The restlessness of the human spirit has been much on my mind lately. I recently read Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing, which tells the harrowing tale of Sir Ernest Shackleton and his crew’s trans-Antarctic expedition. The expedition was a failure; setting out in August of 1914, their ship, the Endurance, was caught fast in the freezing seas and crushed. The crew spent more than a year camping on ice floats and navigating treacherous waters in lifeboats in attempts to find solid ground and human outposts. Supplies dwindled to nothing, and their bodies were broken and frostbitten, stretched thin and ravaged by malnutrition. But the story is ultimately one of remarkable success; their original quest for imperial glory and discovery became a quest for survival, and indeed, Shackleton succeeded by January 1917 in preserving the lives of each member of his crew.
What struck me the most about this tale were not the steps by which the crew persevered in the harshest of possible conditions — impressive as those were — but rather what motivated the attempt in the first place. No one had yet crossed Antarctica, and those signing up for the journey knew well the risks: The routes were inadequately charted, the weather and currents unpredictable, and there would be no way to communicate with the civilized world should help be needed. And yet, Shackleton had no trouble finding able and eager men willing to take that risk, and in fact was able to hand pick his crew of seamen, craftsmen and academics from the cream of the crop. The hearts of a great many were restless and hungry for greatness, adventure and new knowledge.
I recently heard a lecture given to our friends at the Dallas Institute for Humanities and Culture by our chair of Classics Dr. David Sweet, in which he reflected on the odyssey below the Odyssey, the odyssey of what motivated Odysseus. Why, Dr. Sweet asked, did Odysseus leave the island of Calypso, the haven in which every imaginable creature comfort was supplied? In addition to his longing for his own hearth and home, his own family, Odysseus was moved by his spirit for adventure, his desire to brave the perilous in pursuit of his beloved Ithaca.
There has been much written lately on the apathy of youth today, their absorption into the mind- and spirit-numbing world of social media and entertainment, punctuated with brief episodes of tailored outrage to identify where they stand on the issues of the day. One should not, I have become convinced, put too much stock in these depictions. The human heart remains restless beneath these manicured surfaces. I have seen it spring to life time and again in our own students’ odysseys, in their quest for the true, good and beautiful.
But I do not mean to suggest that we should not put any stock in those worried descriptions of the rising generation of college students, for they do face new challenges. The “virtual world” has taken on far too much prominence in their lives. Many of them have not, as Ben Sasse notes in his 2017 book The Vanishing American Adult, taken on the burdens that would lead to self-responsibility. Far too many of them do not know their history, or they know only tendentious versions of it. The ways in which many of them have been thus far educated leave them underprepared and frustrated — frustrated because they have the nagging sense, born from the restlessness of their hearts, that there is something more, something greater, to which they are called. And, therein lies hope.
One reason we have our students read the Odyssey and other epics is that these great works of our tradition stoke the flames of the human desire to accomplish great and noble tasks; they incite the spirit for heroism even as they provide models of the heroic shape. St. Augustine is perhaps the greatest poet of the restlessness of the human spirit, and the greatest theologian in revealing through his Confessions where ultimately that restlessness ought to lead, to a deep and personal relationship with the Divine Other.
This points to the twin efforts of our faculty at the University of Dallas. On the one hand, we seek to stoke the fires of restlessness, to lay bare and encourage our students to quest for great things. And, on the other, we strive to guide well the fires that have been stoked, to shape enlarged desire by the truth and to cultivate restlessness through virtue for the acquisition of wisdom, both practical and speculative.
This summer, we are preparing to launch the adventure of a new academic year. We will be welcoming the largest freshman class in our university’s history, the latest crop of young people eager for something great, even if they do not yet know exactly what great things await them. We have been transforming Catherine Hall back into a residence hall to make room for these students, reshuffling the decks of faculty and staff offices and ensuring that we have sufficient numbers of excellent faculty who are eager and able to lead our students, new and continuing, on their odysseys. May they all find Ithaca.
Jonathan J. Sanford, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy
Your Excellency, and Chancellor of the University of Dallas, Most Reverend Bishop Edward J. Burns; Chair of the Board of Trustees Richard Husseini; your Excellencies, Most Reverend Bishop Gregory Kelly, Bishop Mark Seitz and Bishop Joseph Strickland; Your Excellency, and our commencement speaker, Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda; members of the Board of Trustees; University Chaplain Father Thomas More Barba, O.P.; Rome Chaplain Monsignor Thomas Fucinaro; the esteemed faculty of the University of Dallas; parents, grandparents, friends and other relatives; and last, but certainly not least, the graduating class of 2021; what a delight it is to stand before you this morning.
