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Rev. John McFadden Address at 2003 UWFox Convocation

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On September 8, 2003, the University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley held its annual campus Convocation. Rev. John McFadden was the guest speaker as part of the program, and presented the following address to the audience. It is reproduced here with his enthusiastic permission. Inquiries about his presentation, including permission to use it or reproduce it, should be directed to the Office of University Relations at the University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley. Rev. McFadden retains all rights to the content of his presentation.

“Empty Bookshelves”

Rev. John McFaddenPresented by Rev. John McFadden, (First Congregational Church of Christ) at the University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley Campus Convocation

September 8, 2003

While traveling this summer, my wife and I attended a social gathering in one of those large new homes that are springing up in developments all over the country, including our own region, these days: the homes that are sometimes uncharitably called “McMansions.” You know the kind I mean? Huge houses, 5,000 or 6,000 square feet, selling for somewhere around a half million dollars, jammed up against many similar homes in a kind of architectural jumble of excess.

As guests, we were required – required! – to take a house tour, a peculiar social convention that seems to be spreading these days for reasons not entirely clear to me. I have never greeted a guest at our home by saying: “Welcome! Can I show you the house? Would you like to see my sock drawer?” But in this case it was clear that the tour was mandatory, so we dutifully allowed ourselves to be led around the house. There were televisions built into every place you could possibly build a television into. There was a gigantic rear-projection set in the room called, I think, the “Great Room,” right where there would more commonly be a fireplace: the electronic hearth. There was a plasma set on the wall of the master bedroom. Even the master bathroom had a built-in television, aimed directly at the one spot in the bathroom from which you might conceivably watch television. Every television in the house was, of course, turned on.

The Great Room had an entire wall of bookshelves, maybe twelve feet high and twenty feet wide. Those bookshelves were the one thing in the house I envied. One shelf featured a collection of golf trophies. Another displayed an extensive collection of porcelain bunny rabbits. Some were holding little umbrellas and others grasped tiny sprinkling cans. There were all kinds of things on those bookshelves, but there was not a single book. In the entire house the only place I could find any books at all was the office. I lagged behind the tour, dying to know what sorts of books these people read. There were books on successful management. There were books about golf. I even found a book on collecting porcelain bunnies. But I could not find a single novel that was not written by Danielle Steele, could not find anything designed to engage the reader with the great questions and ideas of human experience; could not find a single book designed to expand the reader’s world. Even those few shelves containing books were, from my perspective, empty bookshelves.

And another observation began to penetrate: nowhere in this huge home was there a chair with a good reading lamp. There was literally no comfortable place to sit and read a book in the entire house: every seat, including the toilet, faced a television screen! Is this who we are becoming? We go to school so that we can have a successful career so that we can buy a showplace home then sit inside that home watching reruns of “Survivor” for the rest of our lives? Is this the American dream?

I am here today to make an argument, namely that you should not be seeking a liberal arts education merely in the hopes that it will lead to a better job and a higher income: we all know there aren’t any jobs out there anyway. Rather, you should seek this education because the liberal arts hold intrinsic value that will make you a better citizen and a happier human being. I will discuss each of these in turn.

A quality education in the liberal arts should first enhance your ability to think critically, a capability desperately needed in our society. Critical thinking demands a base of knowledge upon which to make sound judgments, and we have become a people almost proud of our collective ignorance. One recent survey served up for our amusement found that far more Americans could correctly name the Three Stooges than the three branches of the federal government. While a case could be made that there are certain similarities to be found between the executive, the legislative, and the judicial (you did know those, didn’t you?) and Curly, Larry, and Moe, I still find these displays of our ignorance more alarming than amusing.

Remarkably, we are not particularly embarrassed by or concerned about our collective ignorance. We are perversely proud of it. We can blame some of this, I suppose, on postmodernism, which rejects the very notion that there can be such a thing as an objective body of human knowledge that is true for all persons. Objective facts have been replaced by personal opinions, which everyone seems to hold and is eager to share, whether requested to or not. A friend calls this unfortunate state of affairs “the Oprah Syndrome:” everyone’s opinion is as good as anyone else’s, no matter how ignorant or ill-informed. The expert gives an objective, carefully-reasoned scientific perspective, and the next guest says: “I don’t care what he says, Oprah, all I know is those aliens took me up in their spaceship and stuck their little probes in me!” To which the audience responds: “You tell him, girl! Don’t take any guff from that uppity expert!” Anything that is said on television is true, or as true as anything else, and all claims of expertise are suspect.

