2018 Commencement Address
Welcome students, parents, grandparents, and friends of Ridgeview Classical School.
The journey from Mrs. Bennett’s classroom to this stage is not one that can be easily summarized. The journey for us as teachers and parents is different each time through because the students are different each time through. Moreover, the curriculum and culture at Ridgeview enhances what we are able to see of a person’s character so that while each student has his or her own challenges to tame and his or her own gifts to develop, we come to see our students not solely as future workers, but as our future neighbors, friends, and colleagues. When we routinely encounter students like those seated behind me, it can become easy to take them for granted. However, in genuinely learning about them, expressing an interest in them, and possessing a regard for them, we are oftentimes fortunate enough to learn something about ourselves.
I realize that this may sound cliché. We are their parents, their teachers, their elders. If we want to learn something, we would read a book, take a class, or appeal to those who have been certified in some way as our betters. We will not look to those with less experience, less knowledge, less wisdom, and less acumen; but, it is in our interactions with these students that we see how character comes to be formed, from its nascence in kindergarten to its articulation in the senior thesis. And, if we steadfastly develop a reflective disposition, we shall have the opportunity of observing ourselves anew and contemplating our interactions with these other human beings who bring with them all of their own experiences and quiddities. When we consider the marvel that is our mutual intellectual and personal development, teaching them is anything but cliché.
For example, the final Thursday of every academic year is my least favorite. Without the seniors in classes and passing through the hallways, this relative silence is my first impression of what it will be like without an opportunity to see them at their lockers or to hear their laughter erupting from the classrooms. One student in particular, Katie Zrubek, makes for a convenient segue to my larger point. Virtually every time I have seen Katie these past several years, I have been greeted by this enormous, brilliant smile. In no way do I want to embarrass Katie today, but when one sees that kind of smile so consistently, one begins to wonder about its authenticity. Is it real or a social contrivance designed to get something from us? Is it overdone? Affected? Recently, in a Student Council meeting, I saw Katie get angry. It was not juvenile, pouty, angry. To render it in polite terms, Katie was vexed. It seems incredible that it should take something negative to impress upon us a truth about people. In my observation of her anger, I realized that what was important was not whether Katie walked around in a perpetual state of euphoria, but that that radiant smile of hers could as easily be received as a gift: a thing done for another to lighten their day even when her own might not be going as well as it could.
Why should it be so difficult to pause and appreciate something like this? It is a small moment. It might be one of the simplest acts of generosity we can either bestow or receive, and yet our own diffidence can make us so suspicious and uncharitable that we ourselves become incapable of recognizing kindness at face value. With all of our cleverness, intelligence, and circumspection, it is possible that by our diffidence we create little pockets of barren isolation. There seems to be a paucity of wisdom in cultivating such a life, and this is part of the problem: wisdom is not perceived as having a connection with education in the modern sense. Wisdom is, in part, defined as the “capacity of judging rightly in matters relating to life and conduct,” and we have become obsessed with the idea that education is simply preparation for college or the life of work that we perceive in each social interaction only its transactional value. This is neither wise nor healthy, and the reason we cannot simply be warmed by that smile is because while we are intelligent, and perhaps even educated, we have esteemed wisdom too little.
We are incentivized and nudged at every turn to prepare for the world of work, of commerce, of trade, and of selling ourselves in order to acquire enough material things, many of which are mere indulgences, so that we can sate whatever insecurities it is we have as social creatures. We become incontinent consumers, and when and if it becomes obvious that we cannot be as bright, lucky, well born, beautiful, or talented as the Joneses, we will see in this no good reason that we should not still aspire to live like them. We will dress in similar clothes, drive similar cars, live in similarly decorated homes, enjoy similarly lavish weddings, vacations, and meals, but we shall still not be the Joneses. Those Joneses – always and forever just beyond our ambition’s reach, but close enough to keep us on the treadmill provided there is a cacophony of distractions and enough other minor and irrelevant dramas that we remain anesthetized to any comprehension of how derivative a life it is that we are leading. Bland, dull, tedious conventionality that belies all wisdom, and one that a proper education would have warned us away from pursuing. Herein lies the beauty of this treadmill drama: we dress it up as the spur to competition and claim that all social and technological progress issues from it.
A compelling counter to this is Thoreau’s famous passage in Walden wherein he wrote that,
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.
I should put in a word here for materialism, planning, prosperity, and capitalism morally pursued lest anyone denounce me as a communist or a hippie. These are, if thoughtfully pursued by genuinely educated people, good and necessary preconditions to the fullest enjoyment of our liberty and the surest guarantor that we will have a reasonable chance of enjoying that most elusive of things, namely the good life. To review, what I am advocating is a form of education that emphasizes the importance of developing wisdom, which entails not only the ability to appreciate a smile without tainting it with our own diffidence, but the capacity to lead a good life as a continent pursuer and consumer of goods. As Montaigne put it in his essay on Solitude, “It would be madness to entrust yourself to yourself, if you did not know how to govern yourself.” The unfortunate difficulty lies in the fact that there is no shortage of wealthy fools, but because their wealth is both conspicuous and enviable, it establishes a false standard for how the good life is to be recognized. Unfortunately, a measure of wealth is a precondition – not a guarantee – of a good life, and there are many people of means who are not only not happy, but who are not good.
