My daughter Jessica has graduated from Providence College, cum laude. She was homeschooled alll the way through, which meant that we did a lot of things that she probably wouldn't have otherwise (meteorology and Latin), and that she hadn't read To Kill a Mockingbird and Catcher in the Rye and other overrated staples of middle school and high school in the last forty years, but she did read The Lord of the Rings, many times over, on her own. But then her whole career at college was sui generis, with ten courses in German, two in Swedish, two in linguistics, a seminar in Tolkien — aside from the round of courses in philosophy and theology and Western Civilization that we require of all students. She is a happy young lady, and will be teaching German and literature to homeschooled students in a co-operative next year. What she's really on the lookout for is someone to marry, someday. For my part, I can't believe that all this has happened. My arms still have memories of holding her when she was a baby, or washing her in the tub, or swinging her up in the air.
The most important thing my wife and I have given her, more important even than our love and care, has been the Christian faith. And so she listened appreciatively last Saturday, along with the other honors students, as the class valedictorian — an extraordinarily bright and happy young fellow — gave a speech on T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets. He said that time was not simply linear, as we unthinkingly suppose, but that time past still lingers in time present, and time future is here too in its seed, because time returns to itself, and is steeped in the time beyond time, eternity. He placed his and his classmates' four years of education in the mansion of the eternal, reminding them that their memories of school, even such humble moments as enjoying a meal with a friend, are meant also to be redeemed and to take their place as more than memories in the beatific vision, towards which they were called to journey. His speech fit well with that of another of my students, a friend of Jessica's, who spoke earlier at the Honors breakfast. She too talked about the Four Quartets, and what Eliot calls "endless humility." These fine young people were hardly alone in their joy that day; and I mean joy, not pleasure, not relief, not the fierce feeling of accomplishment. It was that beaming full-hearted childlike joy that only innocence in the faith can give. I see it nowhere else.
Then the next day came the actual graduation: twelve hundred students, thousands of their family members and friends, various dignitaries, and the commencement speaker, all in the big downtown arena where the basketball team plays its games. That speaker, if she only knew the standards to which her talk would be held, might have prepared a little better, or maybe reconsidered every platitude which she dealt out with the regularity of burgers and fries at a franchise fast-food eatery, billions upon billions sold. It was not, I was told later by one of my students, a graduate with highest honors in philosophy, who will be joining the Dominicans this year, as bad as last year's speech. Perhaps so, but it was foolish enough. I tried to figure out how to describe it, and can only say that it was a weird brew: worldliness and self-absorption mingled with humanitarian feeling, like honey to get the poison down. I shouldn't have expected anything different; after all, she is a television personality, a "journalist," and that career does not make for considered reflection, much less a meditation upon the Four Quartets.
She said that the graduates need not worry about the economy, because it will rebound. They must be ready for it when it does. She said that when she graduated from journalism school, her first job was as a cocktail waitress. She was chubby then too, she said. Her mother, whose accent she imitated with great aplomb, said that she should marry a rich man. But she didn't pay attention to her mother. She persisted. She quoted Winston Churchill, saying, "Never give in, never give in, never give in!" One must pursue one's dreams, and that is that. She noted, by the way, that underneath her academic robe she was wearing a "knockout" dress. If you don't achieve your dream right away, she said, you shouldn't worry. Many people were "late bloomers," among whom she numbered Charles Darwin and Mother Teresa. I was left wondering what kind of mind could possibly conceive of Mother Teresa as a "late bloomer" — what such a description could even mean, applied to the Albanian nun who early in her life dedicated herself entirely to Jesus and to serving the poor. It was, naturally, taken for granted that one's dream would somehow fit nicely with "making a difference" in the world. She had, for example, traveled all over the world to televise stories — for instance, the horrible treatment of women by the warring sides in East Congo. She asserted that mankind had made great moral advances — choosing her temporal endpoints and her issues in order to make the point, and ignoring, say, pornography, divorce, abortion, and the general cultural collapse of the west.
And that was it. It was the face of secularism, at its nicest: shallow, hedonistic, loosely humanitarian, arrogant, and self-advertising. It made me think, "All of these students now listening have read Dante, Augustine, Aquinas, and Milton, not to mention Sacred Scripture, and much more. What are they hearing right now?" I found out what at least one of my students was hearing. He accosted me in the hallway afterwards and said, "Doctor E, wasn't that the worst speech you ever heard?" No, I said, it was not the worst, not by far. But it came like words from a world of flatness. My daughter thought it was plain silly, too. Who says that homeschooling isn't the way to go!