To say that a 21- or 22-year-old has “completed” his education seems odd. Several years ago, my brother and his wife invited some guests over. One mistakenly asked me, in my brother’s hearing, about my “background.” I explained that I graduated from high school in 1945, spent a semester at Santa Clara, then a year and a half in the army, and finally another year at Santa Clara. Next I entered the Jesuits. For the next 17 years I did nothing much but read. To this awe-inspiring information, my brother remarked to his friends, “Yes, and if he had any brains, he would have graduated long ago.” No doubt, God gives clerics brothers lest they forget the reality from which they hail.
In Republic 7, which we read in spring semester, Plato remarks that our education should begin with mathematics, then geometry, solid geometry, and astronomy. Military service is enjoined for a while, some dialectics, and then service in minor city offices. At about 50, we might have had enough experience and learning, reading and thinking, to become philosophers. At about 60 or 65, we begin thinking of the “Isles of the Blessed,” which are not in this world.
This year’s university graduation ceremonies are overshadowed by President Barack Obama at Notre Dame. Neither Harvard nor Yale can top this show. Wisely, they will wait till next year, though I do wish one had had the foresight to invite the man who is by far the most learned scholar in public life today: Joseph Ratzinger.
What does one say to graduates of 2009? Most voted for the new president, so the consequences are theirs. Their prospects are bleak. That, of course, presumes that they went to college for “prospects.” Why did they go to college, anyhow?
Are students “better” today than they were when I started teaching 30 years ago? The answer is no. Twenty-year-old students, no matter where they are, are 20-year-old students. What they need most, as Plato understood, can only be called intellectual awakening. Awakening to what? Well, to what it is all about — to “why there is something rather than nothing,” to quote the classical title from Lezek Kolakowski’s latest book.
At a lecture in Louvain on the 150th anniversary of Husserl’s birth, Msgr. Robert Sokolowski remarked that students need to know that philosophy is the quest for knowledge of the whole. Philosophy is the only discipline that must examine itself philosophically. Every 20-year-old needs to be aware of and excited by what is, no matter what else he is doing in college, even if it is nothing (especially if nothing). The “waking up” to what is, in fact, is the purpose of college. Nothing else matters much. Alas, the vast majority do miss it.
In Republic 7, Socrates talks of the usefulness of geometry. It is a beginning, something designed to wake us up to “the idea of the good.” He then adds, “This tendency [to seek the good] is possessed by everything that compels the soul to turn around to the region inhabited by the happiest part of what is, which is what the soul must by all means see.”
We attend college to “turn around” — that great Platonic phrase — so that we might encounter the “happiest part of what is.” It is something that our souls must see, if they are to be what they are.
Yet Socrates knows the minds of the potential philosophers, the 20-year-olds. He knows that they cannot be coerced, however, demanding the academic discipline. They must be “charmed,” as I like to put it. Students need to have intellectual courage, to seek and affirm the truth as it really is.
“What are the qualities that are conducive to this education?” Socrates asks. “Keenness of studies is a prerequisite for them, and learning without difficulty. For souls, you know, are far more likely to be cowards in severe studies than in gymnastics. The labor is closer to home in that it is the soul’s privately and not shared in common with the body.”
The “severe studies” are those seldom taught in college, the only ones that make it worth while. Where do we find them? Usually in books we have not read, because no one has told us about them. If we graduate from college in 2009 with nothing that is pressing on our souls to read, even if it takes the rest of our lives, we need not have gone to college in the first place. But if we are curious about what is, as Pope Benedict XVI said in Spe Salvi, there is hope, the real virtue of reality — the reality that is.