Welcome parents and students, faculty and staff, friends, neighbors, and all others who are joining us today to celebrate the achievements of these thirty-two students.
Welcome also to a venue that, while new to us, is a place familiar with the grand purpose of such occasions. In 1889, when this building was opened, the students studied what might today be called a classical curriculum. Students at that time were asked, “Do you desire to become a better, more learned person?” Students at Ridgeview today are asked: “What will justify your life?” Students at this school, in the 1890s, studied English analysis and composition, arithmetic, bookkeeping, American history, drawing, rhetoric, American literature, algebra, geography, government, general history, physics, moral training, physiology, botany, geometry, Latin, English literature, chemistry, political economy, astronomy, trigonometry, and music. The boys took classes in military tactics and there was an indoor rifle range in the basement. In 1889, there were forty students, and by 1891, there were just four graduates – one boy, and three girls. Then, the class motto was Ad astra per aspira – through hardships to the stars. Today, Ridgeview’s official motto is Veritati Virtutique Dedicatum – dedicated to truth and virtue, and its unofficial motto, πάθει μάθος– we learn by suffering. Then, the school’s colors were blue and yellow. Ridgeview’s are blue and gold. Interestingly, a local man named Robert Pike wrote a history of this school in which he ended the chapter on the school’s curriculum with this thought: “A return to the past can only lower the overall quality of education.”
Ridgeview’s mission and philosophy is predicated on the idea that only with a knowledge of the past can one properly prepare for the future. Today, however, we consider the past, the present, and the future of ourselves and the young people whom we have shepherded out of adolescence. Today is about them in one way, and in twenty or so years, it will be about them in another. All the moments of their childhood that we could have more fully taken in, regardless of how thoughtful or deliberate we have been, are coalescing. It is the rare man or woman who has no regrets over a flash of their temper, a missed opportunity, or some lingering regret about a thoughtless cruelty. If we have committed ourselves to our careers to provide materially for our children, we regret that we did not take more time with them; if we have given more time, we tend to worry that we ought to have provided more materially. Paternalism is fraught with endless anxieties. Our children move on now, as much a product of our careful deliberations as of our incautious expediencies. It is a thousand childhood moments from their first laugh to their first word, from their first genuinely kind deed and the clothes they outgrew to the toys that were discarded along the way. Today marks a moment when we move from first steps, first dates, and first hurt feelings to a moment in which pride is comingled with a sinking feeling in our chests as we imagine the vacant room, the empty place at the table, and the quietness that replaces mundane conversations. It is a childhood that can never be regained, and though revisited by swiping through the photos on our phones, it is a childhood that can never be amended, corrected, or brought to a more perfect or ideal form. We move from a life in which we have been chaperones, directors, and organizers to one in which we are observers of the work we have wrought. Our actions, all past, matter. Marcus Aurelius was correct in noting that “what we do now echoes in eternity.” What we have done manifests itself in their temperament, character, attitude, and the possibility that they will live happy and fulfilled lives. Nor does it end with them, the manner of our living will inform these same qualities in the grandchildren and great-grandchildren we may not live to meet. While it is difficult to remember in the moment, every moment has mattered.
Jonathan Swift, in his most famous satire, has Gulliver encounter Lilliputians who remark upon the foreigner’s obsession with time. In removing his watch, they remark that, “We conjecture that it is either some unknown animal, or the god that he worships; but we are more inclined to the latter opinion.” The Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov gets to the crux of our issue with time. He begins his autobiography by noting that, “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour).” Nabokov may be right or wrong about those two abysses, but our mortal lives are winding down from the moment they begin, and we are forever trying not to miss appreciating the most poignant parts. The French ophthalmologist Louis Émile Javal intensely studied the way in which people read, and identified what he called saccades, in which the eyes did not flow fluidly over text, but moved jerkily along resting in one position and then another. We are in much the same situation concerning our sense of attention and memory. Attention is a matter of learning how to think, which implies exercising control over how and what we think. As David Foster Wallace asserted, “It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.” We are not Sherlock Holmes – our attention, and our memory, are imperfect. The ways we wish we would have behaved, the moments we wish we could relive, and the sense that the present might be different were our past better, plague even the best of us. As Milton put it, “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n.” The poet in Beowulf gets its mostly right in contending that, “Every life has more than enough sadness and more than enough joy.” None of us, if we have any capacity for reflection, can be perfectly content with our past, but we can, as one modern author suggested, treat our minds as we would a private garden and be careful and deliberate about what we introduce and allow to grow there. Our time may be finite, but what it means to us and holds for our future is for us to determine. One thing is certain, appreciation requires attention.
