“The Last Don Rag”

 

by Scott Buchanan

One of the founders of the New Program, Scott Buchanan served as dean of St. John's from 1937 through 1946. These remarks were made on May 31, 1958, at a party held in honor of Buchanan and Stringfellow ("Winkie") Barr, the co-founder of the New Program in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y.

This occasion reminds me of an occasion some twelve years ago when Winkie and I were leaving St. John's. There was a farewell party given us by the students. Some of you may remember, some money had been collected and put on deposit with the bookshop, a fund for books on which we could draw if we got lonesome. We were each given a token book and we had to make little farewell speeches. It was a very moving occasion for us, and particularly for me because I casually opened to the first page of my book and read it: "Tell me, O muse, of the man of many devices, who wandered full many ways after he sacked the sacred citadel of Troy. Many were the men whose cities he saw and whose mind he learned, aye, and many the woes he suffered in his heart upon the sea, seeking to win his own life and the return of his comrades. "

I have recalled this omen many times in the last ten years, particularly when I run into a St. Johnnie or two and in no time at all a conversation springs up, like fresh water from an old spring, in a world where there are fewer and fewer conversations. These years, as Winkie has just said, have been years of wandering and searching. I think we have returned to Ithaca many times, and yet have found that Ithaca is no longer Ithaca. You will remember that Odysseus finally was advised to take an oar on his shoulder and travel with it until he found people who would not know it was an oar and would take it for a threshing flail. That has happened too. I am just now invited to a conference on education next week, where the leaders of the discussion are to be Sidney Hook and Ernest Nagle and some so-called educators. They apparently think that I belong to that curious modern tribe who have never known the liberal arts. For a few minutes I want to stage a little tableau for you, a composite oral examination and don rag.

I have some questions I want to ask you, questions for St. John's graduates and questions for American citizens. As I understand the questions, one leads to another, and they all add up to: How are you doing? The first question is: Do you believe in and trust your intellect, that innate power that never sleeps? This is not a theoretical nor a dogmatic question, but rather one of experience. Do you recognize the action of this power as you live and learn? Many of you have gone on to graduate and professional learning, and, I happen to know, many of you have lived a lot in addition. You have fallen into the hands of scholars and into the grooves of practice. You have suffered the winds of doctrine, and have gotten lost in the jungle of ideologies. Latterly you have been stormed by scientific miracle and guess. In all these learnings and practices have you listened to the small spontaneous voice within that asks continually if these things are true? Have you allowed this voice to speak louder and remind you that you do not know, that you know you do not know, that you know what you do not know? Do you believe that knowledge is possible, that truth is attainable, and that it is always your business to seek it, although evidence is overwhelmingly against it? This is the first question; I shall not just now press for an answer.

The second question seems to flow from the first. Have you in the course of your life, before, after, or while you were at St. John's, become your own teacher? Perhaps this is not quite the question that I intend. This may be better: Have you yet recognized that you are and always have been your own teacher? Amidst all the noise andfuror about education in this country at present, I have yet to hear this question raised. But it is basic. Liberal education has as its end the free mind, and the free mind must be its own teacher. Intellectual freedom begins when one says with Socrates that he knows that he knows nothing, and then goes on to add: I know what it is that I don't know. My question then is: Do you know what you don't know and therefore what you should know? If your answer is affirmative and humble, then you are your own teacher, you are making your own assignment, and you will be your own best critic. You will not need externally imposed courses, nor marks, nor diplomas, nor a nod from your boss . . . in business or in politics.

My third question is different from the first two, more superficial perhaps, but fateful, nevertheless. Under the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, have you persuaded yourself that there are knowledges and truths beyond your grasp, things that you simply cannot learn? Have you allowed adverse evidence to pile up and force you to conclude that you are not mathematical, not linguistic, not poetic, not scientific, not philosophical? If you have allowed this to happen, you have arbitrarily imposed limits on your intellectual freedom, and you have smothered the fires from which all other freedoms arise. Most of us have done this and come short of what that threadbare slogan, human dignity, really means. We are willing, and shamefully relieved, to admit that each has his specialty, his so-called field, and the other fellow has his, and we are ready to let the common human enterprise go by default. We are willing to become cripples in our minds and fractions of men in our lives. Some of us are willing to crush the Socratic formula and say, I know nothing. The fourth question: Do you accept the world? This is reminiscent of Margaret Fuller's Yeasaying to Carlyle: But I do accept the universe, Mr. Carlyle. I am thinking of a slightly different context in The Brothers Karamozov, when Ivan tells Alyosha that he finds it easy to believe in God, but that he finds it impossible to believe in the world. The second clause follows from the first in a crushed syllogism: Because he believes in God, he cannot accept the world. For most of us these days, the case is that we have believed in some things so weakly or fanatically that other equally or more real things have become absurd or impossible. This results from our crippled minds, our self-imposed limits on understanding, our deafness to the voice that asks: Is it true? I am persuaded that the cure for this sickness of mind is in some vigorous and rigorous attempt to deal with that most puzzling and mysterious idea, the idea of the world.

It is not a simple idea, nor even a merely complicated idea. Kant called it an antinomy, an idea of speculative reason governing all other uses of the intellect. There have been other such ideas that have governed thought, the idea of God or Being as it puzzled and dazzled the ancient world, the idea of Man as it stirred and fermented the world from the Renaissance on. God and Man have not disappeared as charts and aids to intellectual navigation, but they are in partial eclipse at present, and the world is asking us the big questions, questions in cosmology and science, questions in law and government. They are not merely speculative questions; they are concrete and immediately practical; they are as much matters of life and death and freedom as the old questions were. Most of us have made, with Ivan, a pact with the devil, an agreement not to face them and accept them - yet.

I am not going to mark you on any attempt you may make to answer these questions here today; we don't mark at St. John's. But I would guess that none of us, certainly including myself, would stand very high, if we tried. Perhaps we ought rather to ask whether these are valid questions. If they are valid, they may come somewhere near indicating a standard by which we judge our common intellectual life, and therefore our common education in this country. I myself think the questions are valid, and I draw a drastic consequence, namely that we need a national system of education, from university to kindergarten, from Federal to local, and that it should aim at the intellectual confidence which would dare to act freely and go wherever it pleases, wherever it ought to go.

"The generation of mankind is like the generation of leaves. The wind scatters the leaves on the ground, but the living tree burgeons with leaves again in the spring."
- Homer