I am married to an academic, the chair of the psychology department at UW-Oshkosh, and she is amazed and wearied by the number of students who believe they are attending the University not to absorb knowledge but to express opinions they already hold. They want to debate whether evolution is true, or at least true for them, which amounts to the same thing. While I like to think I am respectful of diverse religious perspectives, in the world of science evolution is simply no longer open to debate: it is a fundamental building block of human knowledge. If we reject entire fields of knowledge, the sum of many generations of human striving for understanding, because we have already plucked an arbitrary opinion out of the air, we have pretty much made a conscious decision to remain ignorant. If we are ever to speak with an informed voice, there is a certain body of human knowledge that we are required to accept and master. Then we learn how to build upon that knowledge; how to expand it, how to use it to make informed decisions and sound judgments.

I have a friend, a professor of ethics at Duke University, who opens every course with the same little speech. “You are not here to express your opinion. You are not here to make up your own mind. Most of you do not yet have minds worth making up! You are here to learn how to think like me. After you have learned how to think like me, and to think like the other professors under whom you will study; then and only then will you be in a position to make up your own minds.” Isn’t that arrogant? Doesn’t that sound like the eighteenth century? But doesn’t it also make a lot of sense? The notion that professors are professors because they have something to profess? That they are the teachers and you are the student because they are supposed to know more about the subject than you do? If they don’t, why don’t we fire them all and just let the students get together to swap opinions? You could save a bundle on tuition if we did that!

I am certainly not arguing that students should be required to be silent, obedient little sponges absorbing the marvelous wisdom of their instructors, nor am I suggesting that the academy should not provide opportunities for students to argue their positions, or to debate with faculty and one another, but only that such discourse should be grounded in some degree of knowledge and understanding of the subject matter of the course rather than a clever remark that was made on last night’s episode of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.”

The German poet Heinrich Heine was once giving a guest a tour of some of the grand cathedrals of his city when the visitor asked him, “Heinrich, why does no-one build such magnificent cathedrals today?” Heine responded: “When these cathedrals were constructed people held convictions. Now they have opinions. And opinions do not build great cathedrals.” Genuine convictions grow from the knowledge that there are truths that are timeless, ideals to which we owe allegiance, principles to which we are accountable; there are things that are bigger and more important than we are and therefore worth giving ourselves to. The universe does not begin or end with us, and we are not the measure of all things. Our opinions do matter and we certainly should express them, but our opinions should be informed by facts and we should offer them in a spirit of humility and a healthy appreciation for the possibility that we just may be wrong.

We are presently living in a complex, challenging, frightening world. Decisions are being made today that will shape that world for generations to come. It terrifies me that decisions are being made about America’s relationship with the Arab world by voters who cannot even locate these Arab states on a map, much less claim a grasp of their culture. That is, among other things, flat-out arrogant. It disturbs me that decisions are being made about the structure of our economy that will have profound impact on every dimension of civic life for decades to come solely on the basis of the widely-held view that we do not particularly enjoy paying taxes, with no acknowledgment of our obligation to provide a decent social fabric for all citizens and a viable future for those who will follow us. We may soon see the voters of California select a new governor on the critical basis of having really enjoyed “Terminator Three.” A democracy made up of citizens too lazy and self-absorbed to educate themselves sufficiently to make informed judgments about complex issues is not a pleasant thing to contemplate, and too often as I read the paper these days I can hear the sound of ancient Athenians spinning in their graves. (Athens, by the way, was a Greek city-state that had something to do with the formation of democracy: I believe you will find it mentioned in any number of courses taught here.)

I am suggesting that our society needs students like you to absorb a quality liberal arts education so that you can bring the significant learnings and insights of history, philosophy, literature, the fine arts, mathematics, the natural and social sciences, religion, and the other academic disciplines to bear on the critical issues of our day, because pop culture and personal opinion are not an adequate foundation upon which to build a workable society. You are here to expand your world, deepen your perspective, and broaden your views so that you will have more to contribute to our common human endeavor. And if that sounds grandiose and challenging: good! This is a challenge that should be set before students at every college and university in the nation, not just those entering Yale. God save us from becoming a country in which only Yale graduates believe they are equipped to make the critical judgments that shape our society.

But I said earlier that a second purpose of a liberal arts education is to prepare you to be a happier human being, by which I mean that you will be equipped to experience your life in a richer and ultimately more satisfying way. I am not talking about snobbery or elitism, but the deeper appreciation for the complexity and richness of life which results from cultivating an active inner life.

Ours is not a society that much encourages the cultivation of an inner life. Rather, it grooms us to become good workers and good consumers, reducing us to nothing more than mere functions. Have you taken note of the degree to which we allow ourselves to be defined by functions? We do not even describe ourselves as “citizens” anymore; we have become “taxpayers,” a much less noble and interesting word that speaks only of the function of paying taxes rather than full participation in the institution of democracy.

