Founders’ Day Address at Haigazian University
October 17, 2016
Allow me to begin by thanking Haigazian University in the person of its President, Dr. Paul Haidostian, for the honor of inviting me to be the speaker at this year’s Founders’ Day celebration.
I would also like to begin by congratulating the distinguished guests who are being honored today – the school principals. As this is an occasion that brings together school and university, I thought it appropriate to say a brief word that addresses both.
School learning in my days, and certainly in the days of my parents and their parents, was different from the time of my children and the present time. For one thing, there was very little stress in the past on learning critical skills; it was mainly acquiring new information, learning to understand, and to solve problems in mathematics and geometry and algebra, but in history, geography, literature, languages, emphasis was mainly on memorizing and reproducing. When my daughters were going to school there began a new emphasis on acquiring critical skills in high school, and this was a welcome improvement. To be able to understand and judge for yourself on the basis of some criterion or other; to be able to evaluate and discern, and not simply naively swallow what is presented to you - that indeed was a significant advancement in the skills of learning and a better preparation for university studies. In other words, to develop a “critical” mind has become a value in education, and so it must be.
But there is always a danger lurking here. It is a twofold danger, to be exact. One is to misunderstand or to miss the difference between two senses of the word “critic”. A “critic” can mean a person who finds faults and points them out in other people or in things, a person who is given to harsh and captious judgment. But a “critic” could also mean, and this is the more original meaning in the Greek language from which the word derives, “one who expresses a reasoned opinion on any matter especially involving a judgment of its value, truth, righteousness, beauty or technique. It is someone who considers merits and demerits, who evaluates and reviews.” Sometimes we use “critique” for this meaning, and “criticism” for the first, but that is not uniformly used everywhere. Instilling “critical” skills in school pupils and later in university students could lead them to be critical in the first and negative sense, and that is a danger. It robs them of the ability to find value in things, because all they concentrate on, all that they want to do - thinking that it is a sign of cleverness and intelligence - is to find fault with what is put before them, what they experience, or who they meet; whereas the intention behind training them to be critical is not to make them negative, but to help them grow out of naivité. We always tell our students in theology when they start to come in contact with what is known as “biblical criticism” that the opposite of “critical” is not “nice”; the opposite of “critical” is “naïve”!
The second danger in acquiring critical skills at an early age is that of turning the critic into a cynic. A cynic is a critic in the negative sense, to be sure, but a cynic is not simply one who finds and stresses faults and always raises objections; a cynic is more; he is a person who believes that human conduct is motivated wholly by self-interest. A cynic is one who believes that one has attained wisdom when one comes to the conclusion that everyone has his or her price. As Oscar Wilde so aptly put it: “The cynic is the one who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Cynicism is the great enemy of values in society because, in the view of cynics, nothing has value for its own sake; everything can and should be used for something else, otherwise it has no value. A wise and great thinker back in the 4th century, St. Augustine, made a profound distinction between things in this life that we are to use and things that we are to enjoy. What you use you need as a help to sustain life and make it easier; but what you enjoy is something you cling to with love for its own sake.
It is the mission of the university, especially a university like Haigazian that is committed to values – its motto being the values of Truth – Freedom – Service, to continue the task of deepening the critical skills of students which begins in schools, while at the same time, not turning students into fault-finders or cynics, but rather introducing them to the difference between what is to be used and what is to be enjoyed for its own sake. The great challenge before university education in this country, but worldwide as well, is how to get students to appreciate what is learnt for its own sake, what is learnt that changes the way we look at the world around us, rather than simply how to use things and generate immediate benefits and returns.
Haigazian University, as I know it, and my institution cooperates with it academically, is an institution that is committed to teaching our young generations to know and appreciate the difference between what is to be used and what is to be enjoyed and appreciated for its own sake.
It is committed to teaching the difference between fault-finding criticism and mature judgment and discernment.
It is committed teaching the difference between being critical and being cynical.
In other words it is committed, as a good university should be, to distinguishing between the price of things and their value, for values are priceless.