The forgoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? — Waldo Emerson
As my last two posts have shown, I’ve been watching, and remembering, some great commencement speeches. Well here is the last one I’ll post about for this season, sent to me by a good friend, and it’s a good one.
Oftentimes the challenge you have when attempting to impart wisdom or insight is to be able do it without necessarily seeming like you’re trying to do it. This is true more so when the topic has a larger, more broader, social meaning—i.e. political meaning—and the speaker is addressing an ideologically diverse group. The master strategist knows, it’s best to avoid the direct approach and resort to oblique order.
Well, in the masterful sense, that’s what Danielle Allen does in her recent commencement address at Pomona College. It’s a short speech, and at first I wasn’t drawn in because of Ms. Allen’s very colloquial delivery, but then the message, the insight, started to hit me right between the eyes. Watch for yourself:
Yesterday, Jon Meacham gave the commencement address at UMass Lowell. He provided these points of welcome wisdom gleaned from his decades of writing history and biography.
So what can we learn from the past as we engage the present:
That the perfect should not be the enemy of the good.
That compromise is the oxygen of a free government.
And that we learn most from the past not by looking up at people from our history adoringly, or looking down on them condescendingly, but looking them in the eye and taking their measure as human beings, not as Gods, so that we can learn how they overcame the obstacles of their time.
Thumbing through a book of essays by Alfred North Whitehead, I came across these words I’d underlined years ago while reading the book:
Moral education is impossible apart from the habitual vision of greatness. If we are not great, it does not matter what we do or what is the issue.
Whitehead was defending, or praising really, the superior nature of classical education (reading classics) in shaping a strong moral character. It’s a model based, in large part, on the study of great people in history. Thomas Carlyle once said “The history of the world is but the biography of great men.” The idea is that people primarily shape events and history by their actions. By studying the lives of renowned people we learn about “the evil that men do,*” or the nobility they can rise to, or the compromises they’ve made between these two extremes. We witness the subtleties of human personality. We see that life really isn’t, in large part, black or white but black and white. We learn just how human these great people actually were while also learning how they overcame many of the same difficulties we all face in spite of life’s head winds and the internal struggles of their own character. Through it all we can get a vision, even if not in perfect focus, of greatness in the human realm.
Whether people have an innate moral goodness or not is still debatable, but there is overwhelming scientific evidence that supports the idea that “the environment” has a big impact on the moral development of people. The ancient Greeks and Romans didn’t have the research, but they knew this to be true by experience. So ancient students not only learned poetry, history, music, math and about the lives of great Greeks and Romans, but their masters (parents, teachers, or tutors) were responsible for modeling the moral ideal and enforcing the civic/moral behavior expected from a man or woman of a civilized society. And then as the students moved into society and began families and became active citizens, they were expected to uphold these civilized values and model them to the next generation and to their fellow citizens. At least that was the ideal. It’s a conceptual idea captured in the ancient Greek word paideia.
The classical ideal stayed with Western civilization for a long time and finally started breaking up in the early part of the 20th century. World wars and the need for advanced educations in science, math, and technology pushed aside (understandably) the studying of the lives of ancient Greeks and Romans. Of course classical education didn’t die all together but evolved over the past century from strictly a study of the ancients to the study of the Great Books.
In this competitive world, students naturally seek educations that advance their job prospects, not necessarily their personal enrichment, civic awareness, or moral world view—of course, without a good degree of the latter, the former is likely to shrink as wealth and power pools around the few at the top…hmmm, kind of like it is now. No ideal is perfect and certainly western civilization has not been all good in practice or implication, but it’s an ideal or set of beliefs (moral and political) that have made the West the most advanced, most prosperous, freest collection of societies the world has ever known. This is worth remembering as we witness the growing attacks, and disillusionment with, its foundations from those on the far left and far right politically.
For Whitehead and the ancients, greatness, in the moral sphere, was mostly a product of social osmosis. If we are exposed to a “habitual vision of greatness,” via our readings (education) and life examples, there’s a good chance that vision will take hold and become a part of us. Regardless of whether anyone cares to read ancient texts or biographies in general, it’s a model with strong merit and, in my view, the best way to shape and lead a truly great society.
