Address to the Gutenberg Class of 2011

by Jack Crabtree


Dr. Crabtree gave this talk on June 10, 2011.

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Every now and then something occurs that reminds me how truly remarkable a Gutenberg graduate is. I have, at times, sat in a two-year oral exam and been dazzled by how broad and deep is the knowledge of the history of Western Civilization that this young college sophomore has gained. He or she has acquired by the age of nineteen or twenty what I did not acquire until my forties. Or, I have read a senior thesis and marveled at how brilliant it is—doubting that I could have written a paper that good. It happened again just this very week. Several of us went over to Sisters, Oregon, to present a “Taste of Gutenberg” to a small community that genuinely seems to want to claim Gutenberg College as its own. Part of the “Taste” we gave them was a brief sample of a Gutenberg-style reading discussion. In the two discussions that I led, I sat quietly by, admiring the skill with which current students and alumni engaged in the art of intelligent conversation and dialogue with one another. But—if you can believe the feedback they gave us—what I quietly admired, the townspeople of Sisters were utterly amazed by. When I see the reactions of others outside the Gutenberg community, I am reminded what a special class of people you Gutenberg students and Gutenberg graduates are. You have developed a skill that is truly rare in modern American culture—the ability to wrestle intelligently with texts and ideas in conversation with others, to do so with genuine humility and respect for one another, and to glean insights from one another in the process. All of you Gutenberg alums and you graduating seniors need to be commended for the work you have done to acquire these truly remarkable skills, and more importantly, for the well-trained and intellectually mature minds that go with it.

Let me turn now and address the Class of 2011. Congratulations on your remarkable achievement! As one quite familiar with the educational journey that you have just completed, let me say that it is a truly impressive accomplishment. You have tackled some of the most difficult literature history has ever produced; you have worked to wrap your mind around very unfamiliar and alien ideas; and you have obtained an understanding of the general background for the history of ideas that very few college graduates will ever obtain. If you invested yourself in it at all, you have—in my estimation—received one of the finest liberal arts educations in the country today. You can be justifiably proud of what you have done. You, along with your fellow alumni, have developed very fine, well-equipped minds.

It is at this point that I am supposed to tell you how it is up to you—with the fine education you have received—to go out and change the world for the better. The future belongs to you; you are the hope of the future; or, if I were creative, I could invent some new cliché about you and the future. But graduating classes for hundreds of years have been sent out to change the world and…well…it hasn’t been all that effective. The world is a huge inertial mass. I don’t think you are going to change the world any more than the last one hundred graduating classes have done. So, if you don’t mind, I’m going to dispense with that speech. If I understand how things really are, it is far more important that you be open to the changes that God wants to work in you than that you change the world. For what does it profit a man if he changes the whole world and yet loses his own soul? And besides, if you change the world, the next graduating class will probably just change it back again anyway.

So, instead of exhorting you to change the world, I would like to speak to you from my heart. I would like to address what I personally would love to see transpire in each of you as individuals, to describe where I would love to see each of you end up. Obviously, my comments here arise from my own value system; they result from my personal commitments. So, take them with whatever grain of salt seems necessary. But, as one who has grown to have great respect for each of you and who cares about your lives, here are a few things that I hope you will take heed of in the years that lie ahead.

In the most general of terms, what I desire for you is this: I want you to go beyond your present achievement of becoming intelligent, articulate, well-educated, and intellectually mature and go on to achieve that rare mark of becoming wise. Having intelligence, creativity, and intellectual skill is a dangerous thing. You can use it for good, or you can use it for evil. You can use it to bring fullness to your existence, or you can use it to destroy yourselves. We at Gutenberg have armed you with a powerful weapon. Now I must plead with you, “Please, for your sake, use it safely.” No school, no institution, no education can make you wise. Only you can do that. One must deliberately choose wisdom in order to become wise. If you reject it, no amount of knowledge or intellectual capacity will infuse you with it. Wisdom is not primarily an intellectual achievement; it is a moral and spiritual achievement. And, as such, you, and only you, can give birth to it within yourself. My sincere desire is that you will ultimately manifest wisdom in all of its aspects.

