Chicago Grammar School

I Dare You!

Posted on June 20, 2018

Excerpt from Commencement Speech, June 2018

This is a significant moment in your lives.  Cherish and enjoy this moment.

It has been a pleasure and honor for me to be your teacher.

I wanted you, at a young age, to be moved by the marvels and wonders this world has to offer.  I wanted you to be curious and excited by the power of music, art, theater, and literature; opening the possibility that these powerful expressions of humanity will give you a deeper and richer life.  I wanted you to understand the systems of math and science in order to truly comprehend and apply.

I was so fortunate to pull together a team, who shared the same desires for you.  They have led you on a truly incredible journey.

My dear graduates, I want to let you know that it has been a privilege and joy to be a part of your lives for so many years.

My friends, I had an idea on how to best educate our future generations, and you have made that journey. This is a significant moment for me as well because each of you has developed into such thoughtful, intelligent, curious, kind, and well educated young adults.

Much of your studies was rooted in principles from the 18th Century Age of Enlightenment.

What is enlightenment? In a 1784 essay with that question as its title, Immanuel Kant answered that it consists of “humankind’s emergence from its self-incurred immaturity”, its “lazy and cowardly” submission to the “dogmas and formulas” of religious or political authority.  Enlightenment’s motto, he proclaimed, is: “Sapere Aude” – “Dare to understand!” and its foundational demand is freedom of thought and speech. During the 18th century, provoked by challenges to conventional wisdom from science and exploration, mindful of the bloodshed of recent wars of religion, and aided by the easy movement of ideas and people, the thinkers of the Enlightenment sought a new understanding of the human condition.  Steven Pinker in his book, Enlightenment Now, eloquently and elegantly describes the four themes are at the heart of this thinking: reason, science, humanism and progress.

Foremost is reason.  Reason is non-negotiable. As soon as you show up to discuss the question of what we should believe (or any other question), as long as you insist that your answers, whatever they are, are reasonable or justified or true and that therefore other people ought to believe them too, then you have committed yourself to reason, and to holding your beliefs accountable to objective standards.  If there’s anything the Enlightenment thinkers had in common, it was an insistence that we energetically apply the standard of reason to understanding our world. The deliberate application of reason was necessary because our common habits of thought are not particularly reasonable.

That leads to the second ideal, science, the refining of reason to understand the world. That includes an understanding of ourselves. The Scientific Revolution was revolutionary in a way that is hard to appreciate today, now that its discoveries have become second nature to most of us.

The idea of a universal human nature brings us to a third theme, humanism. The thinkers of the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment saw an urgent need for a secular foundation for morality, because they were haunted by a historical memory of centuries of religious carnage: the Crusades, the Inquisition, witch-hunts, the European wars of religion.  They laid that foundation in what we now call humanism, which acknowledges the wellbeing of individual men, women, and children over the glory of the tribe, race, nation or religion.  Humanism impelled the Enlightenment thinkers to condemn not just religious violence but also the secular cruelties of their age, including slavery, executions for frivolous offenses such as shoplifting and poaching and sadistic punishments such as flogging, amputation, impalement, disembowelment, breaking on the wheel and burning at the stake. The Enlightenment is sometimes called the Humanitarian Revolution, because it led to the abolition of barbaric practices that had been commonplace across civilizations for millennia.

If the abolition of slavery and cruel punishment is not progress, nothing is, which brings us to the fourth Enlightenment ideal-Progress. With our understanding of the world advanced by science and our circle of sympathy expanded through reason and humanism, humanity could make intellectual and moral progress. It need not resign itself to the miseries and irrationalities of the present, nor try to turn back the clock to a lost golden age.  Does this sound familiar?  Over the past year there have been many books, articles, and tweets on society’s movement away from reason-some proclaiming the death of the Enlightenment ideal.

You may already notice that many people are perfectly happy to let others guide their thoughts and actions. Social media can think for me, a minister or priest can act as my conscience, a physician can prescribe my diet, and so on—I have no need to exert myself. I have no need to think, if only I can pay, others will take care of that disagreeable business for me.

And you know, that there are people in this world who are perfectly happy to tell you what to do and what to think.

You, my graduates, do not have to be sheep—Sapere Aude—Dare to Know—Dare to Think.

You have been given the beginnings of a broad liberal arts education.

You have a large store of information spanning literature, history, science, and math.

You have been encouraged to question and debate the ideas and actions of mankind throughout the centuries.

At your young age, you are in a unique spot.

I dare you to continue studying a broad range of subjects.

I dare you to continue to debate.

I dare you to continue to question.

Sapere Aude—Dare to Know