Our nation could really use some visions of greatness in both the realms of political and business leadership right now. It’s sorely lacking. We need leaders, especially in government, willing to sacrifice—like, say, an FDR—their own personal or class interests for the sake of others and the greater good of our society. But we’re seeing so much of the opposite right now. On the private sector side corporate statesmanship seems mostly gone and the tide of big business executive “greed,” the Gordon Gekkos of business (who now also run our government), have seized the moment, like an oligarchic plague over democratic Athens.
We don’t have the help of classical education as a shaper of our society anymore, and, of course, even if we had there’s no guarantee things would be any different. But we can still hope there’s a return to the ideal that modeling greatness matters at all levels of leadership in our society. We can still hope some people actually have and believe in a noble and dignified vision of society and are determined to live by it. We can still hope—and demand via our civic duty to vote!—that we have government leaders who model nobility in actions and words. We need leaders, in both business and government, with a noble vision that’s inclusive and dignified and not just one that’s all about their personal wealth, influence, or tribal loyalties. There are so many reasons Americans need a vision of greatness in Washington D.C. right now. But instead of a Cicero or a Marcus Aurelius we have a Nero…that tweets while the nation yearns.
The change starts with each of us. We need true visions of greatness. Let’s expect and demand a selfless and dignified vision of greatness from our government and business leaders. Our future, and that of our children, is at stake.
Yesterday I had the distinct honor of being my youngest son’s guest for VIP Day at his elementary school. Okay…so Mom had to work and I filled in. Anyway, my son’s elementary school reminds me a lot of the one I attended. I have some fond memories of my elementary school years: the field days, the book fairs, the Halloween parties at school, the lunch room gatherings, the learning experiences (of course!), and the teachers who made a difference. I still remember Mrs. Gillett teaching my 1st grade class the alphabet. I still remember Mrs. Chalmers, a 3rd grade teacher, teaching us math, and Mrs. Wilson, a 4th grade teacher, teaching us science. There’s no doubt those early years had an influence on me and my classmates, as our minds were nudged in certain directions. How far and to what extent we can never know for sure. But the clay was soft and impressions made easily.
Of course elementary schools teach the basics in reading, writing, math, etc, etc. But what’s forgotten, or not noticed until you walk around an elementary school like I did yesterday, is that elementary schools also impart or encourage other forms of education that aim to develop character. There are no classes that aim specifically at character education, at least not that I’m aware of, but character education is instilled many other ways. For example, inside my son’s school lunch room, above the entrance, is the following banner:
The Dictionary Project is an educational charity that hands out free dictionaries to elementary school students. My son got his dictionary last February. Now you might be thinking there are little signs and banners all around the lunch room, but that’s not the case. This particular banner stood out. I don’t recall any others actually. While the teachers may not be asking the two questions on this banner, the environment, combined with repeated exposure, combined with curiosity, do their work. The students sit in this large room for lunch and various other gatherings and events all the time. The students read this banner every day and to some degree absorb its questions about truth and fairness in everything they Think, Say, or Do. (Of course the Dictionary Project also enforced bad grammar by forgetting the needed comas in the first line! But hey, that’s why we have teachers…to correct bad grammar!)
After getting home yesterday, I asked my son about the banner and he repeated the words on the banner verbatim. Whether he pursues the answers to those two questions is a different story, but at least the questions are imprinted in his little mind. And that’s a good start.
I’m currently re-reading a book called Readings by Michael Dirda. It was published in 2000, and I’m not sure but this is probably my 4th or maybe 5th time through it. It’s one of my all time favorites. It’s a superb book of “essays and literary entertainments.” There is an essay in the book called Maxims, Etc. In this piece Dirda tells us that his favorite type of book has been the journal, or collection of letters, books of maxims and observations—which, I’m happy to say, is a taste both Dirda and I share.
After an opening discussion in his essay, Dirda lists some of his favorite books of this type along with some of his favorite maxims from them under the subtitle Pith and Vinegar. I, too, have a large cash of maxims from my readings in my ever growing digital commonplace book. So, with that in mind, I’ve decided I’m borrowing Dirda’s subtitle for all maxims I post on this diary going forward.
I will begin with a short list of maxims from one of the great maxim-ists of western history, Francois de La Rochefoucauld.
The person who lives without folly is not as wise as he thinks.
Little minds are too easily wounded by little things; great minds see all such things without being wounded by them.
Most young people think they are being natural when they are merely uncivil and uncouth.
Average minds usually condemn whatever is beyond their grasp.
Fortune reveals our virtues and vices, just as light reveals objects.