Education and the Spirit of Fasting

Good morning, and welcome. I would like to begin with a question this morning. What is the most important thing you can learn in school?

History and literature? The arts? Mathematics and science? Poetry? Economics? Civics? A sense of judgment? The difference between right and wrong? I suspect each of us has different answers to this question.

All of these things I have just mentioned are important, and I am certain we could add many more. But, more important than any one of them, I would suggest to you is the very ability to learn itself, to learn how to learn, independently of your teachers and your parents. To learn how to learn — to be able to teach yourself — that should be your aspiration, and it remains the surest path and perhaps only way to prepare for a world and an opportunity landscape that is changing at an unprecedented speed. 

The true test of your education here at King’s will not be what you learn today or tomorrow, or even what you have learned upon graduation, but whether you are still learning twenty years after you graduate from King’s. Whether, in short, you love to learn and have the capacity to continue doing so, long after your formal schooling has ended.

This leads to a second question: How does one acquire this capacity to learn, how does one learn to love learning? There is no simple answer to this question or pathway, though there are many contributing factors: the example of your parents and grandparents, the inspiration of great teachers — like the ones assembled here today — adults who will challenge you and model for you the deep joys of learning and scholarship. There is, as well, the very opportunity that an education like this one offers, and we would do well to remember that very few students in the world have opportunities of the kind you have been afforded.

But none of these things — the example of your parents, the commitment and dedication of your teachers, the extraordinary opportunities a school like this one affords you — none of these things matter, unless you commit yourself wholly and fully to your own education. Hard work, discipline, patience, resolve, resiliency in the face of setbacks, dedication, a willingness to make sacrifices, tenacity — these are the old-fashioned virtues that will ignite, direct and shape your education.  

There are very few things worth acquiring — and certainly no enduring skill, craft or art — that does not come without tremendous investments of time, energy and hard work. Talk to your teachers, your parents, or your friends — anyone who is good at something that they love doing — and ask them how they learned to do it. I assure you that hard work, perhaps years of intense focus and application, played a part in this.

Almost everything we know about learning confirms this. It has been argued that it takes 15 years to train a good engineer or doctor. Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, one of the most respected voices in education today, argues in his book Five Minds for the Future that what he calls “discipline” — the ability to make something useful or beautiful, the ability to think like a scholar, scientist, artist, or professional — takes a minimum of 10 years to acquire. Whether it takes ten or fifteen years to learn something of value you should not be afraid of work — at least not if you want to be good at it. You will need to embrace hard work, and sometimes the discomfort and sacrifice that comes with it.

There are some who have suggested that you are not up to this challenge. They argue that your generation is soft and unwilling to work the way that previous generations have. Over-parented, over-tutored, coddled, spoiled; they claim that you lack fortitude, resiliency, and grit; that you prefer the escalator to the stairs, the easy path to the hard climb. They argue that your generation is “entitled,” by which they mean you expect special treatment and privileges, that you believe you are uniquely deserving and self-infatuated. See, for example, the following article published in US News and World Report: “Study: Teenagers feel more entitled than ever.”

I tell you these things because I believe that you should be active participants in the conversation that others are having about you. I can give you a complete bibliography on this subject if you are curious, but as a first assignment I would suggest you read William Deresiewicz’s “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education.”

I don’t agree with these assessments of your generation. Young people never fail to surprise and astound me with what they are capable. I find working with young people to be simply inspiring, an inexhaustible source of hope and optimism. One of the reasons your teachers have chosen this profession is that, like your parents, they have an uncompromising faith and belief in you. This faculty will never doubt you — even as they challenge you and push you to become the very best you can be. 

But I do know there are threats and distractions you face that are very different from the ones my generation faced. Let me mention a few of them.

There is a tendency to over-parent, a desire on the part of adults to protect children from failure and to micromanage every aspect of their lives. Julie Lythcott Haims, Stanford University’s first dean of freshman, has written powerfully of this in her book, How to Raise an Adult.

I have had many parents sit in my office and lament that they have spoiled their children. It is a hazard we all face as parents, and, of course, it comes from the best of places: our deep love for our children and our desire to give to them generously and fully. But it can impede your growth toward independence and adulthood.

There is an increasing gap of wealth and opportunity that blinds us to disadvantage and poverty, and renders the hard work of others invisible. The result is that many who do the essential work of society are simply invisible to us; we do not see them. We expect others to do for us: to pick up trash, to serve us, to make our coffee, to take in the dishes, to carry our luggage — as if we were living in a five-star hotel. Work, too often, is what other people do. This concierge mentality can foster a cycle of laziness and dependency that saps our strength and renders us passive and helpless in the face of challenge.

