Keynote Address: Gonzaga University Academic Honors Convocation
April 25, 2017
Brian G. Henning, Ph.D.
The honors and awards you are receiving today are evidence that you are among the brightest and most dedicated students at Gonzaga. Not only do I applaud your accomplishments, I am eager to see your contributions to the world as you move beyond graduation. Indeed, in preparing for this talk I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be graduating from Gonzaga and joining the “real world” in the aftermath of the last American election.
In the opening decades of this new millennium, long-simmering conflicts have exploded into a rolling boil of fear, hostility, and violence. Whether we are talking about the ascent of religious fundamentalism, the mainstreaming of racism and sexism, or the ugly return of white nationalism, there is a move away from tolerance and appreciation of diversity toward the ever-more-strident formulation of absolutist positions. Dogmatism in its various forms seems to be on the rise as the rhetoric and reality of compromise and consensus building is replaced with the vitriol of moral superiority and righteousness. These trends take on added urgency when we consider the environmental crises that threaten not only human civilization, but all forms of life on this planet. Unhealthy air and water, species extinction, stronger, larger storms, prolonged droughts, the spread of deserts, deforestation, melting ice caps and glaciers, rising seas and the submersion of low-lying lands, your generation is inheriting no shortage of challenges created by your parents and grandparents. Given the state of the world, few things irk me more than when baby boomers or gen X criticize millennials such as yourselves. It is not your selfishness, your shortsightedness, or your greed that has brought us to this moment of social and ecological crisis. But it will be your generation who is left trying to pull us back from the abyss or, if not, then at least managing the descent.
In the ten minutes I have I’d like to make two points. The first concerns the likely impact of your education on how you will be as a citizen, parishioner, neighbor, worker, and family member. As Jesuit-educated individuals who have been encouraged to be women and men with and for others, you are among the small group of people on the planet who are likely to recognize the true nature of the crises before us and you are among the few individuals who will be driven to address them. At Gonzaga you’ve been offered a liberal arts education that has, if you’ve taken it seriously, changed how you think and, hopefully, how you act. You may find in the coming months that your state-school peers sometimes took more specialized, technical classes and, in the short-term, that might even give them a slight advantage when first joining the marketplace. However, I submit to you that, given a world fraught with such conflict, tension, and peril, what is needed is not merely technically proficient individuals who will help keep the hamster wheels of profitable consumption and waste turning.
Only gradually over the coming years will you realize that your Jesuit education has formed you to think and act differently from many of your peers. Your courses in philosophy, art, music, religious studies, political science, psychology, history, English, sociology and more will make you more comfortable with ambiguity and more appreciative of the complexity of issues. You’ll be more likely to see and make important distinctions. You’ll have a greater appreciation for cultural diversity and a lower tolerance for conditioned ethical blindness. You’ll be more likely to see and care about the ethical implications of your decisions and those for whom you work.
I suspect that in the next few years many of you will find yourself sitting in a meeting—whether it be in your neighborhood, place of worship, or place of work—and someone will make a proposal that seems deeply flawed, even morally problematic. You’ll look around the room expecting others to see the problem and speak up, but, more likely than not, you’ll find that no one does. You may often be the only person in the room who sees the problem, much less cares enough to do something about it. So in that meeting it may very well be the case that no one will care for the environment, for women’s rights, for immigrants, and cultural diversity unless you do. There are many forms this can take, including writing letters and marching in the street, but also in quiet places, face-to-face working across divisions to make your own part of the world a bit better. You, here in this room, truly are who the world needs, though I admit that you may very well find that often the world doesn’t quite know what to do with you. At times this may be a heavy burden to bear, but your education at Gonzaga has given you some of the intellectual, spiritual, and emotional resources with which to carry it.
I’m reminded of a colorful passage from the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who once wrote:
“If I had a message to my contemporaries it is surely this: Be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success. . . . What I am saying is this: the score is not what matters. Life does not have to be regarded as a game in which scores are kept and somebody wins. If you are too intent on winning, you will never enjoy playing. . . . If you have learned only to be a success, your life has probably been wasted. If a university concentrates on producing successful people, it is lamentably failing in its obligation to society and to the students themselves” (Thomas Merton, Love and Living 11-12).
