The False God of Education: A Baccalaureate Address
The following is an excerpt from a talk I gave at the Baccalaureate Service for Canterbury School in Fort Myers, Florida:
The first Jewish President of the United States is on the phone with his mother. He wants her to visit the family in the White House. No, she says, I can’t get to the airport. A limo will take her to Air Force One. No, she says, you’re too busy to pick me up at the airport. She will land on the South Lawn in a chopper No, she says, why should the First Lady have to cook for her? The White House has a kitchen staff. No, one of the kids will have to sleep in the living room on a couch. The White House has nothing if not plenty of rooms. She will have the Lincoln bedroom. Reluctantly, the President’s mother agrees to being picked up by limo, flown to Washington on the President’s plane, choppered to the White House in the Presidential helicopter, and staying for a week in the Lincoln bedroom.
When she hangs up from the President, she calls a friend. “I’m going to spend a week at my son’s house.”
“How nice! Which son? The one who’s a doctor?”
“Nah. The other one.”
The grain of truth around which this pearl of humor has grown is that we are often guilty of the sin of idolatry, idolatry in the sense that it is what can happen when we make one of our values, other than goodness and related things, values in and of themselves. We do that in many ways. One way is when holding a certain degree, or being in a certain career, becomes the most important thing in life. Grandmothers do it when they respond to inquiries about the ages of their grandchildren with “the doctor is four and the lawyer is two.”
Graduates, you have invited me here tonight to talk to you on the eve of a momentous occasion in your academic careers. I assure you, I do not merely congratulate you on your graduation, but in many ways, I am humbled in the face of what you have achieved. I know what it means that your diploma is from Canterbury School.
You will each leave Canterbury for another campus, each to your own choice. At your university, you will find education and knowledge in great abundance, and you should absorb every last bit of it you can. You should look not through a telephoto lens at what your university offers, but with a wide angle lens, expanding your field of view. A friend of mine spent his medical career as a professor of pediatrics, and he told me that if a student had an opening in his schedule and wanted to put in some extra science, he as the student’s advisor would not sign off on it. He insisted that it be used for something else, almost anything else, history, literature, music or art appreciation—anything, as long as it broadened the student’s education. I urge you to do the same. You will have opportunities during these next years that you may never have again. Just understand that what you become from this exposure is educated. We consider that a worthy goal in and of itself—in other words, we have made education a value in and of itself, and that, my friends, I am calling idolatry. Now I have to make the case for doing so.
My case is simple. Education is analogous to a gun. Take it and put it into the hands of a highly trained police sniper, and that gun will be used to protect and defend innocent lives. Put it into the wrong hands, it is used in precisely the opposite way. Give a man a medical education, and sometimes you get a Jonas Salk. Or, sometimes, a Josef Mengele.
Society’s highest value must not be to produce educated people. Our highest value must be to produce good people. Then we can put a high value on educating them. But we ignore the following at our own peril: the correlation between a person’s level of education and degree of goodness is, to quote the classic film Animal House, zero point zero.
Knowledge alone is insufficient to make good people. What must accompany knowledge is wisdom. My friends, please understand that you will glean much knowledge from your education, but not wisdom. Wisdom comes from another source.
To aid you in beginning a life-long pursuit of wisdom, let me offer you the following verse from the Book of Psalms:
Wisdom begins with awe of God.
Here is what it means. Science has taught us a great deal about the origins of the universe. I accept and embrace this secular knowledge of how the universe came to be, but I have a question that science cannot answer: for what purpose did the universe come into being? I think that question demands an answer, and I cannot accept that the answer is it just plain happened for no purpose at all. The intricacies of the universe lead me to conclude it could not be the result of randomness. There is too much structure and order not to have been the result of a design of some sort. I call the source of that design God. I believe that God’s design of the universe included certain moral absolutes. I stand in awe of that God.
That is the beginning of the wisdom needed to decide between right and wrong, or even between right and right. It is the idea that certain things are wrong in and of themselves, not because you say so or I say so or the community says so, but because they were defined so by the Creator of the Universe. This is the stuff of wisdom—ethics, morality, good and evil. And although one might choose to use one’s talents, gifts, and education to make some piece of this world a little bit better, wisdom that begins with awe of God leads to the realization that we are obliged to do so.
My friends, go to your universities and soak up knowledge like Larry the Cable Guy soaking up sausage gravy with buttermilk biscuits. While you are there, ponder the difference between knowledge and wisdom, and the quotation Wisdom begins with the awe of God. Ask yourself if you believe the universe is merely a happy accident. See if your own inner wisdom leads to you the conclusion there was a Creator. Consider the idea that reaping the benefits of the Creator’s world obligates each of us to contribute something back to it. Grow in knowledge, and grow in wisdom. And then, my friends, make it so that the world is better off because you, a person both educated and wise, are part of it.
With that challenge now before you, I return once again to the Biblical text, and conclude with these words:
May God bless you and watch over you;
May God’s light shine upon you and may God be gracious unto you;
May God look upon you and grant you peace.