Young people who go on to higher education today, if they are not put off at the start by the enormous loans they will have to pay off, are generally thinking of worldly success. Whether in academic research or in other careers they hope their university education will fit them for good jobs and better salaries. When my daughter graduated from UCL some years ago the vice-chancellor made a speech in which he congratulated the new graduates on the road to success in life and congratulated his own university in having equipped them for a bright future. I found it somewhat dispiriting. It should be remembered that the dressed-up skeleton of Jeremy Bentham, founder of Utilitarianism, who believed that it is “the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong”, sits in a strange box structure, an “auto icon”, inside the main entrance to UCL as if he were its presiding genius.
Given my memory of this mummified symbol of rational thinking, I was glad to come across a different kind of speech, delivered by Mary Eberstadt, Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Centre in Washington DC, on 19 May to the 2014 graduates of the Catholic Seton Hall University in New Jersey. In contrast to a Benthamite view, she told them that “Each human person bears the face of Christ and plays a unique role in history”. She reminded them that they would have an important role to play in the communities they joined after graduation, in their call to “see God in every human being.”
Eberstadt spoke of an “insidious new intolerance” in society that prevented ideas being freely debated. Although she did not cite it, I suspect the most glaring example of this in recent years is society’s determination to change the traditional definition of marriage at the same time as refusing to allow reasonable discussion or debate over it. Those who oppose the change are often informed that they “are on the wrong side of history” as if there is an inexorable march of progress in human affairs and those standing in the way are simply Luddites. But as Eberstadt pointed out, “There is no wrong side of history. There is only the wrong side of truth.” She emphasised the power of example, reminding her listeners that this is “the most underestimated force on the planet” and that their own example, “as a coach, a teacher, a neighbour, a friend, a grandfather or grandmother” would inspire others in the future in ways they might not realise.
She gave the example of a priest she knew “who once prayed on his knees in snow outside an abortion clinic” and who inspired a woman about to go inside to cancel her appointment and give birth to her child instead – “All because she saw this stranger praying in the snow.” That priest, “like all of you” she told her listeners, “mattered more than he knew.” She urged her audience to defend human dignity, saying that standing up for truths like these, and “protesting politely yet forcefully on behalf of them”, will be vital in the years to come.
Referring to the “new moral movement” that Pope Francis has been calling for, she told the graduates they were “foot soldiers and officers in the making of this moral movement now being born” and that their families, teachers and well-wishers “will never forget how proud we all are of you today.”
No doubt the wizened ghost of Bentham would call this speech, as in his famous dismissal of the idea of natural rights, “Nonsense on stilts.” Maybe he was on the wrong side of truth?
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