he them.

If we had paid attention to that beginning, we would not have needed an Equal Rights Amendment.

Now I do not speak as a theologian, and so will try to explain what I understand from this beginning in quite secular terms. If in the account of Genesis, we, as humans, are made in the image of God, then we must face the essential fact that the prime characteristic of the God of Genesis is that he is a Creator. If we are made in His image, then we, too, are, in our own measure, creators.

In what way are we creators, in what way are we images of God? To understand that we must consider our education—your achievement of one stage of which we are celebrating today—because it is largely through the process of education, both formal and informal, that we come to be who and what we are.

Formal education is intentional. Our parents and our State, our country, deliberately make provision for forming us, educating us, providing all the facilities, personnel, services, and structured programs that, because they are good for us, are regulated and made compulsory. Informally, however, without anybody intending to teach us anything, and even without our intention of learning anything, we do in fact learn, incidentally, as it were, accidentally, simply through our associations with one another and through our sharing in the doing of things, in the activities of life.

But what I want to draw to your attention is the fact that within both formal and informal education there are two different kinds of teaching and learning. One kind, which constitutes the greater part of our education, we are all familiar with and I scarcely need to refer to it—and would not do so, except for the fact that it dominates the practice of formal education and our thinking about it.

This first kind is the passing on of our culture, the transmittal of all the facts, opinions, standards of conduct, values, customs, conventions which define our country and its way of life. Obviously, without learning these things we could not be members of society. But as far as the process of acquiring these things is concerned, their teaching and learning, it is based on a certain kind of acceptance, of obedience, of receptivity on the student’s part, utilizing primarily the intellectual capacity we know as memorization. We all—you and I both—know well the amount of memory work that is involved.

It would be easy to complain about this and to criticize it, but it would be to no avail. Without that kind of education we would never be fully human. Our only way to the achievement of full humanity is through the achievement of citizenship, as it were, through becoming members of our society, whichever one it happens to be. Some societies are more conducive to our achieving humanity than others, but conducive or not, they are the only means open to us, to the young. Unfortunately, many do not go through the process of acculturation, but get stuck in it and, by repetition of it, resemble stone statues with the appearance of the human past, but with none of its vitality, its life.

None of this is surprising to you but I would like to draw your attention to one simple fact that is a deep-seated problem in education and, hence, in society. It is that the content of the cultural heritage the young are expected—nay, required—to obtain has grown and continues to grow by leaps and bounds. Its magnitude and complexity are beyond belief.

Let me give one single and simple example. It has been estimated that a European peasant in the tenth century—about one thousand years ago—needed and possessed a vocabulary of perhaps 600 words. That was enough to name all the things, thoughts, feelings, and actions that he would ever encounter in his entire life.

More than five hundred years later, in the admittedly exceptional case of William Shakespeare, it is estimated that he had a vocabulary of almost 30,000 words—fifty times that of the peasant. Since the time of Shakespeare—which was also the time of the Mayflower— the language has multiplied many times and the Concise Oxford Dictionary boasts more than 120,000 words and 190,000 definitions—and it is now twenty years old and claims to be ‘concise’. Imagine what the full-scale, up-to-date version must hold! But the increase in our available vocabulary (whether we have mastered it all or not) is a reflection of the increase in the complexity of human life.

One of the most serious problems we face, culturally and intellectually, is how to simplify the vast cultural complex that these numbers indicate. The problem is mainly how to decide what to omit, and this produces a strain between the generations since the young, for example, talk technology and have little use for paper, while their parents have ball-points and loose-leaf binders. Myself, antiquated as I am, I still use a fountain pen.

Thus, to summarize, the major component of education is and must be essentially an imposition upon the student. The cultural heritage may well be an impressive and  wonderful gift that can, possibly, lead to a fulfillment of our humanity, but all too often it is seen as a great and crushing burden, conformity to which is the only avenue to social and economic advancement.

That defines one view of teaching and learning. It depends on the authority of the teacher which, in turn, depends on the authority of the culture. From the student, all that is required is acquiescence—which may be anything from comfortable conformity to rational receptivity to servile submission to resentful, but impotent, outrage. I have known them all, and probably, at one time or another, you have as well.

