(After a brief welcome, I gave these remarks earlier this evening at the National Honor Society and Cum Laude Induction Ceremony at The Westminster Schools.)
If I told you that I could take you to a place right now where every desire you ever have, EVERY DESIRE YOU EVER HAVE, would be immediately satisfied and where you would never be unhappy, would you go? Would you even bother to ask any questions before signing up for the trip? What would you be willing to give up in order to gain entry to such a place? Please keep these questions, particularly the last one, in mind for a couple minutes.
This evening, while we celebrate the individual accomplishments of a number of our students, we also celebrate the role of scholarship in our school. When I have the opportunity to speak to people about Westminster, I speak of a place where teachers and students get to do the things that teachers and students should get to do—learn, reflect, and contribute. Though we might take the opportunity to learn, reflect, and contribute for granted at times, our opportunity here at Westminster is actually both rare and important. We are able to spend time seeking knowledge that stands beyond our plain view. We have the chance to look for something more.
For a number of years my AP Literature students read a novel by Aldous Huxley entitled Brave New World. The characters in the novel live in a world where every comfort is provided to them. Almost every desire is sated instantly for the inhabitants of this futuristic world, and when desires can’t be met, the characters have access to a drug called Soma, which provides them with what Huxley calls a “holiday” from reality. Denizens of this world awake from their “soma holidays” refreshed, without a care in the world. They never have homework, tests, or essays; right now I bet many of our honorees this evening are fantasizing about this no tests or essays idea, but before you all get carried away…
Think about our world. We are often tempted toward the addiction of comfort; however, such a life might not be as wonderful as its seductive siren voices would have us believe. The messages of our culture, ubiquitously placed before us, teach us to prefer getting a lot rather than giving a lot. We are told we have a right to expect a life without struggle, search, or turmoil…now…right now. My advice is…do not buy it, friends, and do not regret that it is not true. Even brief glances behind the curtain of our protected world here at Westminster point in another direction. The world needs more than glances…it needs our full attention and it needs our voice.
As an educator teaching under the large umbrella of the Humanities, I have spent a great deal of time as a teacher addressing “What is Beauty? And what is Truth?” My students and I bump up against this question often as we have study works such as Brave New World. Engaged students run face first into the same question whether they are reading the opening of The Iliad or they find themselves momentarily lost within the brushstrokes of a painting by Monet. The questions to which we seek answers are not limited to Truth and Beauty, however. We seek to know more in many areas. As scholars we attempt to see beyond ourselves and beyond our powerful desire for comfort. The searches that take place in our classrooms at Westminster every day are not always comfortable, and they are certainly not without real demand…hence the celebration of achievement that brings us together today, but these searches that allow us to discover the joy of solving a proof elegantly, or the eloquence of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” or the graceful form of a brush on canvas, or a striking connection between our language and the language of the Cicero, Ovid, and Virgil, or, finally, the value of acceleration due to gravity, these searches, are far too valuable to give up for comfort and superficial happiness.
All the learning we do here, and certainly that which we recognize today, is important. It makes us students, searchers, and explorers, and it allows us to be teachers, solvers, and builders. It allows us to develop our own views and learn to assert them. In the end it makes us human. To me, that it makes us human is the most essential point.
The inhabitants of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World compromise their humanity in order to have sedated comfort and numb happiness. They become, as a result, blank, hormonal facsimiles of human beings. The inhabitants of Westminster should have none of it, for there is too much work to be done in order to live toward our potential for achievement, in order to project our voices into the conversations that affect our shared life on this planet, and most importantly, in order to live toward the promise for which our maker made us. This final sentiment is beautifully expressed in the philosophy of Westminster, which seeks to help students become life-long learners and truth seekers who will be good stewards, caring for and serving the world in accordance with Christ’s example.