26 April 2007

Commencement Redux

First, a few quick notes.

We support Vice President Cheney speaking at BYU graduation ceremonies. Of course.

And, though we disagree with their reasoning, we support students' right to protest his visit.

Last year we referred to and included an excerpt of a speech given at our commencement by former BYU history professor, Dr. Frank Fox. We have read and re-read that speech a number of times and felt that now would be a good time to reproduce it, in full, for the benefit of the new graduates.
No Regrets
By Frank Fox

If there was a Guiness Book award for the most college students taught live, I’d win it, hands down.

Over the past twenty-five years I have taught some 65,000 students, most of them in BYU’s American Heritage Program.
One result of such a career is that you always have to be on your best behavior—your students are everywhere! Another result is that you have lots of follow-up conversations. Former students approach you at games, at restaurants, in the mall, and they often want to chat about their lives after BYU.

In a surprising number of cases, I find that they express regrets:
“I should have studied harder.”
“I should have had a different major.”
“I should have gotten married sooner.” “I shouldn’t have gotten married at all.”

And then, almost inevitably, “I wish I could go back and do it over again—knowing what I know now.”

Life regrets are a familiar refrain, especially in America. We grow up expecting perfection in all things—and life rarely affords that. The world out there is harsh. It is eminently productive of regret. If someone hasn’t told you that yet, you need to hear it now, loud and clear.

If there was a time to which adults could scroll back and do it over again, that time is probably right now—the day of graduation:

Any sooner and you wouldn’t have the background necessary for life’s important choices.

Any later and many of those choices would already be made.

So let’s call today—this hour, this minute—time zero. Just for fun, let’s date everything from the moment you receive your college diploma. In other words, regrets, if there be any, begin now.

To help you on your way, I’m going to offer you three tips. Graduation day advice is nothing new—and my three tips are nothing new. All the same, I wish someone would have given them to me on that balmy evening in the spring of 1966, precisely forty years ago, when I graduated from the University of Utah.

First, live the examined life.

“The unexamined life,” said Socrates, “is not worth living.”

Much of what you have acquired at BYU are the tools of examination. We have taught you how to examine the spatial world, the temporal world, the world of human relations, the world of thought and feeling, the world of ideas. And we have imparted gospel insights for keeping perspectives clear and priorities straight.

Yet it would surprise you to know how rare the examined life still is. Many of your predecessors have gone forth as pilgrims, never really examining anything, simply putting one foot ahead of the other, receiving whatever is offered by friends, by neighbors, by authorities, by the media, by those who are but pilgrims themselves—the blind leading the blind.

A few months ago, you put thousands of hard-earned dollars into a ponzi scheme that confidently promised to earn you 12% per day on your investment. Such are the wages of the unexamined life.

Others fall prey to different scams. Much of the academic world has embraced a view of life that asks only about gender, class or ethnicity—the things that divide us—ignoring the things that unite us, such as our common moral sense. A distinguished professor of bioethics recently stated that he saw nothing wrong with the killing of full term infants and the harvesting of their organs—yet saw plenty wrong with the eating of animals. The unexamined life strikes again!

The examined life literally examines everything. It questions everything—not in the corrosive manner that weakens faith but in the constructive manner that strengthens faith and gives it surer footing.

The examined life favors reality over appearance. Substance over style. Fact over opinion. It prefers universals to the partial, the fleeting, the fashionable—and the relative. It seeks to learn those truths which will in fact make us free.

It asks hard questions—and demands good answers. With the examined life it is never enough to say: “because someone told me so.”

Second, live beyond yourself.

You reside in a world where living beyond the self is becoming rare. We call it rugged individualism, or healthy egoism, or looking out for number one, or simply me-first. “Greed is good,” intoned a character in the movie Wall Street.

Much of your life experience has already reinforced that point of view. After all, didn’t my team beat yours? Didn’t the prom queen prefer me to you? Didn’t I have the most baptisms in the mission field? Wasn’t my GPA higher?

It has been observed that a person all wrapped up in himself makes a mighty small bundle—and so he does. In his book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam noted that the bundles have been getting ever smaller for the past hundred years. Gone in many places is the neighborhood get-together, the Thursday night bridge club, the barbershop bull session, the local bowling league. People are simply less interested in one another.

