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Philosophy professor welcomes class of 2019

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The Loyola Marymount University Class of 2019 has arrived on the bluff. After a full weekend of orientation, the impressive new class sat down for First Year Academic Convocation, the University’s formal welcome tradition. In his welcome address, Brian Treanor offered these wise but challenging words to LMU’s newest Lions. Treanor is a professor of philosophy, the Charles S. Casassa Chair of Catholic Social Values, and Director of the Academy of Catholic Thought and Imagination at Loyola Marymount University.

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Henry David Thoreau began one of his most famous public addresses, which comes to us as the essay Life Without Principle, with a warning to his fellow citizens: “As the time is short, I will leave out all the flattery, and retain all the criticism.” Finding myself in a similar situation, let me warn you that today I will be forced to leave out much of the flattery, in order to retain, not criticism, but a challenge.

There are many, many things I wish we could discuss today; however, because the size of our gathering prohibits discussion, and because I have been asked to speak at the Freshman Academic Convocation, I want to offer some brief and incomplete reflections about why you are here—or, more precisely, the reason you ought to be here—and what you should do while you are here.

Liberal Education

So, let’s start at the beginning. What is a university education, and particularly an LMU education, supposed to be about? At any university, even the worst university, you can get away from home and stretch your wings. Indeed, you don’t need university for that. At almost any university you can get a degree that will increase your earning potential. But if that is all you want, you could be at any other university. What is distinctive about the sort of education offered here at LMU?

Here we run up against the first of a number of popular myths: that the main point of a university education is to prepare you for a successful career.

While I do want you to get a job that will be reasonably well-paid and secure, and, more importantly, a job that you find intrinsically rewarding, and while I do want LMU to help you with those practical aims, today I want to suggest to you that the main point of a Jesuit liberal arts education is something else entirely. The primary goal of a liberal education is not to help you to get a better job, or earn more money, or accumulate vast amounts of factual knowledge, or train you to do a specific task very well.

Etymologically, the “liberal” in liberal education comes from the Latin liber: “to free,” as in “liberate.” So a liberal education really has to do with freedom. More precisely, a liberal education frees you; it frees from yourself or, put another way, frees you to become yourself.

It frees you from yourself in the sense that it helps you to overcome your own prejudice, narrow-mindedness, and parochialism: opinions, beliefs, and even “facts” which, on reflection, you think, believe, or know without any firm foundation. For example, why, exactly, do you think what you think about political and economic systems? About justice? About God? Is it because you have tried to fairly assess the arguments and developed well-articulated reasons for your position, or is it simply because an accident of birth and circumstance placed you in an environment that praised a particular political and economic system, a particular conception of justice, and a particular view of God?

A liberal education frees you to become yourself because, in shedding your unreflective assumptions and prejudices, you are able to freely and consciously adopt new ideas and opinions, while simultaneously preserving the old opinions that successfully pass through the crucible of critical inquiry. A liberal education helps you to become a full human being: someone who thinks for herself; someone who is conscious of the world around her, her place in it, and her relation to it; and someone who loves the good, the true, and the beautiful, even when she cannot (yet) be good, grasp truth, or appreciate beauty.

Thus, a liberal education is transformative.

It does not tell you what to believe, it merely helps you to consciously and reflectively adopt those ideas and attitudes that you freely choose to adopt. And it does not make you anything particular; rather it frees you to make yourself.

Of course, while we will not force you to become something or someone, here at LMU we do harbor certain beliefs about what constitutes a worthwhile life, and certain hopes about the men and women you will become. You will hear phrases on campus like “finding God in all things,” “men and women for others,” “ethical leaders,” and so forth, each of which expresses some aspect of the persons we hope you will become.

But, in any case, no university can give you a liberal education, because such an education requires your active participation and engagement. LMU can offer you a liberal education, but it is ultimately your responsibility to take up the task of liberating your mind; and it will require a sincere and sustained effort on your part.

How do you do this?

Well, first, you have to prioritize your intellectual life. Your intellectual development is not something that happens only in the classroom, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 10:00am; it is something that should occupy the majority of your time and effort over the next four years. Focus on your classes; engage your professors and classmates outside of class; talk to your peers about ideas rather than about gossip or celebrities. This probably seems obvious. Nevertheless, very, very few students really do this, primarily because most undergraduate students treat university simply as an extension of high school and a precursor to economically advantageous labor.

