Starting the School Year: My Message to Students

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Kansas City Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker’s commencement address at Benedictine College received widespread attention. I have had little to say about the event, partly due to a personal connection: I delivered the convocation address at the beginning of this same school year, which he concluded. (And I was compensated for the speech by the college.)

Even though my remarks received little to no attention compared to his, they touched on similar themes.

Specifically, I advised the students that human connection is the most important thing in life — that the friendships and relationships they would form in college were among the most significant aspects of their education.

I acknowledged that this perspective was countercultural:

“Dependence is our natural state,” I stated. “Many contemporary authors and op-ed writers resent this dependence and see it as something to transcend or evolve beyond.

“Autonomy has become the new idol — a golden calf. Attachment is viewed as weakness. Belonging is considered a crutch. We are encouraged to prioritize career over family and ‘rise above’ our upbringing. We are expected to be constantly upwardly mobile, never bound by tradition or rooted in place.

“When we interact, we are encouraged to maintain our autonomy by making every interaction a one-time transaction, where both parties get what they want and then go their separate ways, with no expectation of commitment.”

I also touched on God’s commandment to be fruitful and multiply:

“‘It is not good for man to be alone,’ God said when Adam was still in the Garden. Then God’s very first commandment was not a ‘thou shalt not,’ but ‘be fruitful and multiply.’

“I’ve consulted Hebrew scholars for a theological explanation of this fact: What is the significance of this being God’s first commandment? Was God telling us something about the primacy of marriage and parenthood? Surely. But God also knew what every great action-movie screenwriter knows: Before you can take on the world, you need to assemble your squad.

“The hero needs teammates. Souls need other souls.

“20th-century American poet Johnny Cash put it perfectly: ‘Flesh and blood needs flesh and blood.’

“So, sometimes I think of ‘be fruitful and multiply’ as just a request to get more people into this party because life is more fun with company.”

Below are my full remarks, as prepared, and lightly edited:

Live for Others

Twenty-six years ago today, I sat at my own college convocation at a small liberal arts school in Maryland.

Middle-aged guys like me often look back and say, “I wish I knew then what I know now.” But actually, I think I did college pretty well. I learned a lot, I made lifelong friends, and since it was the 1990s, nothing I did was captured on social media.

Recalling what I learned back then, I could offer some practical advice: Take advantage of all the cool stuff on campus. This is the last time in your life when so many activities, such as catching a football game, learning swing dancing, or playing rugby, are right next door and cost you nothing.

Honestly, the real world is wonderful, but there’s a lot less dancing and far fewer opportunities to just smash your peers into the turf.

I believe the college, though, hoped I’d provide advice that’s a bit more profound. As a journalist, I write in prose, so to prepare for today, I consulted the most prominent poet of our time: Taylor Swift.

Swift spoke to NYU’s Class of 2022 at their commencement and said this:

“I know it can be really overwhelming figuring out who to be and when. Who you are now and how to act in order to get to where you want to go. I have some good news: It’s totally up to you. I also have some terrifying news: It’s totally up to you.”

Obviously, if you take this as career advice, Taylor Swift is much more qualified than I am.

But I’m afraid she meant this as life advice. And I do not mean to detract from any of her musical accomplishments when I tell you that Taylorism, if I may coin a term, is a really bad philosophy.

As you begin this great chapter in your life, if you see it as a solo mission to “figure out who to be,” you will find it impossible.

Thesis

Individualism is a great American virtue. One thing that sets us apart from other cultures is how much we believe in the power of the individual. We love hero stories. We revere the man or woman who stands up when no one else will.

As Catholics, too, we celebrate the individual. We erect statues to saints, and we venerate great women and men like Joan of Arc and Maximilian Kolbe for their heroic virtue.

The theology of the Catholic Church also has an individualistic element. Ultimately, our relationship with God is a one-on-one thing, and salvation or damnation is never collective — it’s a decision of each soul. Each one of us must find our own path to sainthood.

College is a great time to discern that path, to figure out who exactly you are as an individual — what are your strengths and weaknesses, your dreams and fears. You will make your own decisions and your own mistakes, and as much as you learn about accounting or engineering or Ancient Greek, you’ll learn about yourself.

That’s all great.

A healthy culture has a strong current of individualism. Each of us needs self-discovery, independence, and a healthy dose of solitude.

