This semester marks the 38th straight semester in which I have opened Chapel with a quote from Martin Luther:
The prosperity of a country depends not on the abundance of its revenues, nor on the strength of its fortifications, nor on the beauty of its public buildings; but it consists in the number of its cultivated citizens, its men [and women] of education, enlightenment, and character; here are to be found its true interest, its chief strength, its real power.
As with anything we do according to a regular schedule, especially 38 times, reflecting on this quote has the potential to run dry of inspiration. Even those students who have heard it four, five, six, seven, or eight times could easily tune out if the reflection is not somehow fresh or engaging. The effect is amplified for the faculty who have heard all 38 renditions. I keep coming back to this quote because I appreciate the power of ritual and tradition, especially in openings and closings, and because this quote highlights that schools thrive or don’t thrive because of the gifts and goodness of the people in their communities. Views of education that focus on outcomes or efficiencies fall short of the true purpose and power of school communities: to create prosperity for all through the acquisition of knowledge and wisdom and through the exercise of goodness and courage.
This semester, the last in which I will use Luther to open a semester in Fuller Hall, I took a slightly different tack. Typically, I ask those in the hall to stand if they have done things that have marked them as people of education (anything to enrich the mind), enlightenment (anything to enrich the spirit), or character (any selfless, courageous, or good act). Every year almost the whole hall is standing by the end, and most years everyone is standing, especially in the senior class—except for three years ago.
Our Director of Communications Steve Legge loves that opening scene of all students standing as a photo op, and the video of watching students stand to acknowledge good things they have done is impressive, but three years ago two young men sat down through the whole thing—in the front row— compromising the show of unity in diversity that we like to embrace at the start of a semester.
When I questioned these young men after Chapel about why they didn’t stand, one said he didn’t really think he had done anything worth standing for; the other one said he couldn’t think of anything specific, so he just sat. Their honest responses highlighted another aspect of Luther’s quote that is implied but not stated: education, enlightenment, and character are great gifts, but they only become strength and power when they are exercised. If we gain knowledge but never apply it, if we gain wisdom but never share it or live by it, if we have good values but never act on them or promote them or defend them, our community will not prosper.
This year, instead of focusing on each component of Luther’s quote, I asked each person in Fuller to realize that to some degree we all have education, enlightenment, and character. In talking with the two seniors three years ago, I realized that they both had learned things over the summer, had been inspired by something in nature or others, and had done selfless acts for family and friends. They just didn’t remember them on the spot or didn’t think them worth acknowledging by standing. As I told those two back then, I reminded the 800 gathered in Fuller that our first responsibility is to recognize the gifts, privileges, and opportunities we have to acquire knowledge, gain wisdom, and be good people. The next is to develop them, with the help of others, to as great an extent as possible throughout our whole lives. The final responsibility for us as citizens of a prosperous community is to use what we have been given and what we have developed in service of something larger and in accord with a personal mission.
To explain what I meant, I used an athletic metaphor that was featured on the sign in front of Colby Hall: “Be an Impact Player”. Lots of athletes will compete throughout a season, running plays, performing routines, completing courses, but only a subset will be able to say they were impact players—that they used their unique gifts and opportunities to help their team improve. These players don’t need to be stars, or even starters, or even play one second in a game, but they make an impact by who they are and what they bring to the team. I challenged the seniors, especially, in our last semester, to do all they can to make positive impacts on the community.
The other side of the sign in front of Colby said “Improve Continuously.” The distinction here between “continuously” and “continually” is important; whereas the latter connotes something that happens regularly the same way over time, the former connotes something uninterrupted. The latter would justify that I can improve when I feel like it, as long as I don’t go too long in between efforts; however, the former requires that I use even my down times, hardships, and failures as springboards toward getting better. This kind of perseverance is what drives the development of education, enlightenment, and character that lifts up communities.
As I closed, I reminded the seniors that there was a lot of knowledge to be acquired, a lot of wisdom to be gained, and a lot of good to be done. I reminded them that they still had much they could to do to leave this place better than they found it. They might never hear that quote from Martin Luther again, but I hope they will live it out over the next six months and beyond.