All over the country this spring graduating seniors are being told that the future is before them, that they are the future. This is heady but dangerous talk. The future is not a place or a being. You can’t get there from here or be there except through a series of fulfilled nows.
This is a splendid day for you, the students of Mesa Preparatory Academy—a day, a moment, of passage. In all the ways of life (“cultures” as they are called) that I’ve seen or read about, such a passage, such a transition, literally a “passing-over” from one stage of life to another, is taken seriously. At the first of these, when you emerged from a womb-dependent embryo into a womb-severed baby out in the world, is still celebrated as your birthday. The second one is the present occasion, when you pass over from being, in educational terms, a minor to a diploma-bearing candidate for higher education. Up till now you’ve been extended the hopeful courtesy of maturity, although you were in fact still half a kid; from now on you will be a bona fide grown-up, and immature behavior will not be accepted as natural. The only other rite of passage that is left for all of you is so far off that you can’t even wrap your mind around it, when you undergo the miracle of coming-into-being in reverse and leave this world.
Everywhere this most important passage of your earthly life, that into first adulthood, is celebrated with rites and festivities, especially with feasts such as many of you may be offered tonight.
Let me take you in imagination to a city not far from Phoenix in place and time—located perhaps twelve-hundred miles, as the crow flies, south and east of here and existing a mere half-millennium earlier than this moment now. You, in Phoenix, live in the city of the resurgent fire bird, the phoenix that lives in the desert, consumes itself in flames, and rises from its ashes every five-hundred years. The city I am speaking of, Aztec Tenochtitlan of the Mexica (pron. Meshica), as they called themselves, now Mexico City, is the city of the eagle and the serpent, where a festival of the New Fire was celebrated every fifty years, for the last time in 1507. (Soustelle, Daily Life of the Aztecs, p. xiii)
In this city, perhaps the most beautiful that ever was, there were institutions not so unlike the Great Hearts academy that you attended. The Mexica had free public schools, of two kinds. One was called the telpochcalli, the “house of the young men.” Here, male children and youths were trained for service in the armed forces. Life was rough but also full of fun, some of it strictly forbidden fun. And then there was the second sort, called calmecac. In these schools—there were parallel schools for girls—the young were prepared for sacred service and given the equivalent of our liberal education. They were initiated into the hieroglyphic pictographs of the holy books and the reckoning of the Aztec calendars, the singing of the holy songs and the making of decorous speeches. In short, they learned their tradition and how to live by it. To these schools went the children of dignitaries, but they were open, it appears, to the children of tradespeople and in effect, to all people who wished to go.
Now here is what is remarkable: While pupils in these telpochcalli high schools got away with a lot of rowdiness, sex, and drinking, life in the calmecac was austere, even harsh. Here is a horrible example. There was evidently much forbidden drinking of pulque, the fermented, highly intoxicating juice of the agave plant, the maguey. Let me read you a paragraph from a work you may never have heard of, though it is one of the anthropological masterpieces of the world, finished in 1579. It was written in parallel columns of Spanish and Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, by Father Bernadino de Sahagun (General History of the Things of New Spain):
And if it was seen that some youth had become a little drunk, if… he had come across some pulque—perchance he lay fallen, or sang… there was a rounding up…And because of this fear descended… If he was only a commoner [I take this to mean he went to a telpochcalli]… he was made to suffer the rope. But if he was a nobleman’s son [and went to the calmecac], they strangled him secretly. (Book III, Appendix, Chapter 6)
Now the point of this report on the Mexican school system is, perhaps first and most broadly, to engage your interest in a high civilization swept away by the very Spanish influx that shaped your own hometown and in a history as instructive as history can ever be about the power of your own Western heritage. But more immediately, I mean to make a pretty plausible comparison between your own Great Hearts academies and that calmecac I was describing.
