2015-16 Beginning of the Year Address to Students

Welcome back everyone. It is great to see you all again!

Last year, as many of you may remember, we started the tradition of passing out a “commonplace book” at Trinity; and I read to you one literary historian’s description of the commonplace book as an important part of many great thinkers’ “continuous effort to make sense of things.” You might also call this “continuous effort to make sense of things” by its common name around here, the pursuit of truth. And there is something intensely personal and solitary about the pursuit of truth that is reflected in the commonplace book. There is a way in which only you will make sense of things in exactly your way.

But this morning, I want to say a few things about this pursuit of truth together. Pursuing the truth together is just as important here at Trinity as the solitary effort to make sense of things, and there is an old threat to this task that is beginning to creep back into the wider culture.

Most of you have read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. (Eighth graders, you’ll probably start reading it tomorrow.)

The Hobbit tells the story of how Bilbo Baggins went on an adventure and “found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected.”

I won’t spoil anything in the story for you, but most of you probably also know that the sequel to The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, tells the story of Bilbo’s nephew Frodo. And near the beginning of The Lord of the Rings, Frodo recalls something that Bilbo always used to say to him: “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

What I want to say first this morning is that the pursuit of truth, this “continuous effort to make sense of things,” is not unlike the journeys in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings — it’s a dangerous business.

But there is a movement afoot in our culture that would like to make learning and thinking safe — safe from genuine differences of opinion about important things that challenge us, safe from ideas that make us uncomfortable, and safe from any chance of being offended.

The feature article of September’s edition of the Atlantic Monthly — one of America’s leading journals — is entitled “The Coddling of the American Mind.” Now, to ‘coddle’ someone is to treat them with extreme or excessive care — to pamper or baby them. (And it is a word whose modern usage, by the way, seems to have been invented by Jane Austen … more on that later.)

This article, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” opens with an observation:

“Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.”

A fear that some ideas will make people uncomfortable is leading to situations where not only students but even professors are pulling back from the challenging and dangerous pursuit of truth, from what we call here the “free and disciplined exchange of ideas,” because they might actually be punished for it.

Here are some recent cases:

  • In 2008 Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis (IUPUI) found a student guilty of racial harassment for reading a book on his work break entitled Notre Dame vs. the Klan. The book was a historical account of student opposition to a Klu Klux Klan march at Notre Dame in The book was entirely in praise of the student’s efforts to resist the message of the Klan, but pictures of the KKK rally on the front cover offended some of the student’s co-workers and the student was formally found guilty by the college of racial harassment. The letter of reprimand he received stated: “You used extremely poor judgment by insisting on openly reading the book related to a historically and racially abhorrent subject in the presence of your black co-workers.” Months later the college finally apologized, but the student had been already been subject to all kinds of negative attention and false accusations.
  • In 2013 students at UCLA staged a sit-in in a professor’s class because he had noted in feedback on a paper that a particular word should not be capitalized and the student took offense and claimed that this was

disrespecting the importance she placed on that idea and the role it played in her identity.

  • Recently, a number of calls have been made for warnings to be placed on books that students are asked to read if those books include scenes or language that someone might find disturbing because it triggers a bad memory for them. Many of these books are well-established literary classics and some are in our

The Atlantic Monthly article was written because just this past year things really seemed to have ramped up as ideas of “microaggression” and “trigger warnings” have entered more mainstream conversation.

  • Last year academic year deans and department chairs at the ten University of California system schools were presented by administrators at faculty leader-training sessions phrases that could be considered offensive by students and should not be used by professors, including using the phrase “America is the land of opportunity,” praising someone for being a “hard worker,” and asking the question “Where are you from?”
  • Also last year, the student government of Ithaca College in New York proposed the creation of an call-in line where students could anonymously report even such subtly offensive things that they had heard from other individuals. A record would be kept and over time someone could be punished for their
  • Omar Mahmood, a writer for the University of Michigan student newspaper wrote an obviously satirical piece making light of all of what he saw as oversensitivity to microaggressions and triggers. He was fired from his job and later the door at his campus house was vandalized and posted with all kinds of notes including, (ironically) a note stating “Everyone hates you!”
  • Closer to home, at the University of St. Thomas here in St. Paul, a planned event at which people were going to be allowed to pet a camel (seniors, now you know what you have to look forward to!) was cancelled when a group created a Facebook page protesting the event for animal cruelty, for being a waste of money, and for being insensitive to people from the Middle

Now, hear me clearly. Giving unnecessary offense is real. It happens. It happens all the time. And we should learn to be respectful of each other as we get to know each other better and find out about differences we weren’t even aware of. That’s an important part of our pursuit of the truth together.

But the authors of this article have come to the conclusion that something more dangerous and chilling is happening in this recent movement. The ultimate aim of this aggressively enforced politeness, they write,

“… is to turn campuses into “safe spaces” where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable. And more than the last, this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally.”

One of the authors in our senior curriculum, John Stuart Mill, warned about this in his essay “On Liberty:”

“Society can … practice a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself.”

This is what we are seeing happening on the college campuses, to the extent that it is being written about in one of America’s most prominent journals — an increase in this social tyranny that penetrates deeply into the details of life.

Now, here at Trinity we have always wanted you to be free from bullying, from discrimination, from having things taken from you, from vandalism and so on.

We do want you to feel safe and respected.

