One of my favorite things about school is studying the character of a class. In some fundamental sense, all 4th graders are the same, and all 8th graders are the same, and all 12th graders are the same. But layered on top of that is the fact that each class is a collection of individuals, each interesting on their own—but when they come together, the group takes on a certain character. Each of our four graduating classes has had a distinct character, and you, the Class of 2020, are distinct from the others.
You are people of high achievement, and particularly high public achievement. You are a spirited group of young people. You are “social”—which is teacher speak for “you talk too much.” But thinking a little more deeply than that, you talk so much because you are so interested in each other and in people in general.
Yours is the class that was the beating heart of the theater program. You are actors and actresses, and you can do both comedy and tragedy. You are the founders of the color guard, which taught a beautiful and silent lesson to young students and visitors each Wednesday. You are Karra’s class, which means you are also Ms. Elliott’s class. This means you are kind and loving and loyal and fiercely protective of each other. You are the class that Mr. McClallen claimed when we started the school, and, in his way, he’s been keeping a quiet and focused eye on each of you ever since. You have rewarded him for that by asking him to be your speaker, which means you want to know what he has concluded about you after six years of study. I wonder if he will tell you.
You are a class famously hard to teach, partly because you require constant quizzes to persuade you to actually do the reading, partly because you are extroverted and uniquely skilled at getting the teacher off topic, but also because you have two Jadens, two Emilys, two Rileys, two Bens, an Ann and an Anna, and not one but two sets of identical twins. You have always been a little challenging. But you are also a joy to know, and a gift to teach. It is painful to watch you grow up and leave us.
Your parents know what I am talking about. They are here to celebrate you, but within their hearts is a little sadness, because this is a big step for you, and fundamentally it is a step away from them and into the world. The fact that they knew it was coming doesn’t make it any easier, but you can make it easier on them by giving them a call once in a while.
Parents, thank you. Thank you for lending me and this school your children for so many years. Thank you for trusting us with them, for supporting them through their education, and for being here in person as we celebrate this moment together.
What a strange thing this is. Yesterday we arrived to a nearly deserted airport, got on a half-filled plane, while wiping down every surface we touched along the way. It was just three months ago that I was nearly living on planes, visiting all of the schools in Hillsdale College’s network of classical schools. Then, all of a sudden, travel and ordinary human interaction stopped. At first it was refreshing. There was time with family, time for hobbies, time to read. But as the quarantine drew on, it began to wear on us all.
What have we learned from this strange experience? Remote learning is neither as engaging nor as productive as going to school. We are not made to live solely within our families. We are not made to live alone.
Now, as we emerge from the quarantine, we are watching our country face another great challenge. A great swell of anger has arisen and we are being challenged to respond to it. Our country is divided, as divided as it has been during my lifetime or that of your parents.
This means that you all are entering into adulthood at a time unlike any other in our recent history, and perhaps the history of our country itself. You will be asked to do things that no other generation has been asked to do, and you will have decisions to make that no other generation of students has made.
It is a good thing for the world that you are who you are, and that you have the education you have. As you reflect on what you’ve done at Founders Classical Academy, and prepare yourselves for what is to come, I’d like to talk about your education, and what it has done for you since I met some of you as 7th graders, and what I hope it will continue to do for you for the rest of your lives.
What do we study at Founders Classical Academy of Leander? We pursue knowledge, and we pursue virtue. It might even be more correct to say that we pursue knowledge so that we can pursue virtue.
And virtue—you know about that.
You know that the moral virtues are learned through habit, and that they have to do with our passions. But you also know that Aristotle is very sensible and approachable on the subject of virtue. Moderation teaches us not to indulge too much, yes, but it also teaches us not to forego things that are good for us. Courage teaches us not to be unafraid, but to respond with the appropriate amount of fear, not rushing into danger recklessly, but also not cowering at the possibility of danger.
You’ve learned that moral virtue is essential for happiness, because it frees us from passions that might otherwise control us, preventing us from becoming who we ought to be.
Too often, when we think of moral virtue, we think of the benefit it has on us. We think, “I want to be courageous and moderate and generous and just because it will help me live a balanced and well rounded life.”
And it will! But we mustn’t forget that the moral virtues find their fullest expression in connection with other people, and above all in political or public life. Yes, it’s impressive to courageously prepare yourself for a personal challenge—to face the playground on the first day of Kindergarten, or to walk in to the really difficult philosophy exam or the senior thesis. But it’s no accident that the height of courage in Aristotle’s Ethics is battlefield courage—Using that same command of self in the service of one’s country, something bigger than the self.