We have many reasons to rejoice! Not only are we gathered together to celebrate your achievements, but we are really, truly and actually gathered together — at least most of us are, and please allow me to give a special word of welcome to those who are participating virtually.
We have come through a tremendously trying time. We have endured in the face of genuine difficulties. We gather to celebrate the achievements of our graduates for having run the race of their rigorous education well, for having fought the good fight and won the crown of their degrees. But, this extraordinary moment is not simply one of celebrating our graduates. It is no diminishment of their achievement to note that it would not have been possible without the extraordinary sacrifices of parents, grandparents, spouses and siblings, providing critical support throughout the time of focused study. In any year, staff, faculty and trustees of the university play essential roles in creating the environment in which genuine learning can occur. But this last year, more than any other, has seen extraordinary service rendered by all those dedicated to providing a University of Dallas education. Our faculty especially deserves our thanks — one simply cannot overestimate the remarkable sacrifices they have made in providing the very best of educations even under the exigencies of COVID. Thank you! Indeed, this is a moment in which we all rejoice.
At the recent Honors Convocation for graduating seniors, I focused on how, though forced upon us, the virtues of patience and perseverance, both of which are elements of the virtue of courage, have been planted in our souls. I want to encourage our graduates to continue to develop these virtues. They will enable you to endure the many trials of your life, whether those be the vagaries of the job market, the joys and challenges of raising a family, the faithful living out of a religious vocation, or discernment about how best to live out your responsibility to exercise responsible citizenship. We have all suffered under COVID and its management, but from that suffering, genuine wisdom can indeed be cultivated. If, that is, we strive to learn what lessons we can from what we have been through.
Endurance, trials, suffering; these terms mark the struggles we have been through and the difficulties we have borne. But, let us turn from these terms of strife for a moment to remind ourselves of what it is that makes them meaningful. For, ours has not been a fruitless suffering, but one dedicated to the fundamental goods of education.
The University of Dallas is a community of learners. Our purpose is to cultivate truth, wisdom and virtue. That is why we exist. These are the fundamental goods of education.
Truth is a matter of communion between your very soul and some object about which you inquire. This communion is not achieved through a downloading of information, as though we are some sort of repositories of facts like encyclopedias or computers. We are thinkers. We have learned to think for ourselves. We have learned to think for ourselves by asking questions, testing, experimenting, imagining, creating, performing, arguing, wrestling with case studies, pulling things apart and putting them back together, reflecting, and ultimately listening to things as they reveal themselves to us. It is through these processes that we eventually come to hold onto, to grasp, to possess, truths about things in such a way that they become parts of our very selves.
What is wisdom? Wisdom is a combination of understanding things as they are and being able to demonstrate them. Wisdom grows as our possession of truths grows, as we come to be shaped by those truths, and put ourselves to the test time and again of explaining those truths to others and being tested by others to refine them still further. Ultimately, wisdom rises to reflection on the greatest of all things. We know from both reason and faith that that is ultimately the source of all truth and wisdom, God himself. It is God who is the source of all truth and the object of all wisdom. All that is has its source in God, and each of our worthy endeavors reach their fulfilment insofar as they make manifest the greater glory of God, as encapsulated in that exhortation St. Ignatius made famous, Ad maiorem Dei gloriam.
A virtue is a honed disposition that makes us better human beings and enables us to do those things human beings ought to do well. There are both virtues of the mind and virtues of character. The highest virtue of the mind is in fact wisdom, and one facet of wisdom is its application in discerning how we should act. It is in action that the virtues of character are most required. We ought not merely to wish to be good, to be courageous, to be honest, to be just; rather, we are ordered and fulfilled in our humanity through in fact acting courageously, honestly and justly. We become more the selves we are called to be through exercising the virtues, and thus make sense of our lives, that is live meaningfully, by contributing to the good of others, whether that be through work in business, medicine, ministry, research, teaching, policy making, raising a family, or any of the many other walks of life you will find yourselves in.
Your cultivation of the goods of education has not been concluded with the reception of your degrees. Far from it! These are goods worthy of a lifetime of pursuit. These are goods most deserving of your continued attention. You cannot exhaust these goods, and in your further acquisition of them, you will not deprive others of their possession. Far from it! You, and all those with whom you interact, will be the beneficiaries of this quest which ought to be the defining feature of your life, no matter what your occupation or other life circumstances.
