John M. McCardell Jr., vice-chancellor of Sewanee: The University of the South, president emeritus of Middlebury College, and an eminent historian, delivered the following remarks at Williston Northampton School’s 176th Commencement on May 28, 2017.
“Happy Are Those Who Find Wisdom”
Good morning! It is a pleasure and honor to be with you today, a time of ends and beginnings and a moment to recognize, accept, and perhaps even to celebrate both the continuities and the ambiguities of lives, which always, if kept in proper balance, are poised like the classical figure of Janus (for whom the month of January is named), with one eye fixed on the past, certain, known, remembered, and the other eye trained on the future, uncertain, unknown, anticipated. You stand today athwart the course of what Isaac Watts’s beloved hymn refers to as “time’s ever rolling stream,” which will eventually “bear all our souls away.”
It is a particular pleasure to reconnect with your Head of School. I have known Bobby (excuse me, Bob) Hill for a very long time, and his family and mine were close friends over many years in Middlebury. I know him as a former student, as a fine tennis player, and as a man of sterling character. I do not need to tell you how fortunate you are to have him as your Head of School, nor do I need to state how proud his alma mater is of him and of the work he has done. I am truly delighted to be here.
I join you from Sewanee, more formally known as The University of the South. At Sewanee, we know what it means to live in a fallen world. Our University was founded in the 1850s during a time of great prosperity. Our founders envisioned what would be the first genuinely comprehensive university – half a generation before Johns Hopkins, Chicago, or Stanford – for which they had received as gifts 5,000 acres of land and half a million dollars, every cent in the bank, an endowment half the size of Harvard’s. But what these founders possessed in vision, they utterly lacked in timing. For within a month after the dedication of the cornerstone of the first academic building on the campus, Lincoln was elected; the Southern states seceded; war followed; and all, everything, was lost. In 1866 they returned, determined to start over, chastened by experience, still committed to a vision.
And so we know the truth of the saying, variously attributed that “if you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.”
In fact all of us in the field of higher education inhabit this same fallen world, a world in which the best we can hope for is an ever lesser degree of imperfection and a divine grace that loves us in spite of our folly and forgives us all our sins.
On this last point, some examples are in order. I recall, for example, a final exam in which an imaginative history student identified the publisher of the Progressive, muckraking McClure’s magazine, one S. S. McClure as the name of the battleship blown up in Havana harbor thereby beginning the Spanish-American War. Or a paper inveighing against the Federalists in the 1790s who supported the notorious Alien and “Sedation” Acts. Or the student reaching a high moral pitch in an essay on the nineteenth century social philosopher Henry George, who proposed, according to this account, a tax on the “unearned excrement” in property value.
My favorite, though, involves a student on a study abroad semester in France. The night before, the faculty leader of the group made clear the schedule for the next day. The bus will be pulling away at 8:15 sharp. Understand? Not 8:16. Not 8:17. But 8:15. Be on time! Next morning, at precisely 8:15, the bus doors close, and the vehicle pulls away. Two minutes later an out-of-breath student comes running up. In a state of panic, and not knowing where to turn, she musters her best French vocabulary and shouts aloud, “Je suis gauche derriere!”
Imaginative – but wrong!
The Book of Proverbs asserts, “happy are those who find wisdom,” and concludes, “those who hold her fast are called happy.” So let us think for a few minutes this afternoon about wisdom. And we might begin our meditation on this topic, on such a day as this, by pausing to give thanks to those who have been for the Class of 2017 sources of wisdom:
- to your families, who nurtured you and who lovingly, trustingly committed you to this school, who saw in you their own hope for immortality, who gave you life and opportunity and who now, surely on this day, wish for you the wisdom that springs from knowledge;
- to your teachers, who gave you knowledge and who modeled wisdom, teacehrs in the classroom, yes, but who were also called coaches, librarians, custodians, dining hall workers, groundskeepers;
- and perhaps most enduringly, to friends – friends with whom you shared all manner of experiences and from whom you received a substantial part of your education, friends with whom you learned to “do good well.”
There is a prayer in the Jewish liturgy for memory. A portion of it goes like this: “Memory can tell us only what we were, in company with those we loved; it cannot help us find what each of us, alone, must now become. Yet no one is really alone. Those who live no more still echo within our thoughts and words, and what they did is part of what we have become.”
