John Ben Shepperd: Odessa College Commencement 1957

May 30, 1957

Odessa College Commencement (Odessa, Texas)


When Dr. Fly called me in January about being with you tonight, I began worrying about my subject. I thought I would talk to about some of things you should have learned here and will need as you go out in life.

I suppose that on such occasion as this, a man should endeavor to appear as learned as possible by speaking in erudite phrases to convince those who are responsible for his being here that no mistake has been made. But I believe it is too late for my part of the night’s program to be cancelled so I will assume my natural stance and speak in phrases which that immortal Californian, Bret Harts, would probably have included under the heading “Plain language from truthful James”.

An amazing volume of commentary is available on the subject of education. Like sin, most men are secretly for it. Education, it would seem, is not the same and does not serve the same purposes in all times and places. There was a time when education consisted almost altogether of Latin grammar and Greek mythology. Its main purpose was to elevate the gentleman further above the peasant and to amuse the stuffed shirts of the drawing room. As Richard Steele put it in 1709, “The great end of education is to raise ourselves above the vulgar.” It was the mark of the lace-collared nobleman who sniffled snuff from his fingertips. The genuine scholars of the day referred to this practice of stuffing superficial learning in the heads of noblemen as “casting false pearls before real swine”.

But as time went on and politics changed the face of society, education began to seep downward toward the common people. In time popular education became an absolute necessity as a stanchion to support that noble impertinent of 1776, the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1788 that “The tax for education will be only a thousandth party of what we will pay to kings and noble will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance.” Thus education for pleasure gave way to education for a purpose and that purpose was to “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity”. We wanted to know the truth so that the truth could make us free.

Education is now truly “popular” in the sense of being public. It is a commodity on the market. What is this project that is dispensed from thousands of institutions of higher learning throughout the country? The popular definition would say that education is the training of the mind. That definition may be satisfy the Russian, the Pole or the Hottentot, but it will not do for an American who holds in his hand the reins of his own government.

Among self-governing people education has to be the training of the whole individual and a whole individual comprises many more things that a mind. Sometimes, looking at college freshmen, it seems that an individual may comprise everything but a mind. Men are not yet fully rational beings; our actions are often motivated by emotional or physiological impulses. A doctor of philosophy is not incapable of a hatchet murder and a psychology professor cannot always explain his impulse to outrun the traffic cop.

The object of education therefore is wisdom—the wisdom to live happily and govern oneself; it is a question of educating not only the mind, but also the heart and the backbone. What is wisdom, but character? And what is character but good citizenship?

That is why young Americans must receive more than an educated mind. If any educated mind is not accompanied by an educated soul, it is like a dynamo unharnessed; it will rack itself to pieces.

Therefore, it is imperative that our colleges educated the whole individual. The common fault of most college and universities today is that while they refuse a sheepskin to the student who cannot write a theme, they graduate a Cum Laude many a mental giant who cannot or will not mark a ballot. While they would never graduate a man or woman who couldn’t spell, they heap diplomas upon people who cannot or will not read an editorial. They flunk the student who cannot understand Chaucer, but pass the one who professes to by mystified by politics.

But I don’t lay it all on the poor student. The philosopher, George Santaya, said that the great difficulty in education today is to get experience out of ideas. We all know what it means to sit at the feet of a professor full of theory and precept but devoid of example. Many a student who doesn’t care for Spencerian poetry is ejected from the classroom, yet there are thousands of university professors in the nation who recoil at all thought of participation in public affairs.

I know from personal observation and experience that in many colleges and universities there is a pervading attitude of contempt for all things public and ”plebeian”, fostered by the pseudo-intellectualism of professors who sit in the ivory tower and deplore the bad grammar and ape-like antics of politicians and businessmen. But how long will freedom tarry in the halls of learning if our most learned citizens let it die of intellectual aloofness and scorn?  How long will we be free if our educated people sit reading books while tyrants forge their chains?

I am proudly conscious of the fact that I am addressing these remarks to a college to which they are not applicable. Odessa College has never been guilty of intellectual snobbery or failure to look to the education of the entire personality. This institution has a broader curriculum and finer faculty than many of our four year colleges. It is located in a progressive, wealthy community that believes in doing everything possible to make its educational system second to none.

Odessa College is fortunate to be headed by so able an administrator and so capable a scholar as Dr. Murray Fly.

Even though the faculty and student of Odessa College, through research and projective education, are constantly pushing beyond the limits of present knowledge, the college is also dedicated to answering the more urgent educational need of the day—that need, said Supreme Court Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, “is not investigation of the obscure, but education in the obvious”.

No man, though he has pushed outward to the obscure limits of science, can call himself educated if he cannot recite, without faltering, his obvious rights granted under the Constitution of the United States. No man, though he may have five degrees, can call himself better educated than the most ignorant of his countrymen if he cannot cast a better ballot, give better counsel to his congressman, make better laws, dispense better justice from a jury box and elect a better president. Show me a country in which the cream of the ivied hall does not gravitate to the city hall and I’ll show you a nation that is on its way out.

Thomas Mann, in his Ten Commandments for Educators, says that we must avoid the idea that a college degree by itself mean anything. And I am reminded that a college graduate, decked out on Commencement Day in gown and mortar board, has his body robed with dignity, but topped with a flat head.

But with all due respect to Thomas Mann, I believe that a degree from Odessa College does mean something. It means that there is still at least one spire of learning that points upward to God . . . at least one spire in whose shadow men and women still seek the knowledge for which no diploma is offered . . . where no sham or pretense would say that learning can stand alone, but where the threads of knowledge are woven, without seam, into the moral fiber of the man and woman—where the commencement robe is a seamless garment that clothes the whole individual, not for an hour, but for life.

For happy is the man that findeth wisdom and the man that getteth understanding; she is more precious than rubies . . . her ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are peace.

[Note: The views expressed in this speech were those of John Ben Shepperd, and do not necessarily represent the views of the John Ben Shepperd Public Leadership Institute or the University of Texas Permian Basin.]