Even if I had time, I could not begin to enumerate all the positive aspects of wisdom. But I want to recommend to you just six things that I think might be particularly pertinent to you, the graduating class of 2011:

First, I hope that you will make a concerted effort to stay intellectually fit. I have seen you in action. You are intellectually powerful right now. You have spent every week for the past four years wrestling with difficult texts and difficult ideas. You have stretched yourself and tested yourself intellectually. Some of you, at least, have surprised yourself at what a capable and powerful mind you have. You have gained confidence in your ability to wrap your mind around the thoughts and ideas of another. I sincerely hope that you will keep your intellectual muscle strong and fit.

I have noticed a significant pattern in American culture. We Americans go to college and expand our knowledge and intellectual powers. Then we graduate and never stretch our minds again. My teaching takes me between two worlds: the world of Gutenberg and the world of mostly college-educated adults. I find that it is significantly easier to communicate difficult ideas, unfamiliar concepts, and complex arguments to you students than it is to adults who are beyond their college undergraduate years. Why is that? Because you have daily practice at wrapping your minds around hard-to-grasp ideas and at following involved and difficult arguments. But, for the adult who has left his college years behind, there is little opportunity in our culture—outside of academia—to test and challenge and truly exercise his mind. The typical American college graduate allows his mental muscle to atrophy and grow weak. I sincerely hope that will not happen to you. It will not be easy to avoid. Everything in our culture will work against you; nothing will aid you in the effort. I hope you will creatively devise a plan whereby you can continually challenge yourself intellectually and practice comprehending what is inherently hard to comprehend. Intellectual exertion is hard work. It will be easy just to be lazy. Intellectual exercise takes as much—indeed I think it takes more—personal discipline than does physical exercise. I hope you develop the discipline needed to continually exercise your mind.

Secondly and even more importantly—I believe—I hope you will make a concerted effort to stay morally fit. Looking once again at American culture, we are so utterly lopsided and out of balance. When we pay any attention to fitness at all, we become obsessed with physical fitness. But we pay no mind to moral and spiritual fitness at all. What do I mean by “moral fitness”? It is the ability to perceive that what is good is good, to discern that what is evil is evil, to see that what is valuable is valuable, and to know that what is worthless is worthless. A person cannot develop moral fitness without wanting it in the first place. Then, if you want it, you have to practice it. Most people are morally passive. They allow their values to be shaped and molded by the culture around them. The morally fit person does not allow that. He takes responsibility for his values and moral judgments. He is willing to be fiercely independent of his culture and his peers, no matter what the cost. I hope that all of you will spend your life practicing goodness—both discerning what it is and doing it in how you live and act.

Thirdly (and since this is a family friendly event I shall express my point in code language), I sincerely hope that you will use your Gutenberg education to become true philosophers—lovers of wisdom—and not male bovine scat spewers. That is, I hope you do not become B-S-ers.

A B-S-er is glib. He knows how to sound like he knows what he is talking about. But, in fact, he is full of empty words. He is quick to come up with specious objections, but he has no answers. He constructs impressive-sounding arguments, but he never arrives at anything he can commit to. He has fragments of insights, but he has no real understanding within which to contain them. He displays impressive intelligence, but he has no wisdom to show. In fact, the B-S-er uses his glibness and intelligence to fend off real insight and real truth, deceiving himself by way of his own specious arguments and objections.

A Gutenberg education has given you ample resources to develop into a very proficient and impressive B-S-er. Tempting though it may be, please don’t go there. Strive to be men and women who humbly and sincerely seek after real insight and real wisdom. Please don’t waste your excellent education producing male bovine scat. That would be a tragic waste indeed. I sincerely hope that you will use your education to pursue wisdom and become a genuine philosopher.

My fourth desire is this: I hope that you will not allow yourself to play the “cynic.” By “cynic” I do not mean someone who has a clear, sober, and realistic assessment of the brokenness of mankind and the world. That is not cynicism; that is wisdom. By “cynic” I mean the person who shows contempt for everything around him that he deems to be inferior. He is the one who holds in contempt everything that he deems to be corny. Admittedly, the cynic is socially “cool.” That is why playing the part of a “cynic” is such an attractive option. But it is a cheap “cool.” It is way too easy. Any fool can be a cynic. The wise man or woman is never cool; he is just wise. As long as this world is this world, truth and goodness will always seem corny. But however corny they seem, good is still good, and truth is still truth. I hope you will always persist in being wise and corny rather than cynical and cool.

