Commencement Address 2023

The first commencement address to graduates of Mount Liberty College was delivered 27 April 2023, by Dr. James W. Harrison, Emeritus Professor of German and the Humanities at Southern Utah University.

            Students, Faculty, Parents, Families and Friends. As I look at you students today I am reminded of a line from one of William Wordsworth’s poems in which he describes what it must have been like to be young in France during the beginning of the French revolution: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven.” I hope this day brings you that kind of exhilaration. You deserve it!

            I have attended many commencements in my life. Having taught at colleges and universities for over 40 years, I have had the opportunity every spring to witness students whom I have taught finish their formal education and move on. It is always a bitter-sweet experience; one that I have always enjoyed and lamented at the same time. My first commencement was when I was five years old. I matriculated from the Jack and Jill Nursery School in St. Louis, Mo. with a major in being a kid and specialties in naps and sand box. Our family attended my father’s commencement the same year. He graduated from George Washington University in St. Louis with a DDS degree. My father and I were both very proud of each other.

            Over the years there have been several famous commencement addresses. One thinks, for example, of Steve Jobs at Stanford University in 2005,  Alexander Solzhenitsyn at Harvard University in 1975, or Maya Angelou at the University of California, Riverside. One of my favorites took place in 1880 in Breslau, a city which was at that time part of Germany and is now the city of Wroclaw in Poland. It has always been known as a university city (its university currently enrolls over 130,000 students), and therefore has always been heavily influenced by university students, their energy and comradery. This commencement address was not an address but a piece of music.  In 1880 the university decided to award the great German composer, Johannes Brahms, an honorary doctorate. Initially, Brahms intended to send a handwritten note of acknowledgement since he was not fond of public fanfare. The conductor, Bernhard Scholtz, who had nominated Brahms for the honor, however convinced him that he had to do more, and that a composition would be the correct response. “Compose a fine symphony for us! But well-orchestrated, old boy, not too uniformly thick!” Everyone was expecting a solemn hymn to Academia. What Brahms gave them was, as he himself described it, “a potpourri of student drinking songs,” which, of course, thrilled the students and worried the faculty. Instead of a lengthy, solemn and staid composition that was not “too uniformly thick”, i.e. didn’t require too many instruments, the university got an eleven minute piece requiring a very large orchestra which is now known as the Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture. It was an immediate success and has remained a staple of the classical repertoire ever since. The piece does indeed incorporate four student drinking songs, the last of which is the Gaudeamus Igitur, the anthem of medieval European university students. The text is as follows:

Gaudeams igitur                                 Let us therefore be joyful

Juvenes dum sumus.                           While we are young.

Post jucundum juventutem,                After a pleasant youth,

Post molestam senectutem,                After a burdensome old age,

Nos habebit humus.                            The earth will have us.

            If you aren’t familiar with this composition, I urge you to call it up on Youtube and give it a listen. This is my commencement present to you. I think you will find it as invigorating as many before you have, especially when you hear the Gaudeamus at the end. That is my wish for you today: Gaudeamus—let us be joyful!

            I feel especially privileged to be with you at this, the first commencement of Mount Liberty College. Those who conceived the idea of this school are to be congratulated. Their hard work, vision and hopes have paid off. Many today say we should improve our educational program in this country. The faculty and staff of this school are among the few who have acted upon that imperative. That kind of courage is lacking in too many of today’s educational institutions. Mount Liberty College is living proof that our society still has within it the idealism, will and courage to foster education.

            During my tenure at Southern Utah University I taught a humanities class almost every term. I tried to calculate how many times I taught it, and it came out to a little over 80. I began every class with the same question: “What do you expect from your stay at this school?” Eventually someone would answer, “an education.” When I asked the class to define education, a few brave souls would try, but it became obvious after a few comments that defining education is a very difficult thing to do. The same may be said of all abstract nouns. The harder you try to define education, or justice, or truth, or love, the faster you get caught in a net of words which seems to obscure rather than illuminate the subject at hand. This is particularly unfortunate because these concepts build the foundation of our character both as individuals and as societies. Starting with the scientific revolution of the 17th century, the West developed an empirical method which relied on measurement for defining the world about us as it appears to our senses. This method worked phenomenally well for the physical sciences, and since it was so successful with them, some thought the same method might also help us understand the nature of abstract nouns, like education. But it doesn’t. When we move away from the empirical world into the world of ideas, all attempts to deal with subjects like goodness, truth and beauty with this method of inquiry fail, because these things can’t be measured. There is no metric one can use to investigate truth or justice or education. And yet we must be able to talk about them, because they constitute the foundation of our culture. What to do?

            The great thinkers of the past overcame the problem by choosing to show how transendentals worked rather than by trying to establish their taxonomy. One of his most successful ventures in this regard is the Allegory of the Cave found in Book Seven of Plato’s most famous work, The Republic. There he posits a society which lives in a cave. No one in this society has ever seen the outside world. When born into this society, one has his arms, legs, and neck chained into a rock seat. The person so restrained cannot see his neighbors, but he can talk with them. In front of the seats is a large screen and behind the seats is a raised platform on which a fire is kept lit twelve hours a day. Between the light and the people there are workers walking back and forth holding placards cut in the shape of various objects: trees, mountains, boats, other people, etc. This is the only world the people in the cave know.

            What would happen, asks Socrates, who is the narrator in this allegory, if someone had their chains removed and they were free to leave the cave. The journey to the outside would be difficult and, at times, discouraging. The person would feel despair, fatigue and loneliness, but with perseverance he would reach the outside. His guide would arrange to have him arrive at the entrance while it was still dark to spare his eyes from the bright light of the sun. The dark of night would give way to a dark grey which would become brighter until the sun rose. The person would then see – for the first time – color. He would see three dimensionality—a real deer, a real tree, a real mountain. We can only imagine the wonder that would result from such an experience.

            Socrates now asks what would happen if this person were to enter the cave again. He wouldn’t be able to see very well, because his eyes had gotten used to the light of the real world, and when asked about the shadows on the wall, he wouldn’t be able to answer. He would be blind as far as the others in the cave were concerned. Even though he knew more than his companions, it would appear that he knew less. But having experienced the outside world, he wouldn’t be too concerned with the opinions of others. Socrates says that when the men inside the cave began to give themselves honors for being able to measure and describe the shadows in the cave, the person who had been outside would gladly be the servant of a man without property, i.e. the servant of a servant, and go through any suffering rather than share their opinions and way of life.

              I have taken some liberties with this story, but the important part of the story, the existence of two worlds, one a world of shadows and the other the real world is still intact. With Plato’s example, we come to a definition of Education made possible by allegory. Education is the process of leaving the cave. Leaving what you have known all your life – the comforts of home, your friends, the warmth and security of the everyday – all of this requires a kind of courage that is not given to everyone. It is clear that Plato believes that our task as human beings is not to acclimate ourselves to the cave and find comfort there; it is to leave it.       

             There is another aspect of this allegory that is sometimes missed because it is so obvious. It is the visceral charge that occurs when our traveler leaves the cave. What would it be like to move from a world of shadows to the real world of light? All of us are struck when the traveler passes from darkness to light. If we seek to define this feeling, we are again at a loss for words. Here we turn to the great poets for help. In this instance Wordsworth is instructive. Not only did he feel that visceral charge, what Abraham Joshua Heschel calls “radical amazement,” but he also felt the emptiness that was left when it was no longer there. At the beginning of his “Ode,” he says the following:

There was a time when meadow, grove and stream
The earth and every common sight
To me did seem
Appareled in celestial light.
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;
Turn wheresoe’re I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen, I now can see no more.

The rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the rose.
The moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavn’s are bare.
Waters on a starry night are beauteous and fair,
The sunshine is a glorious birth,
But yet I know where’er I go,
That there hath passed away a glory from the earth.

            As wonderful as life is outside the cave, that wonder is always muted by the knowledge that no one spends all of their life there. The world contrives to leave us in the cave more often than we would like. As Wordsworth says, no matter where we turn we are confronted with the melancholy realization that “the things which I have seen, I now can see no more.” “There hath passed a glory from the earth.”

            After these first two strophes, the poet apologizes for being morose, and does his best to summon “the glory and the freshness of a dream.” He finishes these strophes by writing,

. . . .
In a thousand valleys far and wide,
Fresh flowers; while the sun shines warm
And the babe leaps up on his mother’s arm:–
I hear, I hear, with joy I hear!

But then gives way again to nostalgia and melancholy:

–but there’s a tree, of many, one,
A single field which I have looked upon,
Both of them speak of something that is gone;
The pansy at my feet
Doth the same tale repeat:
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?

Then comes the most famous strophe of the poem:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close,
Around the growing boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s priest,
And by the vison splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.

            When we are young heaven, our home before this life, lies about us, but as we mature we perceive the “vision splendid . . . fade away into the light of common day.”

            Is there anything we can do to prevent this? Is there a way of maintaining Heschel’s “radical amazement” of childhood and not surrendering to the indifference that the responsibilities of adulthood too often bring? The rest of the poem is Wordsworth’s answer to this question, which is “yes.” At the conclusion of the poem Wordsworth realizes that the joy of youth that he felt long ago has actually increased rather than weakened: “I love the Brooks which down their channels fret, Even more than when I tripped lightly as they.” Why? What has enabled him to do this?

