Honor and Learning
Honor and Learning
Cum laude. I have always liked the sound of that. It is Latin, of
course. And it means "with honor."
I would like to make my contribution to this important occasion by
saying just a few words about honor and about its connection with
learning. I do not think it is by accident that cum laude and strong
learning go together, and I want to tell you why I think that.
"Honor" is a special word. The Latin&emdash;cum laude&emdash;makes
it all that much fancier, but even the English word "honor" has a
special character to it. We don't use it as part of everyday speech.
Like a navy blue suit or our best china and silver, we drag it out
only for special occasions. Why?
When we honor someone or something, we do more than just applaud
it or celebrate it. Honor is not "hootin' and hollerin'." It is a
quieter thing. When Abraham Lincoln finished his Gettysburg Address
before the thousands gathered on that blood-soaked battlefield, the
people did not erupt in cheers and fireworks because he had made a
great speech. Instead, a deep, rich, respectful silence that lasted
long moments was the first response. The people knew instinctively
that something finer than mere impressive speech-making had taken
place here. They knew that a profoundly honorable man had given voice
to the deepest truths about the very meaning of our nation. He
honored the dead; he honored the cause of justice; he honored the
great purposes for which our nation exists.
Honor is a special word that we use only on rare occasions because
it tells us not just ordinary things about who's up and who's down,
about who won the lottery or the pennant, or about who got the best
of somebody else. No, honor does not tell us about any of that. Honor
tells us instead about what truly is of most worth. It tells us about
what things have real substance, about what has lasting significance
amongst us. When we are trying to speak of things that matter, that
is when we call upon this special word and say cum laude, with
It is no accident that honor and learning are linked. The reason
is that learning is of lasting significance. Among all the things we
human beings can do, learning is one of just a handful that is truly
of most worth. (Among the others, I would include just a few: love
and compassion, doing justice, having faith and hope.) Learning is
fundamental. It is basic to our being human.
When I talk about learning this way, I have something more in mind
than the simple accumulation of knowledge. That is included, of
course, but it is not enough just to cram our heads full of
information for long enough to score high on the exam. If we are to
honor leaning, rather than only applaud and celebrate it, there must
be something more to it than that. And there is.
Learning is coming into contact with reality. It involves openness
to what is&emdash;to what is other than ourselves, to what exists
outside of us in its own distinctiveness. Learning is "how we make
community with the unavailable other, with realities that would elude
us without the connective tissue of knowledge."1
In a wonderful book entitled The Courage to Teach, a friend of
mine, Parker Palmer, tells the story of the Nobel prize-winning
scientist, Barbara McClintock. McClintock "became fascinated early in
her career with the mysteries of genetic transposition. Though her
research was often dismissed as wildly unorthodox, she pursued it
into discoveries that changed the map of modem genetics...."2
McClintock's biographer was fascinated by this unusual woman. She was
especially eager to figure out "what enabled McClintock to see
further and deeper into the mysteries of genetics than her
colleagues."3 McClintock's answer was this: You must have "the
patience to 'hear what the material has to say to you,' the openness
to 'let it come to you.' Above all, [you] must have 'a
feeling for the organism,'.... As one commentator puts it, McClintock
'gained valuable knowledge by empathizing with her corn plants,
submerging herself in their world and dissolving the boundary between
object and observer.'"4 The great Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber,
called this "experiencing the other side."5
"Experiencing the other side," gaining a "feeling for the
organism"&emdash;or the equation, or the poem, or the historical
event&emdash;for whatever it is you are seeking to know. That is what
learning is&emdash;an activity so fundamental to being human that it
makes us who we are.
How do we learn to learn in that way, at that level? That question
has a very simple (but still not-so-simple) answer. We learn at that
level by paying attention. What does it mean to pay attention?
The French philosopher Simone Weil once wrote: "Most often
attention is confused with a kind of muscular effort. If one says to
one's student: 'Now you must pay attention,' the teacher will
probably see the students contracting their brows, holding their
breath, stiffening their muscles. If after two minutes the teacher
asks them what they have been paying attention to, they cannot reply.
They have been concentrating on nothing. They have not been paying
attention. They have been contracting their muscles."6
Attention is something different; it feels different. "Attention,"
Simone Weil says, "consists of suspending our thought, leaving it
detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object....
[Our] thought should be waiting, ready to receive...."7 All
our mistakes come from doing things too quickly; we seize upon some
idea or solution too hastily without really attending to it.8
So what must be done in order to learn rightly? Simone Weil
suggests two things. First, we must "work without any wish to gain
good marks, to pass examinations, to win school successes; without
any reference to [our) natural abilities and tastes; and by
applying [ourselves] equally to all tasks, with the idea that
each one will help form in [us] the habit of
The second thing is "to take great pains to examine squarely and
to contemplate attentively and slowly each school task in which we
have failed, seeing how unpleasing and second rate it is, without
seeking any excuse or overlooking any mistake that our teachers point
out, trying to get down to the origin of each fault. There is a great
temptation to do the opposite, to give a sideways glance at the
corrected exercise if it is bad and to hide it immediately. Most of
us do this nearly always. We have to withstand this temptation.
Incidentally, nothing is more necessary for academic success,
because, despite all our efforts, we work without making much
progress when we refuse to give our attention to the faults we have
made and our [teacher's] corrections."10
If you use your school years in this way, says Simone Weil,
something will grow in you which is very precious. "Happy," she says,
"are those who pass their adolescence and youth in developing this
power of attention.... Whoever goes through years of study without
developing this attention within him or herself has lost a great
Learning of this kind&emdash;learning made full by attention,
learning that puts us in community with realities that would elude us
without the connective tissue of knowledge&emdash;is so precious a
thing that it calls forth honor. That is why it is more than
appropriate that we gather here today, put on a blue suit and a white
dress shirt, and trot out the Latin words cum laude.
I hope that all of you&emdash;not just those who are being
inducted today into The Cum Laude Society, but all of you have gotten
some strong taste here at Park Tudor School of what it means to pay
attention and to learn in the ways I have been trying to describe. I
hope you all are experiencing a good bit of the peculiar happiness
Simone Weil says comes from attentive learning. And I hope, given the
taste of happiness in learning you have had, that you will pursue it
all your life long.
With learning of that kind, prizes and awards may come&emdash;or
they may not. Because you have learned in this way, some of you may
receive applause from the gathered crowds; others will not. But
whether such external rewards come or not will matter little. For in
true learning, there will be honor. And that is all that really
Cum laude. I have always liked the sound of that. Now you know
why. Congratulations, honorees. My good wishes to you all.
Jossey-Bass, 1998), p. 54
Studies With a View to the Love of God,"
Row, 1973), pp.109-110.