A fifth, but closely related, desire is this: I sincerely hope that you will not prove to be a fool. By that, I mean, the sort of person who deliberately prefers to be stupid. The fool I have in mind is the person who has paralyzed himself intellectually. Because he is unwilling to commit, unwilling to pay the price of living in the light of what is true, he tries to escape the implications of what is true by playing dumb—indeed, by making himself dumb. “If I don’t get it,” he reasons, “I can’t be blamed for not embracing it. How can I be blamed for not believing what I just can’t manage to understand?” The Bible sees this as a ploy. It is not that he cannot understand; he chooses not to understand. He paralyzes himself intellectually in order to escape responsibility for a knowledge of reality that is actually quite accessible to him. Such foolishness is a moral deficiency, not an intellectual one. The fool throws dust in his own eyes so that he need not have to see. Then he cries out to others and to God, “Have mercy on me. Don’t censure me or blame me, for I am simply unable to see.” Don’t play the fool. Have the courage to face truth and reality, whatever it may turn out to be, and allow it to guide your life and define your existence. Ignorance and a lack of understanding is never a valid excuse when it is self-induced and freely chosen.

Finally, I hope that you will continue to seek clarity in your understanding of the biblical message.

Some of you are committed Christian believers; others of you perhaps are not. If you have not decided that Christianity is true, I hope that you will continue to explore the biblical message. If you have already decided that it is true, I hope you will continue the journey. I hope that you will open your hearts to God, believe the truth He has revealed, and serve Him by doing your part to persuade others to believe His good news message to mankind.

Whether you believe the biblical message or not, do not assume that you understand it. Search for it. Pursue it. Wrestle with it. For, if I am right, it is Life itself. You will face no more important decision in your life than how to respond to Jesus and the Bible’s teaching about him. If the Bible has it right, your default setting would lead you to your ultimate destruction. Please don’t settle for the default.

Hopefully you have already realized that the message of the Bible is decidedly different from what is conveyed by the many-flavored folk religion that we know as Christianity. The history of Christianity is the history of a steady drift away from the gospel message of Jesus. We ignorant human beings have ripped off some of the vocabulary and concepts of the profound, liberating, and intelligent message of Jesus and the apostles and have built from them different variations of a totally different religion. In their weariness, those who lose their heart for the journey have decided to stop thinking about what is true and to settle comfortably into their preferred flavor of this later, concocted Christian religion. Every disciple of Jesus grows weary of the journey. Every believer has benefited greatly from his or her times of rest in one or more of the many denominational way stations. But the one who is really following truth, the one who is really following Jesus, will not mistake the way station for the final destination. He will resume his journey. He will continue to seek greater clarity and greater accuracy in his grasp of the truth recorded in the Bible. That is my hope for all of you. Keep moving. Continue the journey. Never stop seeking an ever clearer grasp of the authentic message of Jesus. Don’t allow intellectual laziness or existential exhaustion to induce you to settle for man-made dogma instead.

So, these are the six pieces of advice that I want to give you this evening as you commence your life in the real world:

  1. Seek to remain intellectually fit;
  2. Pursue moral fitness;
  3. Don’t become a B-S-er;
  4. Don’t be a cynic;
  5. Don’t be a fool; and
  6. Don’t neglect the journey to understand the true and authentic message of the Bible.

Over time, as Gutenberg’s reputation grows, it would not surprise me if someday you get to experience that thrill of self-importance when people, upon learning where you went to school, say, “Oh, you went to Gutenberg!” Gutenberg graduates are already building a reputation for Gutenberg through their impressive intellectual skills and academic preparedness. But I hope you will not be content with that ephemeral thrill of self-importance. My hope is that when people watch you in the years to come, they will be impressed with something more important than your intellectual and academic prowess. I hope they see a man or woman who acts and speaks as a person who knows and loves what is good and who knows and practices truth. The education you have received does not guarantee that you will go there from here. It is a choice that you will and must make for yourself. I pray that you make that choice.

Class of 2011, congratulations on your truly remarkable achievement! We will miss you! But we look forward to watching where you go and what you become. May God grant you shalom!

Copyright August 2011 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

Jack Crabtree