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Convocation speech written by: Dr. CJ Armstrong, Associate Professor of History and Theology at Concordia University Irvine, CA
I’d like to offer some thoughts from another clergyman, this one from the 4th century AD, a teacher of the Christian church named Basil, from Caesarea, who started a lesson to the young people under his care with the question, “what’s the good of reading good books?” And his answer was pretty short, sweet, and to the point too. Basil said that we’ve got to read good books, because if we don’t, we’ll be missing out on the ability to read the Good Book, with a capital G and a capital B. Unless we read the good books, nay, the great books, we’ll be left with a Bible that’s a closed book to us.
Could this be true, even if those great books tell us falsehoods, untruths, and lies? This is a great risk that he knew and that I know, because dear friends, my favorite books, and some of your favorite books are the ones we know so well. And they’re books I love to teach from at my school, and it turns out that my students just happen to love these books too.
By far at most universities that offer the course, a class in Mythology is not populated by majors – in fact, Mythology classes fill up 500-seat lecture halls quickly from all majors, sometimes to fill a requirement, yes, but mostly because, well, it’s fun. These are great stories. There’s something that pulses in the blood of westerners especially that says, these are my stories, these are a reflection of my history and present, these are emanations of my psychology and interaction with the world I see and that which is invisible. Fun to read, and tell, and retell. This telling, this is what makes mythology mythology.
I’ve hooked more than one major for humanities, or classics, or ancient history, with a mythology course, because who wouldn’t want to forsake a biology major or the next several years of higher math with the promise of an undergraduate degree spent reading these old stories of intrigue, parricide, glory, heroism, and love? I’ve hooked minors from people in the hard sciences at two California universities because, so they tell me, it’s the only course they have that’s any fun, or that feels human. Those fools who catch the bug real hard end up like me, pursuing research in stories of metamorphosis from poets long dead who left us their testimonies of human virtue and vice in some of the most beautiful poetry imaginable.
But for all that, these stories are the stories of myths – and we’re so tuned to thinking about myth as falsehood, untruth, or lies, that we must stand head to head with the question once again – “what place does any of this have at a school that calls itself Christian; what good is it? What source of profit? To whose advantage is it that we tell these stories and tell the story of those whose stories they are, ancient myth, ancient philosophy, ancient history?”
Basil, our church father, reminds us that we don’t read them because they’re true. We read them because they point us to the truth. We don’t read them because we believe in the gods of their myths. We read them because they are a mirror of the truth, a reflection of the truth, a guide to getting there that the best people have been attempting to illuminate for centuries and centuries until today so that you could see the way there too. Like a fruit bearing tree whose leaves shade the fruit lest it fry in the sun, so also the classics, the Great Books, are there to protect you with their shade so you can appreciate the glory of the sun without being burned away, blown away, or baffled by its glory.
Just a quick language lesson to get us thinking about this, in a language with which all these children and most of us adults in this room are not unfamiliar. It’s my favorite thing to teach: Latin. And the phrase that I’d like talk about is simple, two words: Cui Bono. C U I B O N O. Dative singular masculine interrogative pronoun, a so-called dative of advantage, plus a dative singular neuter of a substantive adjective, a so-called dative of purpose, which I was taught by one of my masters to call a dative of source. This predicative use of the dative case, conventionally named “double-dative,” is a good trivia question for the AP exam or the national Latin exam. I say all that for the sake of our senior Latin students. Good luck, Mr. Hamilton. But the coolest thing about it is that it gives us this phrase: Cui Bono, which means rather woodenly, “for whom is it a source of good?”
Cui Bono is a Latin phrase that translates easier as “who stands to benefit?” We use it at my school for two reasons: the CUI of Cui Bono is a nice acronym for Concordia University Irvine, but the other reason is that we always need to be asking whose advantage an education is, who profits from the things we do in the classroom, at home doing homework and study and reading, in a boardroom having a meeting, on the phone or in an email related to the school? For whom is any of this a source of any good?
Whenever Cicero uses the phrase, he is quoting the consul Lucius Cassius Longinus from the 120’s BC, who had a very simple way of solving any capital case to his own satisfaction. If there was a crime of murder or theft or some such, the consul would simply ask, Cui Bono? Who stood to benefit? Follow the money, follow the motive, follow the one who had the best chance to profit from the deal, and you’ve got your culprit.
But with education, we’re not talking about perpetrators and punishments, about criminals and consequences. Unless we’re talking about the sad state of affairs that characterizes the lack of schooling still today in various locales around the world. Not to mention so much of the waste and what happens in progressive education today.
It was at this point that I thought seriously about offering you a story or a statistic about waste in the public education systems, close to 1 trillion dollars of expenditures annually. But I decided against it. Not only just because I believe there are several public schools that are doing right by what they say they intend to do, but also because it doesn’t make very pleasant reading. It is pretty depressing.
Suffice it to say, that because parents have a choice, a classical school has the most incentive to deliver on its promise to teach, the most incentive to prove its integrity, the most incentive to sustain a consistent effort to deliver the highest quality education that exists. So, I’m not going to look for crime, or a criminal; I’m just going to look to turn the tables and ask again, “for whom is a classical education any source of profit or advantage?”
You look around at our new four-year-olds, five-year-olds, and other new students at The Cambridge School, and you have to know it’s to the students’ advantage that they are here and continue on. But it’s also an advantage for a person like me and the faculty who love to teach here, and the people who invest in the school, because this is the best education you can have in this area of the state, of the country.
But I will also say, that this education is of benefit for a world outside of these walls; that it is edging itself one step closer to the precipice of disaster and barbarism, easily selling the birthright of a civilization as cheaply as the price of not taking the effort to reflect on where it comes from, where it is, and where it’s headed. All because it is hard to read, hard to write and think, and consider all that history and classical learning has to teach. It’s easier just to sit and ignore and grow lazy and die, without handing to a new generation the best of what’s been thought through the ages.
They need your classical education. Those who aren’t here need what you have to give because of your classical education. It is of no value, unless you can hand it down to the next generation–these new five-year-olds, these new students, these new eleventh graders, and everyone in between.
So with that, I’m going to wrap up with the words that Basil wrapped up with when he was teaching that lesson to those young people. His lesson to the young people, compared them to people who need a doctor. He said, I hope that you are not so in need that you are people in the last class, because there are only three classes of people who need a doctor. There are those who are a little bit sick; they have a cough and go see the doctor immediately. Then there are those who put it off for years, and they keep coughing; and they are so sick that the doctor has to come to them. And then there are those who put it off a lifetime; and they’ve been coughing so much, the doctor says, “I’m not even coming, you’ve got to call an undertaker.”
He’s talking about education of course. Those who are to be educated, fall into three categories: the eager, who only need a little bit because they are going to go to the doctor– they are going to get the goods, they’re going to get the sources–the fontes–what classical education has to offer.
And then there are those who might be hopeful, but they’ve been lazy through their entire life. They’ve thought, “well, maybe I’ll start reading that philosophy, those stories, that mythology…later on when I have time.” But they should have done it sooner.
The eager, the hopeful, the doomed. I thank God that there is no one in these walls who is in the category of the doomed.
Thanks be to God. But dear friends, is your neighbor there? Is your civilization there? Is your world there? To whose advantage is your classical education, dear friends of The Cambridge School? Cui Bono?
God bless you in a new school year as you serve the Lord by serving your neighbor with the goods that you’ve received–Hand them to the next generation.
Read more from Dr. Armstrong at: blogs.cui.edu/core