After each semester at Middlesex, we gather to celebrate the academic achievements of our students at the Academic Awards Assembly. At last week’s assembly, we acknowledged work done in the 2017 fall semester. For a full list of students receiving honors, please click here.
To open assembly, Classics teacher Dan Barber reflected on the true meaning of knowledge . His remarks are reprinted below:
I confess that I have always loved this assembly — Ms. McNall’s witty and scathing introductions, the glitter of silver, the late, lamented dance of the bowl elves — and I confess that I have taken to heart and stored away the many fine orations and exhortations by members of faculty. And in fact I take my beginning today from a memorable address to this body a few years ago — some years ago, I might say more accurately, since practically none of you were here at the time — an address in which Mr. Hirsch praised and commended to the audience the Book of Ecclesiastes. As a foolish youth of 33 years old, I wondered then why Mr. Hirsch would recommend such a thoroughly depressing book. Now as a wise elder of 38, I recognize that the author of Ecclesiastes poses a question that we should try to answer, about learning and achievement, our reason for gathering here today, but also about knowledge and wisdom.
You may recall the refrain throughout this particular book: all is vanity and vexation of spirit. Therefore — bowls, certificates, applause: vanity and vexation of spirit. And, as Ecclesiastes teaches, it is even worse with knowledge: he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow. So why, my friends, do we learn and seek knowledge? And here is further question of equal antiquity, which takes us into the realm of epistemology, into the questioning of knowledge itself. Not just where, among all our accolades and all our learning might be we find fulfillment, but how indeed do we know what know?
This is your first task, my honored academicians. Question knowledge. Question not only whether knowledge is vane and vexatious — an initial question, a superficial question — but whether you actually know what you think you know. Do you know who you are? Look around. Do you see that you are the light of the world, that a golden penumbra of youth and potential rests upon you? Can you know, can you possibly know what great good fortune abides with you right now, in this moment, any more than you can know what awaits you beyond these doors and these gates? You cannot know, for all such knowledge, even of your present circumstance, is tightly bound in the unknowable future, to be glimpsed only through the mirror of time and experience. And if your self-knowledge proves to be insecure, should you not doubt all perception and reserve judgement in all things? In reality we know nothing about anything, taught Democritus. Truth is sunk in the abyss.
To rephrase this principle: knowledge is hard. Visitors to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi once stood in awe of the maxim inscribed in the entranceway: γνῶθι σαῦτον, know thyself. Become who you are, urged the poet Pindar. Find the promise, enjoined Frederick Windsor. Easy enough; for to what are we closer, more proximate than ourselves? Yet self-knowledge long eluded even Socrates, the wisest of the Greeks. “I cannot know myself,” he complains in Plato’s Phaedrus, “and it seems laughable for a person still ignorant of this to examine other matters.” How many things, even about ourselves, do we know beyond a shadow of a doubt to be true? I am not the same person I was at 16, at 28, at 33. Can your deepest and most cherished convictions, should time erode and alter them — and time will — truly rise to the level of knowledge?
So knowledge is vain, vexatious, doubtful, hard. And here is the inevitable corollary, implicit already in Ecclesiastes: we must seek knowledge nonetheless. This is the mythical truth glimpsed behind the nightmarish stories of Epimetheus and Oedipus and others. Epimetheus must know what Pandora has concealed in her pithos, though in opening this jar he releases every evil in the world. Oedipus must know the truth of his birth, though he is warned it will bring him agony and pain. Secrets are the void into which the pursuit of knowledge flows irresistibly, seeking equilibrium. Such is the way of nature and of humanity.
“Whenever, at daybreak, you are slow and grudging to rise,” wrote Marcus Aurelius, “let this thought be close at hand: it is for human work that I arise.” What is human work and human wisdom? To live righteously and true to one’s nature, argues Marcus — and yet if we know not our own nature, we must seek knowledge, and so we do, everyday, just as a river seeks the sea. So truth is joined with toil — Veritas with Labor — but all toil in the pursuit of truth has the blessing of eternity. When you study language, for instance, you are really peering through the screen of culture into paradigms of human interaction; when you study an ancient language, you are passing through time as well, edging closer with every declension and every conjugation to a clearer perception of an eternal human consciousness. Keep this maxim close at hand, as Marcus might say: knowledge of language is self-knowledge. So too with scientific knowledge, mathematical knowledge, historical knowledge, artistic knowledge, musical knowledge and the rest. And now the astute listener will reverse Socrates’s complaint from the Phaedrus: to have knowledge of the things within ourselves, we must seek, endlessly seek, knowledge of the so-called external world, including those things most distant and most foreign to us.
This is a daunting prospect, you complain. So it is, I admit it. Perhaps the task is arduous, the path winding, the outcome doubtful; perhaps the morning of your setting out is dreary and cold. But deep, deep down you are as noble and as human as Marcus Aurelius — or nobler and more human, for all I know. And this moment, where the past and the future are tightly knotted together, has prepared itself for you, promised itself to you, with all the weight and sanction of eternity. This moment is a tree that grows on the highest hilltop; you are the lightning. I say to you, and the wisdom of all antiquity whispers to you, one word: arise. Do not cease from exploring. Can you be sure that you not more than we are able to recognize, more than we are able to imagine? Go forth. Do not forget the obligations we owe to each other. Do not forget your own nature. And now on to the awards.