 But ideas … ideas are dangerous.

 And you will not be safe from them here.

The pathway to truth leads inevitably through ideas and conversations that challenge us, make us uncomfortable, and, yes, even sometimes offend us.

We hope that you are challenged this year when your 7th grade science teacher asks you to throw out what you think you know about the world and actually look at what is in front of you, when your math teacher asks you if .9 repeating is really any different than one, or when you have to decide what policy you would advocate if you were a leader in Athens during the Peloponnesian War.

You could become uncomfortable when you have to think about what exactly is going on with Shane and Marian; when you have to work and work and work to find a breakthrough in your watercolor technique; or when you have to wrestle with the mindblowing implications of quantum indeterminacy or special relativity.

And yes, you might very well even feel offended when one of your closest friends disagrees with you about Huck and Jim’s relationship; when you teacher presses you to think more deeply than you have ever been able to think or to discard a frankly indefensible opinion; or when you discover that you may actually be, at least in some way, one of the cave dwellers that Plato describes in the Republic.

I was challenged this summer by the idea of stellar death as estimated by contemporary astrophysicists. Apparently their current conviction is that the universe is, in fact, dying.

I didn’t quite know what to make of that. I had to think about what that claim meant, how accurate it may or may not be, and rearrange my mental furniture a bit. I ended up talking with Dr. O’Hanley and some other faculty about it, which was tremendously helpful. But, as Bilbo always used to say, “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

It was a dangerous business getting out of bed this morning, students. Starting tomorrow it will become ever more dangerous.

Your own pathway to whatever truth you discover this year will lead inevitably through ideas and conversations that will challenge you, make you uncomfortable, and, yes, sometimes even offend you.

But you are not alone in a world of dangerous ideas with nothing more than your commonplace book for a guide. Not unlike Bilbo and Frodo, you have been provided travelling companions and guides for this journey, and you will meet with more along the way.

Don’t be afraid of the journey. Don’t be afraid of the truth. And don’t be so afraid to offend one another in the pursuit of that truth that you abandon it altogether.

Be avid in your disagreements but genuinely open to change. Focus on what matters most not on what matters little. And if in some white hot moment of pursuing the truth you give offense to one of your companions, know that our Christian pattern of life depends upon not upon avoiding conflict or offence at all costs, but upon charity and mutual forgiveness.

If you are open to the challenge, discomfort and even occasional offense of pursuing the truth together this year, you will begin to develop or further cultivate three important qualities of mind that we value very highly here at Trinity: intellectual humility, intellectual courage, and intellectual charity.

Right now, all you know or even can know about the world is bounded by your own experience, by your own maturity as a thinker, by the amount of time you have been involved in this “effort to make sense of things,” and even by where you have grown up.

There are things you can’t yet know about the world.

That is humbling. And accepting it is a part of intellectual maturity.

I want a show of hands from the seniors. How many of you think differently, quite differently than you did when you were in ninth grade?

Ninth graders, do you think it is likely that you, too, may think quite differently about the world in just three short years?

Faculty, how many of you think quite differently about the world than you did when you were a senior in high school?

Seniors, do you expect that you will one day think about the world quite differently than you do now?

That is very humbling.

I expect that, should the Lord grant me seventy years in this life, or even eighty, I will think quite differently about life when I live to see my own grandchildren.

I expect it. So I am aware that even now my own view of the world is limited. This is what we call intellectual humility.

On the other hand, tenth graders, and all the rest, you can’t wait until you’re 80 years old to make decisions about the world in which you live that will determine how you live in it. That’s not how journeys go. That’s not how experience works. You can’t just sit down and wait to be wise. You learn by doing and failing. You grow intellectually by making claims and finding out that you are wrong; or perhaps that you have not been adequately precise; or that your thinking must be more nuanced to account for reality as you now know it.

To understand that your viewpoint is limited, but that it is the only one you have, and to then venture out boldly takes intellectual courage.

There is no other path through life than the dangerous one.

If you accept that your own ideas about the world are limited, but you determined to courageously move forward in spite of that; then finally you will also be in a place to develop that third characteristic — intellectual charity.

Intellectual charity is no more or less than the recognition that each and every one of your peers is going through exactly the same process.

Their limitations may be different than yours but so are their insights. Their path may appear and may very well be different than yours, but they are about the same distance down it as you are. So you should certainly disagree with each other. You should call a spade a spade. Reality matters. What each of you thinks about the world is of tremendous importance. But intellectual charity is the recognition that beneath all honest and sincere disagreement are two persons engaged in this “continuous effort to make sense of things.”

As I told you at the beginning, this modern use of the word “coddle” appears to have been coined by Jane Austen. Her novel, Emma, is the first place it appears in print, at least.

But the word ‘coddle’ has an older meaning from which this meaning was probably derived.

By the year 1600 the word meant “to cook gently in water that is just below the boiling point.” And it is probably derived from and even older Anglo-French noun used to designate a warm drink for invalids.

So, no, we will not coddle you at Trinity School. We care too much about the outcome of your life to “coddle” you with a tepid intellectual climate or to provide you only with lukewarm ideas.

You are free and responsible persons; and we have a limited amount of time with you to help you as you work hard to make sense of things.

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

But take courage, we are in this together.

Now let’s stand and pray together, as we have been taught to pray the powerful, and challenging words of the Lord’s Prayer.