There is on-demand consumerism and the culture of instant-gratification — a circumambient consumer and celebrity culture that equates happiness and success with hyper and premature sexuality, fame, material wealth and excessive consumption — what one of my favorite poets, writing over two hundred years ago, calls a “getting and spending [that] lays waste our powers.”

It is easier today than ever before to confuse actual needs with wants, luxuries and dispensable amenities. Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith notes in his book Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood that well over half of what he calls “emerging adults” agreed that “well-being can be measured by what they own, that buying more things would make them happier, and that they got a lot of pleasure simply from shopping and buying things.”

There is the seductive, ubiquitous power of the digital entertainment industry that is at your fingertips 24-7 and which can render you passive, inert and inactive; some have argued that we are amusing ourselves to death. There is the distraction of social media; some scholars have compared the behavior of young people using social media to forms of addiction like compulsive gambling, and a recent article cites research showing that excessive social media and texting poses dangers to one’s health and well-being.

There is a narrow, instrumental view of education as mere preparation for college or career, rather than what it should be: preparation for life and for a life of learning. And there are all of those things — high-paid tutors, Schmoop, websites where you can purchase bespoke essays — that render your education hollow, empty and fraudulent, and compromise your independence and integrity as learners.

All of these things are potential threats to you developing authentic habits of concentration, study, discipline, independence and an ethic of hard work and practice. Schools, at least the best of them, have always stood against the forces of consumerism and sought to free children from what the founder of Round Square, Kurt Hahn, memorably called “the enervating sense of privilege” that comes from affluence, prosperity and the opportunity to attend a school like this one. Learning a language; mastering a musical instrument or the skills of a professional lawyer, doctor or architect; film-making, drawing, drafting, photography, dance — all of the fine and applied arts; learning to read for pleasure, absorption and sensitivity; learning to write; or to play a sport with excellence, grace and beauty: all of these things take time and patience to master.

Some of my most vivid and precious memories are of learning to kick a football, not during games but in front of a wall on a public tennis court during the heat of summer. Driving the ball repeatedly with my left foot, my off-foot, again and again, against a wall, harder, lower and with less spin. I did not find it easy at first; I found it awkward and unnatural to strike the ball with my left foot, and at times I despaired that I was improving at all. But after doing it — thousands and thousands of times — what seemed difficult became second nature. At such moments I was totally absorbed in what I was doing: the heat of the day, the tiredness of my muscles, the sense of time passing disappeared and I was lost in the doing. I have similar experiences in many other pursuits, and I was happy to learn recently that research psychologists have coined a term to describe this feeling of absorption that comes with practice: they call it “flow”, a form of heightened engagement of the sort experienced by athletes, artists and other skilled professionals performing at their best. You may have experienced these moments of “flow” yourself, and if not, they await you. 

The value of hard work and practice — what one educator calls “disciplined self-conscious, trial and error” — cannot be underestimated. When you embrace an ethic of practice a number of amazing things happen: the first is that no matter how hard the task you may have set for yourself, the feeling of it being difficult, of it being work at all, eventually disappears, replaced by a profound feeling of satisfaction and pleasure. When you practice something, really apply yourself to something, you will unlock from within yourself hidden stores of creativity and of pleasure, and powers you did not know you possessed. You will begin to fashion a new self.

As you think about your education — the very purpose of Convocation this morning — I would ask that you make a conscious decision to fast from the easier, passive pleasures of our entertainment, consumer and social media cultures and, instead, embrace the more enduring and disciplined pleasures of authentic learning and scholarship. 

Our study of the world’s great religions — from Christianity to Judaism, from Islam to Buddhism — tell us that fasting is a way to strengthen the spirit, discipline ourselves and our bodies, free us from unnecessary wants and desires, and temper our appetites. In many of these traditions fasting is a path to deep introspection and self-knowledge, and it is intended to stir within us a commitment to those less fortunate than we are. Fasting, like education, involves a kind of enlightened deprivation.

I would ask that you think of your time at this school, especially here at King’s, metaphorically, as a kind of fasting. Think of it as a time when you willingly sacrifice the easier, enervating and fleeting pleasures that the larger culture offers to develop deeper forms of discipline: the habits of reading, of study and scholarship, of scientific inquiry and observation, and of practice. What I hope for you is what my own parents asked of me many years ago: that you commit fully to your education, do your best, and embrace an ethic of practice and discipline. If you do, I promise: you will, with the support of your parents and your teachers, rediscover yourself anew – discover as yet unknown potentials and talents, those very things that make each you uniquely individual.

Thank you for listening. I wish you a year of hard work, of growing discipline and joy in the pursuit of learning.