“Becoming educated inherently includes the demand that we learn not to see ourselves as living in a vacuum, but rather that we see ourselves as inextricably linked to one another. The high purpose of that education is to make the world within our reach better for our presence. This high purpose includes as well the demand that wherever we bring our minds, we must bring our hearts as well.”
A couple of years ago I gave a Cum Laude Society Induction speech at The Westminster Schools where I served as Head of Upper School before arriving at St. George’s Independent School where I serve as Head of School. Strangely enough the text of that talk, entitled, “The Purpose of Connection”, remains one of the most read entries on this blog. The talk came back to mind recently because the Pulitzer Prize winning play I reference in it, W;T, is the Winter play at St. George’s next weekend. I have included the most relevant part of that talk below in bold italics.
I am so pleased that our student actors and crew are engaging this challenging, often wrenching play. It takes a courage to play one of the parts in this small cast as each one has to face to some degree the most difficult topics humans can face. Playing these parts is not simply an intellectual challenge of memorizing lines, cues, and staging–it is also an emotional challenge, one that provides no protection from the most difficult and painful subject matter it delves. They are no doubt up for it.
It is interesting to note that, while so much of the entertainment we tend to seek is meant to provide a temporary escape from our lives, great entertainment, like great art, can at its best provide us with a way of seeing our lives, as well as the world writ large, more clearly. After over 25 years as an English teacher, I continue to see this as a kind of alchemy that can stop me in my tracks no matter how many times I return to a particular piece. In fact, returning again and again to the same piece can leave me increasingly vulnerable to it. I feel more each time I return rather than less. This has certainly been the case with a short list of works–a few examples come first to mind from a longer list: Suttree by Cormac McCarthy, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats (I wrote about this poem HERE). W;T would be on that list as well. Indeed the last time I taught it (as part of my AP Literature course at Westminster last year), I found myself wanting to stop at the moment Vivian accepts a popsicle. Being in the audience for a play can take its own sort of courage as well.
(There are a couple of spoilers for W;T below though I don’t think they would diminish your experience seeing the play.)
In my Junior English Course we read the play W;t by Atlanta playwright and teacher, Margaret Edson. The protagonist and narrator of the play, Dr. Vivian Bearing, is a literature professor, a world-renowned scholar of John Donne’s poetry, who is faced with a terminal illness. As the illness progresses, she becomes more and more aware of the fact that she has built a life without the sustaining connections necessary to support her in her time of greatest need. While her health deteriorates, she reflects on her past coldness to her students, as well as her lack of any generosity of spirit, and she begins to feel pangs of regret. She has not given support to others, nor has she valued it, and as a result she is not able to receive support (at least until the very end). For me the most powerful moment is when she becomes particularly sick after a treatment, and she has to call a cab to take her to the hospital, as she had no one to call that might drive her. Dr. Bearing is to some degree a Scrooge-like character who faces her own ghosts in a difficult moment of trial though the difference is that, as opposed to Scrooge, her self-recognition comes too late for her to make a redeeming reentry into the community of humankind she has neglected for so long.
Though she finds some peace at the very end, Vivian Bearing’s story is a cautionary tale, and her example warns us of lives lived with high walls built around us. In her professional life she accumulated achievements, and treated them as if they had meaning unto themselves when in fact this approach sells the highest purpose of our achievements and our education far short. We can do better, and we can think bigger…but we need to value connection with others in order to meet that high purpose head-on. Gaining an education, one marked by hard work and challenge, one marked by deep engagement and a love of ideas and learning is not a selfish pursuit, for the beneficiaries of that process are likely to be in our families, or they may sit in our literature class, or they may live in our neighborhoods, perhaps our city, maybe our state. Indeed the fruits of our educations may extend one day to benefit people around the world, people whom we will never meet.
…Our connection to others makes our lives meaningful, makes our struggles a bit more manageable, and these connections reveal the purposefulness that should underpin our striving for [knowledge and understanding]. Becoming educated inherently includes the demand that we learn not to see ourselves as living in a vacuum, but rather that we see ourselves as inextricably linked to one another. The high purpose of that education is to make the world within our reach better for our presence. This high purpose includes as well the demand that wherever we bring our minds, we must bring our hearts as well.