The second kind of teaching and learning which can go on at the same time as the first kind, is different in every respect. It can best be understood though an illustrative example.

I was recently given a nicely bound edition of Owen Wister’s classic western romantic novel The Virginian. It takes place mainly in Wyoming where the narrator, an eastern dude, first encounters the hero, the Virginian—a man whose name we never learn. He sees him meeting, after a long time, an old friend, Steve, and is very surprised to hear Steve refer to the Virginian as a ‘son-of-a-gun’ (except it wasn’t -of-a-gun), and not once but twice. He expected this to be taken as an insult and anticipated some kind of violent reaction. But no, all was peaceful.

A little later the same day, this same eastern dude, innocent of the ways of the West, witnesses a card game involving the Virginian and the man who turns out to be the villain of the story, Trampas. At a certain point, Trampas, who is the dealer, tries to pressure the Virginian and orders him to name his wager:

‘You bet, you son-of-a-gun

The Virginian’s pistol came out, and his hand lay on the table,

holding it unaimed. And with a voice as gentle as ever, the voice that

sounded almost like a caress, but drawling a very little more than usual, so that there was almost a space between each word, he issued his orders to the man Trampas:

‘When you call me that, smile.’ And he looked at Trampas across the table.

Trampas backs down, does not ‘draw his steel’, and the narrator reflects on what had happened:

Something had been added to my knowledge also. Once again I had heard applied to the Virginian the epithet which Steve so freely used. The same words, identical to the letter. But this time they had produced a pistol. ‘When you call me that, smile!’ So I perceived a new example of the old truth, that the letter means nothing, until the

spirit gives it life.

Incidentally, in a following chapter, Owen Wister introduces us to the heroine of the story, Molly Stark Wood, in her home in Bennington, Vermont.

We can draw a universal rule from this. The meaning of the words, the meaning of what we say and write, depends in large part on whether or not we smile when we say them. Or, more generally, words can and do carry the meaning which we give them; as our spirit gives them life.  The words do not have a meaning in themselves, but they take on the meaning which we, as speakers or writers, create.

Now, you may object, the dictionary is full of definitions, of the meanings of words—and that is, of course, true—but those meanings are inert, dead, they have no life of their own until somebody, you or I, use them. And when we use them we do so with some purpose, or intent, or motive—and that is what constitutes the important part of their meaning. The Virginian requires Trampas to declare his meaning when he calls him by an expletive which ought to be deleted. If Trampas intended to insult the Virginian, the pistol lies ready on the table and bloodshed will ensue; if he did not intend an insult, then he must show his friendliness by smiling. In fact, Trampas smiles, and in doing so backs down—publicly acknowledging that he is not ready to fight, that he is not prepared to take on the Virginian.

Another, more academic example we may take from the works of a poet, born in California, but who became almost the epitome of a New Englander. I refer, of course, to Robert Frost.

You probably all know his wonderful poem After Apple-Picking. It begins:

My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree

Toward heaven still.

And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill

Beside it, and there may be two or three

Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.

But I am done with apple-picking now

On the face of it, this beginning tells us that the poet, or his assumed persona, is finishing up his season’s work, although that work is not completely finished even if he is: the ladder is still in the tree, there is a half empty barrel, and some fruit still hanging from a branch. There is more to be done, more that can be done—but he is not going to do it. Why not? It is the end of the season and he is tired, and his ambition has exhausted itself.

The fact that the ladder is ‘still sticking through the tree’ suggests an invitation to continue; he is aware that there is more that could be done, and he is also aware that he is not going to do it.

But then I begin to wonder why anyone would write a poem about such an ordinary, regular event as the end of a growing season. As I turn that over in my mind, it becomes increasingly apparent that the poet is not writing merely about the end of the season, but about the end of his life. The moment that occurs to me the words begin to take on new meanings.