But as a culture, 21st-century America might have little too much of all that.

We are forgetting that humans belong in a community. That fellowship and camaraderie aren’t just nice diversions. They are as necessary for the soul as food and water is for the body.

Modern man forgets this. He reveres autonomy too much and neglects his duty to others.

We all talk endlessly about identity, and forget that our identity is not some custom creation of our imagination, but it is really the sum of the roles we play in the various little platoons to which we belong — the family, the school, the church, the football team, the neighborhood.

There’s always something very self-oriented about college — you’re trying to make yourself wiser and more skilled while trying to figure out your path in life. That’s wonderful. But like a football player who takes personal responsibility for his own conditioning and skill-development, we need to remember that this is all just preparation for the real game. Come game-time, our duty is to most expertly play our position alongside our teammates.

To borrow terminology from a different sort of recreation: Life is not a single-player game.

And Taylor Swift was wrong to declare that figuring out life is “totally up to you.” It’s not. We have the intellectual history of the West to guide us.

Poets, philosophers, and theologians have written and debated since ancient times about how the individual and the community work together. I’ve already mentioned Catholic teaching and Taylor Swift, but I want to briefly call on the writings of three more authors who can help teach us how to see ourselves, how to see humanity:

They are Aristotle, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Johnny Cash.

Aristotle

Aristotle wrote that “man is a political animal.” You could also translate that as “humans are a social animal.” It’s a description of the human race, but I like to read it as almost a definition of our species.

I imagine two space aliens studying Earth, and one asks the other “remind me, which animals are the humans?” The other replies, “the social ones — the ones that spend all their time talking to one another, living with one another, fighting one another.”

Obviously, we’re not the only animals that live in family, roam in packs, and communicate. But, in my biased opinion, we are the species that does it best, and most intentionally, because we are rational animals. We are blessed with the gifts of contemplation and free will. Upon contemplation, we freely choose to hang out together.

And here’s the key: If we chose otherwise, things go very badly for us. It turns out that we not only benefit from others, by nature, we actually need others in order to fulfill our potential.

Dependence is our natural state. Many contemporary authors and op-ed writers resent this dependence and see it as something to transcend or evolve beyond.

Autonomy has become a new idol — a golden calf. Attachment is viewed as weakness. Belonging is considered a crutch. We are encouraged to prioritize career over family and “rise above” our upbringing. We are expected to be constantly upwardly mobile, never bound by tradition or rooted in place.

When we interact, we are encouraged to maintain our autonomy by making every interaction a one-time transaction, where both parties get what they want and then go their separate ways, with no expectation of commitment.

I met a young man named Jesse who tends bar at a college bar in South Carolina. He was proud of “rising above” his religious upbringing. He called himself a feminist because he makes it clear to the women he meets, either at the bar or through dating apps, that he doesn’t “do relationships.” Expecting or offering commitment, in his words, is being “possessive.”

Being possessive is one of the worst offenses in a moral system built around autonomy. Relationships are a near occasion of sin. If we are bound to others, by marriage, by kinship, or by any other ongoing commitment, we aren’t totally free.

So our modern philosophy rejects our nature as social animals and tries to remake us into solitary creatures, like a Tiger Shark or a Polar Bear.

It’s true that many cultures can be too suffocating, the demands of the clan too restrictive, and individualism too stifled. But that’s not America in the 21st century.

To quote Aristotle once more, virtue is a mean between extremes. American culture today, like much of Europe, is erring in the direction of the individual.

The Surgeon General of the United States recently diagnosed an “epidemic of loneliness.” I sometimes call it a deficit of belonging. It turns out we’re too independent.

This was predicted nearly 200 years ago by a Frenchman who toured our country and wrote about Democracy in America.

Tocqueville

When Alexis De Tocqueville completed his study of our country, he concluded that the most remarkable thing about Americans was how we were constantly coming together to form new institutions or associations.

“Americans of all ages, of all conditions, of all minds, constantly unite,” he wrote. “Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which they all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, intellectual, serious ones, useless ones, very general and very particular ones, immense and very small ones; Americans associate to celebrate holidays, establish seminaries, build inns, erect churches, distribute books, send missionaries.”

Were he here today he would comment on the swing-dance club, the women’s rugby club, and the Latin Mass Society.

