Graduation Speeches: Positive Results of a True Assessment (Part 2)

In my previous article, Graduation Speeches (Part 1), I proposed that valedictorian, salutatorian or student speeches given at graduations should be a primary point of judgment, or “assessment” to use the modern term, on whether a school is fulfilling its mission.

To help highlight what is possible, and what schools really can do in the modern world, I give you more of their words, directly. Here are a few more protracted examples of some excerpts from two different schools that are purposeful in their mission—one an inner-city high school that shifted its mission six years ago and is now reaping the rewards, the other a newer school founded on the mission expressed in The Holy See’s Teaching on Catholic Schools by Archbishop J. Michael Miller.

From Saint Mary’s, this valedictorian was part of the first four years of the re-shaped focus on mission. She was clearly formed by the school’s newfound inheritance of the Catholic intellectual tradition.

For the past four years, Saint Mary’s has proposed a path to Truth, a way to profoundly live, and now it is up to each of us to pursue that end of happiness. As Christians, we realize that the true fruits of our labor come not in this world, but in the next, so we can be joyful in this earthly life even through the hardships and in the pit of all suffering.

So as we go out into the world, remember that there is a deeper and exponentially richer life behind the thick curtain of fake culture. This fake culture lacks foundation, and so moves on into despair, feeding into its own facade that it perpetuates. This sort of society creates a mere shell of a person, made to progress, not to live. The people of this society are caught up in the superficial, floating in the realm of his or her own made-up reality that plays on in a monotonous loop winding down to nothingness and eventual oblivion.

[W]hile most people seem to think the biggest problem in our culture is outer turmoil, there is a much larger crisis at hand: the crisis of inner turmoil. The world has seen great impending fears and struggles before (the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 or the advent of WWII, etc.), but the real issue at hand is a society with an aversion to truth.

We are living in the midst of a culture that has completely forgotten the importance of asking the big questions: “What constitutes a human person?” “What is the end of a human person?” “What is beauty?”

I can guarantee you that the vast majority of people our age, when asked “how they were going to make a difference or change the world”, speak of political reform without ever picking up a copy of our favorite treatise by John Locke…. They speak vaguely about “equality” without ever considering the nature of the human person and what it really means to be “equal.” Everybody wants to be the one to “change the world,” to leave a mark behind saying “I did this,” but how are we even supposed to know how to make a difference if we don’t know what differences need to be made?

This isn’t a make-believe reality. If you are under the impression that Jesus is some sort of sentimental or fairy-tale-like idea made only to induce a synthetic sensation for people to feel better or worse about the life they lead and the choices they make, you have tragically and thoroughly missed the point.

We have all been blessed to have a school which loves us and desires for us to turn the tide of civilization by forming individuals in the Truth. We are all greatly fortunate to have teachers and parents who want us to be different, to make a difference, and to know that the path to happiness and true life only starts with a proper formation of our minds to know Truth and to love the Lord.

Now is the time to take the blessings we have been given and turn them into something fruitful.

We can all skate through life, perhaps even with some worldly success, and we might think we are happy enough, but a life lived in Christ is a promise of eternity, the summit of all happiness, and perfect love. We were entrusted with the world and in Christ we can change it for the better in whatever wonderful ways, big or small, He has planned for us.[1]

At my own school, the valedictorian understands the purpose of what he was educated for—the mission of all Catholic education:

We have received an incredible formation here. We have received our friendships. But what is it all for? What will we do with them? There are many different paths we can take, but they must all have the same mission, the same end. We must do what our teachers have done for us. We must aid the Church in her great duty of spreading the Good News to all we meet by being examples to everyone of the joy that can be attained through Christ and His Church.

Then, his classmate, who gave the class-speaker address, pulled from contemporary thinkers but showed that such ideas have their roots in the canon of great thinkers and writers of Western Civilization. He cites Steve Jobs and Ronald Reagan, then links their ideas to the ancient Greeks and Old English literature. He draws out the ideas!

Studying stories (such as The Odyssey or Beowulf) that grapple with the fundamental questions in life help plant seeds of thought within the student’s mind, which may eventually grow into further realization and understanding. Meanwhile, the study of logic and mathematics helps form a clear, rational mind receptive to truth. Once truth is discovered, the skills taught in rhetoric, grammar, oration, and writing allow for that same truth to be eloquently expressed. This is the method behind a Classical Education, and the reason this style of education has been endorsed by presidents and tech geniuses alike.

He goes on to show his humility in the presence of real wisdom:

The way I’ve been talking about a classical education may make it sound like just by studying this book and that poem one can magically form a perfect, wise, intelligent person on par with King Solomon himself. All it takes is a quick glance at my class to see that’s not the case. It would take a much longer time than four years, studying many, many more works than we have, to gain any significant amount of wisdom. We have learned and studied much, but ultimately it is only a grain of sand on the shore.

Then, in a beautiful exposé of the real reason for all we do, he reminds his classmates that “the education we receive is so powerful, effective, and lasting because it is centered in human relationships, like Christ and His disciples.”

To close, he again toggles from the Gettysburg Address to Steven Hawking and Martin Luther King to conclude that we must walk forward in humility, knowing we have only begun to scratch the surface in learning:

It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that because we have graduated with a Classical Education and have laid a strong foundation, we are all set and know everything. But it must be remembered, as Stephen Hawking once said, that “the greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, but the illusion of knowledge.” Although we as students read and study and delve into the deeper questions of life, we have not lived life yet. School has prepared us for it as best it could, but we must realize we are inexperienced and we must act with humility as we continue to learn.

As one grandparent said to me, eyes moist in both hope and loss after this last speech, “Every child, every single young person in this country should have the opportunity these young people have. What a tragedy! All the potential, all the light, all the wisdom and love that these kids get is held back from most children. What a tragedy—it is their inheritance, why are they not allowed to see it, hear it, read it, imbibe it? I have great hope in these young people. They truly will be the light of the world.”

 

[1] http://www.smknights.org/District/Blog/2135-Emily-Normand-16-Valedictory-Address.html

MICHAEL J. VAN HECKE, M.Ed., a seasoned headmaster and educational speaker, is also the founder and president of The Institute for Catholic Liberal Education and the Catholic Textbook Project. In their spare time, he and his wife farm avocados.

Copyright © 2018 The Cardinal Newman Society. Permission to reprint without modification to text, with attribution to author and to The Cardinal Newman Society, and (if published online) hyperlinked to the article on the Newman Society’s website. The views expressed herein are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Cardinal Newman Society.

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