As promised, below is the prepared text of my commencement address to the New Saint Andrews College class of 2021 from last Thursday. I think there will be a video posted to YouTube at some point, and I’ll post it when it is available. In the meantime, you’ll have to suffer with my prepared text, which is not exactly as it was delivered. True to form, I improvised a bit and added several things, left out a few things, and tried to have (and give) a good time.
Anyway, here it is:
President Merkle, trustees, parents and guests, and especially the class of 2021: You do me an extraordinary honor with the invitation to address you today.
Preparing commencement remarks for New St. Andrews College presents a formidable challenge for a simple reason: New St. Andrews is one of the very rare colleges today that actually knows its purpose, and how to pursue that purpose. How refreshing to find such a place! As such, a guest trying to sum up or extend this purpose is superfluous. One of my favorite books is Albert Jay Nock’s Memoirs of a Superfluous Man. I had no idea I’d someday be re-enacting the theme of the book, and yet, here I am.
My scientific conclusion is that 98 percent of all college commencement addresses are banal, idiotic, cliché-ridden, and insulting to the intelligence. On the other hand, most colleges today are banal, idiotic, cliché-ridden, and insulting to the intelligence. Back when the Cold War with the Soviet Union was running at high tide (which was during my lifetime and the lifetime of your parents here today), the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan remarked that anyone who won the Lenin Prize, deserved it. And so, without mentioning any particular appalling celebrity commencement speakers, I’ll just say that those other colleges deserve them. New St. Andrews deserves something better.
That may sound at first hearing to be a startling or grandiose proposition, but the plain fact is that the “modern” university—mirroring our larger culture—no longer knows its purpose with any clarity or confidence, or, at the very least, today’s institutions of higher education have added new and contradictory purposes that make them incoherent, listless, and in some cases dangerous. I suspect many graduates today, along with the wider college community here, know this to one degree or another.
There have been at least three steps in the degradation of the modern colleges and universities relevant to the larger scene around us just now. First, our universities decided, more than a century ago, to emulate the Germans in supposing that higher education should be oriented primarily to new discoveries and to advancing knowledge, rather than conserving and passing along to succeeding generations the accumulated knowledge and moral sciences of the past. As John Henry Newman put it in his Idea of the University, “If [the university’s] object were scientific and philosophical discovery, I do not see why a university should have students.”
By the way, how much trouble could be avoided, if we simply ignored most ideas that come out of Germany. And herewith my first piece of obligatory commencement advice: A sage friend of mine [it was Mike Uhlmann] once suggested, that when you hear some nifty new idea to improve the world from some celebrated “progressive” thinker, you should slowly repeat the idea aloud, in a German accent, and see if it still sounds as good. Start with mandatory vaccine cards perhaps.
Then, second, there arose the contradictory idea that colleges should teach the practical and technical skills to enable the next generation to join the workforce—in other words, colleges should be high-class job training centers. There has always been some element of this in higher education, going back to land-grant colleges aiming to help an agrarian society thrive, engineers build bridge and railroads, or the instruction in the law before there were dedicated law schools.
This emphasis came at a cost however—the liberal arts, properly understood as the means of the development or completion of the human soul, came under a shadow of being “impractical,” and as the cost of higher education has increased unreasonably, more and more students—or their tuition-paying parents—wonder sensibly about the value of the liberal arts. There are of course many other factors in the degradation of the liberal arts today, and I observe that most universities are unable to give a convincing account of the liberal arts, or why any student should take them seriously. Most encomia to the liberal arts these days have the stale sound of . . . commencement address clichés!
I have to confess that when I read, almost every week, of another liberal arts program or department shrinking or being abolished somewhere, I am unsure whether to be sad, or whether to celebrate the just deserts of colleges trying to be all things to all people, along with allowing too many liberal arts programs to be swallowed whole by nihilist ideology. In other words, it is hard to know what is worse—the neglect of the liberal arts, or their perversion.
Herewith my second piece of obligatory advice: whenever you hear the word “modern” attached to anything, it is wise to regard it with suspicion. This is especially true of most “modern” thinkers or writers. Unlike Dickens, or Jane Austin, is anyone going to read, for example, David Foster Wallace in a century? Does anyone actually read him now, or is everybody lying—a deep pun on Infinite Jest? I am starting to wonder whether Infinite Jest is just the ultimate coffee table book.
