Mr. Brian Jones
There will be many of them soon, and only a few, in retrospect, will be worth listening to or reading. Of course, I am speaking of the college commencement address. Commencement speeches are delivered by individuals that a university has decided best imitates the school’s various missions. Only in rare instances does a commencement speaker say something that not only is worth listening to, but actually unsettles us. Anyone wanting to experience something along these lines ought to read Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 commencement speech at Harvard. What Solzhenitsyn told his listeners was that while there a certain real goods brought about through liberal democracy, other crippling tendencies must simultaneously be recognized. In fact, certain trends within communism were visible, although perhaps discreetly, in modern democratic societies. And one of these dangerous facets was the suppression of truth, especially the truth about the kind of regime and social order that actually existed.
A commencement speaker, in the fashion of a Solzhenitsyn, should tell us something true about ourselves, even telling the audience something that they have never heard before. The not hearing of such truths may be exactly what the university wants, for if one were to hear it, he or she might question why they are at such a place at all. What most commencement speakers will inevitably touch upon this month is how a student’s university education will prepare for changing the world, making it a place more full of peace, justice, and equality. There college education is the sure path to their success in the world, to moving up and achieving the type of life that ought to be desired by all Americans.
There is no doubt that such an idea has some real truth to it. A university education can be an opportunity to escape extreme forms of material, social, intellectual, and communal poverty. We should be able to affirm this as good. However, we are too often neglectful of the new sorts of voids that a university education will likely instill. Among other things, a university education will inculcate and further exacerbate one of the unique features of our age, namely, what Simone Weil called “rootlessness.” To be rootless entails being unsettled and uncertain, not sure of who we are or what our place is in this life. High rates of depression, anxiety, mental and emotional disorders are certainly revelatory of such a reality. Alexis de Tocqueville argued that one of the potentially disruptive features of American democracy would be its widespread “restlessness.” This experience of being restless is an effect of being unsatisfied and ungrateful for what we have; we will be attached to the pursuit of more that only flames our dissatisfaction.
Perhaps no contemporary writer and social observer has called attention to this rootlessness more than Wendell Berry. What we will not hear in this month’s commencement addresses will be something akin to Berry’s observation about contemporary American life: “The history of our time has been to a considerable extent the movement of the center of consciousness away from home” (The Unsettling of America, 53). For Berry, the homelessness fostered by university education does not begin there, but is only reaffirmed. What we have all been taught in our careers as students is that the goal of our lives should be to grow up and move away from home. We would not want to even consider something like returning to our hometowns or regions to give back as a citizen in thanksgiving. This act would seem to undercut what “being educated” is about.
Such a claim is not to deny that good schools exist, be they public, private, or charter. I have seen, and thankfully, taught in some of them. However, it is more often the case that when parents are looking to find “great schools” for their kids, the criteria for such judgments is rather limited and ill-informed. To help our children seek to get in to prestigious universities, with the help of high standardized test scores and a plethora of extra curricular activities, neglects more fundamentally human questions about the purpose of education.
Perhaps we could consider this topic in light of the following thoughts. How is it that we will help to form, love, educate, and raise our children? The answers to this question are as good as they are various, but one answer must be obvious: we have to be present. Not just emotionally, but actually, physically there. To hope to raise our children as we are called by only seeing them a few times a week at night, or maybe only on the weekends, should certainly be recognized as an injustice. And yet, this way of life that we live was precisely what we have taught. We have been educated to view our life, school, work, and all our various activities as mostly taking place away from the household. Educational initiatives can do very little if they do not demonstrate a clear recognition of the following: good familial and household life is imperative for good and robust civic participation. This is as much a philosophical and theological fact as it is a sociological one. In other words, education and its reform can take place only when it is reconnected to home and local community life.
The Catholic Church has continually been a beacon of refreshment in this regard, reminding parents that they are the primary educators of their children. To achieve the demands of this lovely vocation requires, at least, that parents become more willing to ask how it is they that can be present to their children and homes. In this way, perhaps there can be a real thrust towards recovering a more natural and humane relationship between education, place, and roots. Sadly, I am skeptical that this will be heard in our university commencement addresses.