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An Imaginary Commencement Speech at a Princess' Graduation
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2014-06-08 11:40:37
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My Granddaughter Sophia graduating from kindergarten in May 2014

A few days ago my granddaughter Sophia, who is now six, graduated from kindergarten. In the picture above one sees her waiting somberly for the ceremony to end with a princess’ crown on her head and two awarded medals hanging from her neck. One is for passing to the next learning level (first grade) and the other for having been the only little scholar, so to speak, who had read more than 100 children’s books in a whole year.

As I watch this poignant photo I think back to my own kindergarten time when I was learning to write the Italian alphabet and how to read the first words, those words which would become my life’s passion, the very foundations for literature and philosophy. I mused: “Chip off the old block!” as I felt the pride for my grandchild’s initial accomplishments swell in me. But then I imagine a commencement speech which, if invited, I’d give at my grandchild’s graduation.

Sometimes we call my granddaughter “Princess Sophia” from the video Princess Sophia the First that she likes to watch when she comes for a visit. Those children’s videos about princesses have become rather trendy lately. They emphasize sophistication, good manners, gentility, all attractive feminine traits. That’s all well and good. However, what makes this cultural phenomenon a bit strange, is that it is taking place in a country which began with a war against royalty, privilege and aristocracy, where few, if any girl can aspire and expect to becoming a princess. They would have to move to England to even faintly hope of becoming one such.

Be that as it may, as I watch the poignant photo of Sophia’s kindergarten’s graduation these are some of the musings that initially occurred to me. I ask myself if this dear scholarly granddaughter of mine who will soon be a teenager, will be able to realize all her dreams within the tempestuous and uncertain times in which we live, times when even college graduates are not guaranteed a life that fulfills all the basic, most noble and vital needs of human nature. Will she envision those dreams and aspire to what the Greeks called “the good life” dedicated to the pursuit of everything is good, beautiful and true, or will she be aiming at mere material prosperity, what today is dubbed a “comfortable life style”?

Hard to predict nowadays! I say this with sadness and trepidation but with some empirical evidence supporting the statement. You see, I am a college professor of philosophy and as such I know first-hand that students’ motivations for dedicating one’s learning and scholarship to the “good life” i.e., to the Platonic Good, Beautiful, and True, more often than not, leaves much to be desired.


Princess Sophia-the-First

As mentioned, the hero-princess seems to be the latest trend in children’s videos. For children, a princess’s world, a la Snow White or Cinderella, is an enchanted Disney-like fantasy world. But I am afraid that the adults who are promoting those videos have in mind not so much the enchanted Disney-like world of princesses, but rather the more banal, superficial and crass world of good looking famous celebrities, supermodels, millionaires, bestselling authors. These seem to be our acclaimed heroes nowadays. We put them on a pedestal to be emulated. Sometimes the media has fun bringing them down from their pedestals. Are those the heroes that my grandchild will be buying into? Will she also end up placing those people on a pedestal as demigods?

I worry that the cultural milieu we live in may not allow my grandchild to see how ephemeral the glory and the fame of these people really are; how unhappy and unsatisfying are the seemingly glamorous lives of those celebrities. I ask myself: after Sophia has earned a degree of higher education, as her grandfather and her mother and aunt have done, will she still recognize that those who try their very best with the abilities they have and the little they have, are also heroes to be respected and admired? Will she recognize that the honest immigrant who works hard on constructions, or in fields picking grapes and oranges to earn enough to send home to his family so that his children too can eat and go to school; who is willing to endure loneliness, homesickness, humiliation so that his family may have a better life, is also a hero.

I also worry that the culture we live in may make it difficult for her to ultimately understand that happiness is not, and never was, synonymous with fun; that one can be happy and cheerful even when sick and with one’s body falling apart, even when in jail for daring to protest social injustice and the unfair treatment of the destitute and the underprivileged. I worry that she may not understand that those unglamorous people are perhaps the genuine unsung heroes.

In other words, the crucial question is this: will knowledge and learning make my grandchild more or less wise, for indeed knowledge without wisdom may only mean that one ends up doing more damage than one would without a higher education. After all, nine of the twelve member committee that planned the holocaust in an hour and a half and efficiently executed it in two years, had Ph.D.s after their names.

My grandchild bears a glorious name—Sophia—that in Greek literally means wisdom. Philo-Sophia literally means “love of wisdom.” Therefore, my sincere wish, and not only for you Princess Sophia, but for all my grandchildren, is not only that you may read many more books, but  that you may continue growing in knowledge without ever losing sight of the ultimate aim of education: the acquisition of wisdom.   

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Dear Emanuel2014-06-09 04:11:45
Thank you for "introducing" me in a way to your granddaughter Princess Sophia and to your recent "summa cum laude" college graduate, Cristina. You may want to tell your Cristina that at Sts Constantine & Helen Greek Orthodox Church in Newport News, VA the most generally admired young woman in the congregation is Cristina Thames, and liked also, who is a catechist, the former head of the Church Sunday School, the parish's bookstore operator, with a very recent MA in English from William and Mary. Under the different spelling of Christina or Christine--I sometimes get mixed up about the spelling--it is of course the name of one of Gerard's daughters.
Although I've been a great reader since a somewhat later age in childhood than your Sophia is now, I certainly hadn't read 100 books of any kind when I was six! All the best, James W.

Emanuel Paparella2014-06-09 16:09:13
Thank you James for your insights and good wishes.

Leah Sellers2014-06-11 04:26:11
Brother Emanuel,
Cristian is very fortunate to have you as her Grandfather, and, you sir, are very fortunate to have this Little Light in your Life. Thak you for this wonderful Share.

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