I remember two statements made by Robert Louis Wilken in his commencement speech here at the Dominican House of Studies a few weeks ago. The first is that no one remembers commencement speeches. Now whether that’s because most graduates are too excited, preoccupied with capturing a sufficient number of selfies, or because the speech content is forgettable (often amounting to a glorified version of Vitamin C’s matriculation classic Graduation (Friends Forever)), Wilken’s claim seems regrettably true. What makes the average commencement speech so forgettable?
I think the message is often too broad, with exhortations to change the world and find yourself. Or maybe it’s change yourself and find the world, which may excite or inspire momentarily, until we realize it’s hard enough to change the block we live on, let alone the world. And it’s even harder to change ourselves. The self remains fundamentally a mystery, and attempts to discover, find, change, or actualize often serve to reinforce that. This is one of the main points of Walker Percy’s classic Lost In The Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book. Percy shows that the self is in fact incapable of helping itself: only God can help the self.
So to verify my generalizations leveled against the modern commencement ethos, I put on my hard helmet and did a little data-mining. My suspicions were confirmed. Here’s a sample:
But what I urge you to do is not just take your place at the top of the world, but to change the world.
– Arianna Huffington, Commencement Address at Smith College, 2013
You have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. You can’t get there by bus, only by hard work and risk and by not quite knowing what you’re doing, but what you’ll discover will be wonderful. What you’ll discover will be yourself.
– Alan Alda, Commencement Address at Connecticut College, 1980
So goes the conventional commencement wisdom heard at graduation ceremonies around this time each year: Change the world! Discover yourself! It’s not that these are wrong aspirations to have — they are just too general, too vague, and so we have trouble performing them and we also just forget them. We may plan to change the world the day after graduation but then remember we have to take out the trash and look for a job.
This brings me to the second thing I remember from Wilken’s speech, which builds on the first. Because commencement speeches are forgettable (or at least quickly forgotten), Wilken wanted to guarantee that something would stick to our synapses from his talk. So he enjoined us to remember just two words: faithful steward. I think this message goes deeper than the conventional kind mentioned above, and not just because it’s easy to remember.
The graduates from the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception earn degrees in theology, so Wilken’s injunction that theologians be faithful stewards clearly applies to them. But I believe it can also apply to all graduates: all are called to be faithful stewards of the knowledge they have received. Nevertheless, I will focus primarily on the theology graduate.
How is the theology graduate a steward? The theologian is first of all a steward in that he has been entrusted with something he himself did not create or conjure. A steward is one who takes care of something. In this he is also a servant because he cares for something and will also hand it on to another. Specifically, the theologian has been entrusted with sacred science, built upon the first principles of Revelation, which are held by faith. The theologian is certified as possessing the speculative skills to reason about the things of God and the Church.
And how is the steward faithful in this case? The steward is not charged with merely preserving what he has been entrusted with. To be faithful one must build on the gift. The parable of the talents (Matt 25:14-30) is instructive here, for in that parable it is the one who multiplies his talents who is praised. Now the gift varies from person to person — one can earn an S.T.B., M.A., S.T.L., or S.T.D. and also merit degrees of honor from cum laude to summa cum laude — but regardless of the difference one must build on it with dedication to remain faithful to the gift. Mere preservation will be insufficient. The framed degree is just a symbol of the knowledge of the one whose name it bears. To use an agricultural metaphor, one must responsibly cultivate and care for this gift and not let it lie fallow. There are obvious ways the theologian can carry this responsibility out: contemplating, teaching, writing, and preaching.
So being a faithful steward has an obvious application to a theology graduate, but we can also extend this injunction to all graduates. If one earns a degree, one has been entrusted with knowledge. The graduate – any graduate – stands in a line. Before him are those who have preserved, cultivated, and handed down the knowledge he now has, and after him are those to whom he will in turn hand on that which he has received, whether by teaching or by putting that knowledge into practice. In this handing on of knowledge he is also serving others. One can think about education in these terms regardless of one’s field of study. Perhaps by doing so, one can begin to aspire to the more vague commencement exhortations. One will see education in terms of service and stewardship, and then maybe see the big picture in the same way. That is, if one wishes to discover himself and change the world, a good place to start is by serving, by being a faithful steward.
Image: Line of Young People at a Commencement Ceremony