Politics & Policy

The Welcome Closing of the American Mind

Sometimes wisdom requires judgmentalism and intolerance.

May and June were filled with commencement addresses. Some were memorable. Some were political. Some were self-indulgent. And some deserve to be reread now that the parties are over, internships are being settled into, vacations are being enjoyed, and labor is giving way to harsh realities about paychecks (FICA — and, well, don’t ask Paul Ryan how bright that future looks about now).

During his speech at Ave Maria University’s commencement exercises in Naples, Fla., the Rev. Robert McTeigue, S.J., a philosophy professor and director of discernment there, encouraged students to respect the people who had paid for their education, or who had otherwise supported it and them. Give them feedback. Show them gratitude. Demonstrate its relevance.

He told the graduates:

Before you go out into the world, that great landscape of the sacred and the profane, I want you to do one thing first. Take some time this summer, to explain to your family, and especially to your parents, what has happened to you and within you over the last four years. They need you to do that for them because they still remember you primarily as the 18-year-old kid going off to college. . . . They know, at least vaguely, that you have been very busy and that so much has been happening in your world here, but they don’t know the details, and they don’t know what the past four years have meant to you. . . . Tell them about how the good in you has gotten better, and tell them about how the not-so-good in you has gotten better too.

Show them, in other words, that you’re adult enough to appreciate a good thing — that you’re grateful not just for the education, but for the freedom you’ve been allowed.

He further advised:

Sit down with your family, and tell them the story, semester by semester, of the education you received here, both in and out of the classroom. Tell them that your fondest memory of biology is the time that you played “Pin the Flagellum on the Euglena,” and then tell them that your lasting memory of biology is the wonder you felt at seeing the staggering complexity of even the smallest component of life.

I confess I had no idea, before this speech, what a euglena is; but Father McTeigue is right to praise an appreciation of it because, in our coarse world, this is an endangered sensibility. Still, when we seem collectively outraged by the injustice done to Caylee Anthony, I have some hope for us and our commitment to the beauty of life in its most innocent form.

“Tell them that you were forced to learn more historical dates and names than you ever thought that you could remember, and then tell them about the heroes and villains of history you will never be able to forget,” Father McTeigue said. “Tell them why you think that some dead poets should stay dead, and then read aloud for them the poems that you wish to remain always alive in you and in our culture.” He added: “Tell them that . . . you have learned how to be a learner, you have learned how to be a friend, and that you have learned how to find God in all things.”

Father McTeigue also encouraged three bold things — three things that, outside the campus of Ave Maria, may sound not only radical but insane. He encouraged closed-mindedness, judgmentalism, and intolerance.

Closed-mindedness, because “G. K. Chesterton said that the human mind is like the human mouth — both are meant to close down on something solid.” Unsurprisingly, a priest would advise that this hearty substance has something to do with Scripture and a cross, “life-giving and liberating truth.”

Judgmentalism, because we have to know the difference between good and evil, the beautiful and the ugly. We owe it to ourselves and the people around us, the communities we are in. “Yes, prejudice is wrong; but a well-honed and hard-won habit of good judgment is a hallmark of moral and intellectual maturity.” Seek good judgment.

And, finally, intolerance, because:

Socrates was intolerant of the Sophists. Moses was intolerant of Pharaoh. Jesus was intolerant of the Pharisees. Frederick Douglass was intolerant of slavery. Blessed Rupert Mayer was intolerant of the Nazis. Blessed Mother Teresa was intolerant of abortion. Blessed Pope John Paul was intolerant of the culture of death. Intolerance can be a beautiful thing — you just need to know how to do it properly.

This does not mean a refusal to listen. This does not mean you’re always right. But it is an affirmation that there is truth out there, within your grasp. With a little humility and confidence, and a rootedness in things eternal and historic and cultural, with friends and teachers along the way, you can keep building a culture that seeks more for itself than watching Snooki and playing hooky. Perhaps you’ve heard about our culture of adolescence. You can lead us into something else. You can actually be discerning adults.

You don’t have to say “Ave Maria,” you don’t have to be a believer, you don’t have to be a twentysomething graduate of a Catholic college in Florida, to consider that the good father may have left us all with a little gift this summer. Wisdom is not a college degree. It’s having some idea what to do with what we’ve been given, every morning and every evening and all times in between.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.This column is available exclusively through United Media.


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