There are important exceptions, which the kind of classical education provided here equips people to discern. The late Sir Roger Scruton is one such; I got to know Sir Roger quite well in the decade before his recent passing. He was the author of 60—six-zero—books, a staggering achievement that is hard to get your head around. Yet he cut to the heart of the matter of our present scene with the succinct comment: “A writer who says that there are no truths, or that all truth is ‘merely relative,’ is asking you not to believe him. So don’t.” I’ll add that not only should you not believe him; you should not pay him any tuition either. More and more students seem to be figuring this out.
Another obvious exception to modernist mediocrity and conformity is C.S. Lewis, undoubtedly well known to most or all of you. In fact, if you take in the story of his own education in Surprised by Joy, you could easily say he sounds like someone educated at New St. Andrews University. The role of classical education in his own path to faith is central. He foresaw, as early as the 1940s, the degradation of the liberal arts, decades before it came to pass so widely.
To restate and modify slightly his perception of the problem in summary form: the classical version of the liberal arts was connected to the virtue of liberality—understood as the striving for improvement or even perfection of the highest human capacities or potentialities. That classical view sits in tension to some extent with the Christian duty and virtue of humility, not to mention the problem of original sin, but that tension has been one of the great creative forces of Western Civilization for 2000 years.
Modern, post-Enlightenment liberalism is reduced to radical individualism and the quest for comfortable self-preservation, and this essentially selfish liberalism [nb: Leo Strauss called it “the joyless quest for joy”] is one of the reasons for the degradation of the liberal arts in recent times.
Among his many writings on the pathology of modern education and philosophy, there is the portrait he gives of the modern academic in his novel That Hideous Strength, which, on account of its deep subtlety, is to my mind a greater anti-utopian novel than Orwell’s 1984 or Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. His target is a fellow named “Wither”—the name being no accident—who is the deputy director of the National Institute for Controlled Experiments (NICE for short), though he could work for today’s CDC. He describes Wither thus:
What had been in his far-off youth a merely aesthetic repugnance to realities that were crude or vulgar, had deepened and darkened, year after year, into a fixed refusal of everything that was in any degree other than himself. He had passed from Hegel into Hume, thence through Pragmatism, and thence through Logical Positivism, and out at last into the complete void.
That is a perfect description of many deans and provosts at most universities today, as well as senior administrators in our government.
The third trait of modern universities, accelerating over the past half-decade, is the decision to become conscious institutions or agents of social justice, while simultaneously abandoning, if not consciously rejecting, the ancient foundations of the idea of justice itself. And hence my third piece of practical advice: whenever you hear the rightly honored word “justice” prefaced by a qualifying modifier, you can be reasonably certain that what follows will be ideologically-driven nonsense, which is a disguise for a will to power.
Justice is hardly ever spoken of today in its classic singular form. How, exactly, does the adjective “social” modify the meaning of justice? Is there a such thing as anti-social justice? (If so, I think I might come out for it.) Of course, “social justice” is only one of the exploding species of specialized justice rampant in the land today—feminist justice, climate justice, food justice, even, believe it or not, spatial justice, which, contrary to what you might imagine, seems not to mean “a place for everything, and everything in its place.”
Now, to be sure, the Roman Catholic Church, like Judaism, has had a rich teaching about social justice that is 1,000 years old (or even older in the Hebraic tradition), but it is rooted in our obligations to fellow man and to God—decidedly not what 99 percent of the modern applications of “social justice” have in mind. And we know that Aristotle outlined four kinds of justice, but they are built on a foundation of objective truth and human nature—the unchanging ground of changing experience—which most contemporary ideologies of social justice deny or purposefully reject. In my limited recent experience at secular universities, I have found that most students have never heard of Aristotle’s categories of justice, nor have they grappled with the difficulties of abstract justice that impart the necessary humility and prudence that true justice requires.
And hence we have the modern university as a place of increasingly enforced conformity, in which the word “diversity” has come to mean its opposite: we all look different, but think the same thing. And at this point higher education no longer serves as a forum for inquiry, debate, and deliberation, where ideas are refined and error is corrected.