Not that I imagine that any of your classmates were secretly strangled by your headmaster for their transgressions. But I do think that you lived under a somewhat tighter discipline than your classmates graduating this month in other high schools in Phoenix. That makes you, by a rough analogy, the nobles among high-schoolers and yet—I will now argue—the most representative of North Americans.
And for that claim I will go straight to one of our America’s founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson thought that popular rule, democracy, was not incompatible with, indeed depended on, what he called a natural nobility; he thought of it as comprising of those persons, whom nature hath endowed with genius and virtue, [who] should be rendered by liberal education worthy to receive, and able to guard the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens; …they should be called to that charge without regard to wealth, birth or other accidental condition or circumstance. (“A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge,” 1779)
Persons endowed by nature “with genius and virtue”—those endowments echo an ever-useful distinction made by Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics, that between intellectual excellence (genius) and moral goodness (virtue). I think I may safely assume that all of you graduating today share in these characteristics that are both natural gifts and laboriously acquired accomplishments, earned gifts. That contradiction in terms, “earned gift,” makes sense for me of an irritating phrase that keeps popping up in the tons of advertising I get in the mail: offers of a “free gift.” What’s a paid-for-gift, I used to keep asking myself, and now I’ve discovered it: It’s a natural endowment that you have to work hard to take possession of—as you’ve done these last four years.
Now I think that most citizens of this country of ours are actually better democrats than was Jefferson himself. I suspect that his egalitarianism had something of the facile condescension of an ideologue, a mind-set different from that genuine sense of human equality in the face of the bottomless mystery of human nature, which marked Lincoln. What seems to me the wonder of wonders in American democracy is its generosity, not so much toward what we now call “diversity,” difference in kind, such as differences of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or whatever, but difference in quality, such as differences in talents and the consequent achievements with their rewards. Americans, in their most natural mode, are ready to admire and support excellence, a word that means literally “on-top-ness,” especially when it has not been a “free gift” but a hard-earned actualization of natural ability. The consortium to which your academy belongs is testimony to the spirit of generosity that ultimately prevails with us, both in honoring and supporting excellence. You go under the name of Great Hearts since, I imagine, you had hearts large enough to submit to some extra discipline, because you wanted a share in greatness and had minds good enough to take it in when it was offered; you had virtue and genius. I don’t think genius needs to mean anything awesome here; the human capacity for learning fine things is, I believe, more wide-spread than people think; what is much more rare is the willingness to engage with greatness, a willingness that is indeed a virtue. Put in more current terms: For some reason I do not really understand, the intellectual ability for the greatest kind of learning is a lot more common than the passion for it—which is not so easy to kindle, though people tend to admire it. I think it is not mere flattery to say that you came to this academy because the passion had been kindled in you, and once here it was nourished.
And now I’ll switch from the past to your future. One of the differences between this, your last day as pupils, and your new life, for many of you as students, is that you now get more and more often to have a look behind the scenes. As still partly children, as pupils, you were inevitably manipulated for your own good. (You may not know that the word “pupil” is Latin for “puppet.”) So as pupils you were done to, but as students you do the doing. That means that you begin to be given glimpses into the way the world is actually run. Here is such a look, a look at a teacher’s behind-the-scenes problem. Some pedagogues think that teaching should start where you, the pupils are; others think that education should begin where the subject you are studying is—and where, presumably the teachers themselves are. I myself imagine that children up to young adolescence should be taught in a way that takes account of their age, that in primary and secondary schooling there is no point in going way above the pupils’ heads. But I think that young adult students have everything to gain by being confronted with what is way beyond them, as it is indeed beyond their teachers—if it is in fact the best, the most worthwhile subject matter. And that is part of what is high about higher education. As it happens, your own curricula here at the Great Hearts academies have begun to ease you into that blessed state of being forever in above your heads.
Here is another way to put what I am saying. Grade and high school are indeed to a large degree preparatory. Your own school is, after all, called a preparatory academy. But then comes a new stage, be it at work in education, and if it’s worthwhile it’s no longer preparation—or at least not mainly preparation. It’s the thing itself. People who go to college just to prepare for a career are to be pitied. Or rather, institutions of higher education that present themselves as a utilitarian episode in the life of their students are to be blamed. Because it’s now or never for the thing itself, for real living. If the next stage in your education, whether it’s formal or experiential, is just getting passing grades and earning that degree, just getting by and incidentally getting down some useful routines and applicable skills, the rest of your life is likely to be just waiting it out; just getting through work so you’ll have free time, just relaxing with some passive entertainment so you’ll be ready for the daily grind.
Let me put it yet another way. All over the country this spring graduating seniors are being told that the future is before them, that they are the future. This is heady but dangerous talk. The future is not a place or a being. You can’t get there from here or be there except through a series of fulfilled nows, and then one day the future is itself a bygone. Another thing that’s high about higher education is, that if it’s for real, it’s one fully real now after another, each good in itself.
I’m as far as could be from saying: Don’t dream. Dreams belong to the now, they are a part, perhaps the most lasting part of being now. But don’t abuse the life you are passing into by treating it as a utility. To be sure, this new, adult stage of life will develop more burdensome duties and onerous obligations than your adolescence is likely to have known.
It will sometimes seem as if adult life is just one emergency after the other that it’s your duty to deal with just so it will be done with—and then the next exigency emerges.
There is a philosopher (you may have heard his name or even read some of his writings), Immanuel Kant, for whom I have the highest respect, although I often can’t follow him—don’t quite understand and don’t really believe him. But what he says about these duties is memorable. He asserts that the less you want to fulfill your obligations the more respect you may accord yourself for doing your duty, and such self-respect gives a kind of satisfaction that is a better feeling than comes from just doing as you like. Where I disagree with Kant is in his claim that this will-driven toilsomeness is the ultimate morality. I think ultimately the best thing is to do only what you love to do, to do what you do for its own sake—and to find a way to fold discharging burdensome duties into that more exhilarating way of life.
What this means with respect to the next stage in your education is this: choose your program of study or work—as far as you can—because you love or can learn to love the subject or activity—not for some extraneous reason. Oddly enough—there’s some sort of American Providence in this—it will also happen to work out practically. Such a choice means consulting your own soul, resisting even the most loving pressure, not defiantly but thoughtfully, and possibly pitting yourself against the popular opinion of your peers. I think that many of you are ready for such a choice and that a little encouragement at this great moment might be of some help. But now let me conclude by reading you what the Mexica of Tenochtitlan hoped for a graduate in a calmecac. What I’ve said to you so far should do for yourself. Here is what these Aztec neighbors of yours thought a graduate of their academy should be to others:
Not lineage was considered, only a good life. This indeed was considered. Indeed this one was sought out, one of good life, one of righteous life, of pure heart, of compassionate heart; one who was resigned, one who was firm, one who was tranquil, one who was not vindictive, one who was strong of heart, one who was of constant heart, one who was of pungent heart, one who made much of others, one who embraced others, one who esteemed others, one who was compassionate of others, one who wept for others, who had awe in his heart, one said to be godly of heart, who was devout, who was god-fearing, one who wept, one who sorrowed, one who sighed. (Sahagun, Book III, Appendix, Chapter 9)
I love this whole depiction of the graduate the Aztec academy hoped to send forth into life. But above all, I love that pungent heart. “Pungent” means “piercing,” “penetrating.” A pungent heart is, I think, an acutely intelligent heart, a heart educated to pierce the world’s deceptive surface and to penetrate people’s defensive armor.
So ardently wishing you an ever-pungent heart, I will let you go now to your rites of passage and feasts of celebration.
This essay was originally published here in May 2015, and appears again in celebration of Dr. Brann’s ninetieth birthday. Dr. Eva Brann delivered this commencement address to the first graduating class of Mesa Preparatory Academy on May 25, 2012
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