Justice is the same way. For individuals, it means giving what is owed. The teacher grades the test fairly, or the ref calls the game according to the rules. But above all justice is the thing that helps a community become a whole. It is the thing that binds this school together, and even more important, it is the thing that binds our nation together.
Think about what it means to practice justice in this public way – to act fairly not to just one person, but to a whole nation of them, with all of their differences and competing interests. This is the virtue of the statesman, and Aristotle’s respect for statesmanship is clearer when you read about the magnanimous man, the greatest statesman who achieves the peak of moral virtue precisely because the community gives him an arena in which to practice the highest virtues.
Moral virtue is for building civilizations, and once a civilization is built, for protecting it.
You know about intellectual virtue too. In some sense intellectual virtue obviously transcends civilization, but it clearly depends on civilization, too. To be a great thinker is one thing, but even Socrates needed the polis, the city, to support him and to provide order and stability.
And the example of Socrates shows us that the work of the philosopher is to investigate the highest concerns of the city, to understand it. And so, for the philosopher too, the political world provides an arena in which to practice virtue.
To put it another way, Aristotle’s way, man is a political animal. We are made to live with each other, in a community. Not only do we need the things that a political community provides, but we cannot become our fullest selves, truly happy, without the political community.
What better illustration of that is there than the present moment?
We are not made for zoom meetings, or distance learning. We’re made to be out in the world, with each other, and although we are a little better rested than we were before the quarantine, something important has been missing for the last three months. You seniors know this better than any of us, and I congratulate you on your evenness in the face of what can only be called a tragedy—the loss of the last quarter of your senior year.
What was lost? It was the community.
We are not our fullest selves sitting behind a computer screen, and we cannot do our fundamental work, our most human work, when we are confined to individual and family life.
We need civilization. But as the great thinkers teach us, civilization is fragile. It tends to break down. Order and liberty are not permanent, and they require the work of virtuous men and women to bolster them up each generation. Sometimes we fool ourselves into thinking that the fundamental problems of human life have been solved, through science and through bureaucratic management, but in moments like these we are reminded of the fragility of our political system.
Sometimes there is a particularly crucial moment, and I suggest that you are graduating from high school in such a moment. How has your education prepared you?
You are prepared in the same way I was prepared, and in many ways, you are better prepared than I was when I was your age.
When I graduated from high school, a man named Mark Helprin told my graduating class, just 12 students strong, that our job was to “defend civilization itself.” At the time I was too young to understand what he meant, but I liked the idea that my life could be important, and I wanted to understand. Then, I lived my life, and I went to graduate school, and then became a teacher, and then I came here and helped to found this school. This place is the greatest opportunity I had to do what I was asked to do when I graduated from school, and though I did not fully understand what he meant, I have come to understand it better because of the work we have done here.
You may be in the same boat as I was. So, I repeat to you what he said to me and my graduating class when I was 18.
I ask you, in your own way, whatever that may be, to defend and champion the sanctity of the individual, free and objective inquiry, government by consent of the governed, freedom of conscience, and the pursuit—rather than the degradation and denial—of truth and of beauty. I ask you to defend and protect what is great and good, to choose your battles, but to stand your ground. For little things cascade into big things, and even should the larger battle not go well, hold your position. I ask you to defend and protect what is great and good. I ask you to defend a civilization of immeasurable achievement, brilliance, and freedom. I ask you to defend civilization itself.Mark Helprin, “Defend Civilization Itself”
How have you been prepared for this?
You know how the government works, which means you understand the foundations of our American civilization. You have read and studied the Constitution. You know what the authors of that document meant when they wrote it, and you know how their words have been interpreted by those who followed them. You know that some have regarded the Constitution with contempt and others with high regard, and you have learned that without regard for the Constitution our nation must crumble.
You know history. Your imaginations have been shaped in part by knowledge of what happened before our time, which means you can looks at our time with the benefit of experience that you would not have if your own lives were the measure of all things.
You know literature, which gives you access to worlds beyond your own and teaches you to behold this world and the actions of others through the lens of your reason.
You have learned about yourselves. You know that you have a head, a belly, and a chest, and that a happy life means allowing your head to govern your belly through your chest. In other words, you have learned to love the right things, and to govern your soul so that you can continue doing that throughout your life.
You have learned through seminar discussion to pursue the truth in conversation with one another, and you have learned that disagreement with someone’s argument is different than moral condemnation. You have learned to treat opposing opinions as an opportunity for reflection, but to remain undogged in the pursuit of the truth.
In other words, you have learned something about what to love. Your education, if it has been successful, has taught you to love this country because not only is it good for you, it is good simply.
In the midst of these troubling times, and facing a future none of us expected, let us remember these words. Let us go forward, with joy and with courage, remembering what we’ve learned and drawing upon it at all times, to defend civilization itself.