To help you focus on your intellectual life, let me burst another myth about college: the idea that you should get involved as much as possible at LMU. That’s ridiculous. In high school you were told to get involved to “build your resume”; but here you should be concerned with building a self—your self. Yes, you should explore and expand your intellectual horizons. Yes, you should try new things. But your commitments must be focused. Many people, including people at LMU, complain about being “overcommitted,” when the real problem is that they are, as a colleague once told me, “under-committed to too many things.” As Thoreau would have it: simplify; get rid of the inessential so that the essential may speak to you. You can only pursue, at most, a handful of things if you want to do them really well; and given the time and money you are spending to come here, the first and most important of those things should certainly be your intellectual development.

Second, embrace the core curriculum, which will require you to take courses that you would not choose for yourself. This, if you let it, will broaden your intellectual horizons, whether you are a philosophy major taking a biology course or an engineer taking Brit. Lit. Be on alert: epiphanies can appear in small, seemingly insignificant, ways; and one great idea, in a class where you least expect it, can, given careful attention, be enough to change your life. But note that, even in a good core curriculum, not everything is required. Stretch yourself. Take a foreign language, at least to a level of conversational fluency. If you can, study abroad. And make sure you actually study abroad—don’t engage in collegiate tourism; a summer is good, a semester is better, and a year is better still.

Third, challenge yourself. The term “student” is related to the Latin studium, meaning “painstaking application.” Do not shy away from difficult classes or instructors. The most interesting, thought-provoking, and life-altering classes will also be difficult; and the best professors will demand a great deal from you. My own policy as a professor is inspired by Goethe, who wrote, “Treat people as if they are what they ought to be, and you help them to become what they are capable of being.”

But I’m sorry to say that if you want a good, liberal education, you are going to have to fight for it—even here at LMU—every day of the next four years. You will have to fight against a society that tells you university education is purely about competitive advantage in the job market, and that any class that does not pay dividends measureable in dollars is a waste of time. You will have to fight your peers, since many of them will not be prioritizing their education and their intellectual life. And you will have to fight your own fears—fears about what you are “supposed to do” with your life, fears about social expectations, fears about what constitutes “real” success, and more.

The Chance to Remake Yourself

There is another thing you should consider during the next four years: who you want to become.

There are relatively few changes in life that afford you the ability to make a break with your past. Of course, we can never fully escape our history, nor should we always seek to do so; but there are moments of relatively radical rupture that afford a certain freedom, and moving out of your parents’ home to attend university is one of them.

When you arrive at LMU, nobody knows what sort of person you were in high school and people don’t have any expectations about who you are and what you have done. The upshot? You don’t have to step into whatever role you played in high school: the “class clown,” the “jock,” the “partier,” the “loner.” You can start the project of making yourself the person you want to become without the accumulated weight of the person people expect you to be.

That is a remarkable opportunity.

Who do you want to become? If you don’t sort this out for yourself, you will become, by default, some version of what most people in our society are: unreflective hedonistic consumers. You should think very, very carefully about whether that would really make your life worthwhile, even if you become very “successful” at it. Varied sorts of research suggest that people are quite bad at predicting what will actually make them happy and, as a consequence, many people spend a great deal of time and energy pursuing things that are ultimately not in their best interests.

Read some philosophy and literature to get a sense of what sorts of lives might be meaningful. Then read some history, economics, and psychology to complement those insights. You need to think about what you want so that you have some sense, however tentative, of what you are aiming at. Once you’ve got that goal in mind, you can work on achieving it.

Fortunately, Aristotle tells us that most of the characteristics we admire in great people are in fact habits cultivated to the point that they become character traits. If you want to become more disciplined and studious in order to benefit from what LMU has to offer, act in the way that a disciplined and studious person acts until it becomes a habit, and stick with the habit until it becomes a settled character trait.

You should also think carefully about the people with whom you choose to be friends, as they will exert an extraordinary degree of influence on the person you will become. When you are a freshman, it is all too easy focus on how “fun” it is to stumble from a weeknight party with a junior or senior from the organization you hope to join. However, you ought to be asking yourself an important question as you laugh at the drunken antics of upperclassmen stumbling around at 2:00am the night before an exam or other commitment: not “isn’t he fun to hang out with,” but rather “is that the sort of person that I want to be in four years?”

Here let’s address another myth: college is the best four years of your life. Pause, for just a moment, and reflect on how truly pathetic that idea is. If that myth is true, you peak at 21 years old and it’s all downhill from there. That certainly hasn’t been true in my life, and I hope it’s not true in yours. So, while these years can be extraordinarily satisfying and rewarding if you invest the thought and effort, let’s hope they are not the best.

The idea that college is the best time of your life leads students to over-value the things that college students supposedly do more than post-graduates: drink, party, and experiment in the ways associated with that scene. Now, I’m not going to utterly dismiss the experimental aspects of the undergraduate experience. Everyone socializes as part of undergraduate life; and I met my future wife as an undergraduate. But the reality is that most of that time partying will be utterly forgettable, wasted, lost. You need to keep things in perspective.

