Most every month, I have parting words for my students. This month, I felt the need to say a few things early… it is never too early to encourage and guide if one can. The events of the past few days — atop the sheer insanity on all sides since 2001 — disturbs and saddens me in a way I cannot yet contain in the vessel of words. Perhaps I’ll never get it across. Nevertheless, I have hope for my students — my source of hope lies within the promise of my students’ very lives. My day is nearly done, literally and in the most final of ways. That isn’t sad — as I pass, perhaps that will signal that this age, too, is on its way off the stage to be replaced by those hopeful younger people who have the chance to do better and actually uphold beliefs worth living. Perhaps is better than “no.” In any case, for what it’s worth:
20 November 2015
As I am in a writing mood, I will say what I usually withhold until the end of the semester; perhaps you need to hear it now as this is the most difficult period in any class.
At this point, you are tired. Perhaps you are more than ready to “get on with it” and get past this experience – each month may seem like this by third week. But I encourage you to slow down a bit and take in what you are being shown – your life is time and how you choose to spend it. That makes you, you. Your life, and therefore the “you” that you are building, can be sloppy or well-established, or haphazard – a little of both.
For many of us, it is a little of both – we pay attention to what we are doing sometimes and not so much at other moments. And that, generally, is fine since we are humans and do nothing perfectly or well the first time; part of living will be, for you, going back to correct or fill in what you missed in the past. Just be certain that you constantly work to improve yourself and examine what you may be lacking.
Becoming conscious of your context – the wider world of the present and the past that makes the world you live within, that limits and provides the choices you may make – is one of the greatest gifts a college education can provide. Or, I should say, it gives you the opportunity to begin to learn this. What I am saying here may sound a bit mysterious because it is abstract. Let me be more concrete.
Most of us are fortunate if we know our family of origin back to our great-grandparents and something of their lives; a few may have some vague notion of a couple of generations previous to them. Very few of us know any detail of their circumstances, their world, and why they made the choices they did. But be aware – the choices they made, first, got us here, and secondly, played a part in how our lives up to this point turned out. Not all of it, of course, because there are no very young people in this class and where you are now is also due to your own efforts, values, and beliefs.
But some of those beliefs, perhaps most of them, arise from the story you were told about yourself by your surroundings as you grew up. As a philosopher and someone keenly aware of history and the history of ideas, I will reveal to you now that most of what you were told, the story you were given, is a mythology.
Mythologies can be good things – at their best, they are stories that symbolically contain truth. At their absolute worst, they are misinterpretations and, sometimes, lies. These lies may be intentionally invented by our ancestors to cover over some injustice… or they may be “lies” in the sense they were made up to substitute for truths no one cared to exert themselves to look for. They can also contain false theories – that the sun moves around the Earth, for example, or that “races” actually exist – as a misinterpretation of the fact our ancestors developed different skin pigmentation and eye shape by mutations and to deal with abundance or lack of sun.
Or, that one group has an absolute grasp of reality in a way no one on Earth possibly can as we are humans and are limited: some know the existence and mind of Deity so well they are willing to fly jets into skyscrapers and gun down crowds of people assembled to hear rock music; or they want to define entire groups of people as “dangerous” because of whom they love and make that illegal, even punishable by death; or make others, because of their religion carry identification cards so they can be singled out and treated unjustly even if they have never done anything wrong. Some even call for the return of the concentration camps in the name of some mythological thing called “safety” that no human being has ever seen or experienced.
Human life is perilous. Live is an adventure and a risk. It is never safe. It never has been and never will be.
What a human life can become is free from ignorance and the sort of mythology we call “superstitious fanaticism.” We can free ourselves from poor choices by discovering genuine virtues, or standards of excellence; we can become just and treat others as they deserve; we can be merciful and grant exceptions when that would be more beneficial to another and ourselves; we can show courage and stand up for decent things and push ourselves to do what others won’t in the face of adversity or resistance; we can exert self-control when tempted to have none at all and simply do what our emotions prompt us to do.
And far more.
Your college textbooks and classes will be the ground floor, not simply to a career but to the task of living as educated, cultured people who set the example in the community you chose to live within. But they are only the ground floor. The building of culture has higher floors, as many as you wish to climb and explore, in fact, from which to bring back treasures that will enrich your life and give you the materials from which to construct an interesting and high quality self.
The route to the higher floors is exploration on your own.
You must read. You must learn to commune with those people who lived in the past, set good examples in their day, and created the ideas and works of beauty, high quality, and insight that affect you now. And you will have to root out those who created the horrible ideas and misinterpretations so you can do intellectual combat with them as well.
The only way to do this is read. Begin with the classics of the ancient world and work your way forward. Read histories and biographies and autobiographies. Study art and literature. You have no time to waste now as your future – and the world you will leave behind by your contributions or lack thereof – is coming, like it or not. You may learn how to become a good example in the world and do that through your actions… or you may choose not to care.
I have hope for you. I see in this class a group of people, roughly the same generation, all capable of far more than they, themselves, dream at the moment. My generation, the one they called “X,” and especially the much larger one before mine, the “Boom,” are leaving you one hell of a challenge, one mixed up, disarranged world that has almost abandoned everything except violence, prejudice, intolerance, and greed. What you do with this situation, what you transform it into, is your generation’s challenge.
My generation largely dropped out or went silent, lost faith in itself. But some of us took on a mission to learn and transmit the tools for a better tomorrow to the generation behind us (you, that is) by teaching and setting our own small examples.
“Individually, we do not succeed,” said the philosopher, Aristotle, “but together, we do not fail.” Every instructor at this college I am familiar with is here for one major purpose: So that, together, we do not fail, so that you learn to believe in yourselves and do things beyond what you think you can presently, and so that you will have the opportunity, long after I and the others are gone, to become the people you ought and have the quality of world you deserve.
Not a perfect world, but one good enough to live decently within and build a future on. A world that is always a work in progress, yet, hopefully, at least progresses.
Welcome to college, the place where you may gain the skills for a career, and also for living honorably as educated people and citizens of this country… and the world. I truly have faith in you or else I’d not be here. Now, have faith in yourselves and accomplish your destinies. You’re in the right place to begin.
Richard Van Ingram
20 November 2015