Why This Commencement Address Matters…

Why This Commencement Address Matters… June 10, 2014

“The endless cycle of idea and action,

Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to GOD.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Bring us farther from GOD and nearer to the Dust.”

– T.S. Eliot, The Rock (1934)

“We need a rally of the really human things; will which is morals, memory which is tradition, culture which is the mental thrift of our fathers.”

– G.K. Chesterton 

“We are becoming ignorant of ignorance.”

– Leon Wieseltier

Ah yes. It’s June. And ’tis the season for graduation commencement addresses. Having listened to two in my schooling career (high school and medical school) and giving a college commencement address of my own, I am sad to say I remember little of any of them. Clearly most graduation speeches are of trivial lasting importance in the lives of their audience. And why is that? Because the quality of the speeches range from bland and forgettable, to arrogant and chastising, to simply pointless and irrelevant. Furthermore, it often seems that the fame of the commencement speaker is inversely proportional to the relevant wisdom that such a speaker will impart. Thus, commencement speeches simply make a long ceremony…uh…longer.

This was not so for Leon Wieseltier’s 2013 commencement address at Brandeis University. Mr. Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, writer, philosopher and son of Holocaust survivors grappled with the modern world’s shrinking appreciation of the eternal which has been replaced by a progressively thoughtless obsession with the ephemeral. The dehumanizing consequences of  jettisoning that which endures in favor of that which perishes is the subject of his message. It is a brief treatise on the crisis of the “educated individual”. And I can’t think of a more appropriate, relevant and pressing message for new graduates to hear on the threshold of their careers and vocations. His address was titled, “Perhaps Culture is Now the Counterculture: A Defense of the Humanities”The following are selected excerpts from Mr. Wieseltier’s speech followed by some of my reflections.

“For decades now in America we have been witnessing a steady and sickening denigration of humanistic understanding and humanistic method. We live in a society inebriated by technology, and happily, even giddily governed by the values of utility, speed, efficiency, and convenience. The technological mentality that has become the American worldview instructs us to prefer practical questions to questions of meaning—to ask of things not if they are true or false, or good or evil, but how they work. Our reason has become an instrumental reason, and is no longer the reason of the philosophers, with its ancient magnitude of intellectual ambition, its belief that the proper subjects of human thought are the largest subjects, and that the mind, in one way or another, can penetrate to the very principles of natural life and human life. Philosophy itself has shrunk under the influence of our weakness for instrumentality…”

We have increasingly exalted mecahnism, process and efficiency and debased value, purpose and reason. We have lionized means and belittled ends. We care more for “how” and less for “why”.

“The machines to which we have become enslaved, all of them quite astonishing, represent the greatest assault on human attention ever devised: they are engines of mental and spiritual dispersal, which make us wider only by making us less deep.”

“A great Jewish thinker of the early Middle Ages wondered why God, if He wanted us to know the truth about everything, did not simply tell us the truth about everything. His wise answer was that if we were merely told what we need to know, we would not, strictly speaking, know it. Knowledge can be acquired only over time and only by method. And the devices that we carry like addicts in our hands are disfiguring our mental lives also in other ways: for example, they generate a hitherto unimaginable number of numbers, numbers about everything under the sun, and so they are transforming us into a culture of data, into a cult of data, in which no human activity and no human expression is immune to quantification, in which happiness is a fit subject for economists, in which the ordeals of the human heart are inappropriately translated into mathematical expressions, leaving us with new illusions of clarity and new illusions of control. “

We find ourselves in a sea of information – so easily accessed, so little earned, so minimally considered – which we can quote instantaneously with unfailing assurance. We puff up with numbers and statistics. We don’t think. We recite. And we never question who we are reciting and why we trust them. There’s no time to ask these questions. Or interest. We’ve become so obsessed with our access to information that we eschew experience simply because we feel we don’t need it. Someone else can experience it for us. We don’t need to live. Someone else can live for us. Wisdom is too difficult. Knowledge is over-rated. We have information. And that is enough for us.

“Our glittering age of technologism is also a glittering age of scientism. Scientism is not the same thing as science. Science is a blessing, but scientism is a curse. Science, I mean what practicing scientists actually do, is acutely and admirably aware of its limits, and humbly admits to the provisional character of its conclusions; but scientism is dogmatic, and peddles  certainties. It is always at the ready with the solution to every problem, because it believes that the solution to every problem is a scientific one, and so it gives scientific answers to non-scientific questions. But even the question of the place of science in human existence is not a scientific question. It is a philosophical, which is to say, a humanistic, question.”

When seeking to answer philosophical and theological questions – questions deeply rooted in the “why” of human existence – we often find the scientific method ill-fit for the task. Questions of love, hope and faith, the nature and purpose of suffering, the value of honesty and the pain of betrayal are rigidly (yet incompletely and almost humorously) explained away by evolutionary science, neurotransmitters, and patterns on PET scans. Science as tool is indispensable. Science as an all-explanatory ideology is a faith-based institution like the very religion it derides. And so, Mr. Wieseltier would rally his audience in conclusion,

“So there is no task more urgent in American intellectual life at this hour than to offer some resistance to the twin imperialisms of science and technology, and to recover the old distinction—once bitterly contested, then generally accepted, now almost completely forgotten—between the study of nature and the study of man. As Bernard Williams once remarked, “’humanity’ is a name not merely for a species but also for a quality.”  You who have elected to devote yourselves to the study of literature and languages and art and music and philosophy and religion and history—you are the stewards of that quality. You are the resistance. You have had the effrontery to choose interpretation over calculation, and to recognize that calculation cannot provide an accurate picture, or a profound picture, or a whole picture, of self-interpreting beings such as ourselves; and I commend you for it.”

“You are the counterculture. Perhaps culture is now the counterculture. So keep your heads. Do not waver. Be very proud. Use the new technologies for the old purposes. Do not be rattled by numbers, which will never be the springs of wisdom. In upholding the humanities, you uphold the honor of a civilization that was founded upon the quest for the true and the good and the beautiful. For as long as we are thinking and feeling creatures, creatures who love and imagine and suffer and die, the humanities will never be dispensable. From this day forward, then, act as if you are indispensable to your society, because—whether it knows it or not—you are.”

Until or unless we grapple with the very things which make us human, until we choose to experience the suffering or joy that life sets before us, wrestle with uncertainty, cope with imperfection and consistently strive to apprehend the true, good and beautiful, we risk living lives, in Georges Bernanos’ words, as deformed, incomplete “stumps of men”. And we know we are called to something greater.

This message is difficult. It is challenging. It is nothing less than an effort to halt our steady smug ride from meaning to meaninglessness. And it is just the message that graduates need to hear. That is why this commencement address matters. Thank you, Mr. Wieseltier.

I needed to hear it too.

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