I gave the following remarks at our school’s graduation ceremony on June 2, 2019.
Good evening to our school board, faculty, families, friends, raggants young and old, and especially to our seniors. All of you have worked a great work to get here tonight, and it is an honor to celebrate with you, as well as to address our two candidates for graduation.
It is often a dangerous thing to speak about dichotomies, to divide things into only two. Our world dislikes generalizations—which, of course, is itself a generalization—because we want to be seen as special shades on the paint palette. But I don’t mind slathering paint on the wall with 48″ rollers, and there’s not enough time to get out drop-cloths. Before us tonight are two very different colors. We have two graduates ready to commence, and though they are not quite black and white, they are yellow and violet.
If Mrs. Bowers had assigned her Omnibus class to list all of the differences between Gideon and Kelly, the length of such a list might endanger the edges of an infinite canvas. If Mr. Sarr had assigned his Capstone class to write a paper on each senior’s favorite five world-and-life-view spheres, I am not sure there would have been any overlap. It is not just that Gideon and Kelly come from separate families, Gideon and Kelly live in two distinguishable cultures.
When I say “living in a culture” I mean how one reacts without needing to think about it. We do not walk into any Starbucks in Snohomish and think about what language to order in, we naturally start speaking in English. But there are smaller cultures, not just between schools but also in schools of thought. There are shared assumptions, shared values, shared priorities in a culture that may sometimes be talked about, but are usually obvious to anyone watching from the outside. Gideon and Kelly look at many of the same things, but they do not look at the same things and have the same response.
Both of our seniors have taken mostly the same classes for the last few years, but that didn’t stop one from talking more about Math and the other from talking more about Music (or, more usually, pounding on the public piano before school). One leans toward the Aristotelian world of fact and the other toward the Platonic world of ideas and ideals. One is drawn to the mechanical, one is drawn more toward the magical. One prefers science, the other prefers stories.
These two seniors embody an academic division that has really only been around for a century and a half, but in our society the split spreads wider every year. There are the STEM people: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, and there are the Humanities people: Language, Philosophy, Literature, Art. There are the natural sciences and what used to be called the moral sciences.
In May 1959, a British scientist-turned-novelist named Charles Percy Snow gave an address called The Two Cultures in the Rede Lecture at the University of Cambridge. This was only 12 years after Dorothy Sayers gave her address, “The Lost Tools of Learning” at Oxford, which became a catalyst for the classical education movement of which we are a part. Snow expressed his concern over the hostility, the dislike, and most of all the lack of understanding between the literary intellectuals and the physical scientists. He lamented that the two cultures had “long since ceased to speak to each other; but at least they managed a kind of frozen smile across the gulf. Now the politeness has gone, and they just make faces.” The debate continues 60 years later, and faces are still being made, including mean emoji on social media.
Snow gave a simple test for recognizing the groups. “Without thinking about it, they respond alike. That is what a culture means.” For example, the children of Karl Marx don’t think about the nuts and bolts; nuts and bolts are just used to oppress the poor. On the other hand, the children of Adam Smith think a lot about nuts and bolts, and how many people it takes to make a nail, and how making nails frees the poor and fastens our economy together.
There are rationalists and romantics, there are accountants and accompanists, there are left brain and right brain people, but which is true? That is a complex question, a logical fallacy, which suggests that only one could be true. Let’s try this, which is better? That is perhaps a tougher question, but still one that requires more context.
At ECS we do emphasize the liberal arts and great books and robust singing, but we enjoy those studies having arrived in motor vehicles driven from drilled and processed fossil-fuels, meeting in climate controlled rooms, reading by artificial light from an electrical grid that spans the Pacific Northwest. We order these books using the digital fiber-optic system that connects us to the rest of the world wide web, to the world of living men as well as the vestiges of the generations before us in Western Civilization. Plus, Algebra, Chemistry, Physics, and Calculus classes figure into our curriculum as well.
We can sit back and read the classics because science and technology have made it so that we’re not fighting for our existence. Of course, electric light and heat, and microwaves for fish sticks, don’t tell us why we exist.
It wouldn’t be fair to say that Gideon is a fish out of water when it comes to The Faerie Queene, but he would rather swim closer to prose than poetry. It also wouldn’t be right to say that Kelly falls flat in the so-called practical subjects, but he is more attuned to the melodies and harmonies of imagination.
They graduate in the same class on the same day and they live in two different cultures. There is the athlete and the musician. There is the social flag pole and the social floor-looker. Which culture, the Sciences or the Humanities, will be better suited to succeed? Which culture will bring more blessing to others?
Of course, for those of us who believe the evangel, the answer to this dichotomy is to recognize that both cultures fall under the Christ-honoring culture. Neither math nor music is ultimate (not to mention that music requires math and math accordingly demonstrates great harmony). Neither Aristotle or Plato hold the answer because the ultimate answer is only in Christ.
In his book Wisdon and Wonder, Abraham Kuyper wrote that only those who understand the Bible by the work of the Spirit can learn about “the origin, the coherence, and the destiny of things.” Life’s three big questions are: “From where? How? And to what end?” Graduates, you know the answer to all of three questions.
Science that treats everything as nothing more than material and mechanical processes sucks the God-breathed soul out of creation. Stories that have no plot or purpose, no redemption or character development deaden the souls of reading creatures. We don’t exalt Science, we value Science studied in submission to the Lord of creation. We can’t be satisfied with Stories, we need Stories written in submission to the Lord of words.
So neither culture is ultimate or sufficient, but both are untied and both serve the Lord Jesus Christ.
Jesus is what you share in common, Gideon and Kelly. You also share in common the inability to remember and recite together the Apostle’s Creed, but the Jesus in the Creed is yours. You share in worship, you share in the cultus, from which the meta-culture comes. You have been marinating in this Christ-honoring culture, and it is now your responsibility to advance it.
Take your gifts and your interests and your energies and take them further up and further in. Whether you write formulas to build bridges or write fiction, whether you swim laps or compose lyrics, do it all in the name of the Lord. Also, ten years from now, it will not be surprising if you change lanes, if your advance of Christ-honoring culture has moved you to put together a different part of the puzzle. You have been equipped, but in some ways graduation is just the kinder-prep for a life and family and vocation of serving Christ.
The Swiss-born philosopher Alain de Botton wrote,
Next June, if you attend the graduation of the current class of Juniors, you should look back and wonder what you were doing, not because what you were doing was wrong, but because you’ve continued to learn and grow. Even asking that question of yourselves will show that you have not squandered your education, but that you are advancing with it.
The Corinthians had at least four sub-cultures in their church, aligning themselves in four different directions. The apostle Paul didn’t tell them to lower their appreciation for any one leader, but that they were limiting themselves unnecessarily. It is the way of the world to identify with just one (and get snobby about it), while the Lord knows that such self-imposed limitation from all that He’s given is futile.
For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future–all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s. (1 Corinthians 3:21-23)
In Latin Omnibus means “all things,” but Omnibus also means that all those pages you’ve read are just some of the things of the all of the things that are yours.
Psalm 77:12, meditabor in omnibus operibus tuis, “I will mediate on all Your work” (NAS). Gideon and Kelly, you both are God’s work, and He has work for each of you to do to advance a Christ-honoring culture. All are yours.