But the primary function by which we are defined today is consumption. We are “customers;” we are “consumers.” Consuming things for the sake of consuming them has been elevated to the level of patriotic virtue. Only in America could the box office receipts for the opening weekend of a new movie be treated as newsworthy; only in a consumerist society such as ours could we have been urged to respond to a heinous act of global terrorism by going shopping. Descartes has been updated in our time to: “I shop, therefore I am.” In such a climate, culture has become just one more commodity marketed to us that we flock to consume because that is what is expected of us and that is what everyone else is doing. We dutifully watch the newest blockbuster movie (“Charlie’s Angels 7: Bad Hair Day,” “Generic Cop Buddy Movie 412”), or view the hot television show of the moment (“Celebrity Caterpillar Eating”); we incorporate lines from advertising campaigns into our conversations, thinking this somehow makes us clever and interesting rather than merely obedient consumers. We dutifully consume, we are briefly amused or entertained, and then it is gone: eye candy, junk food for the mind. We eat, we sleep, we work, we consume, and we call that having a life. I call upon you to reject this as a life plan that is not worthy of you.

I have no problem with mindless, escapist entertainment: we all need some of that in our lives. I am a great admirer of Andy Sidaris, the shameless director of “B movies,” who once tried to explain split brain theory by saying: “If I got this straight, the left side of your brain appreciates stuff like “War and Peace” and “The Last Emperor,” but the right side of your brain just wants to see a pretty girl in a bikini blow up a helicopter. I make movies for that side of your brain.” Fair enough: that’s a legitimate mission, and this world would be a poorer place without the occasional car chase and exploding helicopter.

But a steady diet of cultural junk food dulls us, flattens life, diminishes our capacity to appreciate things that may be initially more challenging but will ultimately prove more rewarding. As just one example, much of the music I have loved most over an extended period of time is music I did not fully appreciate the first time I heard, sometimes because it was too challenging, too much work to listen to, or sometimes because the complexity within it that allows it to keep speaking to me was not immediately apparent. The Beach Boys “Pet Sounds” album comes to mind. Some call it the best pop album of all time, and I would not argue with that, but it was a flop when it was first released because it contained none of the catchy top-40 songs the audience had come to expect; no “fun, fun, fun ‘til your daddy takes the T-Bird away.” But every time I listen to that album I hear something new, just like I hear something new when I listen again to Beethoven’s Seventh or anything by Mozart. Likewise with the visual arts: I never experience a painting or a sculpture in exactly the same way twice, because I am approaching it in a slightly different manner each time I return to it, bringing new experiences to my interaction with it. In my own field we say that one never reads the same passage from scripture twice, because we are different each time we return to it. It may be on the eighth time that you read a given passage that it comes alive for you: speaks to you in a way it could not before because you were not yet ready to receive it.

I could make a similar case for the liberal arts in the broadest sense: they are a moving river, always a bit different from what they were the last time you dipped your feet. Moreover, each separate academic discipline can increase our appreciation for and understanding of the others: a familiarity with history enhances the study of literature; a grasp of the fundamentals of physics will make us more appreciative of the work of the artist; a knowledge of math can help us understand what is unfolding in a great work of music. The various disciplines are in ongoing conversation with one another, bringing us to deeper appreciation and greater insight.

Out of our immersion in the various voices of the liberal arts we develop a capacity to connect all kinds of things in ways we could not before. Deeper places within us are opened up, enabling us to receive gifts that are richer, more sustaining, more satisfying: things that are abiding rather than transitory. We become more awake, more alive to the wonder of the world around us in both its beauty and its pain. Immersion in the liberal arts, a process that should not end when we walk away with a degree in hand, is a continuous journey of awakening to the wonder and mystery of life that cultivates a rich, sustaining inner life.

I sincerely hope that the education you receive here at the University of Wisconsin, Fox Valley, results in your finding a good job: a job that stretches you and forces you to grow, a job in which you can use your gifts and talents to the fullest to the benefit of society, a job that provides sufficient income to give you access to some of the things that make up your version of “the good life,” whether that be a McMansion or a cabin in the wilderness. Go for it!

But I hope your education provides you with much, much more. I hope it makes you a deeper and wiser person, a more thoughtful and discerning person, a more compassionate and caring person. I hope it awakens you from the somnambulant state that this consumerist society has labored so mightily to induce in you. And I hope you spend some of that money you are going to earn on good books and music, including works that will stretch and challenge you. I hope you someday buy a work of original art not because it is the perfect size to go over the sofa, or because those kittens hanging from the tree branch are so darn cute, but because that work of art is speaking to something inside of you that you cannot even name, and you hope that living with it will help you to know more about whatever inside of you is responding to it. I hope your education wakes you up and brings you to fullness of life. Thank you very much.

Posted 9/11/2003