Knowing We’ll Never Walk Alone

It’s June and for many in the senior classes at school there has been a graduation ceremony, and friends and relatives and out-of-town family who make a trip to see a son or daughter, niece, grandchild, brother or sister receive a diploma that signals that it’s time to move on; take the next step in life; commence.

Recently I recalled the nature of the speeches that day at my high school graduation in the 1960s, and compared them in my memory to one at a niece’s school in Arizona in the 1980s where a real life “captain of industry” and father of one of the graduates had spoken about preparation and achievement.

My high school memory recalls an oft heard phrase at these kinds of ceremonies and if you’re older you may remember it too. “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” It was the opening statement around which the speech was organized. At my high school the smart kids delivered the remarks but I have to admit I don’t recall the quotation being attributed to the original source. 

Let’s flash forward 40 years. In recent telephone conversations and e-mails with acquaintances and those I have encountered in business, I’ve tested their awareness of the source of the quotation above and had various responses all the way from “I don’t know” to “the Bible?” to “Jesus?” I’ll have more to say about that.

So what are they using for graduation speech themes these days? “Hope” seems to attract the attention of many young people, but begs the clarifier, “hope for what?” I remember President Bush’s mother’s advice in 1990 to a class at Wellesley that had, in a show of political pique, invited and uninvited her to speak at their graduation. Mrs. Bush — minimizing their slight — included in her remarks advice that what happened in the White House paled in importance to what would happen in their houses. And then she added, “At the end of your life, you will never regret not having passed one more test, winning one more verdict, or not closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a child, a friend, or a parent.”

So what is this “truth” of which the quotation “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free” speaks? And what do the kids stepping from the graduation day platform really know that qualifies them to be commencing? Oh, I almost forgot. The quiz answer is Jesus, and the text is found in John 8:32.

Intercollegiate Studies Institute hosted a seminar on “Islam and the West” in San Diego, California on June 7 and I was invited. If you don’t know this organization you should ( Their mission is “to convey to successive generations of college youth a better understanding of the values and institutions that sustain a free and virtuous society,” and they’ve been doing “God’s work” since 1953 when William F. Buckley was their first president. 

The day long program consisted of informative aspects of the history and current climate within the Muslim religion and its affects on Europe where immigrant population of the faith’s adherents is growing at a pace that exceeds the native’s. Included was a sobering warning that despite one’s tendency to think that there are “moderate” Islamists, nothing in the religion — as written by its founder Mohammed — should lead a non believer to think of the faith as other than one of conquest and domination. Yes, there’s no love your neighbor as yourself here. We were advised to believe what the Koran says, not what a public relations man or politician says it says.

During lunch there was a series of announcements and the introduction of a young man who was recognized for his achievements at University of California San Diego in promoting ISI’s goals among the student chapter he’d helped to start. It was encouraging to listen to his story, delivered with good humor; and I got the sense that he would have been able to answer my quiz about seeking truth.

The subject at the podium turned serious again as our hosts passed out a brochure that contained updated results of a “Civic Literacy Test” that ISI first reported in 2006. The subtitle of the report is “Holding Colleges Accountable for Teaching America’s History and Institutions.” You can check out the test and take the multiple choice quiz it reports yourself. 

If you are knowledgeable of the term “core curriculum” and its significance at places of higher learning, you’re likely familiar with the issues that these kinds of reports and surveys address. Bluntly put, they reveal an astonishing lack of knowledge among high school graduates/college freshmen and college seniors when it comes to the origin, history and current events that pertain to the founding principles of our nation and the structure of our government. College doesn’t necessarily include a civics education these days and certainly doesn’t require one at most universities in the U.S.. 

In their published report, ISI includes a statement by an undergrad in reaction to news that students at his school, Johns Hopkins University, had scored failing marks on the Civics Literacy exam. “You come to college so that you can get a high-paying job,” he began. “These [civics knowledge] are not the things you need to use in the real world.” This reaction is reflective of what a college education means for many. College isn’t where you learn to think, it’s where as C.S. Lewis lamented you are “stamped” for a profession. 

The night before the ISI event I finished reading a recently published book by Mark Bauerlein, Professor of English at Emory University, titled The Dumbest Generation, the premise of which is that young people today are so involved with FaceBook, MyTube, texting, e-mail and web surfing that they’ve neglected traditional reading and have short-changed themselves when it comes to vocabulary and learning what their textbooks and literary classics have to teach us about our culture. It’s an incendiary premise that cites studies and tests that validate the author’s conclusions and leave the reader in a dismal mood regarding those kids who are supposed to be carrying the banner for our country and Western Civilization into the future. Indeed, “Western Civilization” may be a phrase missing from their vocabularies. 

Why did the Founding Fathers put such value in education? Why do the taxpayers — state and federal — subsidize schools and universities as much as they do? Are we getting our money’s worth? In 1779 Thomas Jefferson wasn’t alone in the sentiment that produced this statement: “The most effectual means of preventing [the perversion of power into tyranny are] to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large, and more especially to give them knowledge of those facts which history exhibits, that possessed thereby of the experience of other ages and countries, they may be enabled to know ambition under all its shapes, and prompted to exert their natural powers to defeat its purposes.” 

Jefferson’s statement might have been part of the speech at the high school graduation, the memory of which began this reflection. It’s inarguable that without some knowledge of history and the foundations of our republic, our citizens cannot exercise the sound judgment needed to evaluate issues and make informed decisions at election time. On the civics exam less than 5 out of 10 knew what “federalism” was. No wonder youngsters and their parents look for a big government to do for them what their forefathers fought for the right to do for themselves.

Although the words were those of Jesus, the sentence “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free” is oftentimes interpreted and used in a secular way with “free” referring to Freedom or Liberty, and “truth” to Honesty. That may be the reason that not everyone can attribute it correctly; and certainly is a far cry from the context in which Jesus makes the statement.

In John’s Gospel the sentence that precedes “You shall know the truth …,” is “If you abide in my word, you shall be my disciples.” Freedom, our freedom from sin — not ignorance — is conditional on our belief in Christ. It is through the Father that we pursue the virtuous life and the Truth. Yet our Freedom in this country is no less conditional and cannot be maintained in a world in which evil exists without the acknowledgment that we are individuals — somebodies — and not things. It was in this context that our Founding Fathers used the phrase “inalienable rights” endowed “by the creator.” This was not a new idea but one present in the creation story and known. 

This past week I read a review of a new anthology by another English Professor, Alan Jacobs at Wheaton College in Illinois. Original Sin: A Cultural History examines the manner in which the “Fall” has been explained, clarified or equivocated through the ages with excerpts from Shakespeare, Milton, and modern philosophers including Kant. The Wall Street Journal reviewer George Johnson was disappointed with Professor Jacobs having spent less time with the Genesis story than some others and so reminded us “of the chapter’s provocative ideas… even if you’re not particularly religious…” 

“In just seven verses the devil speaks twice, and all is ruined… Whatever your belief about the devil, his offer to Adam and Eve is something to think about: If you eat the fruit, you can be gods, knowing good and evil. In other words, you can create your own reality.” But a few sentences later Johnson clarifies that “Genuine freedom is anchored in objective truths that we ourselves do not invent.” In other words, there’s no heaven on earth. And that’s a proper thing to remember as graduates step and are observed making their commencement. 

In Genesis after the Fall, God asks Adam and Eve, “Where are you?” which Mr. Johnson suggests is the same as “Why aren’t you where you should be?” That’s a reasonable question to ask a young person spending too much time on the web and texting friends instead of reading, or anyone looking for heaven on earth or listening to someone who is promising it. 

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