Dana L. Burgess
May 19, 2007
When you were First-Year students you might have been somewhat terrified of college, of its social uncertainties no less than of its academic demands. We designed our Core course to help you deal with both of these. We had all First-Year students read the same books so that you would talk to each other about something of substance, but when we made you read Augustine and Nietzsche we created a hideous monster, a living contradiction, the Sophomore. “Moros" means fool in Greek, and “sophos" means wise, so a Sophomore is a wise fool. Sophomores know just enough to believe that they actually know something, but, in fact, they know very little. If Whitman had graduated you as Sophomores, we would have acted irresponsibly, inflicting upon the world a tribe of smug know-it-alls convinced of their own profundity.
Recent world events have suggested that it might be dangerous to let Sophomores run things. They tend to screw up their undertakings because of the conviction that they know what is best. Greek tragedy liked to show these Sophomores on stage. On the political side we’ve got Creon, the king of Thebes in Sophocles’ Antigone. He’d only been king for a few days, but he was already absolutely convinced that the proper functioning of the government positively required the denial of burial to his nephew. The gods saw things differently, and Creon wound up being responsible for the deaths of his own wife and son, not to mention that of his niece Antigone. On the religious side we’ve got Pentheus, another young king of Thebes. In his Bacchae Euripides shows Pentheus to be absolutely convinced that god and sex could have nothing to do with one another. In the course of the play a very sexy god arrives in Thebes, and before you know it Pentheus is dressed in drag, eagerly trying to get a peek at what he thinks will be an orgy but turns out to be a ritual dismemberment of himself by his mother.
I suggested that you might have been somewhat terrified when you first arrived at college; that terror helped to make you humble, and humility is the fundamental protection against being sophomoric. If you are scared of looking like an idiot, scared of not having friends or respect, you might be cautious when advancing your opinions. You might not be so certain that you are right. But those many hours discussing Augustine and Nietzsche, in the classroom with us professors and, more dangerously, in the lunchroom with your acquaintances, gave you self-esteem, that quality which was once a moral failing but is now considered a virtue. A Sophomore has lots of self-esteem. So the college needed to help you rediscover that humility which we had stolen from you when we made you read Augustine and Nietzsche. Thus did we design our program of majors and especially that experience to which you have recently been subjected, the Senior Assessment in Major Study including Oral Examination. It has all been an elaborate ploy to bring back some of that humility you had on that scary first day of college.
Sadly, humility in our world is in short supply. Where can it be found? If you’re trying to find noble models of that particular virtue, don’t even think about looking at college professors. Politicians? Not so much. Religious leaders? I don’t think so. Whitman has done what it could, so you will now be responsible for your own humility. I’m talking about intellectual humility, for that is the virtue which the Sophomore has lost. The wise fool believes that she or he has the right way of understanding and that the problem with the world is its failure to grasp that understanding. The garden-variety Sophomore is merely boring, insisting loudly at a party that Guns ‘n’ Roses was the best Rock ‘n’ Roll band that ever existed or calling in to a radio talk show to explain why a return to the gold standard would solve all global economic problems. But our world is also plagued by more threatening Sophomores, those who strap bombs to themselves out of a conviction that it is righteous to blow up a crowd of schoolchildren, and those who are convinced that it is righteous to invade another country and to torture those captured in such a war. These wise fools claim to know: what is right, what is true, what will happen if this or that is or isn’t done. The virtue of intellectual humility is to restrain oneself from being too sure that one knows, to be cautious about claiming to know.
So here I am, dispensing advice, claiming to know. Isn’t that just like a college professor? Sorry. Let me conclude by quoting Stephen Penrose. As you graduate from Whitman you absolutely must know about Stephen Penrose. President of the College from 1894 to 1934, Penrose was the form-giving divinity of Whitman College. Even these many years after his death, the College continues to be an expression of his vision. Very late in his life, in 1941, Penrose wrote an unusual little book called Philosophy for Lowbrows whose cover and title page say “by One of Them” and leave the name Stephen Penrose for small print on the copyright page. For Penrose a “Highbrow” is what I have called a Sophomore, and a “Lowbrow” is a Sophomore no longer. I close by reading you the first paragraph of this little book.
“I define the Lowbrow as a person who has realized that the universe contains vastly more than he understands, and who wants to increase his understanding of it. He has the grace of humility and a haunting sense of wonder. The best example of the Lowbrow which history offers is Socrates, who, when declared by the Delphic oracle to be the wisest of mankind, modestly said that the only possible justification for such an amazing statement must be that while other men believed that they knew a great deal and really knew nothing, he knew that he knew nothing and might be their superior in this respect. No disparagement is therefore intended by the use of the word Lowbrow in the title of this book; I am a Lowbrow myself and follow Socrates even though from afar off. I should hate to be called a Highbrow, for that suggests a person who is self-satisfied and conceited, proud of what he knows, and possibly arrogant. Who would not rather be a Lowbrow?" Thank you.