Fellow faculty, Kolbe staff, graduates, parents, friends, it is truly an honor to be with you today on this special occasion. Today we celebrate the completion of a mission, a kind of exiting, or leaving, and the issuing of a charge. We celebrate these things in a couple of different senses. On the one hand, you are graduating today, and that marks the completion of your high school academic career, and the start of a process of exiting, or journeying toward a new phase of life, whether that be college, or getting a job. And I intend to offer somewhat of a charge or an exhortation at the end ofmy remarks.
But it is also fitting that your graduation falls exactly 40 days after Easter, the day when the Church traditionally has celebrated the ascension of Christ. Even though that has changed more recently. The Ascension also marks a completion, the completion of Christ's earthly mission and his exiting our space/time environment to return to his father in heaven. And on that day, right before he ascended, he offered his followers a charge to wait in Jerusalem to receive the Holy Spirit. And I will be referencing that charge a little bit later. So, for various reasons, it is very fitting for us to be here on this particular day, celebrating your graduation.
We celebrate all of the work that you have done over many years, all of the books, you have read, the notes you have taken, the insights you've discovered, the declensions you've memorized, the paragraphs you've constructed, the rough drafts you've reviewed, the equations you've solved––these unceasing quizzes you've studied for, the many fill-in-the-blank questions that you've answered, and all of the exams that you've stressed over. You have invested so much into this Kolbe Academy program. And you've done it. You've made it through to the end. You've successfully completed your Kolbe Academy High School education, and that is an accomplishment to be proud of.
I also want to take a minute and recognize somebody else––all of the parents and guardians here today and watching online. They have paid the tuition, provided the computer or the iPad or the device that you used, incessantly nagged or encouraged you to do your best in your classes, offered advice, helped with questions, perhaps advocated for you, if it was necessary.They asked you 1000 times if you did your homework, if you were ready for that quiz. And they asked you 1000 times how you did on them.
They cheered for you when you did well on your exam. They comforted you when you got frustrated with all that reading and work, and they kept you fed, and your house wired with the internet to make these years of study possible. So, they deserve to be celebrated as well. And I would venture to guess that, as momentous an occasion as this is for you graduates, today is perhaps an even bigger deal for your parents. They are going through something similar to what Christ's loved ones went through first on Good Friday, and then again at the Ascension, of having to cope with his exit, with his departure from his earthly life. And that can be a very difficult thing.
And here I am speaking as a dad who has just gone through the process of seeing my firstborn son graduate from high school and go off to college. Until you grow up and experience what that is like, you'll just have to trust me when I tell you how significant this day, and this summer and, in fact, this whole stage of life "senior year" has been for them. It is absolutely gut-wrenching to walk your child closer and closer to the door, knowing that each day that passes it's one step closer to them walking out that door and not coming back for a long time.
When my wife and I dropped our son Joshua off at college about nine months ago, the college required all the parents to say goodbye for the final time in a big open field on campus, everybody together all at once, tears everywhere. And then the orientation guides took the students off for a series of events and all the parents were left to just walk back to their cars and drive away. My wife and I recently took our other kids to visit Josh at his campus. And when we got near that particular spot, my wife started to tear up. She pointed and said to our younger children, that's the field of broken hearts. Only to have Joshua turn to them and say, we call it the field of freedom.
Graduates, you are embarking on a very exciting time of life. Yes, new adventures, new freedom, new places, new relationships await you. But for your parents, this can be a very mixed time. One of excitement for you, but one that can also be downright gut-wrenching. So today, as our thoughts turn toward exiting, my counsel to you on this is threefold.
First, have grace with your parents over the coming months.
Two, when you get to college, call or text your mama regularly. Just do it.
Three, when you go out to dinner tonight, and everyone is congratulating you, just take a couple seconds and say, "thank you" and "I love you" to those who helped shepherd you to this point. And how just wonderful it was to hear a student speaker earlier sincerely thank her parents for providing her a Catholic education. It doesn't get any better than that.
Looking forward, I want to offer you just a couple points to think about as you head to college, or your next steps. I want to start with this conviction that the most important things you will take with you from college are not facts, not knowledge, not a bunch of information that you will memorize, not even a set of skills that will help you to get a job. I would say the four most important things that you will take with you are: the way that you learn to think, the relationships that you form, the habits that you form, and the loves or the passions that you form while you are there.
First, the ability to think is extremely valuable. But it seems in our society that's becoming extremely rare. Many do graduate from college, but not many college graduates are taught to think deeply, critically,and creatively. Many are more interested in simply getting a qualification for a job. But when I was in Australia, I met a job recruiter for IBM in Melbourne. And when asked, "What do you look for most when you're hiring college graduates to work for IBM?" He answered three things:
Have they played a team sport?
Have they studied Latin?
And have they played chess?
"What about a prestigious computer science degree?"