While Aristotle saw humans as the social animal, Tocqueville found Americans to be the social humans. Yet Tocqueville also saw that some of our good traits — our democratic nature, and our commitment to individual equality — would lead to the erosion of these associations.

In a culture that goes to extremes on undiluted equality and democracy, Tocqueville wrote, “No one is obliged to lend his strength to his fellow, and no one has the right to expect great support from his fellow. Each man is independent and weak at the very same time.”

Another force dissolving our social bonds these days is technology. Our phones, which allow us to be anywhere at any time, also make it harder to be present where we actually are.

Social media gives us a sense of community without actual community. Even our coffee makers, our central air, and our delivery apps make us more likely to withdraw from the social ecosystem in which our species thrives.

We look at the amazing tools we’ve built, we see how much good we have accomplished with innovation, and we convince ourselves that we’ve built a world in which humans don’t need other people anymore. We’ve built a world in which we’re finally free to be autonomous, self-determined individuals.

This pits modern man and Taylor Swift not only against Aristotle and Tocqueville but against the even more formidable duo of God and Johnny Cash.

Cash

“It is not good for man to be alone,” God said when Adam was still in the Garden. Then God’s very first commandment was not a “thou shalt not” but was “be fruitful and multiply.”

I’ve consulted Hebrew scholars for a theological explanation of this fact: What is the significance of this being God’s first commandment? Was God telling us something about the primacy of marriage and parenthood? Surely. But God also knew what every great action-movie screenwriter knows: Before you can take on the world, you need to assemble your squad.

The hero needs teammates. Souls need other souls.

20th-century American poet Johnny Cash put it perfectly: “Flesh and blood needs flesh and blood.”

So, sometimes I think of “be fruitful and multiply” as just a request to get more people into this party because life is more fun with company.

God’s commandments are best understood as a road map to lasting happiness. He knows our souls better than we do, and if he tells us to do something, it’s for our own good. The premise here is that humans have a certain nature — that our souls and bodies are made in a certain way and that they require a certain regimen of care and feeding in order to thrive.

This notion of a fixed human nature is not a popular one in this age when we worship autonomy.

In 1971, in the pages of The New Republic, a doctor named Warren Hern wrote that one of people’s “most important needs is freedom from the tyranny of their own biology.”

That explains so much of the modern project: It is an attempt to use technology to free us from our biology, which, after all, we didn’t choose.

You all inherited your skin, your height, your sex from your parents, much the same way my 16-year-old daughter inherited a 2013 Honda Odyssey when she got her license this year. She didn’t have any say in the matter.

We aren’t the authors of our own selves. Who we are includes plenty of things we did not choose.

We inherited not only our physical traits but our spiritual traits too. We were born as dependent, rational creatures, and nothing can change that.

Conclusion

Benedictine has a motto: Community, Faith, and Scholarship. You’ll notice the school puts Community first. That’s not because Community is more important than Faith or Scholarship. But Community does come PRIOR to those other goods. Community is the proper habitat for cultivating faith and scholarship.

Obviously, faith and scholarship can flourish in solitude — St. Patrick famously prayed ceaselessly while toiling alone as a shepherd. But for almost all of us, faith and scholarship require friends, mentors, teachers, foils, confessors.

Faith is like a language, as writer Mary Eberstadt puts it. Sure, you can learn it on your own with books and flashcards. But we best learn faith the way we all learned our first language: organically, by absorbing it during everyday life from the people we know and love.

The real work of life, and the real joy of life, is done with company. Again, life is a multiplayer game.

So my more philosophical advice is not too different from my practical advice: As you set out to discover who you are and who you want to be, don’t try to do it alone — join lots of things.

Define yourself by the roles you hold in the things you belong to.

A great 21st-century text on belonging is Taylor Swift’s “You Belong to Me.”

I’m joking. It’s an excellent song, but I’m not going to try to make it relevant here.

I will instead remind you of Christ’s words. “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” And the person who will benefit the most from living for others will be you.

Timothy P. Carney
Timothy P. Carney
Timothy P. Carney is a senior political columnist and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of Family Unfriendly: How Our Culture Made Raising Kids Much Harder Than It Needs to Be, Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse, The Big Ripoff, and Obamanomics.

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