Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: Graduation and Education

Two weeks ago I watched my oldest granddaughter walk across the stage at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama, to receive her Bachelor of Science Degree, Magna Cum Laude. It was a thrilling day for her and all who have cheered her on. Receiving a piece of paper certifying one has reached an important goal in life deserves all the excitement and pride that is palpable on such occasions. But what then? A degree is a goal- post on the way to education. Graduated is not educated. Education is a life-time task. For all the changes that have taken place since I received a Bachelor's Degree (not Magna Cum Laude) in 1952, there is a sense in which so many things remain the same.

I recently found in my files a copy of the May 24, 1992 Parade Magazine which carried an account of an address by Elie Wiesel for graduates who were entering the world in uncertain times. What he said nineteen years ago is no less applicable and important today. Elie Wiesel was imprisoned for more than a year in Auschwitz and Buchenwald, Nazi concentrations camps during World War II. Nearly all his family members were killed there. The theme of his address to the graduates was the dangers of fanaticism. He suggested that most of the significant problems in our time are rooted in fanaticism. Here are the closing paragraphs of his address:

_"I know you have been tested during your years in school, more than once. But the real tests are still ahead of you. How will you deal with your own or other people's hunger, homelessness, sexual or gender discrimination, and community antagonisms?

The outside world is not waiting to welcome you with open arms. The economic climate is bad, the psychological one is worse. You wonder, will you find jobs? Allies? Friends? I pray to our Father in heaven the answer is 'yes' to all these problems.

But should you encounter temporary disappointments, I also pray, do not make someone else pay the price for your pain. Do not see in someone else a scapegoat for your difficulties. Only a fanatic does that - not you, for you have learned to reject fanaticism. You know that fanaticism leads to hatred, and hatred is both destructive and self-destructive.

I speak to you as a teacher and a student - one is both, always. I also speak to you as a witness. I speak to you, for I do not want my past to become your future."_

All of us, young and old, need to be reminded of the importance of continuing education in life, for life. For all the inadequacies of education alone to bring meaning and fulfillment to life, it does occupy a most important place. One year when I was in the tenth or eleventh grade, I went to the graduation exercises of the high school from which I was later to graduate. Upon receiving her high school diploma, a girl turned and faced the audience, raised her arms and shouted: "Educated, by God!" Everybody laughed and applauded, but upon retrospect, if she really believed what she shouted, it was more sad than humorous. If she thought her education was complete with a diploma from a rural high school in South Alabama, she really was ignorant and deluded. I have often wondered whatever happened to this over-excited graduate. Probably not very much.

Our education ought to never end. There is no excuse for being ignorant in today's world. There are too many ways to continue to learn. If we are going to be effective citizens, with opinions worthy of being heard, there is a certain body of contemporary factual knowledge with which we ought to have more than just a passing acquaintance. What we think is not nearly so important as what is true. We are all entitled to our own private opinions, but not to our own private set of facts.

The essence of education is to seek truth by constantly testing our opinions against the facts, and adjusting our opinions in the light of truth. The truth is not always what we are thinking. There is a magnetic sticker on one of the filing cabinets next to where I write that says: "Don't believe everything you think." An educated person does not persist in what Shakespeare called "...rubbing the poor itch of your own opinions." The pure and often painful truth is the only curative balm for that "poor itch". Let me paraphrase what a university president said in a recent speech: "The road to truth runs by the schoolhouse."

We should all have opinions without being "opinionated". And, there is a difference between the two. Become the best educated person you can, and stay educated by continuing to study and think.