"No, we can teach them what they need to know about IBM computers, once they get here. What we can't teach them is how to work together as a team. But if they played a sport, maybe they've already had some direct experience. We can't teach them how to think like a coder would think. But if they studied an inflected language like Latin, where you have to figure out the meaning of the word based upon its ending, and its relationship to the rest of the words in the sentence, and they've already begun to wire their brain in that way. And we can't teach them how to anticipate where our competition is going to be in five years and how to get there first. But if they've played chess, they've already again begun to think, in that sort of strategic way."
So even the job recruiters are acknowledging that the most important thing, one of the most important things you can take with you from college, is not just a bunch of facts or even that piece of paper that qualifies you for degree. It's learning to think a certain way. How will your time in the next four years wire your brain to think? It was Albert Einstein who said, "The purpose of a liberal arts education is not the learning of many facts, but the training of the mind to think."
Now, you also take with you relationships. When I was in high school, I tended to think that my high-school friendships were the most important ones. I couldn't imagine leaving those guys. My high school crush seemed like the person that I just couldn't go through life without. But then,strangely, you get to college and right about Thanksgiving break, you begin to feel a little bit differently. It is the relationships that you will form in college that tend to be the most formative and long-lasting. Twenty years from now, the people you will meet up with for that annual weekend that you've been looking forward to for months––those will be with your college buddies. And the person you start to date in college has a much better chance of becoming your future spouse. So be intentional about your relationships, invest in them, and make them a priority.
You will also take with you habits. And I want to suggest that one of the most crucial places to begin forming those habits is your very first week at college. Your first week is extremely important. Everybody's there everybody's nervous. Everybody's wanting to be friends, nobody's wanting to be left out. That first week is when it's revealed what your true priorities are. What you decide to do, who you decide to hang out with, how you spend your time––these decisions will tend to create routines, and routines tend to become habits. Be intentional about forming those habits, for your habits to form your character. And the most important thing you will take with you, not just when you leave college but when you leave this earth, is your character. As Christ demonstrated at the ascension, you will take very little else with you besides your character, when it's all said and done.
David Brooks, a columnist for the New York Times has written about the difference between the resume virtues and the eulogy virtues. Resume virtues are those that you develop so that you can list them on a resume, they are skills and experiences you pursue for a practical payoff in the job market. Eulogy virtues are those that you want said about you at your funeral. They tend to be aspects of your character, what kind of person you were, rather than what salary level you earned.
My advice to you as you enter the next phase of your life is not to ignore the resume virtues. In fact, I want you to pursue them with everything you've got. But make sure you prioritize the eulogy virtues. Cultivate good habits of thinking, and living, and relating, and worshiping––habits of taking the Sabbath, and celebrating holy feast days––habits of listening, of helping those in need and of asking for forgiveness. Because these habits will determine, to a large extent, the only thing you will end up inheriting when you die. Which is nothing other than your character.
And fourth, when you graduate from college you will have accumulated a set of interests and passions and desires and loves. And these will set the course of your life for decades to come. What you do over the next four years, will point you in a certain direction that you will follow for decades. That's because human beings, at their core, are lovers. We are creatures who are propelled along in life by our passions. We are drawn toward what we love. And the purpose of education is to help you to love the right things.
According to Socrates, a good education teaches students to love what is beautiful. Likewise, St. Augustine describe the purpose of education in terms of the ordo amoris––the right ordering of the loves, so that we love the right things in the right way at the right time. And this is what a good college should help you to do. As the English writer John Ruskin argued, "The entire object of true education is to make people not merely do the right things, but enjoy the right things — not merely industrious, but to love industry — not merely learned, but to love knowledge — not merely pure, but to love purity — not merely just, but to hunger and thirst after justice." As you've experienced in your Kolbe classes, good teachers love the area that they teach. They believe that their subject in fact, is inherently lovable. It has much in it that deserves our awe, and our wonder, and our appreciation.
And I want to argue here that this is where being a Catholic can make a difference for the way that we approach education. For we have encountered the very source of that beauty, the Creator God. Catholics believe that all things that have been created, all things that could possibly be studied, bear the stamp of their loving, purposeful creator. Catholics, therefore, approach the world expecting it to be laden with beauty and order and purpose. In the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, "The world is charged with the grandeur of God," a grandeur that is given in the nature of things, it's really there already, which should invoke in us a sense of wonder and delight as we discover it.
In short, we believe that the world is enchanted, infused by its creator with purpose, and therefore, possessing a level of meaning, and beauty.
