(In case you missed graduation last night, here’s Academic Dean Todd Wedel’s charge to our 2013 graduates. Well done and congratulations!)
“A little learning is a dangerous thing.” A commonplace often repeated, first written by the 18th Century poet Alexander Pope.
As you sit here today, have you learned merely “little?” From the grammar of facts and dates, trends and ideas, to the logic of connections and developments, insights and speculations, to the rhetoric of compelling and clear prose and speech to varied audiences in vast settings, you have mastered much, and beyond, have mastered learning itself.
It would seem Pope’s words need not apply. They are, like so many other words, easily understood, categorized, and internalized, a poetic conceit. In the process of even understanding his meaning, you are safe from the danger of this “little learning.”
Yet Pope’s caution seems incongruous when we come to the book of Ecclesiastes, the wisdom of Solomon.
Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun?
The sun rises, and the sun goes down,
and hastens to the place where it rises.
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
I believe none of us would accuse Solomon of “a little learning.” Ecclesiastes is not simply a warning of the vanity of the world but the story of Solomon’s unending quest to find satisfaction and fulfillment, turning from work to learning, pleasure to pain, knowledge, money, power, building, destruction, life, death, hope, joy, peace, war. He found that for all, there is a time and a purpose, a phrase oft repeated, its repetition, too, one of Solomon’s vanities.
As you pass from here, and indeed as you have sought and striven here, you cannot escape the world as Solomon envisions it. You will find, you must find, and you have found, at times, a dullness and drudgery to life. You will find that as much as you hope, perhaps, to have cast off the shackles of this time of tutelage, you must carry them with you. You will find them awaiting you in job or station or classroom, college or career or marriage or family, children or expedition or adventure.
It may seems strange to spend time at graduation ruminating on vanity. Is this not a celebration of what you have done? A celebration of a passing from this to another stage of life? Indeed it is.
Yet so often, we formulate this event as your graduation from one form of life to another, from education to, as is popularly said, “the real world.” The contrast we draw, then, is between some realm of ideas and ideals and this “real world,” the world in which events and people operate with a different standard, a different set of motives and ends and goals. To survive in the real world must involve, then, even as we have discussed in class, some leaving behind or leaving off of what we thought that we knew or what is appropriate to an academic discussion.
The dichotomy framed thus is between this world where we speak of transcendence, of inhabiting ideas, forming visions, and the real world of work, effort, effectiveness and efficiency driving and drawing all things to themselves in endless repetition and redundancy. In this “real world,” to seek the new and the exciting is to find ultimately that all has been done, experienced, thought, written, said, and all found wanting.
And your reality is that as you learn more, more this you will find to be true. Whether through formal education or evaluated experience, you will find the sun rising and also setting, returning to its place. Research shows indeed, the more education one has, the less happy one may be, an inverse correlation between knowledge and contentment. So why have you learned so much, and what should you hope to learn from here? What, then, is the point of learning if all it brings is but misery, and greater learning but greater misery, yet another in the “real world” cycle Solomon sought and soliloquized?
Perhaps G.K. Chesterton considered Solomon when he posed his answer. He writes
“The sun rises every morning. I do not rise every morning; but the variation is due not to my activity, but to my inaction. “
But the sun?
“His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life. The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead.
For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. “
How can learning, though, keep us young, in the image of our eternally young Father?
Perhaps Pope provides the answer. For in his poem, learning is an advancement, a conquering, but one with a curious victory.
“So pleased at first the towering Alps we try,
Mount o’er the vales, and seem to tread the sky;
The eternal snows appear already past,
And the first clouds and mountains seem the last;
But those attained, we tremble to survey
The growing labors of the lengthened way;
The increasing prospect tires our wandering eyes,
Hill peep o’er hills, and Alps on Alps arise!”
The vision he offers is that each new thing sought or learned or found should but lead us to see the greater land before us, the inestimable wealth of wonder untold. We are to learn that all learning is but a little; it is only when we believe that we have learned all that we grow old; as young children, we will always seek what lies beyond.
So the charge to you as you go forth is to remember. Remember all learning is but a little. Remember there are no masters in the realm of those who have comprehensive knowledge, insight, or skill. The master is simply the journeyman on another path, having mastered a level relative to others, but knowing always the utter poverty of what he possesses relative to the surpassing greatness of the wealth before him.
Remember. Remember, with all the biblical depth and symbolism captured in that word. To know, to remember, is not to give mental assent or propositional acceptance. It is to believe beyond the intellect to the joint and marrow, to internalize to such a degree that action, movement, habit, motivation, goal, end, desire, the greatest degree of self, the entirety of being, is inhabited, imbibed, transformed.
Remember. The world out there is not “real” and this “false.” Neither is the “real world.” The “real world” is the world as Christ has created it, redeemed it, and is making it new. “Behold, I am making all things new,” he says, and Paul asserts “if [we] are in Christ, we are new creation.”
So the question is not whether you pass from one world, a false one, to another, the real one. The charge is less to know more, but to desire more, and for your knowledge, your learning, to be learning to desire ever more the right things. Do you see the world as Christ does, and thus see the world really as it is real? Do you see this time here, the time you have endured, at times enjoyed, as the world as it is now, the real world marred and hidden by the Fall? Do you see your future as moving from one place in the new world to another, carrying within yourself the seed, the promise, the advent of the real world coming to be? Do you look for the new world in the old, in what you learn, in those with whom you relate? Do you yearn for redemption, hating what is evil, loving what is good? Do you see both in others? In yourself? Do you seek not to replace the evil with the good, but to follow Christ, the creator and redeemer of the real world-enter into the evil and shatter it with life incorruptible?
Such we hope to have taught and you to have learned. Such we hope as you go from here. Such is the charge we can offer, for it is the charge that Christ gives.