‘Apple-Picking’ is not just the literal picking of apples, it is, as we say, a metaphor for the work of the poet’s life, whatever it was. The materials and tools of that work—apples, trees, ladders, barrels and so forth—are still available but the poet, as ‘apple-picker’, is done with them. He will pick no more. But other tools and materials—paper, pen, ink—are also still available to him, as poet, but there will come a time when he can write no more.

Other words of the poem begin to enlarge themselves in meaning. The ladder is described as ‘long’ which suggests the end of a long life, and it is explicitly described as ‘two-pointed’, and it is directed ‘toward heaven still’. Now Aristotle says, in his down-to-earth fashion, that ‘the good’ is that to which all things aim; for us ‘heaven’ stands for what we hope and intend to achieve, our aims—the poet’s goals are still there, as it were, but he has reached as far toward his heaven as he can. He has come to the end of his ambition, ability, energy, and time. But why, you may ask, do we need to know that the ladder is ‘two-pointed’? Because his ambition was two-pointed, one point directing towards the immediate success of growing apples, picking them, and marketing them to provide the material needs of his life, the other point directing towards more other-worldly and less mundane goals—perhaps the care of nature, the conservation of nature, participation in a natural process, or more generally ‘spiritual’ goals.

It is as if human life—our life, the apple-picker’s life, the poet’s life—always has a double reference: it is related to time and the more immediate things, but it is also in relation to eternity and the last things. We are judged–and we judge ourselves—in the light of both, and our ambition must be seen in relation to both. It is, I think, significant that the two points of the ladder are, by its shape, side by side, so the poem tells me that I must keep the two in balance with one another. Except, of course, the poem tells me little or nothing. Rather, it invites me to tell what the poem means.

Now it may be asked, did the poet, Robert Frost, mean all this? And the answer is, I don’t know. And I will add that it doesn’t matter, because I am not studying the psyche of Frost, I am studying the words of his poem, quite regardless of what he meant by them or what he thought he meant by them. And they are not necessarily the same thing.

You and I as readers or hearers of the poem give the words meaning. They don’t have meaning but they can carry meaning, and it is up to us to create the meaning for them to carry. Poems—words generally—always need to be interpreted, to be understood, but the process of interpreting is our creation; after we have heard them, or rather, as we are hearing them, we give the words their meaning, just as, conversely, we give meaning to the words as we speak them.

Of course, interpretations can and will vary and we are best educated when we can see them all; but we don’t have to choose among them and say that one is correct and all the others wrong. If we take one point of view then the interpretation is of one kind, and if we take another point of view it will be of another kind. We are not compelled to take just one point of view, we can take them all, successively perhaps when we are beginners, and simultaneously when we are not.

I hope that you can now see that we are creators, made in the image of the God of Genesis, because we create the meaning, the significance of things, especially of words, but also of actions. Anything we learned according to the first kind of education needs to be given a meaning by us, a meaning that we create. The intent or motive we have is the most important part of any set of words that we use—whether reading them, hearing them, writing them, or speaking them. The Virginian was right in demanding that Trampas smile, because he would not allow there to be open enmity, if he could avoid it.

The second kind of learning takes place when we create the purposes which control our knowledge, how we use it, the meaning we give it. This learning is creation.

In short, the first kind of education is a taking, the second kind a giving; the first is a hoarding up, the second a sharing out; in the first, we are passive, and in the second, we are active; if the first requires possessiveness, the second requires generosity.

Education of the first kind is for ever trying to tell us what things mean, how they should be used. We cannot help but listen, but we are not obliged to agree. We are free to choose, to consider, reflect, and decide what meaning we shall create and give things. Somebody once asked Robert Frost about the meaning of After Apple-Picking, and he grumpily replied ‘It’s just about apples.’ He knew, I think, that if he had answered, he would have turned the poem into a subject in the first kind of education, and destroyed it as an opportunity to help the second kind.

The meaning of what you and I have learned will be our creation. And thus by re-forming ourselves and the knowledge that is in us, we may contribute to the reforming of the world.

I remind you that, according to Genesis,

God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold it was very good.

I do not mean to be blasphemous when I say that, metaphorically, God smiled.

So should we.