Graduation Address @ The Lexington Latin School

by David Bradshaw

It’s a pleasure to be with you for this happy occasion. I will admit that the last graduation I attended at U.K. (the University of Kentucky) was a little bigger than this one. However, even U.K. used to be just this size.  In 1886 its graduating class consisted of three persons. One of them was Thomas Hunt Morgan, the nephew of the famous General John Hunt Morgan. The younger Morgan went on to win a Nobel Prize for his pioneering work in genetics. The Biology building at U.K. is named for him, and if you go there today you’ll see a plaque outside in his honor. So we should never forget that great things can come from small beginnings.

I became acquainted with the Lexington Latin School about a year ago when my wife was approached about teaching here. As I learned about its curriculum, I realized that there’s a simple way to describe what L.L.S. is trying to do. It’s trying to give students the education that I wish I’d had. I went to public schools that, even though they had some wonderful and dedicated teachers, were on the whole pretty mediocre. I learned a tiny smattering of Latin (which I quickly forgot) and no other languages, and there were vast swathes of history and literature that I never even heard of. When I went to college I wanted to be a physicist because I’d gained the impression that the sciences were the only rigorous, objective form of knowledge. History, literature, and philosophy were certainly interesting, but I didn’t see how they could amount to real knowledge, nor therefore how they could really be worthy of intense study.

I owe the credit for helping me learn better to my wife’s father, Dr. Ward Allen, who was an English professor at Auburn University where I was a student. I took two of his courses, both of them focused mainly on English Renaissance poetry. In each session we read just a few poems, discussing each line by line. We scrutinized the meter, rhyme scheme, and other poetic techniques, and above all the words—how each functioned, its history, its range of meanings, and why the poet chose it rather than any other. Occasionally Dr. Allen would turn the lights out and ask us to look at the trees and the sky. What were the best words to describe that movement in the trees? or that shade of color? or that flight of a bird? What difference would it make if we described it in one way rather than another?

Gradually in this way I came to appreciate the power that words have, not only to describe experience, but to create it in the sense of giving it specific and articulate form. I also came to recognize something that it would be impossible to capture in a theory—namely, the unique and unrepeatable character of experience, and how much is lost in the attempt to translate experience into words.

This turned my view of science upside-down. Science, of course, is always at one remove from actual experience. Its aim is to find the correct theory for whatever phenomenon is being investigated. I concluded that because of this it can never be the kind of knowledge that I was seeking. Instead, I gradually came to see as my goal as to learn to name things in a way that opens up what they truly are. Even more, I wanted to learn to name things in a way that creates them as what they should be, and not only as my passions or whims might dictate.

Let me try to elaborate this idea a bit before I explain how it is relevant to the education you’ve received here at L.L.S. As I see it, we are interpretive beings. We’re constantly engaged in interpreting everything around us—the physical world, other people, books, media, everything.  Perhaps most importantly, we interpret ourselves. Suppose, for example, that you have been assigned some homework that you find tedious. You do it because you are a good student and you always do your homework. As you do so, however, you can’t help but ask yourself why you are submitting to such drudgery. Is it simply because you want a good grade? But is the grade really that important? Perhaps the real reason is that you don’t want to disappoint your parents? Or is it that you want other people to think that you’re smart? Or perhaps what you really want is to show yourself that you’re smart? Or—to take a more upbeat tack—perhaps you believe (as St. Paul teaches) in “doing all that you do to the glory of God,” and since you’re a student in this class you are doing the homework in that spirit?

This little internal dialogue may go on for some time at a different level of the mind than that which actually does the homework. You may bounce from one answer to another, and you may even decide that you don’t know the answer, even while you continue working. For our purposes the actual answer is less important than the fact that, by giving an answer, you determine your own character. You decide for yourself whether you are the sort of person who does what’s required out of a willing and godly spirit, or simply because it’s part of the necessary rigamarole of life.

Here’s another example. Suppose that a friend has betrayed you. You can’t help but feel hurt.  However, what exactly is it that you feel? Is it anger? Would you feel better if you could somehow get revenge, or at least know that your friend is suffering just as you suffer? Or is it more like grief? But grief itself comes in different kinds. Is this case more like the grief you would feel at losing a limb—a sort of stunned sense of loss? Or is it more like the grief you feel when you see someone you care about doing wrong, and you know he is cutting himself off from the real joy that can only come with a good and honest life?

These are questions that only you can answer. As you do so, you take a step toward defining yourself as the kind of person you are, and thereby also determining the sort of world in which you will live. Is it a world in which, whenever you are hurt, you get angry and want to strike back? Or is it a world in which being hurt reminds you to pray for the one who hurt you, and even to seek new ways of showing him love?

It’s an astonishing fact that, to this extent, we each have the power to create our own world. Only the Creator Himself could give this sort of power, and I believe the fact that we have this power is part of what it means to say that we are made in His image.

Now let me return to the topic of education. What has been the purpose of the education that you have received? There’s no denying the fact that much of what you’ve learned you will forget, and even much of the rest you will never use in any practical way. However, even what you forget or never use still leaves a mark on you. It gives you the language and the concepts in terms of which you understand both the world around you, and that hidden world that lies within. That is one way of describing what the purpose of education is.