            There are as many answers to that question as there are readers of the poem. One possibility draws on a line from Shakespeare’s King Lear. In Act IV, scene vi Lear addresses his friend, Gloucester who has just been blinded by Lear’s enemies. “You see how this world goes?” Lear asks. Gloucester who can’t see anything replies, “I see it feelingly.” This, of course, is another metaphor, a particularly powerful one, because it combines one of our five senses, sight, with one of our emotional attributes, feeling. If we are to preserve the joys of childhood, we must learn to “see feelingly.” Saint-Exupery writes, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” If we satisfy ourselves with the outward appearance of things and don’t get to know them on a deeper level, if we don’t learn to see feelingly, we will miss most of what life has to offer. Heschel put it this way: “Analyze, weigh, and measure a tree as you please, observe and describe its form and functions, its genesis and the laws to which it is subject; still an acquaintance with its essence never comes about.  The awareness of the unknown is earlier than the awareness of the known.  The tree of knowledge grows upon the soil of mystery.”

            While technical training is absolutely necessary, especially for a society that relies on technology as much as we do, it is not the most important thing a student should carry with him or her from a university or college. Empiricism too often concerns itself with that which can be measured, and life’s most important things can never be measured.  Too often we search for the pure and simple truth, something that will settle the issue once and for all, but as Oscar Wilde said, “the pure and simple truth is seldom pure and never simple.” Like it or not, life is complicated and at times messy. There are no fail safe equations or ready-made answers that will make it any easier. We must use all our resources—emotional as well as technical—to manage this life, a life which one writer likens to crossing a stormy sea in a tiny boat.       

            Let me close by relating an experience I had when I was a graduate student at the University of Utah. I was taking a class on Goethe’s Faust. Professor Paul Wyler, whose teaching had affected me so deeply that I changed my major from music to German, taught the class. As a young student in his native Switzerland, he had trained to be an actor. As a result, his German was so perfect that it sometimes made native Germans in our class uncomfortable. He was fluent in English, French, Spanish and German. He had received a very rigorous education in a German Gymnasium, which he had mastered thoroughly. He was stern and believed very much in discipline in the best meaning of that term. I never saw him smile. I don’t recall him ever showing any kind of emotion.  He seemed to be all business.

            One of our classes concerned a very short scene in Faust. It was only one page and concerned Faust’s love interest, a girl named Margarete. In this scene Margarete has found that she is with child. She was the quintessential pure maid when she had met Faust, and because of Mephistopheles, the devil with whom Faust had made a pact, her peerless reputation is destroyed. She feels too guilty to enter a church to pray for forgiveness, so she approaches the statue of Mary outside the cathedral and prays to her. Since the scene is so short most of us in the class thought that it wasn’t that important, and that we would be safe if we just knew its outlines.

            Professor Wyler entered the classroom two minutes after the hour, as he always did. He didn’t want anyone coming into class after he had started. He set his briefcase on the table, opened it and got out his notes and books as usual, then stopped. He stared at the scene in his book for about 45 seconds, which seemed like hours to us. Then without any sign of emotion, he slowly gathered up his materials, placed them in his briefcase, carefully closed it and walked toward the door. On his way he said, “I am not emotionally capable of dealing with this scene today,” then opened the door and left the room. The silence in the room was deafening. After a while we slowly got up one by one without saying a word and  left. It was the greatest lecture I ever attended. It lasted 45 seconds and the teacher never said a word. But none of us in that room will ever forget it. I have taught Faust several times over the past forty years, and when I get to this scene I always feel Professor Wyler behind me, reminding me by his silence of the terrible tragedy that befell Margarete, and showing me what it means to see feelingly.

            I congratulate you once more on your accomplishments, and I congratulate your professors for having the courage and skill to educate you. I don’t think I exaggerate when I say that the difficulties we are having in this country with our educational policy is a matter of national security. Democracies cannot exist without an educated polity. The problems we face with our current government are not due to any inherent weakness in legislators, judges or chief executives. The problem comes from them ignoring the truths upon which true education is founded. There is no algorithm or computer program or phone app that will solve our problems. There is no technology that will make them go away. We must put aside the pettiness and bickering and take time to see feelingly. The answer lies in the feeling hearts of the people across this broad land. As Judge Learned Hand once said, “Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can…do much to help it.”

            It’s up to you now to join the great conversation and to help us, as the youth of our nation always has, to step back from the brink and do what we know to be right instead of what is easy. I have no doubt that you will do so.

Pax vobiscum!