Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, Associate Professor of Philosophy
Philosophy Department, Mt. St. Mary's University, Emmitsburg, Maryland
Thank you Karen for that introduction, and Catherine for inviting me to speak tonight.
Let me begin be offering blessings and thanks to the teachers, staff and leadership of Christiana Homeschool Academy.
And let’s all offer praise and honor to the parents.
And finally, the reason we are here tonight, congratulations to the seniors.
It is a privilege to be here and celebrate with you this evening. As Karen mentioned, my wife Paige taught here and our children were part of CHA for a few years. It was a hard decision when we stopped. We have the highest regard for mission and good work of Christiana, and I am really happy to be here tonight celebrating with you, and honoring the class of 2015.
And here they are, sitting in the front row: Cecilia, Megan, Daniel, Matthew, Victoria, Olga, Paul.
It is not very common that a graduation speaker to recite the names of all the graduates.
Some might describe the size of your class as small; I would rather describe it as humane. Most high schools are like teaming cities, and a graduating class is something between a battalion and a roving gang. CHA is more on the model of a home or a neighborhood, an affiliation of families supporting each other in good work. You seniors are blessed to graduate not just as part of a class, but as a fellowship, as a group of friends.
As I prepared for tonight, I set myself a challenge. I wrote down your first names and tried to see if I could rearrange the letters into a fitting set of words. Here is an anagram I came come up with, and I think it’s pretty good:
ACADEMIA: AMPLE LOGIC, ACTUATE LOVE WITH LEARNING
Maybe that puts to much emphasis on logic? That’s not inappropriate for a classical curriculum , but here’s another one, similar, but with an emphasis on a different part of the trivium:
ACADEME: LOVE ACTUAL LEARNING WITH POETICAL MAGI
Either one of these could suitably describe a graduating class from Christiana, couldn’t it? The classical model of education – with ample logic – with wise teachers (“magi”)– with poetic imagination – and most especially with love – the love of your parents and teachers, and your own love – love of learning. I propose that one of these should be the slogan for the graduating fellowship of 2015: ACADEMIA: AMPLE LOGIC, ACTUATE LOVE WITH LEARNING (or, ACADEME: LOVE ACTUAL LEARNING WITH POETICAL MAGI).
As your graduation speaker, I think I have three things to do:
1. Praise you
2. Give you something to think about
3. Offer advice
(I also have a fourth thing to do – be brief!)
I will try meet my charge – praising you, giving you something to think about, and offering some advice – by connecting to something you all already know.
And here is what you already know, it is something hinted at in those anagrams about love of learning, and it is this: learning has its own distinct joy.
I had a chance to read what you all prepared about your future plans, your favorite memories, and your advice to other CHA high school students. What struck me was a common theme of enjoyment. You had memories of laughter and fun. And this was not only because of jokes or funny incidents. You found occasion for enjoyment was in the process of exercising your minds, in the very intellectual work of your education. Whether discussing great books, or performing skits, or expanding your vocabulary, you took delight. Even writing a thesis paper – hard work indeed – had its own special reward. (And procrastination, its own punishment!)
In short, the first thing that jumped out at me when I read your own words, was that you had experienced the joy of learning.
Of course, school is not always joy – I don’t think I need to even ask your parents or your teachers if you ever complained about homework, or felt bored, or anxious, or just plain sick of school. All of those feelings are natural too. But you carried through, in large part because, in addition to pain and frustration, you have indeed tasted the particular enjoyment of learning.
I must praise first, then, the people who created the conditions for this joy: those parents and teachers who weathered the low times and continued to work so that you would be able to experience the high.
But I also praise you, the students, for entering into the work, the activity, in which you find this joy.
One of the things this experience should tell you is that learning cannot be understood simply as gathering information. Joy accompanies activity. You are not a passive receptacle, into which new facts are placed by a kind of mechanical process; you are an organism, with an intrinsic desire for growth, a longing to fulfill the conditions of your own flourishing – especially the flourishing of your minds.
Flowers bloom brilliantly when the conditions for their growth are met in the field: soil, firm for stability, but forgiving for roots to grow, and rich in nourishment; sufficient water to quicken the roots and swell the veins; and light, bright radiant light pouring down energy into the leaves. So too your minds bloom when you are graced with the opportunity to exercise them – the ground of your community, firm, and nourishing, and forgiving; vital ideas circulating to and through you. And light – the bright, energizing light of truth, natural and divine, pouring forth to illuminate those ideas. So thanks and praise, once again, to your parents and teachers, for their good judgment and faith, for the curriculum and vision of Christiana Homeschool Academy, and to God, Creator and Light and Truth Himself, for providing the conditions for your flourishing.
But the conditions are not enough on their own. There must be the organism itself that responds to these conditions. Consider the flower: it does not sprout from nothing. It starts with a seed, a kernel of dynamism, with its own internal principle of life. From this seed grows the plant, and the plant is not like a robot that mechanically receives input and provides programmed responses; it has its own inner drive; it turns its leaves to seek the sun, it strives to grow taller, it can even heal itself if wounded. The plant itself must work.
Of course, the plant does not have free will; if it is healthy, and the conditions are right, its work, its activity, will succeed. But still, it works. The difference between the plant growing and a human being learning is not that one takes effort and the other doesn’t, that they take different kind of effort. Human beings, blessed with free will, and tainted by sin, must consciously choose, and can choose poorly. We must work, and work freely, and work well.
