A true, life-giving education is an education that recognizes and embraces a world filled with goodness, truth, and beauty. It is also an education that requires virtue from those who undertake it…
Editor’s Note: The following is an abridged version of the commencement address that Joseph Pearce gave this summer to the graduating class of 2018 at Wyoming Catholic College.
Reverend Fathers, President Arbery, members of the Board of Governors, faculty, staff, parents, family, friends and students of Wyoming Catholic College, and most especially, the graduates of the Class of 2018. It is a joy, a privilege, and an honor to be here today; it’s good to be back!
I was actually supposed to be here yesterday. Instead of joining President Arbery, board and faculty members, and the students at last night’s President’s Dinner, however, I found myself spending seven hours at Denver International Airport. Yet as I sat there in Denver, I realized that my experience was capturing something very fundamental to the nature of Wyoming Catholic: inconvenience. As G.K. Chesterton once said: “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered,” and coming out here to the beautiful remoteness of Wyoming, to undertake a rigorous academic program at this faithfully-Catholic college is truly a great adventure—an adventure I am grateful to be a part of, even if only very occasionally, because this is a very special place. Please know that you are greatly admired throughout the English-speaking world—by those who love the Church and by those who love education and love what a truly Catholic, truly rigorous institution like this can mean for the world. It is so very good to be back.
Today, I’d like to ask you a question: “Quid est veritas? What is Truth?” That’s Pilate’s question, of course. But there are two ways of asking that question, aren’t there? You can ask it as a question that you genuinely wish to be grappled with and answered. Or you can say it with a shrug, implying that truth is fundamentally unknowable (if it even exists at all), so what’s the point of asking the question? The sad fact is that in the vast majority of today’s (so-called) “places of learning,” the question I just posed is being asked in precisely that lazy, indifferent, and relativistic manner.
But not here; not at Wyoming Catholic. Because here we know that question has been answered! It has been answered by Christ himself: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” And because of that answer, we know that a true education has to be an education as if truth mattered, an education as if Jesus Christ mattered. Those who do not believe in truth cannot breathe life into education, they can only kill it. That’s why this project, here in “Middle-of-Nowhere Wyoming,” is truly a matter of life and death.
A true, life-giving education, like the one that is offered here in Lander, is an education that recognizes and embraces a world filled with goodness, truth, and beauty. It is also an education that requires virtue from those who undertake it. In the secular educational system today, the word “virtue” is essentially banned, because it is seen as judgmental. So, I regret to say, is the word “sin.” Not only has secular academia lost any sense of education as the pursuit of virtue, they refuse to even speak of it.
It is easy to see why an education in pursuit of truth—of He who is the Truth—will include formation in a range of intellectual disciplines: theology, philosophy, history, literature, and the other liberal arts. (Yes, even Euclid.) So often, though, beauty is left out of the conversation, or seen as something of a poor cousin. In many genuinely good Catholic schools, this aspect of education is sadly neglected. It’s as though the beautiful is thought of as a trailer that you hook onto the back of the truck in a great hurry; if you leave it behind, it’s not a big deal. “As long as you get the truth and the goodness right,” they seem to say, “the beauty will take care of itself.” And I think that way of thinking is a grave mistake; a sadly lost opportunity. An engagement with beauty awakens and enlivens the virtue of humility; a virtue which, in turn, opens our eyes to wonder. And it is wonder that leads us to contemplation and to a recognition of the fullness of reality, which is God. Wonder is an essential part of true education!
Yes, a good education requires an education in love and an education in reason—philosophy, theology, virtue, and the rest. But it also requires an education in beauty; an education that does more than just look on beauty with the eyes of wonder. We need an education that comes to experience and to understand beauty by engaging with it; that learns of beauty by doing beautiful things.
Now, one of the reasons I’m passionate about good education is because I had a bad one. In fact, I tell anyone who will listen that I went to the worst school in England—a school whose failure was perfectly captured in its motto: “This above all: to thine own self be true.” That’s William Shakespeare, right? Correct. And also, of course, radical relativism. But what I failed to recognize (even as I and my classmates were embracing this relativistic phrase as our personal motto) was that Shakespeare never said that. He wrote it, yes, but Polonius said it. And Polonius is a blithering idiot. And so was I and so were all my classmates—blithering, relativistic idiots, the lot of us, because we didn’t know the difference between Polonius and Shakespeare.
Having experienced for myself the grave harm that can be done by a bad secular education, I know how desperately we need a restoration of true education, both in America and in the world. It is crucial to the future of civilized life on Earth. That which is rooted in the past will blossom in the present and will bring forth beautiful fruits in the future, but that which is rootless withers and decays. The culture of death is more than just dangerous to our present; it is deadly to our future.
One of my favorite ways of thinking about education is a metaphor given by the poet, Roy Campbell. A convert to Catholicism, he likened civilization to a car. There’s technological and educational and societal progress, which is the accelerator of the Car of Civilization. But there is also tradition, which acts as a brake. And there is wisdom, the steering wheel. Today, we live in a world that refuses to use the brake and has thrown away the steering wheel. Such a society is doomed to destruction.
Your job as graduates of Wyoming Catholic College is to go out and teach the world what you’ve learned here. Teach them how to drive through life, guided by wisdom. Teach them (by your example and your leadership) that they can and must become more fully human. To be fully human is to love the Good and to know the Truth, and when knowing and loving become the same thing, we will be truly rational and truly beautiful. This is the ultimate goal of a true education, as it is the ultimate goal of life.
Graduating class of 2018, you’ve had a good education. Now go forth and live a good life that is true and beautiful and in the service of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. Thank you, and God bless you.
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