Sometimes absurdity is the best teacher. Like a firm slap, it can shock the senses. Like the alarm on your nightstand, it can break the power of nightmares, awaken us from illusion, arouse us from dreams and call us back to reality. The ridiculous juxtaposed with the rational can indeed be a most effective tool in showing the clear difference between the two.
Let me illustrate.
I want you to suppose that you are a brand new college student. You have just enrolled in your first semester at Oklahoma Wesleyan University (or OU, OSU or TU for that matter). You have selected an academic major. You are excited about your classes. You have met all your professors, purchased all your textbooks, reviewed all your syllabi, and taken note of all your assignments. Your goal of getting a university degree is now at hand. You are finally a college freshman and you are ready to learn!
Now walk with me down this path a bit further. It is four years later. You have made it. You have read countless assignments. You have written innumerable five page papers. You have taken all your tests, passed all your quizzes, and delivered several impromptu speeches. You have just completed your last finals week and the day has come. You are enjoying commencement ceremonies. You have done it. You are about to graduate!
As president of the university I finish my commencement address (something you will never remember because it was too long and I should have known better). The time you have been waiting for has come. All the graduates stand and approach the platform as they are called by their academic divisions: first arts and sciences, then philosophy and religion, then business, then humanities, etc.
Now it is your turn. Your name is called. The academic dean gives you your honors cord. Your family is in the audience cheering. You walk toward me: you wearing your academic regalia and mortar board and I wearing mine. We join in a vigorous handshake as I give you your long awaited diploma and say “Congratulations! You now have a degree in opinions.”
After four long years of study, after eight semesters of classes, after so many assignments, so many late nights, so many tests, so many debates and after so much work directed toward mastering a body of information relevant to your major and minor; after sitting through countless lectures on such diverse topics as the classical truths of literature, the ethics of leadership, the rules of accounting, the laws of physics, the summum bonum of philosophy, and the unalienable rights cited in the Declaration of Independence and guaranteed by the Constitution, I have the audacity to hand you a diploma and say “It really doesn’t matter what you believe as long as it works for you. Here is your degree in opinions!”
This is truly ridiculous. The absurdity is obvious. For we all know that you didn’t go to college to major in “whatever” or to get a degree in “opinions.” To the contrary, you went to college to gain knowledge and acquire at least some level of mastery of the truths relevant to your major and minor as well as the broader disciplines implicit in the liberal arts curriculum.
You went to college to learn something and your diploma represents the acquisition of such knowledge. When it comes down to it on commencement day – your opinion really doesn’t matter, nor does mine. What matters is quite simple: Did you learn the facts and figures, the theories and the truths that were required of you? Do you now know more about geological science than you did when you started? Have you learned the difference between credits and debits and can you balance a ledger? Do you understand the ethical assumptions implicit in the march for civil rights? Can you pass the MCAT because of your knowledge of human biology? I am being blatantly rhetorical here for obvious reasons. You can’t pretend to be educated if all you have is an opinion. There are objective facts. There are indisputable truths that serve as the foundation for any meaningful educational experience. Getting a degree requires learning such truths, not simply holding to your opinions. To claim otherwise is silly. It is – well – absurd.
I was recently reading the works of contemporary scholars such as Michel Foucault, Richard Rorty, and Jacques Derrida who argue that there is no such thing as objective truth and that all knowledge, all values, all morality, and all ideas of right and wrong, good or bad, are merely the products of an ongoing “community narrative” and social dialogue within a “global village.” They say that truth is a construct not a precept. It is a conversation not a conclusion. Truth is really not true you know. It’s all relative. It’s all a matter of opinion.
I want to ask a question: Do we really believe this and are we willing to live with the consequences of such ideas?
Martin Luther King Jr. was once asked why he believed it was right to break the law of the land in his effort to promote civil rights and social justice. In his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” he said the following. “One may well ask, how can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others? The answer is found in the fact that there are two kinds of laws: just laws . . . and unjust laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws, but conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” And what is a just law? King responded by quoting Augustine. “A just law squares with the moral law of the law of God.”
King understood something that perhaps we would all do well to remember. Opinions can be dangerous, self-centered and cruel. They indeed are used to justify all kinds of unjust things. Only that which rises above the selfish constructs of the human mind can set the stage for freedom and dignity, liberty and justice. King knew that there was a revelatory truth, i.e. a natural law, which served as the only solid foundation for human value, civil rights, justice, freedom, and racial liberation. He also understood very well that man’s opinion is inevitably clouded with selfishness and deception and thus, sets the stage for the powerful to construct systems of oppression over the powerless.
Maybe what is right and wrong, good and bad, pure and profane is ultimately measured by degrees of truth rather than degrees of opinion after all.
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