The Catholic priest Gerald Vann wrote in 1944 that,
There are men who have made their brilliant way in the world, answerable to no one but themselves, quick and assured of judgment, dominating the world about them and leaving the mark of their personality upon it through the events and conditions they have caused; but you find they have gained and used power pitilessly, they have treated men and things as mere utilities, brutally, and so at the end they are poorer than the poorest of their servants because they are completely alone. Loneliness is the stuff of hell; it is a big price to pay for power and glory.
It is a central proposition of a school like Ridgeview that genuinely educated individuals will be better equipped to encounter the world with compassion, humility, and wonder. In admitting, as we must, that we cannot know with any precision what our students will go on to do, we must prepare them for reasonable potentialities. So, while college may be what is next, it is not in fact a suspension of reality or of life. Just as it has mattered these past thirteen years, it will matter over the course of the next four: using people and things as mere utilities is the business of loneliness, and loneliness is the business of hell, which is the antithesis of the good life. To be an incontinent consumer means failing to heed the advice of Horace when he wrote in his Epistles, “Conentur sibi res, non se submittere rebus” (They should try to subordinate things to themselves, not themselves to things), and using individuals as means to our own ends is inconsistent with compassion, humility, or wonder.
Josef Pieper, in his work Leisure, the Basis of Culture, wrote on Aquinas’ contention that, “It is necessary for the perfection of human society…that there should be men who devote their lives to contemplation – nota bene, necessary not only for the good of the individual who so devotes himself, but for the good of human society.” Within the framework of a Ridgeview education, we are not proposing that our students devote themselves solely to contemplation, but we do contend that without some respect for silence, solitude, and ultimately contemplation, the good life will be moved beyond their grasp. An education geared towards wisdom exhibits an appreciation for what J.S. Mill regarded as “higher faculties.” With these, Mill contended that we felt more keenly and appreciated more fully “the pleasures of the intellect, of the feelings and imagination, and of the moral sentiments.” In short, we could be better people by becoming better educated people insofar as the education we received regarded character as a matter of great import. Mill concluded his point somewhat famously by stating that, “it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”
Such is one refutation to the long-misunderstood notion of ignorance as bliss. When Thomas Gray wrote Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College around 1747, the last stanza read,
To each his suff’rings: all are men,
Condemn’d alike to groan,
The tender for another’s pain;
Th’ unfeeling for his own.
Yet ah! Why should they know their fate?
Since sorrow never comes too late,
And happiness too swiftly flies.
Thought would destroy their paradise.
No more; where ignorance is bliss,
‘Tis folly to be wise.
A similar sentiment had been expressed by Alexander Pope in the first epistle of his Essay on Man around 1734,
Heav'n from all creatures hides the book of fate,
All but the page prescrib'd, their present state:
From brutes what men, from men what spirits know:
Or who could suffer being here below?
The lamb thy riot dooms to bleed today,
Had he thy reason, would he skip and play?
Pleas'd to the last, he crops the flow'ry food,
And licks the hand just rais'd to shed his blood.
Oh blindness to the future! kindly giv'n,
That each may fill the circle mark'd by Heav'n:
Who sees with equal eye, as God of all,
A hero perish, or a sparrow fall,
Atoms or systems into ruin hurl'd,
And now a bubble burst, and now a world.
Something similar is presented much earlier in Ecclesiastes where the author weighs the levelling effects of death and asks whether wisdom is preferable to folly, and while he eventually concludes that it is, he initially writes that,
For in much wisdom is much
and those who increase knowledge
It is a theme dealt with by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World when John the Savage confronts Mustapha Mond and declares that he would prefer a life of authenticity with all its pains and inconveniences to a life of ease and indulgence predicated on willful ignorance. In becoming educated for wisdom, we become competent to acquire not only the material things we covet, but the wisdom not to covet, and to achieve an independence from thoughtless conventionality. In the end, our happy life of wisdom consists in not only working hard, but in living well. As silly as it may sound, it begins in simple things – like appreciating, without doubt or diffidence, a warm smile, a friendly face, and these beautiful students who have held doors, said hello, please, and thank you; who have complimented not only us, but one another; who have struggled and tried to please, who have made one another coffee and rallied their classmates when morale flagged; who came to classes, plays, musicals, concerts, mock trial tournaments, tests, theses, presentations, camping trips, and still indulged us in our little speeches. We send them into the world not as mere accumulators, glory seekers, users, or coveters, but as young people properly oriented and properly inspired to live as full and meaningful a life as their circumstances and educations will allow.
Please join me in congratulating the Class of 2018.