The past being what it is, we want to be present in this moment for our children, but it is not the same moment for us as it is for them. In what the Greeks called Kairos, we see designated “all the possibilities within a given moment.” Clearly, based upon our experiences, what is possible for us in this moment is not possible for someone without these experiences. In our pursuit of serenity, we yearn to live in the moment, but as André Maurois wrote, this state or “combination of phenomena which occupies a person’s consciousness at a given moment,” for an unchanged duration seems inconceivable. “If it is a question of another person, death may intervene; if of music, the music will cease; if of a book, its last page will eventually be read.” The philosophies, or even therapies as they might be understood, such as Stoicism and Epicureanism were “intended to provide a cure for anguish, and to bring freedom and self-mastery, and their goal was to allow people to free themselves from the past and the future, so that they could live within the present.” The great Russian littérateurs like Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Pasternak regarded these as the accursed questions – the ones that all human beings had to contend with, and only by grappling with them could they grow in wisdom. These were questions that neither schooling nor the experiences of others could wholly prepare one for, and such questions, issues, and ideas became the centerpieces of their novels. We want our children prepared to face these confrontations, for them to appreciate properly in the present and minimize guilt in the future, and to have the capacity to focus on what matters most. One of the ways that we have given them to achieve this is through slow reading and the enjoyment of things partaken in for themselves. Virginia Woolf, in “How Should One Read a Book?” wrote,
Are there not some pursuits that we practice because they are good in themselves, and some pleasures that are final? I have sometimes dreamt, at least, that when the Day of Judgment dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their rewards – their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble – the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when He sees us coming with our books under our arms, “Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.”
An enjoyment of the present and a realization of the possibilities in it, has as one of its requisites that we are able to do a thing without recourse to an ulterior motive – for joy, for play, for satisfaction. Our life in the present is a matter of what we are paying attention to. As the psychologist Winifred Gallagher writes, “At any one moment, your world contains too much information, whether objects, subjects, or both, for your brain to ‘represent,’ or depict clearly for you. Your attentional system selects a certain chunk of what’s there, which gets valuable cerebral real estate and, therefore, the chance to affect your behavior. Moreover, this thin slice of life becomes part of your reality, and the rest is consigned to the shadows or oblivion.” In this moment, think of everything that your children have accomplished and all that you hope they will do and become. See them here before you, compare them in your mind to the moment when you first held them in your arms, then their swaddling blankets and now their gowns. Let this moment be appreciated with as much intensity as that with which you cherish those memories.
As they prepare to join the ranks of Ridgeview’s alumni, consider their future and your own. How shall we see our future selves? Are we apart from or a part of something? We can conceive of two very different conceptions. First, the sixteenth-century poet Sir Edward Dyer who wrote of sovereign self-sufficiency as follows:
My mind to me a kingdom is;
Such perfect joy therein I find
That it excels all other bliss
Which God or Nature hath assigned.
Do we really intend to propose that we are so complete? That we take so little inspiration and have so little impact upon our fellows? Contrarily, is our condition better described by the seventeenth-century poet John Donne?
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thy friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
for I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
If we perceive ourselves – parents, teachers, and students – as interconnected, our vision of the future appears very different than if we perceive ourselves entirely self-reliant, atomistically individual. In order to appreciate these interconnections, we must continuously cultivate the skills we have developed for reading. More attentive readers will mean more attentive people, but this sort of attention is not our default condition. As Alan Jacobs notes, “as long as we have had readers we have had readers frustrated by their inability to concentrate.” As Jacobs continues, “Reading is a way of connecting with others, but the connection is an odd combination of the intimate and the virtual: if we say that when Machiavelli entered his study there was really no one there, we speak a half-truth. In a way he sat there alone; in another way he enjoyed the best of company.” Reading’s relevance to the kind and quality of our future is its ability to show us our relation to not only those alive, but to all of those who have ever lived. In becoming attentive to this, we habituate ourselves to overcoming our mental sloth.
There is much that has the potential to distract us from this sort of attention, and none more problematic than social media. It has been described as the anesthetic of loneliness, but when its novelty fades, what is revealed is a state difficult to discern from certain addiction behaviors. It is fair to describe the various digital interferences in our lives as the chief distraction from the sorts of things that we will later most regret not having given our attention to – namely, our children. In Adam Alter’s book Irresistible, he cites a psychologist named Catherine Steiner-Adair who studies the effects of digital media on children. She wrote that, “many American children first encounter the digital world when they notice that their parents are ‘missing in action.’ ‘My mom is almost always on the iPad at dinner,’ a seven-year-old named Colin told Steiner-Adair. ‘She’s always ‘just checking’. Penny, also seven, said, “I always keep on asking her let’s play let’s play and she’s always texting on her phone.’” Instead of cultivating an online presence, we ought to be cultivating the qualities we suppose will produce individuals capable of appreciating what it is they are paying attention to.
After a decade’s worth of teaching, I was heartened to hear this year’s seniors thank the faculty for the work they have done on their behalf. I am heartened each time I hear our students thank their parents at the end-of-the-year concerts. I am heartened each time I hear our faculty thank their TAs and the parents who have volunteered. I wholeheartedly believe that there is little better than gratitude and few things worse than ingratitude. I am not alone in this. The eighteenth-century poet Samuel Garth wrote that,
That man may last, but never lives,
Who much receives, but nothing gives;
Whom none can love, whom none can thank,
Creation’s blot, creation’s blank.
And, Plautus who wrote that, “He is ungrateful who denies that he has received a kindness which has been bestowed upon him; he is ungrateful who conceals it; he is ungrateful who makes no return for it; most ungrateful of all is he who forgets it.” I, however, am grateful to work in a school wherein gratitude is a common currency. That it is, becomes a part of what signals our student’s capacity to appreciate and attend to the fact that they have others to esteem besides themselves.
If we want to complete our paternal role, we must recognize that it is not over – only changed. As I noted at the outset, we are moving from directing to observing, but we will continue to be emulated in intentional as well as unintentional facets of our behavior.
There is a story about an aging Roman soldier who was involved in a lawsuit that seemed likely to go against him. He stood to lose most of what he had, and left with little recourse, is said to have accosted his former commander, Augustus, in a public place, asking him to appear in court on his behalf. The emperor selected one of his men to appear on behalf of the man, but the soldier rolled back his sleeves to reveal his scars and shouted, “When you were in danger at Actium, I didn’t choose a substitute, but fought for you in person.”
There can be no substitutes. Our students will continue to confront real challenges and temptations. They will have whatever we have given them in their arsenal, but most of all they must have us, able defenders of those principles that are dearest. We must not assume that some other substitute – friend, teacher, or professor – may stand in our stead. In the Talmud, it states that, “The righteous promise little, and perform much; the wicked promise much, and do not perform even a little.” “Say little and do much,” it says in Sayings of the Fathers. So it is, our roles – parent’s as well as student’s – have changed. We should live the advice we would give them, continue valuing what we have taught them is worth valuing, and take great pride in the magnitude of their accomplishment today. We must not let their capacity for attention, appreciation, and gratitude be dulled or diminished by the world’s apathy, and if it seems – ever – that this is asking too much from people so young, consider their theses. Consider that they wrote on focus, on attention, on gratitude, on balance, on beauty; that they contemplated self-reflection, service to others, adventure, self-confidence, and fulfillment; that they extolled love, self-examination, perseverance, the value of struggle, peace, freedom, moral sense, purpose, and harmony. When one considers with what they have filled their heads and what they have poured out of their hearts, it is not difficult to imagine a world made better by their involvement and participation in it. To answer the question posed to students in 1889, our students have desired to be better and more learned, and they have become so. In answer to the question we posed to them at Ridgeview, the answer is that they will justify their lives – by their attentiveness, appreciation, humility, charity, and gratitude.
Please join me in congratulating the Class of 2017.