Let me therefore move toward a close with a summary of the significance of a New St. Andrews education by modifying the famous “three-Rs”, which used to mean “reading, writing, ‘rithmetic.” I propose substituting in their place the way a sound liberal arts education plays out today: relevance, resistance, and the Remnant.
As already suggested, the liberal arts have long been under a cloud of doubt about their “relevance” to modern times. Can knowledge of Greek and Latin help you “learn to code”? No, but it can help equip you to do something much more important—it can help save or restore our tattered civilization. And here I assert, and will take on all comers, that an “irrelevant” education is the best kind of education.
We see why in my second R and third Rs. In very recent years it has been fashionable to talk of belonging to “The Resistance,” which is mostly understood in low political terms. To the contrary, the real resistance today are the people who do not conform, the people equipped to think beyond the narrow horizons of dominant opinion. Someone educated with an eye to eternal truths cannot be imprisoned by transient dogma.
Behold a striking irony of our present time: the so-called “progressives” who talk incessantly about the future and “the side of history” aren’t having any children. Who is having children: people of faith. There is some startling social science data on this, but I wouldn’t want to sully New St. Andrews with such grubbiness. The point is: who are the real believers in the future? The people who believe in God’s providence. You are the real Resistance in our time.
Now, it may seem that you are graduating at an especially bleak time—into a world grown ever more hostile to faith and truth, consumed with self-destructive agitations and increasingly bitter divisions.
I do not know what is ahead for us, for our country, or our culture. But our moment is not, I think, especially unique. The great British historian Paul Johnson once referred to the 1970s as “America’s suicide attempt,” and I wouldn’t disagree with anyone who suggests we seem bent on jumping off a tall bridge once again. But in fact the lament for our fraying civilization goes back decades if not centuries in some ways.
For example, Whittaker Chambers, another of the few worthy modern authors, wrote the following in 1954:
“The enemy—he is ourselves. That is why it is idle to talk about preventing the wreck of Western civilization. It is already a wreck from within. That is why we can hope to do little more now than snatch a fingernail of a saint from the rack or a handful of ashes from the faggots, and bury them secretly in a flower pot against the day, ages hence, when a few men begin again to dare to believe that there was once something else, that something else is thinkable, and need some evidence of what it was, and the fortifying knowledge that there were those who, at the great nightfall, took loving thought to preserve the tokens of hope and truth.”
The people—people such as come from here, keeping alive hope and truth—constitute a Remnant much as it is understood in the Old Testament. Like the Remnant in the Old Testament, we are outnumbered. And yet, it is precisely as people of faith that the disposition of resistance—though that disposition is much needed today—transforms into a Remnant that renews, which is something different and more hopeful than mere resistance.
A slight re-telling of the story of the Prophet Elijah in 1st Kings makes the point. Elijah, despairing in the desert because, as he tells the voice of the Lord that came to him, “the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away. It is implied that if Elijah is killed, the True Faith would be killed along with him—that he is the last of The Remnant.
God instructs Elijah that, quite simply, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. God said, “Yet I have left me seven thousand in Israel, all the knees which have not bowed unto Baal, and every mouth which hath not kissed him.” With a Remnant of seven thousand on his side, it is implied that Elijah should not feel lonesome or isolated or hopeless, even if that number is tiny in comparison to the population as a whole, even if he never meets or works in harness with many of those seven thousand.
The point is, the paradox of such times is that as things grow darker or more ominous, more and more people will be disposed to seeking out and listening to the Remnant—to those people who have preserved the tokens of hope and truth. Why will you be sought out? Because the Roman poet Horace was right: you can try to expel nature with a pitchfork, but it will come back at you through the window. There are more of them out there than you may think—disposed to hear that something else is thinkable. They will find you; you will find them, though you may not always know it.
In the darkest days of 1940, Churchill said, “No one can guarantee success in war, but only deserve it. Success always demands a greater effort.” I bid it is fair to say that graduates of New St. Andrews have made the greater effort; you have done all that can be done to deserve success. You are ready.
And so, congratulations to the New St. Andrews class of 2021; good luck, and God bless.