People are warier too. We have created a world of interpersonal barriers and extreme suspiciousness—separating each from the other. To reach out and touch someone now may land you in a lawsuit.

Living beyond oneself means being interested in, and engaged with, your world. It means volunteering for civic duty. It means caring about the unfortunate. It means attention to those institutions that, among other things, safeguard our common liberty.

Living beyond oneself transformed a gifted dilettante into an Albert Schweitzer. It made an otherwise undistinguished nun into Mother Teresa. It is the magic ingredient that rendered C. S. Lewis more than simply an interesting writer—and Elder Neal A. Maxwell more than simply an engaging speaker. Living beyond oneself transformed an ordinary housewife in my acquaintance into a veritable saint. While others were content to play tennis or do scrapbooks, she chose to sacrifice 15 years of her life to the care of her elderly parents—both of whom suffered from Alzheimer’s.

So don’t confuse living beyond oneself with career advancement. The two don’t mix. Gen. George C. Marshall put the case this way: “There is no limit to the good you can accomplish,” he said, “as long as you don’t insist on taking credit for it.”

Much of your education at BYU has been about living beyond the self. In addition to school and church work, you have been called upon to take part in blood drives, big brother and sister programs, reading to the blind, comforting the sick, sheltering the homeless. One of my American Heritage classes scraped together some $18,000 to provide Christmas for more than 60 local families. (Of course they got the added benefit of watching me kiss a pig.)

Living beyond the self is the ultimate mark of humility. It concedes that the world doesn’t start and end with me. Its supreme manifestation is the insistence of the Savior that he wash the feet of his disciples in order to be their servant.

Third, stand for something.

I unashamedly borrow the phrase from President Hinckley’s book—a highly recommended read, by the way.

Just as we live in a world whose ultimate reality is appearance and whose ultimate value is the self, so too we live in a world where it is imprudent—one might say politically incorrect—to stand for anything.

Standing for something involves making waves—rocking boats. One such boat rocker—to cite but a single example—was a member of the British House of Commons back in the 1930s. The right honorable Winston S. Churchill made a career of standing for things. He stood for the British Empire when imperialism was fading away. He stood for the monarchy when the king himself had lost interest in it and abdicated his throne. Above all, he stood for opposing Hitler and his program of piecemeal conquest—when the tide of appeasement was cresting. He was bitterly scorned by his colleagues, in and out of Parliament. But when push finally came to shove (as Churchill knew it must), he was the person they all turned to. Standing for something gave him stupendous moral power.

There are plenty of things to stand for at this dawn of the 21st century. Stand up for honor and decency. Stand up for Judeo-Christian values. Stand up for a worthy political cause. Stand up for simple integrity—as one of my own students recently did.

It was necessary for me to ask this student to take a sheaf of examinations over to the Testing Center. Owing to circumstances, the student had possession of the exams over the entire weekend, delivering them to the Testing Center on Monday morning. Subsequently the student herself took the exam. She did poorly on parts of it—mostly because she was unwilling to cheat, even when to do so would have entailed no risk. I could never, of course, have taught her anything of comparable value in the class.

If we have learned anything in the years following 9/11, it is how fragile civilization truly is. Skyscrapers are vulnerable to aircraft. Aircraft are vulnerable to terrorists. Our most cherished institutions often depend on simple human trust. There cannot be a policeman on every corner—the policeman must be in every heart. Of course you can use the internet to scam people. Of course the aged and infirm can be victimized. Of course children make easy targets. Every apple orchard is filled with free fruit. Every public fountain is awaiting its box of soap. Every graduation ceremony—including this one—can be disrupted by those few who want their graduate to get the most attention. In a world where people fail to stand up—people will surely fall down.

For Socrates, the most important learning was not about being taught but about being prompted to remember. There is a higher self in all of us, Socrates argued, and that self needed only to be jogged awake from time to time. For many of you, your BYU experience has been precisely that, an awakening, a remembering, a reacquainting of the self with the person you really are. On this day and in this hour let us suppose that you know that person for the very first time.

And so, at time zero, I wish you well. May my few humble tips spare at least some of you from a lifetime of regret.

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