What Commencement Addresses Reveal

The beginning of May is always an essential moment for our American culture, since we get a rather unique and picturesque glimpse into the status of our polity and its current health, or lack thereof. Moreover, this particular occasion in the month of May allows us, on a deeper level, to analyze and assess that which we look at all to infrequently, namely, our own souls. I am, of course, speaking of that event we call the “commencement address.”

Our universities select an individual, one who is given the opportunity to provide parting words of wisdom to 21 year-old students-turned-adults, with the hope that the students will actually listen to what this person has to say and possibly inspire them to do something meaningful with their lives. An honorary degree conferred upon the addressee is an explicit affirmation that this person has upheld the universities mission and core values, and so the university hopes that such a figure will capture the attention of students for their final send off, being sent out into the world to transform it.

This notion of “transforming the world,” particularly since the turn in modern philosophy and political theory, always carries with it undertones of ideology. I remember how often this topic came up with students that I taught at an inner city charter school in Cleveland. Raised in broken homes, usually abandoned by their fathers, and torn apart by material and moral poverty, these young men and women were told that the key to breaking free of these “cycles” was education, a familiar echoing of the solution given by Plato. At a certain level, this was certainly the case, for many of the families from which these students came had little to no education at all. However, what always concerned me was the school’s educational motto: “all kids will go to college.”

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When my colleagues or administrators questioned my reluctance to completely endorse this slogan, I reminded them of Allan Bloom’s remark that the unhappiest students were those that attend the top 20 or 30 universities, our so-called elite institutions. This grim condition, and its implications, always came to life when I asked students the following question: when it comes down to it, would you rather have a degree from an Ivy League school or be happy? Hesitation and stumbling eventually produced an uncertain answer: “You know, I am not really sure.”

This perplexity about whether one would rather have a college degree from an elite institution or be happy brings us back to Aristotle’s Ethics, where he reminds us of that eternal truth that everything we do is for the sake of achieving and arriving at our happiness. Even those that pursue those things furthest from genuine happiness, such as going to a top-tier school, still do so under the notion that, at some point, this behavior or action will result in what we ultimately seek. Aquinas, following Aristotle, observes that we desire happiness “naturally and by necessity.” Human beings do not have a say in whether or not they want to be happy; rather, it is at the very essence of everything that we do and hope to become. We are incapable of not desiring happiness because, thankfully, this is the very imprint upon our nature, something that came from without, but which will ultimately be possessed by us.

The conditions for our happiness, what it is that satiates all our desires and completes us in our being, are primarily rooted in a life of virtue, both moral and intellectual, natural and supernatural. Yet, this conception of happiness, its essential conditions that are given by our very nature, is not something to which university students are accustomed to hearing. Happiness is replaced with “rights,” liberty, and individuality, whereby there is no standard other than what the will so creates. This is our democratic ethos, upholding tolerance and a moral and philosophical relativism as penultimate, the surest guarantor of an open society progressing towards a better and more humane world.

This understanding of democracy, as founded upon and rooted in a philosophical relativism, contains within it a worldview that sees man himself as the arbiter of all that is, and rejects any principle which comes outside the determinations of the human will. Aristotle says in the Ethics that if man is the highest being, then politics will be the highest science. If there is nothing beyond the finite, material realm, then man is simply left to himself, and the unbounded limitlessness of his own will, which usually comes about through political and/or technological mechanisms.

This point caught my attention when reading the address President Obama delivered in Columbus May 5th. At one point in the speech, he reminded them of Kennedy’s remarks to the class of ’63, namely, “that our problems are man-made—therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants.” Maritain adequately described such a view as anthropocentric humanism, an inhuman humanism that severs man from his transcendent origins and destiny, thereby resulting in the cult of “sheer man.” The president’s remarks also should cause us to recall what Pope John Paul II said in Centissimus Annus, that there can be no genuine solution in the social order apart from the Gospel.

Most of what our university graduates are hearing in the classroom, as well as on graduation day, resembles much of what President Obama proclaimed at Ohio State University. Bloom’s remark concerning the unhappiness of students at elite universities stems from a moral and philosophical relativism that denies that any truth exists. That truth is denied in our universities is intimately tied with the philosophical and moral relativism that permeates, as its foundational principle, our modern democracy. Yves Simon, in his classic work, Philosophy of Democratic Government, explained that,

preserving principles is more difficult in democracy than in any other regime as a result of liberalism, which implies that the principles of society and what its end is are not above deliberation and must be thrown into the universal competition of opinions. This is the jeopardizing of the principles  without which social life no longer has an end or form (124).

The end or goal of our human nature is not ultimately determined by us, but is rather something that we must accept in accord with what we are. However, our democratic philosophy has sought, as Simon describes, to throw all of what is given by nature into the air of universal opinion, and thus reduce what we are and were meant for to our own self-determining wills.

Pope John Paul II warned us of a culture that fosters the rejection of truth as its political foundation, and he provides greater validity to Bloom’s remarks on the status of our universities and what is being impressed upon the souls of young graduates. The Popes says that,

Nowadays there is a tendency to claim that agnosticism and skeptical relativism are the philosophy and the basic attitude which correspond to democratic forms of political life. Those who are convinced that they know the truth and firmly adhere to it are considered unreliable from a democratic point of view, since they do not accept that truth is determined by the majority, or that it is subject to variation according to different political trends. It must be observed in this regard that if there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power. As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism (CA, #46).

So as we listen and watch the plethora of commencement addresses that will be delivered in the next few weeks, it would be wise to consider what it is the speakers stand for, and what it reveals about our educational institutions and, more importantly, about the condition of our own souls.  Fr. Schall puts the matter succinctly:

The question of “who is honored at commencements?” is no neutral consideration. It does reveal, in a rather obvious way, just what a school thinks it is about and just what the one honored stands for in the light of the attention focused on him by the honor. One might phrase the issue this way: “Tell me what you honor and I will tell you what you are.” What we see worked out at university graduations, more than we might at first suspect, is a particular answer to this question.


  • Brian Jones

    Brian Jones is pursuing a graduate degree in philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. His writing has appeared in the New Blackfriars Journal, The Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly, Catholic World Report and Homiletic and Pastoral Review. He and his wife Michelle have three daughters.

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