Last week I did a “commencement address” to college students. Today I take on their high school counterparts.
I have accumulated a decidedly incongruent academic career, by current standards at least. After enduring the offspring of this country’s premier zip code at the Palm Beach Day School (now the Palm Beach Day Academy,) I went down the coast to the St. Andrew’s School. A college preparatory institution, it woke up one way to discover that it didn’t really intend for me to go to the college I chose: Texas A&M University. Thanks to my nice Jewish classmate the blowback from that decision isn’t as painful as it once was.
Disparity and blowback notwithstanding, the last two institutions have one thing in common: their reputation has improved greatly since they handed me a diploma. St. Andrew’s is now one of South Florida’s most prestigious secondary schools; when I tell people back home I went there, they’re generally impressed. Texas A&M has come a long way as well, especially in the sciences and engineering that have always been its speciality. When A&M joined the Southeast Conference recently, the hope was out there that the school would enhance the academic standard of the conference.
We live in a culture where what’s on one’s diploma is dreadfully important, from who becomes President downward. One reason (not the only one) why I never pursued the Ivy League option is because I never thought this country would become the credential-obsessed mandarinate that it has. But that’s just the point of this piece, aimed primarily at high school graduates: you have to pick the next step based not only on where you want to go, but where you think everything else might go as well.
It’s easy to look at things the way they are and follow the conventional wisdom. Today we have the mandarinate. But what will things look like in ten years? twenty? fifty? Will the choices we make today not look so hot a few years down the road? Will the underlying institutions that hold things together continue to do so? Will they come apart in bankruptcy and corruption? Will the centres of power shift? These are questions that, in our “pursue your dream” culture, get the short shrift. We’re supposed to dream our dream and pursue it, right? But what happens when we have to wake up?
In their book Latin for People, the Humez brothers observe the following:
It is not everybody who can tell you something about the future and have it turn out to be true. The original Indo-Europeans, rather than make frequent liars out of each other, seem to have decided that the safest way of talking about the future was in the subjunctive, and a separate future tense could wait to be invented until later when life was bound to be more certain.
Americans love to live in the subjunctive, which is a big reason why the reality of the last four years has been so painful. But we at least need to take a stab at finding out where things are going in a realistic way. After all, we have to live in the future we make, unlike the various promoters in our life who steer us one way or another.
Liberals tell us that we should read more books. Personally I think we should take that a step further (liberals used to as well, until they got control) and read subversive books. Subversive books are not those which express whatever radical chic that’s out there (like the ones that Bill Ayers wrote for Barack Obama) but those which really challenge the apparent reality that’s being presented to us.
Subversive books taught me two things: a) the various political, economic and social systems out there won’t last forever and b) I wouldn’t either. Let me deal with the first.
We live in a country that is being run into the ground by the people that own and operate it. Americans operate with the implicit assumption that this country will last forever, but history tells us that it will not. History also tells us that, when a country is being ineptly lead, that end will be accelerated. As even my not terribly religious grandfather observed, this country has many blessings. But these can be squandered, and they are by a system which is more interested in implementing the fashionable than the workable.
In the days before Columbus the Straits of Gibraltar were considered the end of the navigable world, and their motto was “Ne Plus Ultra” (there was no beyond). After Columbus and others demonstrated otherwise, we changed their motto to “Plus Ultra” (there is a beyond). Although Americans are good at running their international reputations down through tourism outside the country, it seldom occurs to them that their future might be there.
During the current occupancy of the White House, I read an article in, of all places, the New York Times where a young Connecticut man struggled to find a job even with a degree from a prestigious institution. His grandfather, a World War II veteran, suggested that he look for work outside of the country. The young man declined, preferring the homebody dole route.
When the Greatest Generation suggests it’s time to skip the country, you know we’re in trouble. But why take it from these stalwarts; our own government is funding those who wish to study abroad, especially in China. Although our higher educational system is still the wonder of the world, it isn’t the only game in town. And just because your government (or somebody else) pays your way into a foreign education doesn’t mean you have to come back. As was the case with my prep school and college, today’s struggling institution is tomorrow’s powerhouse, and that goes for companies and countries as much as educational institutions.
That last point brings me to focus on a subset of you: Christians. You should face the facts: your country doesn’t want you any more. They don’t want your values, they don’t want your lifestyle, and most of all they don’t want anyone who believes that there’s anything or anyone beyond them. Your country? That probably betrays a very Palm Beachy view that a country is defined by its people at the top. Sad to say I’ve lived long enough to see that reality cross Lake Worth and become the driving force in society, a by-product (or the intention?) of a society where the money and the power is increasingly centralised. You can dredge up anything you want from our history, but it doesn’t change the simple fact that the reality on the ground (or in the air between New York and Los Angeles) is not the same.
Now American Christians have one serious block on the road to a new life elsewhere: they’ve come to equate a great Christian life with material prosperity. Most American Christians associate leaving the country with mission work, and about the best the most can muster is short-term missions, much to the collective sigh of the long-timers. But the New Testament makes a stark differentiation between what’s good in this world and what’s good with God.
For those of you who are not called to emigration, one piece of advice: have an exit strategy for whatever life plan you have. It’s the American way to have “Plan A” and kill yourself (or go to pieces) to make it happen without recourse to an alternative. If there’s one place in life where you need to be unAmerican, it’s here. Have a Plan B and be happy with the life God has given you.
And that leads me to the second lesson from subversive books: someday we all will end, on the earth at least. Really, I didn’t learn that from reading a book, but I did learn (with divine prompting) about the ultimate exit strategy. The death rate is still one per person. We’re told these days that advances in medicine will make perpetual bodily life a reality not so far into the future. But if we look at the insanity which drives our world these days, we’ll most likely end up like Tolkien’s elves: given that eternity in the body, we’ll destroy ourselves with fruitless quests and internal divisions, to the point where death will become the “gift of men”. Eternity is still what matters; don’t lose sight of it.
Well, I’m sure your school administration is squirming in its seat at all of this, which is one reason why I don’t give these speeches live. (Idea: if you want to give a theistic commencement speech in a public school setting, just put it on Facebook and tell everyone to go there. Not only will you get your message across, but it will ruin the ceremony, as everyone will be cruising their mobile devices from there out.) But as a person who is a product of both long term success in this world and the world to come, I weary of the “conventional wisdom of the unwashed”, even when they have standing in the new elite. May God richly bless you now and always!