To the class of 2014

In a commencement speech at the University of Texas, Admiral William McRaven drew on his basic SEAL training to derive “10 lessons to help change the world” (video below). In this season of “repressive tolerance” on campus, the University of Texas has distinguished itself for its sobriety in calling on Admiral McRaven to do the honors at commencement.

Admiral McRaven’s speech raises the question whether one can learn the lessons of SEAL training without the ordeal of training. I doubt it. We can nevertheless learn from Admiral McRaven’s example and from his tribute to his SEAL colleagues. Although Admiral McRaven calls on the class of 2014 to respect everyone, he necessarily shows by his example that some are more worthy of respect than others.

In his weekly Wall Street Journal column (behind the Journal’s dreaded subscription paywall) Bret Stephens fashions remarks for the class of 2014 on campuses such as Brandeis, Rutgers and Haverford that have disgraced themselves in recent weeks. Stephens lets it rip with well earned derision and contempt:

Dear Class of 2014:

Allow me to be the first to offend you, baldly and unapologetically. Here you are, 22 or so years on planet Earth, and your entire lives have been one long episode of offense-avoidance. This spotless record has now culminated in your refusals to listen to commencement speakers whose mature convictions and experiences might offend your convictions and experiences, or what passes for them.

Modern education has done its work well: In you, Class of 2014, the coward soul has filled the void left by the blank mind.

Stephens comes not simply to condemn. He provides a short course in the wisdom of Athens and Jerusalem as well as “true liberalism.” He writes:

A central teaching of Genesis is that knowledge is purchased at the expense of innocence. A core teaching of the ancients is that personal dignity is obtained through habituation to virtue. And at least one basic teaching of true liberalism is that the essential right of free people is the right to offend, and an essential responsibility of free people is to learn how to cope with being offended.

It’s all worth reading and I urge you to seek it out via Google, where the Journal will indulge you with a Free Pass granting access to the whole thing.

Stephens’s reference to “the coward soul” in the second paragraph of his column caught me up short. That is an expression I haven’t heard since college when reading Emily Brontë. Is she still read? Probably not in English programs anyway. I would guess that few members of the class of 2014 picked up Stephens’s allusion to Brontë’s great poem:

No coward soul is mine,
No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere:
I see Heaven’s glories shine,
And faith shines equal, arming me from Fear….

Odd as it may seem, Brontë’s poem may be the perfect accompaniment to Admiral McRaven’s commencement speech.

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