Walking with Brontosauruses, or, The How and Why of What We Know

This is the text of an address I gave this morning to the Cum Laude Society at St. Andrew’s-Sewanee School, in Sewanee, Tennessee this morning, January 6, 2014. It was a privilege to be asked to speak, and am grateful for the opportunity.

Good morning, and many thanks to all of you for your kind invitation to speak on this happy occasion, the induction of this year’s seniors into the SAS Cum Laude society. It is an honor to be with you today as you are yourselves being honored for your academic achievements. As you have heard, I am—among other things—a professor of Classical Languages at the University, and I suppose you are filled with dread at the thought that here is some boring old geezer who used to ride on a brontosaurus who’s come to bore us with Latin stuff, so let’s go ahead and get the boring Latin stuff out of the way. I expect you all already know and so don’t need to be told that cum laude means “with praise.” It is, some other unfortunates among you may know, an ablative of manner, indicating the fashion in which a thing has been said or done. At the University of the South, as at most universities, students earn the right to graduate cum laude, “with praise,” or, if they’ve done very well, magna cum laude, “with great praise,” or for some very accomplished students, summa cum laude, “with greatest praise.” There are some students whom I tell that they might boast that they graduated nulla cum laude, “with no praise,” though perhaps they ought not translate it.

What I like about the phrase cum laude is its emphasis on how one has achieved scholarly success, and I hope you will not mind if I talk for a few minutes about manner, this business of how you know. You will meet cynical people, I hate to say, who will inform you it’s not what you know but who you know that will get you anywhere in this world. It’s not entirely true, but it’s also not entirely false that you will find people in the world who have gotten much further than they ever should have by taking advantage of connections that bear no resemblance to merit or ability whatsoever. This is an unpleasant fact of life, but, as you are here at a school with a Christian tradition, you already know that we live in an imperfect world and so we just to put up with and hopefully try to overcome any number of its imperfections.

But as I say, it’s only a partial truth that who you know is what matters, because there will always be a market for bright and energetic people like yourselves who can be counted upon to have the right answers and to ask the right questions at the right time. True talent such as you all have displayed and which we celebrate here this morning rarely goes unrewarded, though whether it is rewarded in just proportion is another matter altogether. A school like Saint Andrews-Sewanee is a place where scholarly capability is prized and where achievement when earned is granted due recognition. This is one of the things about your education here that will be a happy memory for you throughout your lives.

So the who and the what of success are elements I’ve spoken enough about, but what about the how, that ablative of manner with which I began? To me, the how—together with the why—are really the most important components of your education, here at SAS as well as in the learning you will do throughout the rest of your life. Why you have done so well is a deeply personal matter, as I am sure you will understand. Some are driven to know things and to do well at it because of parental insistence; others are induced by peer pressure; still others by personal satisfaction, or by a desire to help others with what they have learned. Each of us has motivations of our own, and it may take you a lifetime to ascertain in the end just what it was that made you tick.

The why of our educations is, in other words, deeply personal. The how, on the other hand—the manner in which you have done this—is another matter altogether. As we sit here today, you recognize the intensely public nature of praise, how it emanates not from yourself but from others—from teachers, to be sure, and from parents, naturally, but then also from others further outside your range of friends and acquaintances—from administrators, perhaps the Sewanee Messenger, later college admissions personnel and professors of Classical Languages at nearby universities, et cetera et cetera. The circle widens and, if you keep up the good work, you will find yourselves shaking the hands of people you hardly know in the future and murmuring thanks to words of congratulations from perfect strangers.

