A fair rendering of animal rationale, the classical definition of the human being, is “the animal who talks.” Since humans exist in groups—we only come to be, and survive, in families—this entails listening as well as talking. Perhaps more listening than talking. In fact, there is an awful lot of organized listening going on.
One imagines an alien moving unseen among us and being amazed at the spectacle of people sitting in arranged rows of chairs facing another of their kind who speaks while they listen. A lecture, say. Of course, on campuses the soi-disant seminar has swamped the old-fashioned lecture course. Professors mustn’t impose their views on students on the risible assumption that they know something students don’t. There are only views now, not truths. (This seems to have trickled down into the grade school, where toddlers now exchange views on the universe while the teacher acts as “facilitator.”) But college campuses are also places where the visiting lecturer still flourishes.
On campus kiosks and bulletin boards, lecture notices flutter like pinned leaves, and in all seasons. A century ago, notices for a lecture by Mark Twain read: “the trouble begins at eight.” The trouble is pretty well under control on campuses, of course. Permission has to be gotten even to put up a poster, to say nothing of inviting a speaker. And in our self-proclaimed bastions of academic freedom, severe restrictions are placed on possible invitees. A few years ago Jeane Kirkpatrick was regularly prevented from speaking on any number of smoke-free campuses.
Catholic campuses are becoming indistinguishable from their secular counterparts in many ways, and a survey of visiting lecturers is a test of this. Madonna is as likely to be invited as Mother Teresa, and Cardinal Ratzinger inspires such animosity in absentia, it is frightening to think how he would be greeted in person.
Honorary degrees and commencement speakers are another test of how secularized Catholic colleges and universities have become. My university has had Bill Cosby and Tom Brokaw, two men whose careers consist of reading what others have written for them. Presumably they stayed in character when they were at the podium. We also seem to be going down the masthead of Commonweal in the distribution of honors.
Degrees are dished out honoris causa and may earn a moment or two in the media sun. The commencement address is sonoris causa, experienced rather than heard, a massage, not a message, yet an ineradicable part of the proceedings when young people graduate. It is a ritual which functions ex opere operato, independently of the merits of the speaker or the content of his talk. Ask any academic to list the most riveting commencement addresses he has heard. You will earn a reputation as a wit. Sometimes the name of a speaker will emerge from the mists, but usually because of something wholly extrinsic to what was said. E.g., a popped champagne cork sailed toward the dais and almost hit the speaker.
Lest this seem aimed only at the ceremonial, ask anyone what specifically he remembers of courses taken in college. So very little of it seems to stick, we might wonder what the point of those four years are. Of course we know. By and large, graduates expect to get a better job than they otherwise would have. Besides, there is a whole range of education where the result consists in being able to do something, not remembering what someone said. Everyone knows the multiplication table, but few remember the teacher under whom they learned it.
The teachers I remember with gratitude stay with me as much for what they were as for what they said. They conveyed a sense of the sheer delights of thought and imagination and stirred up in me the desire to try to be like them. If education consisted only of skills, content would rightly fade into insignificance, but is it only skills we go to school to learn?
The more people who receive a higher education, the lower the level of performance seems to be. Grade inflation, a carry-over from the 1960s, makes it more difficult in many places to keep off the dean’s list than to get on it, but nobody thinks all those A’s mean that students are better than they used to be. Quite the opposite.
The animal who listens doesn’t seem to be hearing a lot nowadays. I find it particularly sad to see how uninformed about the Catholic cultural tradition graduates of Catholics colleges now are. To a large degree, this is not their fault. For years, administrations and faculties have been trying frantically to look like everybody else, and the specifically Catholic has all but disappeared. Of course, this has created a kind of underground culture in which people get together to talk about Chesterton and Maritain, Claudel and Mauriac. Chesterton likened his discovery of orthodoxy to an Englishman’s sailing the globe and then wading ashore to claim for England—England. So too, against the grain and succumbing to the lure of the forgotten if not forbidden, students discover the pre-conciliar authors that gave joy to my youth.
These are thoughts that sail across my mind as I get ready to write a commencement address; they are meant in part to immunize me against taking the task too seriously. The most important thing about a commencement address is its ending, and the sooner the better. I shall be short and sweet. Let Horace claim that when he seeks to be brief he becomes obscure. Forget the correspondent who remarks that he had no time to write a short letter.
I shall speak as one who hears time’s chariot at his heels. I will waste my sweetness on the auditorium air. I shall not aspire to be listened to, but to be heard, not to be remembered but rather to recede into the vast and general bonhomie that characterizes such occasions. God, of course, will hear me and hold me accountable, but that will not distinguish this occasion from any other.