This may sound like strange advice to be giving today, but in the context of my comments I hope it makes some sense. Legions of poor around the globe suffer unimaginable hardships in the world created by “successful people.” The climate changes and the seas rise through the business models of “successful people.” The frayed threads of our world are unraveling at the hands of “successful people.” We need desperately to pursue new ideals, to redefine what counts as success. Commenting on Merton’s claims, the political scientist David Orr puts it this way:
“The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as we have defined it.”
This brings me to my second point. When picking a major, many of you were given the seemingly sage advice not to be too idealistic. Be realistic you were told. Maybe you took that advice, or maybe you are an Environmental Studies major. Now here you are at the end of college, deciding whether to apply for that job or join the Peace Corp, whether to go to grad school or do Jesuit Volunteer Corp. Perhaps you are hearing that same advice again. Don’t be too idealistic. Stay the course; be realistic. Many claim that the problem with ideals is that they just aren’t achievable. Thus the counsel for realistic, achievable goals. However understandable, I submit that this view is mistaken. I contend that the only hope we have of addressing the social and ecological crises before us is if we realize that, properly understood, idealism and realism imply each other. To better understand this, consider two dramatic examples.
Adolf Hitler held up the creation of a “perfect” Aryan race of blue-eyed, blond-haired people as an ideal. To characterize Hitler’s program as “too idealistic”, that he could never fully achieve his aim, that he should have been more “realistic,” seems to fundamentally misunderstand the moral situation. The problem is not that Hitler’s Aryan ideal is not fully attainable—and the resurgent white nationalism in this country isn’t problematic because its goals will never be fully achieved. No, the problem is not that these ideals are not fully attainable; the problem is that these are terrible ideals.
In contrast, in his powerful 1963 speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King Jr. came to collect on the “promissory note” drafted in the Declaration of Independence. He passionately described his vision for a world in which people of all races and creeds lived together in mutual respect and harmony. This “dream” is clearly and explicitly idealistic. As an ideal, it is not fully achievable. This world never has been and never will be one of perfect equality. However, does the fact that King’s ideal of equality is not fully achievable mean that it should not be pursued, that it is unrealistic?
What these examples are meant to reveal is that we often misunderstand the function of ideals. Ideals are not meaningful because they are achievable but because they define success and failure; ideals are useful because they define better and worse. Without moral ideals, making comparative moral judgments becomes arbitrary. Ideals serve as the standards, the measuring sticks by which we judge the success of our actions. In this way, ideals define what counts as realistic action. To borrow a geometrical example, moral ideals are like asymptotes. Just as an asymptote can infinitely approach but never reach a limit, actions can get closer or farther from an ideal. The Emancipation Proclamation (1863), Women’s Suffrage (1920), and the Civil Rights Act (1964) each brought the United States steps closer to achieving the ideal of equality. Racial profiling, mass incarceration, and suspension of habeas corpus each move us farther away.
This also helps us to see that those who advocate being realistic are not in fact avoiding idealism. Rather, whether knowingly or not, defenders of realism are often simply defending ideals of the status quo. For instance, the view that happiness can be achieved through the accumulation and consumption of material goods is idealistic. It is not fully achievable. And the view that we can have safety and security in the world through the threat and use of physical violence and war is idealistic. My point is that one cannot simply discard moral ideals. One can choose not to explore or examine the basis of one’s actions, but one’s actions always occur within an understanding of the good—within a moral framework.
Understood in this asymptotic manner, we see that ideals are not to be scorned; ideals are the indispensable driving force behind all progress. Thus, I contend that the only truly realistic actions are those in service of worthwhile ideals. In the end this is not a debate between idealism and realism but between competing ideals. I’m reminded in this context of the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Han who once noted that if you are lost you should look for the North Star, not because you expect to arrive there, but because it gives you your orientation, your bearing. This is the function of your ideals. They are your North Star. So, I say to you, be idealistic. Ask yourself,
- What are my ideals?
- Are they truly good and worth pursuing?
- If so, what do they require of me here and now?
The issue then is not whether you have ideals, but whether you have the courage to declare, scrutinize, and pursue them.
So I say to you in conclusion, you have nothing to lose and the world has everything to gain, by shaking loose of the siren song of wasteful consumption and ecocidal success. Be realistic; dedicate yourself to ideals worthy of your life.