Students, Remember Life Is a Series of Commencements

COMMENTARY: Patience and discipline are absolutely essential for a true education.

Grads throw their hats into the air after commencement ceremony.
Grads throw their hats into the air after commencement ceremony. (photo: Anel Alijagic / Shutterstock)

Commencement addresses are usually reserved for graduations, when a student is about to embark on a new phase in his or her life. It is assumed that his education has well prepared him for this challenge. Life, however, is a series of commencements for which we may be well- or ill-prepared.

January is a month in that students returned to class. It may be argued that this is an appropriate time to offer a commencement address. January is the commencement of a new year, but also the beginning of a new academic term. What would I say to students, especially those returning to university classes? Graduation comes after one is allegedly educated. There is good reason to address students before they graduate so that they have a better chance of being graduates who are truly educated.

If given the chance, I would begin by telling them something that they do not want to hear. It seems clear that they want to be educated. This is what they or their parents are paying for. But it is a truism that, in order to attain what is desirable, such as an education, you must first accept a long apprenticeship in doing what is undesirable. 

Two things are absolutely essential for a true education. They are patience and discipline



Patience is a great virtue. It means putting on hold what you truly desire in order to be properly prepared for it when the time comes. A ballplayer must wait his turn to bat. You want to graduate, get a good job, earn money and establish prestige in your community. But in order to achieve these worthy goals, you must find the inner strength to put them out of your mind for the time being and concentrate on something else, namely, your studies. This inner strength is patience. Education takes time.

“The mindful god abhors untimely growth,” as the German poet Friedrich Hölderlin has averred. If you cannot wait, your fall into the danger of believing that you are already educated and then proceed to educate the world. But what does the uneducated person have to offer the world other than anger, protests and an insistence that his ill-conceived ideologies are the wave of the future? Patience is artful preparation. There will be a time to take your place in the world, but it is not before you are educated, that is, before you know what you are doing.



The second undesirable requirement for education is discipline. This goes far beyond getting a good night’s sleep and arriving in class on time. It means being a disciple of truth. 

“The only dominating influence in the school and the college,” as Jacques Maritain has stated in Education at the Crossroads, “must be that of truth.” This is not an easy thing to be. There are many tempting but wrong-headed ideologies that are fashionable on campus. One must have the discipline to resist what is tempting simply because it happens to be trendy. 

As Robert Hutchins, former president of the University of Chicago has said, the educated person “must decline to be carried away by waves of hysteria. He must be prepared to pay the penalty of unpopularity. He must insist that freedom is the chief glory of mankind and that to repress it is in effect to repress the human spirit.” Acts of vandalism and barbarism, which go on in the name of self-righteous protests, are not expressions of an educated man. 

Allan Bloom, author of the best-selling book, The Closing of the American Mind, has complained that rather than become interested in their studies, “Students would rather just be angry. This is not an attitude with which one can have a serious discussion. This is a new kind of thought control.”

The term “liberal” in the expression “liberal education” should mean the freedom to know the truth and not to be sideswiped by fashionable errors. For St. John Henry Newman, a liberal education teaches a person “to see things as they are, to go right to the point, to disentangle a skein of thought, to detect what is sophistical and to discard what is irrelevant.” 

Truth is paradoxical. Therefore, it eludes the person who demands simplicity. It requires time to apprehend. Therefore, it escapes the person who insists on immediacy. It requires intelligence and perhaps even no small amount of wisdom to employ successfully. Therefore, it resists expediency.

The energy of youth must be tempered by patience and discipline. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead has remarked that “the deepest definition of youth is life untouched by tragedy.” By this, he is referring to youthful energy that does not pause to take into considerations the darker side of life. It is unrealistic to expect that one can go straight ahead with improving the world without being deterred by the various obstacles of life, many of which are often irrational. Education, even a poor one, will be tempered by that inevitable involvement in life known as experience. Education continues as long as we live, and so do commencements.

Dear students, allow this commencement, as you begin a new term in your apprenticeship with education, to be one in which your patience and discipline prepare you for an education that will serve you well as a prelude to all your future commencements.