A message to the Class of 2017: Fare forward, voyagers

May 30, 2017

Frank Cunningham, Ph.D., associate professor of philosophy, delivered these remarks at Loyola University Maryland’s Special Awards and Departmental Medals Ceremony on May 19, 2017.

Graduation weekend has come!

In just over 24 hours Fr. Linnane will say something like: “By virtue of the authority vested [in me]… I accept the candidates presented… for the degrees, and do hereby admit them to the said degrees with all rights and privileges pertaining thereto.”

You might wonder what those “rights and privileges” are.

I guess, at the very least, you are now entitled to put some initials after your name and wear these cool robes at events like this.

In all seriousness, graduating from a Jesuit liberal arts university is a major accomplishment, for which you should be very proud. And you should be doubly proud to be here this morning, recipients of awards for work of exceptional quality in a field of study.

I congratulate you.

I also am very pleased this morning to have this opportunity to speak with you, before you each step out into your future. And what I’d like to talk about is what I hope you’ve learned here, what you carry with you as products of a Jesuit liberal arts education. I’d like you not to assess the accuracy of what I say right now, but rather tuck it in some shady corner of your mind, and examine it five, and 10, and 20 years in the future.

What will be most obvious is that you have acquired a certain amount of knowledge, have obtained or improved or perfected certain intellectual skills, are poised to enter a profession and pursue a career equipped with the tools you need for initial success. Whether you are a business major or biology major, whether you are looking for a career in journalism, or education, or law, you know things and can do things today that you couldn’t four years ago.

You have what the ancient Greeks would call technē, the skill required to perform a task well. (In fact, that you are here this morning receiving these awards suggests that you have the ability to perform these tasks very well indeed.)

But let’s look into the future a little. It is unlikely that the work you begin as you leave here will remain the same throughout your career. You will grow, advance, succeed—and you will face problems and challenges and opportunities unforeseen. You will find yourself considering alternative plans and proposals and trying to choose intelligently among them. You will test the logic and persuasiveness of arguments presented to you by people eager for your approval or support. You will work with, perhaps lead, groups of people with diverse personalities, plans, opinions and will need to be able to understand them, accommodate them, direct them. You will need to be able to decide, in vastly different situations, what can be done, what should be done, and how.

So have we taught you anything that helps here?

I hope the answer is yes, and I think if it is, it resides in large measure in the core curriculum. Think about the lessons of history, of political science, of philosophy. Think about what literature tells us about how people think and act. As we watch Hamlet assess the motives of his old schoolmates Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, we learn a little about judging people. As we read a philosophical argument or replicate a scientific experiment we learn a little about how to think, logically, systematically, carefully. The trick is not knowing things in general, but being able to grasp them in the particular.

This word, or gesture, or suggestion, or action, at this time, with these people, in this way, to achieve this result. The Greeks called this phronesis, or practical wisdom, and the Medieval theologians called it prudentia. This ability is arguably of much more value than technical skill, and its acquisition is tied up in your liberal arts education. It is at art of applying the general to the particular, to work with what William James called “the dirt of common fact.”

So if you and your professors have done your job here, you should be equipped for short and long-term success. But in the four years you’ve spent with us, we’ve been aiming for something more. This is more than a liberal arts university; it’s a Jesuit liberal arts university. Our aim is not just to equip you to have a good job, or a good career, but to have a good life.

Aristotle says that the end that we seek, in itself, and not just as a means to further ends, is happiness. The Greek word is eudaimonia, and it means much more than the English word “happiness.” It means the complete fulfillment of a human being.

What we seek, by our very nature, is to be the very best that it is our nature to be. And in order to do this, each of us has to come to a clear and complex and subtle understanding of what we are meant to be.

This is, I believe, at the very heart of why we required you to take all those courses, especially in the humanities, why we encouraged service-learning and studying abroad, why we insist that you be men and women for others.

By thinking deeply along with those who have thought already about our deepest spiritual and intellectual and moral and aesthetic needs and responsibilities, by listening to the stories of those who have struggled and succeeded or failed at this task of being human, we learn, gradually and over a lifetime, to be good people. And like practical wisdom, it is about embodying the universal in the particular.

Because the only way to achieve human fulfillment is day by day, piece by piece, in the very details of the lives we live. It is indeed the project of a lifetime—eudaimonia—and you will be able to judge, with time, whether your Jesuit liberal arts education has helped with that project.

T.S. Eliot says it well:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

So I don’t want you to decide today whether we’ve got this right—whether we helped you gain a skill (techne), acquire practical wisdom (phronesis), find the elements of human fulfillment (eudaimonia)—but to look back five, 10, 20 years from now, and judge the worth of what we’re celebrating this weekend.

My wish for you, again from T.S. Eliot: “Not fare well, but fare forward, voyagers.”

Bookmark and Share

No Comments

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a comment