Unfortunately, this is not the conviction that animates many institutions of higher education today. The trend in most modern universities is to focus on science, technology, engineering, and math, and to teach those subjects as fields of neutral, sterile data to be used for calculation, and utilitarian ends. These are the practical sciences, and modern education tends to separate them from the liberal arts, thus pitting reason against faith artificially, and relegating the latter to private curiosities that can be studied as electives––if you happen to be interested in art history, or something like that. This is not how the Western tradition has always been. Subjects like math and the physical sciences used to be considered as locations of awe and wonder. Far from being the sterile data that they are today, they were seen as orders of a purposeful creation, pointing to deeper truths about the nature of God and the universe. Because the material world was created by that sort of God, it is the kind of reality that calls forth our curiosity and summons our appreciation. I love how one thinker has described this, "What starts the venture of knowledge is notice and wonder. Something about reality catches our attention. To start to know is actually first a response to a dimly heard beckoning of the wonderful real." Isn't that beautiful? To start to know is actually first a response to a dimly heard beckoning of reality. If we see knowing as a relationship between knower and known, we can see that reality makes the first overture. I love that.
Graduates, as you pursue your next level of education, seek out learning communities that approach the world as enchanted and who view students of such a world as lovers.
I have had the privilege for the past year of being a part of that sort of community at Magdalen College. I can tell you it is such a wonderful thing to start out each year by having every single member of the faculty take the Oath of Fidelity to the Magisterium, including professors like Dante scholar, Anthony Esolen, and When the Earth was Flat author, Jordan Almanzar. Where some colleges may look at the physical world and see simply neutral and earth stuff, our professors approach it expecting to find intrinsic purpose and beauty. Whereas some college professors see and teach only the empirical dimension of reality, all of our faculty see and teach deeper dimensions of meaning. Whereas some believe that you must approach subjects in a sterile, disinterested manner, we believe reality is wonderful, full of the kind of order that should draw a fourth wonder.
Now it's perhaps easier to do this when you're dealing with qualitative subjects like humanities or theology, but let's consider what is thought to be perhaps the most objective neutral area of knowledge there is––mathematics. Are numbers simply neutral bits of data, bare instruments of calculation? Or do they point to a deeper harmonious order? Can numbers be a locus of wonder and awe? And if so, what would that even mean?
Well, when the Pythagoreans looked at numbers, they did not just see forms of logical notation, they saw something deeper. When they looked at the number one, they saw unity. When they looked at the number two, they saw diversity, the kind of diversity that can be fruitful––à la male and female. When they looked at the number three, which is one plus two, they saw there conciliation of unity and diversity in harmony. Three was a very spiritual number, the number of the Trinity. When they looked at the number four, they saw the physical earth. Think four points of a compass, leading to the four corners of the earth consisting of four elements earth, water, air, and fire found in four states solid, liquid, gas, plasma. When they looked at the number five, they saw a symbol of the human body, five senses, five appendages to the torso, five fingers on each hand, five toes on each foot. When they looked at the number seven, which is three, plus four, they saw the union of the spiritual and the physical, the Trinity, and creation. And the Hebrew word for the number seven was the basis for the word for covenant.
In fact, in ancient Israel to swear a covenant oath literally meant to seven oneself. So, when you look around at the world, and you realize that the reality in which we live contains seven visible colors of the rainbow, seven notes in the major scale, seven openings in the human head, seven days of creation, seven seas, seven continents, seven classical planets, seven metals of antiquity, one might conclude that reality was purposed for covenant relationship with its creator. And that deep truth is embedded in these little things called numbers. As one scholar noted, "Numbers are a map of the beautiful order of the universe, the plan by which the divine architect transformed undifferentiated chaos into orderly cosmos."
Your education at Kolbe Academy has set you on this kind of path of enchanted learning. Keep at it! Approach every subject with a sense of expectation and eager anticipation of what you will discover there and seek out wise teachers and guides who will help you uncover the deeper treasures that lie just below the visible surface.
Finally, I want to conclude by identifying what I think is the most important question that you should ask when you go to college. And that is, what will you worship? What will you consider to be ultimate? What will you sacrifice for?
Here again, Kolbe Academy has set you on the right path by providing an education that points toward the best answer to that question––The God known as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I urge you to stay close to him and allow him to form your way of thinking. Allow him to form your habits. Allow him to be the basis of your relationships. Allow him to direct your loves. And allow him to guide your sense of awe and wonder in what you study. And I urge you to renew your covenant with him regularly in the Eucharist.
When our son was packing for college, my wife and I bought him a little metal donkey figurine that we attach to his keychain. So he carries this little donkey around everywhere he goes. That way every Sunday we can call him up and tell him to get his ass to mass.
Graduates of the Class of 2022, you are lovers made in the image of a God who is love. I leave you with the same charge that Christ gave His disciples at the Last Supper––love one another, love your parents, love your church, love what is true and good and beautiful.
And I encourage you with the same charge that Christ gave those same disciples at the Ascension––open yourselves to receive the Holy Spirit.
In fulfilling these two charges, you will be on your way to becoming saints and that is the ultimate purpose of college, the ultimate purpose of every job or career, and the ultimate purpose of life. I wish you well on this journey. Congratulations, graduates.
Dr. Ryan Messmore
President of Magdalen College