Saint Mary’s College of California
May 26, 2013
It’s always nice to be back at Saint Mary’s College. I want to first of all congratulate all who are receiving degrees today. No matter what your degree, pursuing one past the age of 24 is no small task. It takes sacrifice, determination and will power to do so and thus says a lot about you as a person. Most important, it says you value education.
The best summation I have ever read regarding education came from Mark Twain when he wrote, “Education is the path from cocky ignorance to miserable uncertainty.” How awesome is that statement?—from cocky ignorance to miserable uncertainty? Anyone who has taught adolescent youth, or has one living in their home, knows the full weight of Twain’s statement. It’s really unfair that I am pointing my finger at our younger brethren; all I really have to do is recall my own youth. All the answers seemed to come so free and easy. I had a lot of opinions that made sense to me, but very few facts to back them up.
It wasn’t until my time here, at Saint Mary’s, that I learned the miserable uncertainty of education. In other words, my opinions and theories meant nothing unless I had objective facts that supported them—and finding those facts was miserable. The uncertainty came later.
Saint Mary’s is the place where I learned how to learn; the discipline of learning. The countless hours I spent in Saint Albert’s Library stacks reading research studies was difficult and time-consuming. One study was always inexorably linked to another, then another, and another. And that is where the uncertainty came into play. It seemed like I was on a treadmill in pursuit of the truth. I was always wondering if I had enough information or if having all the information was even possible. Socrates was correct, when one question gets answered, another question proceeds from it.
True and real knowledge is understanding we don’t have all the answers to life’s complex questions.
Teaching high school students is no joke. Many of them, as well as adults, believe that if they don’t know the answer to something, then an answer must not exist. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is an objective, true answer to every question we have and every personal situation we may find ourselves in. From the religious—“Does God really exist?” to the scientific—“Is there intelligent life beyond Earth?” to the more personal—“Am I making good decisions?” The answer to these and all questions is not “maybe,” it’s either “yes” or “no,” and that is wherein lies the heart of uncertainty.
Wisdom is understanding that the more knowledge we acquire, the more we should realize how little we know. The best we can do is take reasonable and prudent steps to come as close to truth as we can. As human beings we are called to humble ourselves before the evidence and be willing to modify and change our beliefs. And when we change our beliefs, we evolve and change ourselves. How many times have you heard or used the phrase, “You were right and I was wrong”? I don’t know about you, but regrettably I haven’t heard or used it that much. That statement seems to have a negative connotation of weakness attached to it when, in all reality, it is a powerful statement that says we are open for growth—moving on to something greater than our immediate selves.
The last question I would like to ask you to kick around one last time is, “What do your newfound knowledge, skills, and degree from Saint Mary’s mean to you?” For me, after 38 years of being associated with the Lasallian schools, it always was, and always will be, education with a higher purpose. One that transcends the textbook. It is education founded on the principles of Saint John Baptist de La Salle and grounded in the life and lessons of Jesus himself.
I ask my sophomore class every year, “If you could ask Jesus one question, what would it be?” Two questions always make the list. The first is “Is there life after death?” and the second one is for Jesus to define who he was and what was his purpose.
The answer to the first will have to wait. The second was already answered in the Gospel of John. It was during his trial before Pontius Pilate, when his life hung in the balance. Pilate, representing law, order, and secular world power asked Jesus who he was and what was his mission. His answer to Pilate was perfect. He didn’t claim he was a king, the Messiah, or even the Son of God. He said, “The reason I have been born, the reason I have come into the world, is to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Now, I have scoured those Gospels every year in preparation for my classes, including my time here at Saint Mary’s. In all those years, I have never found anything that Jesus said or did that wasn’t true. The truth that Jesus spoke of transcended the textbook, even the text of his own religion. Even Einstein claimed that after all he had learned and discovered about how our universe works there was only one thing he knew for certain, and that was man is basically here for the sake of other men.
When I was a teenage boy, I had an unlikely hero. It was Bobby Kennedy as he ran to be our 37th president of the United States. By the time of his assassination in June of 1968, he was the odds-on favorite to win the election. His campaign platform was to end the Vietnam War, start a war on domestic poverty, support the civil rights movement, and empower all children with quality education. Here is what he had to say about education: “For the fortunate among us, there is the temptation to follow the easy and familiar paths of personal ambition and financial success so grandly spread before those who enjoy the privilege of education. But that is not the road history has marked for us. Like it or not, we live in times of danger and uncertainty, but are also more open to the creative energy of humankind than any other time in history.”
Those words were spoken over 45 years ago; however, I believe they are more applicable today than they have ever been. Ignorance is not an option for us. We are the fortunate that Kennedy spoke of. We have a choice, and that choice is a moral decision. We are all called to share our gifts, talents, and education to collaborate with each other, knowing full well that when we do, we will find solutions to our collective uncertainties.
Congratulations on your hard work and achievement. God bless your families and future careers.