A thing I find interesting about such praise—this public acclamation of what you have accomplished for reasons barely acknowledged in your innermost slelf—is the strange language in which it can be clothed. The high school I went to did not put you on the honor roll when you got A’s and B’s; instead you were given a Certificate of Approbation. If you got all A’s, you earned Approbation with Distinction. We used to laugh about this archaic terminology, and wonder why it all had to sound so fussy and old-fashioned. And yet, we used to also mimic it in our day to day interactions. I can recall distinctly playing a game of volleyball one day in tenth grade gym class and joking about a friend’s serve that it had earned Approbation with Distinction. We all laughed, because it was silly, and yet to my friend it probably didn’t sound all that bad at the time. Nobody really minds to be praised when we know that it’s justified.

Now I know you will be thinking, Yes, this is all very nice, but what do you mean about this How of What We Know? At the risk of abusing your patience, let me say just a few words about this before I come to my much-hoped for conclusion. You will know already from things your teachers have told you here that most of what we know is really only provisional, subject to revision upon receipt of contravening evidence. When I was a boy, Pluto was a planet and the one dinosaur we all knew about was the brontosaurus. Well, I don’t need to tell you that the brontosaurus has now been revealed to be a model based on faulty reconstruction, and Pluto is now just a large trans-Neptunian orbiting object of indeterminate status. Sic transit gloria mundi, as they say in Latin, “So passes the glory of the world.” That at least hasn’t changed, the translation or the sentiment.

A little over a century ago, when my grandmother was born, there was no way she could have imagined a career in the as-yet undreamt worlds of the airline industry or nuclear energy. The Wright Brothers had only just taken their first flight a few years before Grandma’s birth, yet by the time my own mother was a young woman in the 50’s, there were a great many Americans employed as commercial pilots and nuclear power was a growing part of the economy when she brought me into the world in the 1960s. Nobody was talking about web development to me in elementary school, but I have quite a few friends from high school and college who have done very well with online businesses. (I only wish I had let them talk me into buying stocks in their companies as they got under way! ) The ablative of manner has remained pretty consistent over time, I will admit, but the way we read the texts has changed considerably since my grandmother’s day, in ways that are every bit as exciting as the scientific changes we can readily see.

What we know to be useful or true is subject to change, then, and sometimes the changes are so radical that they requires an entire paradigm shift to understand them. I cannot imagine what things I have known for certain will turn out to be so many trans-Neptunian objects by the time you are older; I can’t imagine what things as amazing and unexpected as airlines, nuclear energy, or the internet will be everyday matters to you in a few decades’ time, or what to your children will seem hopelessly outdated. This is not just a failure of my imagination. It is, I think, an essential quality of human knowledge itself that inherent in it is its own dynamic nature, unfolding endlessly into greater and greater areas of ingenuity and truth. The great eighteenth-century English poet, Alexander Pope, once compared the acquisition of knowledge to mountain climbing. You get to the summit, and look out only to realize that [quote] “Hills peep o’er Hills, and Alps on Alps arise!”  The view from the top shows you just how many other mountains there are.

Sometimes it can all be very overwhelming, and humbling as well. And I suppose, at such times, when I realize that what I know is so little of all that can be known and that even the little I know is itself subject to likely modification, I reflect that what really matters is why I want to know it, though as I say, the answer to that question is profoundly private, as it is for all of you. But I also ask myself, in these humbling moments, how do I want to know these things? Not how, the ablative of means, by what instrument have I come to know them, through a book or a website or from a teacher, but how, the ablative of manner, in what fashion have I come to the increase in my knowledge. Have I gone about my search in a way that could be described as honest and honorable? Has my search been one that I can be proud of? Pluto continues to orbit the sun in its trans-Neptunian, non-planetary way, and the brontosauruses have come and gone (though actually it looks like they may have never done either), but as we are gathered here today, you know this much, that your travels thus far in the world of learning are ones considered worthy of esteem and praise, cum laude, and that is no small thing to know about yourself at all.

About Uncomely and Broken

I am a classicist in Sewanee, Tennessee.
This entry was posted in Animals, Astronomical, Boston, Classics, Education, England, Family, Language & Etymology, Poetry, Sewanee, Sports & Games. Bookmark the permalink.

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