Veritatem, Justitiam Diligite: These are the words surrounding the top of the University of Dallas seal, and comprise UD’s motto. These are words meant to encapsulate the point and purpose of your education. These are words to guide you. Love Truth. Love Justice. It is worth noting that diligite, the Latin word for “love” and “seek diligently,” is a command.
The command the University of Dallas issues to all its sons and daughters is not a diversion from your pursuit of a life well-lived, it is rather a guide to the achievement of your life-quest. Since knowledge is a personal encounter with the truth of things, you become more yourself the more you cultivate knowledge in pursuit of wisdom. Since putting your life at the service of others is a fulfillment of your human nature, you become more yourself the more you cultivate justice. We want you to be happy, and the path to happiness is the love and pursuit of truth and justice. We also hope you want to strive to do great and glorious things, to cultivate the virtue of magnanimity.
In living magnanimously, you will love truth and justice well, becoming who you are called to be. We are eager to see you come into your own and set this world ablaze with your great and good life and works, and, in doing so, through your efforts and God’s grace, to establish your eternal home in the Kingdom of Heaven. This is our greatest hope and most heart-felt prayer for you. Thank you for persevering through these challenging times. Thank you for braving distance and a pandemic to celebrate this day together. Kudos on your tremendous accomplishment. Know that you always have a home with your alma mater.
I was honored to provide the annual Thomas More lecture for the Lewis-Tolkein Society last week, the first in-person event the Society had offered in more than a year. I focused on the theme of friendship and its role in liberal education.
As often happens with formal addresses, the Q-and-A period proved the livelier part of the evening. My address had focused on the essentials of a liberal education and the signature importance of focusing on learning for its own sake, whether it be in history, mathematics, science, theology, or business. To really understand the things one studies themselves, one must strive to appreciate them in their own right, as opposed to considering merely their usefulness to other subjects or the practicalities of life. Many in the audience had led successful careers in business and the professions, and I was asked to explore the relevance of a liberal education to professional life. One question, from a University of Dallas graduate from 1980, struck me for several reasons. The questioner recalled a speech he heard as an undergraduate from UD’s legendary president, Dr. Donald Cowan. President Cowan had in this speech to undergraduates emphasized the impracticality of a UD education, in large part to emphasize the value of this education for its own sake. Other educations might focus on the how, my questioner asserted, but President Cowan’s speech helped him to focus his attention on the why. The questioner wanted to know, amongst other things, whether I endorsed that vision.
I do. But, I do so with some contextual clarifications, clarifications that I suspect, having read many of President Cowan’s speeches, that President Cowan would have agreed with as well. It is true that, in a primary sense, a University of Dallas education is focused on things themselves, and not their utility value. But, it is also true that a University of Dallas education is preeminently useful, precisely because of its focus on learning for its own sake. What do I mean by that?
I mean that our graduates, having been forged in the furnace of an education that commands their focus like few others, are fully liberated after graduation to take their place at the highest levels in every walk of professional, civic, familial, and religious life. In an age marked by anxiety about how one will make a living, it should be consoling to students and their families that our students have proven themselves, time and again, more fit for post-graduate achievements than students from nearly every other school. Our medical school placement rates, for instance, are twice the national average, and on par with Ivy League schools. A remarkable number of our students seeking admission to law school are admitted, and our PhD placements in top-tier programs in multiple fields, such as math, biochemistry, and classics, are exceptional as well. But, it is not only in admissions to schools for additional education that our students excel. Our first destination placements have consistently been above 97%, putting UD graduates into careers immediately after graduation, and many of them in companies with household names like Amazon, Fidelity, UT Southwestern, and Goldman Sachs. You will read about some of these remarkable senior student successes in our summer Tower magazine.
St. John Paul II biographer and father of two UD alumnae, George Weigel, echoed this appreciation in my recent interview with him for Guadalupe Radio: "The kind of comprehensive liberal arts education that UD offers, the human environment that UD offers, the transformative experience of the Rome semester—that prepares you for anything."
