Commencement Education Higher Education Liberal Education Students

Learn to Change and Practice Changing Often

One institution that remains venerable—even nowadays, when we hear so much about the deterioration of respect for established institutions—is the college commencement address. Noteworthy commencement speeches become very popular, primarily because they convey messages of hope, encouragement, inspiration, and wisdom.

At the 224th commencement of St. John’s in Annapolis last Sunday, the commencement speaker was long-time tutor Thomas May, whose address delivered all those messages and more—especially for an audience of Johnnies.

I was particularly struck by Mr. May’s humorous take on the difference between big books and great ones:

I recall an alumna telling me some years back that at her Harvard Law orientation she met an equally new Ivy League alum who, on hearing she had studied here, cut her off, saying, “Oh yeah, that’s the big books school,” and who then went on to tell her at great length about where he went and what he did. I’m inclined to think that the kinds of books and manuals that fill the shelves of the learned professions are truly the big books, filled with lots of important and useful knowledge, but not great ones. I’m also reminded here of the aphorism in Epictetus’s Handbook, a very different kind of manual, where he claims that “when a man says to you that you know nothing, then be sure that you have begun the work of philosophy.” He adds a corollary to this by way of a memorable analogy:

For even sheep do not throw up grass to show to the shepherds how much they have eaten; but when they have internally digested the pasture, they produce externally wool and milk. Do not show your theorems to the uninstructed, but show the acts which come from their digestion (Enchiridion, 46).

Yes, big books may be full of knowledge, but knowledge alone seems insufficient to teach us how to behave well. Great books, on the other hand, almost always help us to grapple with questions about who we are and how we should best take part in the life of the world around us. Contemplating such questions is the beginning of discovering how to behave well.

Moreover, as Mr. May also pointed out, sharing these contemplations with others in joint inquiry, following their pathways through conversations in which every participant is equally a seeker and a guide—this practice does indeed help develop habits that may help one discover how to behave well.

You now have considerable practice in certain habits of mind and heart and imagination that have opened you to the books you’ve read here, the propositions and equations and lab practica that you’ve demonstrated and worked through, the music that you’ve sung—these are all part of you. Over time, you’ll probably forget many of the details of much of this, except perhaps the music you’ve sung—memory has such a mysterious power, retaining tunes and rhythms, even as nearly everything else seems to fade slowly away. And the way you’ve done all of this and the people you’ve done it with are amateurs all, lovers in the root sense of that word, enamored of a kind of learning that is meant to liberate, to free, to enable life and growth. Such growth and change are evidence of life. John Henry Newman, a favorite thinker of mine, put it thus: “To grow is to change, to be perfect is to have changed often.”

“To liberate, to free, to enable life and growth.” This is the genuine purpose of education, its higher meaning for the life of each individual, the true reason for spending seventeen or more years at the beginning of one’s life in school—to learn how to change and to practice changing often. For if there is any skill that can be called the secret to living well, it is the ability to remake oneself as often as life, and one’s own judgment, demands it.

You can read the entirety of Mr. May’s hopeful, encouraging, inspirational, and wise contribution to the venerable institution of the commencement address here.