Right now you probably feel like you’ve got all the time in the world—you are all young, able, healthy, and ambitious. But before you know it, you will be graduating and moving on. Tempus fugit; time flies.

Among the many things philosophy does, is that it helps us to come to terms with reality, 5

including the fact that we are finite, the fact that you, like me, are going to die. You’ve got one life to live: “one wild, precious life,” as poet Mary Oliver puts it. Think carefully about how you intend to spend it and about what will make it worthwhile.

You could come to LMU and simply “do your time” while socializing and partying; but you are also spending a great deal of money and, more importantly, four years of your one, wild, precious life. Do you want to jump through the hoops like a trained dog, get a couple of letters after your name, and then march off to whatever life society happens to dish out for you?

Don’t you want more than that? Aren’t you better than that?

Get Your Act Together

Here we probably want to address a final myth: that you are the best—as a class or as an individual—that LMU has ever seen. You’ve probably been told this repeatedly by our recruiters: “the class of 2019 is the most selective, most accomplished, most whatever that LMU has ever admitted.” However, while I’m sure you’ve all done some impressive things, both in and outside of school, that, frankly, is the past; it impressed us enough to gain admittance, but now that you are freshmen we expect more of you.

In Middlemarch, George Elliot notes that there is a certain sort of reputation which “precedes performance,” and that in many cases this constitutes “the larger part of a man’s fame.” She is making a distinction between promise (which you all no doubt have) and performance (which remains to be seen). In the same novel, one of the more admirable characters, Mr. Farebrother, receives a choice position as the vicar of the parish at Lowick. His mother, much like our mothers I suspect, says proudly: “The greatest comfort [son] is that you… deserved it.” How many of you have heard similar things from parents and mentors about your admittance to LMU? “You deserve it!” No doubt. But Farebrother, all too aware of his own virtues and vices, and of the vagaries of the world, replies, “when a man gets a good berth, mother, half the deserving must come after….” Farebrother recognizes that whether or not he deserves his new position has just as much to do with how he performs in that new position as it does with how he performed before receiving it.

The same holds true for you (and, by the way, for me). In your case, it is up to you to demonstrate that LMU was right in offering you a position as an undergraduate. And it is not your past achievements that will do this: half the deserving is still to come. At this point, what you’ve shown us is that you’ve got potential. But unrealized potential is the most common commodity in the world.

Conclusion

I hope that you have heard these brief words in the spirit with which I have offered them to you: not as a criticism, but as a challenge—a challenge to squeeze every last bit of value from your time at LMU, and a challenge to become your best possible self.

It sounds like a big task, and it is—a lifelong task.

Reflecting on that task brings to mind some advice given by the Roman statesman Seneca to a friend who asked about such daunting projects in the context of a finite life:

The majority of mortals, Paulinus, complain bitterly of the spitefulness of nature, because we are born for so brief a span of life, because even this space that has been granted to us rushes by so speedily and swiftly that all save a very few find life at an end, just as they are getting ready to live. It is not that we have a brief span of life, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and has been granted in sufficiently generous measure, to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things, if the whole of it is well invested. But when it is squandered in luxury and carelessness, when it is devoted to no good end, forced at last by the ultimate necessity, we perceive that it has passed away, before we were aware of its passing. So it is, the life we receive is not short, we make it so; nor do we have any lack of it, but are wasteful of it….

One man is possessed by greed that is insatiable, another by a toilsome devotion to tasks that are useless; one man is besotted with wine, another is paralyzed by sloth… many are kept busy either in the pursuit of other men’s fortune or in complaining of their own… so surely does it happen that I cannot doubt the truth of that utterance which the greatest of poets delivered with all the seeming of an oracle: “The part of life we really live is small.” For all the rest of existence is not life, but merely time.

Let me conclude, then, by inviting you to live, really live, the next four years in pursuit of intellectual excellence rather than passing the time carelessly, waiting for your life to begin. This is it; this is your life; here, now.

And, finally, let me be among the first to welcome you not as applicants, or admittees, or even as students, but rather as budding scholars and intellectuals, whatever path you eventually choose for your life. Welcome to a several thousand-year tradition, with contributions from every culture in every corner of the globe, called “human inquiry.” Welcome to a 2000-year conversation that is part of the Christian tradition, to a 700-year conversation called humanism, and to an almost 500-year conversation called Jesuit education. And, finally, welcome as the newest participants in over 100 years of conversation, investigation, and collaborative inquiry here at Loyola Marymount University.