“What they did is part of what we will become.” Memory matters, of course. Memory is known and, because of that, can be, and usually is, selective. Memory can be a source of comfort in times of trouble, a guide in times of uncertainty. We choose what to remember and thus also choose what to forget. For individuals, communities, entire cultures, memory is part of what sustains and shapes and defines and directs.
But memory can also, if you let it, become nostalgia and can turn you, if you are not careful, as an alum into an insufferable crank, lamenting always how great things were and how bad things now are. Thus memory is only half of what you take with you today. The other half, nostalgia’s antidote if you will, is hope.
Memory and hope; hope and memory. To put it another way, this weekend is a waystation on a never-ending journey to wisdom, a journey that is also, as Proverbs reminds us, the way to “pleasantness” and “peace.”
And so what might I presume to offer you that will not quickly, probably by sunset, evanesce? Well, only this – that you take with you today something more than memories and something on which you can base your own hope. Something like …
… first, humility. I still remember William Cowper’s words inscribed over the stage in my own high school auditorium: “Knowledge is proud that he has learned so much. Wisdom is humble that he knows no more.” We could all use a bit more humility, a bit more willingness, as Benjamin Franklin once put it, to “doubt a little, each of us, in our own infallibility,” and a bit more acknowledgment that, in this fallen world we inhabit, truth can never be fully revealed, never wholly discerned, but, in fragmentary moments at least, it may be sensed, hinted at, approached, approximated.
And perhaps here a timely corollary: freedom of speech is meaningless without also he freedom, the precious freedom, to listen, or as Jesse B. Semple puts it in one of Langson Hughes’s great stories, to “listen fluently.”
… or perhaps self-restraint. Sewanee students know that one of my favorite quotations comes from a speech made late in his life by the distinguished statesman and orator Daniel Webster. “Liberty can exist,” he stated, “only in proportion to wholesome restraint.” Or, as Virginia Woolf has put it, “to enjoy freedom we have to control ourselves.” It is so very easy to say – or tweet – the first thing that comes into our minds or to surrender ourselves to the illusion of our own immortality by failing to consider the consequences of the choices we make before we make them. Or to blame someone else when things go wrong. Or to succumb to the seduction offered by whatever institution or candidate for public office offers the most free stuff. Society is in great danger of losing that balance between freedom and restraint. Liberty without restraint is chaos, anarchy. Restraint without liberty is tyranny. Self-restraint makes freedom possible and is the best antidote to the coarseness and vulgarity that continue to erode our common life. Keep your distance and your soul from the madding crowd and current fashion. Choose your own course, and choose it wisely.
… because, third and finally, with humility and self-restraint will come selflessness, a consideration of views other than your own, a recognition that true happiness can never be pursued or realized as an end in itself but is rather a byproduct of experience, even struggles and setbacks, and by the surrender of self to something greater and nobler. “Some day,” says Aeneas at a moment of utter despair in The Aeneid, some day “even this will be remembered with pleasure.”
With these things – with humility, self-restraint, selflessness – will come, in time wisdom, a recognition of life’s uncertainty and a willingness and ability to deal with reality, whenever and however it presents itself. “Ah, but life is like that,” cries Agatha Christie’s famous detective Hercule Poirot, at a moment of discovery. “It does not permit you to arrange and order it as you will.” Let what you have learned from family, teachers, friends, prepare you for uncertainty, and let the character that has been shaped in this place be the rudder of your life.
As the great historian Henry Adams wrote, toward the end of his monumental autobiography, “Every man [and woman] with self-respect enough to become effective has had to account to himself, for himself, somehow.” This accounting – to yourself, for yourself, somehow – requires something more than mere knowledge. Your brightness, and your resume, may carry you far, but they will not enable you to give the final accounting. That will require you to summon all that you have learned at this school. Call the tally of those virtues character, perhaps, or duty, or moral compass. Call it if you will faith. Above all call it selfless and call it timeless. Glimpse it always in the distance, ever on the horizon. Follow its gleam. Make it yours. Make it you.
My hope for you this Commencement Day, then, is a hope I confidently believe is shared by all those gathered here today. It is that you will take with you, and continue to nurture within you, the completing of your incompleteness, a pride tempered with humility, so that you may find wisdom, hold her fast, know true happiness, continue to discern the better angels of your own nature, and remember that you caught your first glimpses of those angels here, so that all your works, in the words of St. Paul, will show “thought for what is noble in the sight of all.”
Do good well.
Congratulations and Godspeed, Class of 2017.