Learning is an exercise of the soul, and your experience of joy in learning is proof that you have exercised your souls well. You read the books, pondered the questions, made the arguments, shared the insights. You did this, and you did it well, and you found pleasure in it.
Now here is another important point: the joy of learning is not the purpose of learning, but it is a sign of it. The purpose of learning is the pursuit of truth, and the joy you have experienced is the reward for good and valuable work that you have done.
This is something that people often get wrong about pleasure and enjoyment. They seek them for their own sake, instead of performing the activities that will lead to them. But the dancer isn’t graceful in order to take delight, she takes delight because she is graceful; beautiful music isn’t sought as the means of the musician finding enjoyment, but he finds joy in the act of making beautiful music. Real goods—goods that are hard-won, goods that are experienced through activity—have to be sought and achieved. Then, and only then, does joy find us—not as the purpose of the activity, but as its accompanying crown.
In this respect, experiencing joy in activity is like finding friendship – it happens only when you are pursuing something else. As C.S. Lewis said, “That is why those pathetic people who simply ‘want friends’ can never make any. The very condition of having Friends is that we should want something else besides Friends.” Friends find each other when they are seeking some good other than friendship, some common goal, together. So too joy in activity: you find it when you seek the good of the activity – playing the beautiful piece of music, performing the graceful dance, pursuing the truth of God’s creation, and of God himself.
The friendship you have experienced as students together is more intense because of the intensity with which you have pursued a common goal. You didn’t just hang out, you didn’t just share opinions; you engaged in a common work, striving together after a worthy goal. Together, you pursued truth, and so joined each other in the work of learning.
So together, as friends, you have tasted the joy of learning. That means that you were looking for something valuable, and exercised yourself in activities to achieve that end. It means you were successful, and that is why I say you deserve praise for it.
But now something for you to think about. This experience of joy in learning puts you in rare company. Sad to say, but joy in learning is something increasingly few people know. I know from speaking to college freshmen every year, the experience of school—especially of high school—is most commonly as something boring or painful or pointless, not just some times, but all the time; many find enjoyable about school only those things that have nothing to do with the intellectual work of school – socializing, sports, anything but reading, thinking, sharing ideas, anything but the activity of learning.
Indeed, I will go farther and say that not only have too few people experienced the joy of learning for themselves, but too few have even witnessed that joy in others.
At some point in our lives, of course, we all experienced it. Young children experience the joy of learning naturally. But many, as they grow older, have no new experiences of joyous learning, and they forget what it was like to take delight in discovery, to feel the pleasure of wonder.
Ask most students why they had to go to school, and they will say it was to graduate, to get good grades, to get a job.
It is not that they don’t have goals, or even that they have bad goals. (Graduating, getting a job – these are perfectly legitimate aims.) But their goals are not the proper goals of intellectual work, it is not the goal of learning.
And alas, the common way people talk about education today doesn’t help. Policy makers and professional educators are intent on improving education, sure, and we talk about raising standards, clarifying “learning outcomes,” and testing students on skills. But without a larger context for these standards and outcomes and skills, there seems to be very little experience of the joy in the learning – which suggests that under these circumstances, the activity of learning isn’t really happening.
So now, to my advice. If I am right, that you have experienced the joy of learning, and that this is an increasingly rare experience in the modern world, then one of the greatest gifts you have to offer the world is to share your joy in learning.
I don’t mean sharing in terms of giving people the same experience, helping them to learn so that they know intellectual joy – though some of you will wind up teaching, your own children or others. I mean allowing your joy to be apparent to others, so that they notice it, and simply in noticing it, they might be attracted to the activity of learning on their own.
To share this joy, you must have it, and to have it, remember, it is not effective to seek it. What you must do is continue in the activities that produce it, continue seeking the end – truth . You must continue expanding your mind, exercising your soul in the pursuit of wisdom.
If you do that, the joy of learning will follow, and you can display that joy to others.
How can you do this? There are many ways, great and small. Read a book, a challenging and worthy book, a classic book, “just for fun,” and talk with others about how exciting it is – especially with people who don’t think books can be exciting.
Visit a bookstore or a library, and simply browse the shelves – take friend and let him or her see the fascination, the pleasure, of discovering new ideas.
As you start to take college classes, ask questions in class, and show interest, not for a grade, but out of genuine curiosity and wonder – and let people see how rewarding and exciting it is.
Work hard – your education is not over, and continuing the activity of learning means continuing to put effort into that activity.
Most of all, seek what is good, what is valuable, what is worthy, what is true. Do this, and you will find joy – and you may provide a great service to your society by wining others to the joy of learning too.
Graduating fellowship of 2015, if you do these things, YOU WILL ACTUATE LEARNING WITH LOVE and you will become POETICAL MAGI in your own right. You will join others in the friendship of the pursuit of truth, and so expand your fellowship, the rare, true fellowship that takes joy in learning.
 Unfortunately, when I prepared these anagarams, I accidentally substituted an “E” for an “I”. I’ve left the incorrect anagrams, read at the graduation ceremony, in the text, but include here similar anagrams with the correct letters. For the first one: ACADEMIA: I LEARN AMPLE LOGIC, ACTUATE WITH LOVING
 New anagram with correct letters: LOVING ACADEME: I LEARN WITH ACTUAL POETICAL MAGI