Literature, for example, puts before you the great range of human actions and emotions, giving you models to emulate or to avoid, and patterns for understanding both yourself and others. History explains how the world that we live in today came to be, along with how it used to be different—thereby giving you some sense of how the future might be different, too. Philosophy and theology give you principled ideas that you can use for guidance when you face hard questions, not to mention insight into why other people think and act as they do. And science, too—which I hope I haven’t seemed to belittle—can be seen as a training in how to distinguish and name properly all the varied elements of the natural world, so as to recognize behind them the hand of their Creator.

When I look at the education that you’ve received at L.L.S. in this light, it seems to me that you’ve had a great blessing. You’ve read real literature—Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, Dante, Austen, Dickens, Hawthorne, Twain, and others. You’ve studied the sweep of European and American history. You’ve encountered some of the great minds of western philosophy and theology, such as St. Augustine and C.S. Lewis. And you’ve learned science in a way that doesn’t make it simply a vehicle for atheistic dogma, but a means of glorifying the Creator.

Lest we forget that the name of the school is the Lexington Latin School, you’ve also learned more than a smattering of Latin. You’ve thereby begun that great discovery that comes from seeing how the world can be described in a language other than your own. As you’ve no doubt realized by now, other languages don’t always correlate to English in any simple one-to-one fashion. Every language has embedded within it a unique way of dividing and organizing reality that in some respects amounts to a different way of viewing the world.

For example, Latin has no articles such as ‘the’ or ‘a.’ In the Gospel of John, when Pilate presents Jesus to the crowd after he has been scourged, he says, “Behold the man”—meaning, presumably, behold the man that you have been clamoring for. In Latin what he says is rendered simply as Ecce homoecce, behold, and homo, man. Because there is no intervening article, what he says could be taken equally as “behold a man,” or “behold the man,” or simply “behold man”—that is, behold the one who sums up and embodies within himself all of human nature. In other words, when you read this episode in Latin you see, far more clearly than when you read it in English, that Pilate is (despite himself!) confessing Jesus to be the very Son of Man who offers himself as a ransom for the whole human race. This is an example of how Latin, precisely because of what it doesn’t have, can help you see as a unity things that we naturally tend to divide when we think in English.

When I look at the education you have received, then, it seems to me that you have had a great blessing. You’ve been given the tools by which to begin to name and understand things truly. Now there’s a word for the ability to name things both as they are, and as they should be. That word is wisdom.

So have you become wise? Well, here is a sobering fact: Aristotle says that it is impossible for the young to be wise because they lack experience. And I have to admit that I agree with him. I say this, not only because of the young people I have known, but even more because I remember myself when I was young. I remember how much I wanted to be wise, but when I look back I can see how foolish I actually was.

Please don’t take this as a criticism, much less as a reason for despair. On the contrary, it’s a reason for hope. It means that you have a great upward journey ahead of you. What, after all, is experience? It’s not simply the sum total of all that one has observed and undergone. Many people have undergone a great deal but come out none the wiser. In fact, they repeat the same mistakes over and over again. If you ever spend time doing jail ministry—something I would encourage you to do—you will be amazed at how many smart, capable, likable people you meet, many well into middle age, who lack the most elementary wisdom.

The kind of experience that Aristotle is talking about is not simply the total of what one has undergone; it is the product of what one has undergone and observed times true reflection. Or to put it another way, it is the total of what one has undergone and observed when interpreted rightly.

As I said before, we are interpretive beings. We cannot help asking questions about the world around us, and most of all about ourselves. Who am I? What kind of person am I trying to be? What do the feelings I have—whether joy, or anger, or grief, or anything else—actually tell me? Often our most intense reflection is about the mistakes we have made: what did I do wrong, and how could I do better, and how deep does the mistake really go? Is there something about myself that I’ve simply failed to see? It’s for this reason that wisdom requires mistakes. Not all experience is equal; the experience that requires you to probe deeply is the most precious, although it’s usually also the most painful.

It’s as you ask such questions that you will find the education you’ve received a steady ally. There’s great wisdom implicit in the authors you’ve read and the skills you’ve gained, but that wisdom only becomes yours as you apply it to your own life.

Let me urge you not think of your education as something that you’ve finished and can now leave behind. On the contrary, it’s merely introduced you to companions who can now become your friends for life. Don’t think that because you’ve read King Lear, therefore you’re done with it and there would be no point in reading it again. Every time you read it, you’ll find that you make new discoveries, but that you also come away with new questions and new mysteries to ponder. That’s the nature of a great work; it seems to change as you change, growing deeper as your ability to plunge into its depths grows stronger.

For the same reason, I would urge you to keep up your Latin; or if Latin isn’t to your taste, find some other language that is and pursue it intensely. The benefit won’t only be in what you learn to say and understand, but also in how you learn to think, even when you’re thinking in English.

As I look at the three of you, then, I don’t see only three graduates. I see three who are going forth with some of the best friends it is possible to have. Keep them with you as you face the challenges of life. You’ll find that they won’t let you down.

[Lexington Latin School is a private, classical school that strives to provide classical Christian education. Lexington, KY 40523, USA. For more on Lexington Latin School, see http://www.lexingtonlatinschool.com/]

David Bradshaw is Professor in the Department of Philosophy, the College of Arts and Sciences, Kentucky University.

26 May 2017 © AIOCS