Knowledge of Past Ensures Future

“Faculty members, Honored Guests, Ladies and Gentleman, Class of 2001: It is customary for those addressing such gatherings as this to speak of the future and how it will soon belong to you, and, owing to your intelligence and creativity, what joys and amazements await us all.”

“But I'm not here to speak about the wonders of your future, but to remind you of the glories of your past. For it is our great inheritance, the legacy of Western civilization, that we really honor today.”

“So much is taken for granted these days, and it's easy to overlook what a privileged place in history we now occupy. But we should not fail to look back in thanksgiving and gratitude for what our ancestors bequeathed us, a patrimony of liberty and of law, of morality and dignity, of courage and temperance, and we should attempt to preserve what is best in this inheritance for those who will one day follow.

“We cannot, however, understand the meaning of our treasure unless we are able to comprehend the thought and language of our forefathers. Only then may we understand, and perhaps someday contribute to, what British philosopher Michael Oakeshott calls 'the conversation of our ancestors.'

“This is the proper role of education. So armed, civilization’s great works become intelligible to us, making us incalculably richer: we enter the worlds of Shakespeare, Homer, and Dante, great lands of incredible imagination and creative genius; of Mozart, whose talent must have made angels jealous, penetrating our souls with glimpses of heaven’s chorus; the Bible, source of the religious impulse that led Western man to incomparable achievement; the scientific advancements led by such men as St. Albert the Great, Newton, Galileo, and Einstein, making modern life possible.

“The great institutions of learning where some of you are heading, the churches and synagogues in which we worship, the art that dazzles and delights our eyes, the books we read, our precious freedoms, are all products of the Western experience. The debt we owe our ancestors, someone once said, can only be paid to our descendants. We repay that debt by keeping alive the sacred memories of our past, revering its heroes and legends, passing down its myths and symbols, maintaining and cherishing the integrity of its institutions.

“C. S. Lewis recommends that we read an old book for every two or three new ones. It’s not that our ancestors didn’t make mistakes, he explains, but they didn’t make the same mistakes we do. In other words, we can only intelligently examine today by understanding yesterday. It’s easy to recognize our forefathers' errors; it’s much harder to see our own.

“Many of you graduates will be going on to college. For those who are, I have a special message. On campuses today, there is a madness rampant called “political correctness,” a malignant strain of the totalitarian impulse. Avoid it like a witch’s curse. It is the brutal imposition of a thought code, vigorously enforced. What is worse, the Grand Inquisitor of this orthodoxy is the education establishment itself, those who cry loudest about academic freedom. Political correctness is more than just the educational abuse of students: it’s an insult to liberty-loving people everywhere.

“Finally, institutions of learning are more than gateways to jobs and money. You are more than a mere economic unit, demeaned when measured only by your ability to contribute to the GNP. Educators now are fond of talking about employment and career options, judging students by the present value of their future earnings, the way we evaluate farm animals. Our forebears knew better. For they recognized that education is about something much higher and nobler, the most powerful moral force on earth: It is free men and women in search of the truth.

“Thank you.”

A sharp, solitary handclap split the silence, and then applause gushed forth, like pent-up water after a dam burst. Someone yelled “Bravo.” The clamor grew louder, as if a fighter jet were approaching, and cheers echoed through the empty university halls, stirring the ghosts of ancient scholars. The exuberant crowd rose to its feet in sections, like a giant slowly unlimbering after a long nap. The campus shook with thunder . . .

A sharp poke pierced my ribs. “Wake up,” my wife said, “you're starting to snore.”

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage