Toward a Distant Harbor
[This talk was given at the Gutenberg College graduation ceremony on June 15, 2012.]
I began teaching at Gutenberg four years ago, the same year most of the class of 2012 entered as freshman. The following essay is adapted from my graduation speech to them.
The seniors asked me to talk about the process of Gutenberg. I attempted to describe this process from the inside—from their perspective. In delivering the speech, I took a liberty. Instead of describing them from the outside, I described us from the inside. That’s why I used ‘my’, ‘ours’, and ‘we’ instead of ‘their’, ‘theirs’, and ‘them’. I ask for their indulgence and your forgiveness for this liberty.
Our crew met on September 21, 2008. A Sunday afternoon around 4:00 p.m. Our voyage will be populated by a crew of nine. My shipmates are from Caldwell (Idaho), Portland, Buenos Aires, Kansas City, Eugene, Thailand, Connecticut, and Tennessee.
Based on our dress, we have nothing in common. One wears a woolen suit jacket and a skirt. Another a tie-dye t-shirt. Another something he unballed from his hamper. Boots, sandals, high heels, clogs, Vans, running shoes.
We are quite different in shape and size, too. The two from Argentina couldn’t be more different; she is petite with a cascade of yellow hair; he is—well, not petite—with a hive of brown hair. One has tattoos. The others protest tattoos with their clean skin.
Nothing in common. For the next four years.
Every ship hoists sail with a destination in mind. Our destination (so says one of the tutors during Orientation Week) is to become mature, critical thinkers. This is the first major disappointment of our voyage.
Mature, critical thinkers? Who wants to be mature? Who wants to be critical?
I suppose I knew that this was the destination when I enlisted for the voyage. I suppose I had read it on the website. But now becoming a mature, critical thinker sounds quite—what’s the word?—dull.
We learn something else during Orientation Week. In addition to becoming mature, critical thinkers, we are supposed to strive to understand The Truth. This is the second major disappointment of the voyage.
Understand The Truth? If mature critical thinking seems dull, understanding The Truth seems so—what’s the word?—obsolete.
But what did we expect? These tutors with their gray hair, pleated pants, and wrist watches seem so—what’s the word?—old. They come from a bygone era of typewriters, leaded gasoline, and patriotism.
I don’t blame them for believing in The Truth. It’s exciting to believe in The Truth. It’s like believing in the lost city of Atlantis. It’s exhilarating and tantalizing—though completely imaginary.
So. Here I am, enduring Orientation Week, our ship pointed at a dull (probably imaginary) port, surrounded by a motley crew, grinding thru five days’ of Orientation Week.
Alumni lead some Orientation Week discussions. These alums spit out obscure words and phrases: epistemology, micro-exegesis, expressionism, the-Copernican-model, existentialism, Keynesian economics, post-structuralism, (post-structuralism really?), Enlightenment ideals, and impressionism. These words are as obscure to me as ‘jib-boom’, ‘starboard mast’, and ‘aft-sail’; and I am sure the alumni do not have the foggiest what they mean. I’m sure they’re using them to humiliate us landlubbers. During one discussion on history or literature (I cannot remember), I glance at one of my shipmates and roll my eyes. He blinks back at me. Was that a knowing blink or a confused blink? Probably a knowing blink. I blink back—knowingly. I begin to blink a lot. My blinks grow in length. One stretches into a full-scale nap. I wake to realize I’ve missed nothing.
The boredom is taking control. Here we are. Still bobbing in harbor. Talking about sailing. Come on, let’s go! Let’s sail! On to critical maturity! On to mature criticality! On to anything but Orientation Week!
Finally, our first day at sea arrives. After five days of talking about sailing, we set sail at 8:30 a.m. Monday morning, September 29, 2008. A bit of brine in our stomachs, salt in the air, and Greek verbs on the white board.
In Greek class I accidentally flip-flop zeta and theta; my shipmates do not burst into hysterical laughter (maybe they’re decent people after all). Then comes our first Western Civ discussion. Will I say anything? Will they answer? Will the tutor approve?
The discussion is about Genesis 1–4. Familiar territory; I’ve read it a hundred times. Though this time Genesis seems different. I didn’t remember the part about the river. Or the precious stones. Or the gold.
I ask a question, which isn’t so much a question as it is a point and not so much a point as a vague hunch, which I’m trying to explain until finding myself nervous that my shipmates will think my point is Fundamentalist. I am definitely not a Fundamentalist. But, to be safe, I lurch suddenly into abstraction. I become so abstract that I’m not quite sure what I’m trying to say except that I am not a Fundamentalist, which now becomes my key point. Not that I’m a Liberal either. Not that I would call myself a Moderate (a fancy word for fence-sitting). Really, I hate labels. My views are quite unique. Unique and abstract and difficult to state in precise language.
Two hours later the discussion ends. I am very pleased with my performance, the points I made, the insights I demonstrated. The whole process was thrilling and engaging and at points even illuminating—until! One of the sophomores said he thought today’s discussion sucked. That was the word he used—‘sucked‘. A couple of shipmates look at me with expectation. And so I agree. I shove my fists in my pockets and agree that, yeah, discussion ’sucked.’
Months roll by at sea. Day after day of Greek. Euclid. Aristotle. Art.
Greek. Euclid. Aristotle. Heroditus.
Greek. Euclid. Aristotle. Thucydides.
Greek. Euclid. Aristotle. Polybius.
The sea and ancient readings swirl together in a gray mass of two angles being equal to one another the sides which subtend the equal angles will also be the Romans who categorically refused to discuss the justification of the Carthaginians’ action since what is in potency in each particular class of things is distinct from….
On and on and on it goes. Add to this monotony, the rain.
Every day. Every hour of every day. Every minute of every hour.
And my shipmates have grown so—what’s the word?—annoying.
One of them disagrees for the sake of disagreeing. Another one barely pays attention. Another launches into flights of fancy. And none of them listen.
On and on rolls the gray monotony of the sea is equal to the angle ACB is the side AB also equal to the side AC in which the first consuls for the expulsion of the Etruscan kings make it clear that the body is material, and the soul is immaterial and—what am I doing this for!? Why this rolling sea with its always-retreating horizon and never-breaking clouds and my indecision and inability to find or say what I really believe.
Then. Something completely unexpectedly happens. Socrates, a gadfly with hurricane wings. Straight up from the Aegean Sea. Absolutely indomitable.
See the man. See him argue for—yes, he even says so—The Truth. Socrates believes in Atlantis! Grasps for it. Lives for it. Mocks those who ignore it! Watch him pretend ignorance and then lacerate the privileged, the pompous, the self-appointed teachers of men. How delicious is his mockery, his wholesale destruction of fatuous politicians, dithering rhetoricians, and bloated affluence. I will follow him. I will break the monotony with barbed analysis.
I will begin with the Anselm reading. Although I did not really complete this week’s Anselm reading, I am ready to eviscerate his argument. Yes—I read only half of his argument (slightly less than half)—my analysis will be both trenchant and irrefutable.
During the early part of the discussion, my shipmates demonstrate that they do not understand Anselm. And although I only read one quarter of his argument, my insight will be devastating. The moment arrives. One of the Argentines has just made a point which I do not quite follow or need to follow because now it is time for me to uncoil my analysis. Which I do.
Unfortunately, my analysis is not quite as eloquent as when I rehearsed it in the men’s bathroom. Unfortunately, it’s not really about Anselm in particular. Or the reading in general. Or theology, philosophy, or the medieval world in general. But my argument remains profound, incisive, irrefutable. A wholesale destruction of Anselm!
And so I am surprised, even shocked, when the tie-dye one completely misrepresents my point. Deliberately misrepresents. Which is compounded by a further misrepresentation, this time by the other Argentine!
I do not like to interrupt. But I must interrupt. Given the circumstances, what choice do I have? I begin my sharp retort with the words, “No, That Is Not What I Meant At All!” Then I begin my clarification, which is not quite as clear as I had hoped. I do not really address Tie-Dye, the second Argentine, or first Argentine, but the original point was mine, so I am absolved of not addressing their points. Yes, my clarification does briefly veer off course to include a description of the bagel I had for breakfast and that one book I read for extra-credit in high school and a brief swipe at Fundamentalist Christians (for reasons I cannot quite recall), but my analysis remains, unquestionably, indomitably, a thudding rebuke to Anselm’s argument.
Which everyone in my class fails to hear. Two classmates are talking about page 63! A sophomore has made a joke which I did not hear but which is probably about me based on the way everyone is so deliberately not looking at me. Before I can add further clarification to my argument, the girl in the suit coat has set sail in a completely different direction. Which leaves me with but one alternative: to go below deck, to cross my arms, and to sulk out the remainder of the discussion.
Below deck, it occurs to me: I have boarded a ship heading toward some ill-defined, illusory port with a clump of egotistical theorists whose sails are full of their own hot air. The tutors are no better. Instead of appropriately praising unassailable arguments, they seem not to care. I have three more years of the angle ACB also being equal to the side AC while the Hannibal crosses the Alps and invades the fact that is predicated in being not becoming and—Why did I even come sailing?!
Granted, I now believe that The Truth might exist. But that doesn’t mean we can find it. After all, no eye has seen it and no ear has heard it. Furthermore, this whole mature-critical-thinker-business does not work. Maturing and criticizing does not make me happy.
I know what would make me happy. A few cold beers in rapid succession. Gutenberg students joke about the frats boys across the street. We laugh at their antics, but a bit too loudly and defensively. The truth is, I sometimes wish I was a frat boy with my shoulders on a deck chair, my feet in the grass, my left hand clutching a yellow beer, my right hand dotting an iPhone, my head dizzy with the camaraderie of attractive strangers.
This world is so heavy. My heart is so heavy. These books are so heavy.
And I cannot remember why I am sailing. Perhaps I should lower my sails, admit fatigue, and jump ship.
Some of our crew have already quit the boat. They fatigued. But their fatigue now looks intelligent. They realized there is only one possible destination for this ship. Four years of conjugating Greek verbs and dissecting medieval cosmology can only bring me to one possible port—unemployment.
I want to jump ship.
But at the end of year two, something happens. The tutors tell us to retrace our route, to chart our passage through the waves. They call it “Two Year Exams.” We will be tested upon these exams.
With my shipmates, I make maps, draw charts, define terms, find themes, and retrace my steps. After a few weeks of this, the ocean fog begins to lift. The horizon seems nearer.
The day of “Two Years” arrives. My palms sweat, my stomach tumbles, my elbows itch. I enter the examining room and sit. The tutors look straight at me and say,
“Define capitalism and trace its history.”
“Explain the major tenants of modern science.”
“Compare and contrast the French and American Revolutions.”
“Describe the accomplishments of Elizabeth the First, Augustus Caesar, Galileo, Erasmus, Charlemagne, Einstein, Newton.”
Here’s what’s amazing. I answer all their questions. I know the answers. We all know the answers. We have learned something. We have learned a lot. The sailing has made sense. And (even though I mistake Charlemagne for William the Conqueror) I pass my Two-Year Exams!
Moreover, during my summer break, I read Tolstoy and Shakespeare for the sheer pleasure of it! I even pick up my Bible again, less intimidated, more interested. Returning for my junior year, my classmates seem like different persons. Overnight they seem to have developed deep inner-lives. We drink coffee together. Share meals together. Read together. When I do not understand a reading, I go to class anticipating their help. I think,
Erin will formulate a question,
Karen will see something I didn’t,
Gill is good at these readings,
Zach will reach deep and show what he finds,
Carina will understand better than me,
Jonathan will push us past the deadlock,
Brian will clarify the picture, and
together we will come to an understanding, sometimes lurching, sometimes fighting, sometimes losing the plot. But then we find the plot.
When Socrates returns to the curriculum, he seems so different. He still skewers, demolishes, and jests. But, that’s not the point. The point was his task before God. His labor, his toil, his preoccupation were for a far undiscovered country. How did I not see this before?
The next two years fly past. What was once a rolling gray wash is now recognized terrain, buoyed with signposts, symbols, and insights. History does not lack meaning; it has an abundance of meaning. We write our Senior Theses, defend them, pass them.
Seniors, you have arrived in harbor, surrounded by family, friends, and teachers. Today you are decorated as graduates. You have earned the rights and privileges conferred to Gutenberg College alumni.
Allow me to speak briefly to you as your teacher. Soon you will say goodbye to those shipmates you now call friends. Soon you will say goodbye to us, your teachers. Soon you will set sail again on different seas. Instead of the Greek, Euclid, Aristotle, and Thucydides, you will face a different rolling gray monotony. That of baby diapers, income taxes, flat tires, wet socks, and hollow bank accounts. You will suffer blatant disrespect from your boss. You will endure cold negligence from your spouse. You will lose someone you love.
You will wonder if you can go on. You will be farther than ever from harbor. Seniors, remember! Remember the long labor of the last four years. Remember when you did not think you could make it.
You made it. You can make it again.
Today you leave us. Our prayer is that you nurture hope for the harbor whose builder and maker is God. Remember what faith is. Faith is persisting toward that harbor—even when you feel most distant from its shores.
Copyright June 2012 by Gutenberg College.