Perhaps we do not do enough to stress these achievements. We are first and foremost concerned with substance, with the essence of things, with an education that puts at the forefront an encounter with things as they present themselves to we, the learners. We tend to make the appeal to prestige and placements secondary, as indeed it is. Students at the University of Dallas are imbued by an education that humbles them before the riches of the past and those yet to be achieved, and so, well formed by the greatest of our culture’s paradigms, dedicate themselves to lives of excellence. Celebrating their achievements need not distract from a focus on the primary goods of education, and can serve as encouragement to future students that they, too, can fulfill their particular calling to live magnanimously.
It is the education our students receive which orients them to lives of greatness. The encounter with the heroic ideal is front and center to every freshman who enters the University of Dallas as he or she wrestles with the Homeric ideal of greatness in the Iliad. That ideal, countered and re-encountered throughout the rest of the curriculum, finds its way into the soul of our students. They want to do great things in service to God and country. And, God willing, they will.
Jonathan J. Sanford, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy
I know we love our philosophers at UD, but admittedly they ask some odd questions, like, “What is being?”, “Can you understand something you can't demonstrate?”, and “Why be good?” We might all agree these are important questions, but not that they are pressing. Finding moments where questions like these are made pressing, as we do in our classrooms, brings a freshness to our everyday lives by uncovering overlooked depths of meaning.
Here is another odd question: What is time? Aristotle tells us that time is the measuring of motion according to before and after. One of the things I like about this definition is the way in which it invokes the role of a measurer: Time is not something merely “out there” — those who notice the passing of things mark it out. This helps explain why the passage of time varies according to the circumstances of we the measurers. More than one person has remarked to me recently that “COVID time” is unlike other periods of their lives. It is hard to recall sequences of events. Days seem to move slowly, and yet in recalling past days, they seem to have slipped away far more swiftly than other periods of our lives. What has “COVID time” been like for the University of Dallas? It is worth recalling a few things.
It was one year ago that we were arriving at the decision that we would have to be fully online for the remainder of the spring 2020 semester due to COVID. We thought at that time that the virus would be under control by the end of summer at the latest, and we were planning for a more or less regular fall semester. As the year progressed, we soon realized just how wrong we were in that prediction, and yet we nonetheless persevered in our plans for a fall, and then a spring, that prioritized opportunities for in-person classes. We even managed to be one of the few universities in our nation to continue to run our signature study-abroad program in Rome in both the fall and this spring, despite significant obstacles that stood in our way. We have faced challenges and discomforts, to be sure, but we have thus far prevailed in our efforts to provide the deeply enriching and personal education that is one of our hallmarks.
This past year has seen other changes as well: We have been able to put the university on the strongest financial footing it has had in recent years through the implementation of a restructuring and expense reduction plan, as well as through taking advantage of federal grants and redoubled efforts at philanthropic fundraising. And then of course, there has been a presidential transition.
Though we ought to take stock of what has preceded, we need as well to keep our eyes fixed on how to live well in the present. Doing that requires focus on what one is doing and why one is doing it. I recently gave a lecture to a group of our highest-achieving prospective students, who were part of a competition for 10 full-tuition scholarships. I focused on the role of friendship in a liberal education. My thesis was that a liberal education is a sort of friendship for the sake of friendship. One cultivates a friendship with the truth of things by means of the help of friendships with peers and professors, for the sake, ultimately, of cultivating friendship with the source and summit of all that is true, good and beautiful — God himself. Friendships of each of these sorts require a willed presence with and to one’s friends, an ability to lay aside distractions and to learn with and from one’s friends. This takes time, and it is time well spent.
Time is not only a matter of recalling the past and trying to live in the present. We make sense of our own lives by anticipating the future. As people of faith, our lives are marked not just by the natural limit of earthly time, but through the virtue of hope as we anticipate a new mode of living in the presence of a timeless God. Our work lies in the temporal order, and that work is more excellently accomplished as we orient ourselves to eternity.
It is with both senses of our future in mind that we can see that a new springtime for the University of Dallas is upon us. We have not merely made it through the winter of this past year; we have done so in a way that positions us well for the future, that positions us to make fully real our calling to be the best Catholic liberal arts university in this nation. I am eager to lead this university to new heights, guided by our distinctive mission and new strategic plan. In a world in desperate need of our graduates, men and women who have been oriented to those principal goods of wisdom, truth and virtue, we are going to play a key role in renewing our Church and country. Our education liberates all those who experience it to bear witness to the virtues of rational discourse, magnanimity, justice and charity. Expect great things from our great University of Dallas.
Wishing you and your family a blessed Holy Week,
Jonathan J. Sanford, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy