Last Sunday, before a packed room at Sandals Grande, Justice Lorraine Williams was the keynote speaker at the most recent Monroe College graduation ceremony. Her address kicked off with the obligatory pleasantries: “There is nothing I enjoy more than celebrating great achievements, so before going any further let us give this magnificent class of 2016 from one of the best colleges a tremendous round of applause . . .” Her pill’s sugar coating soon gave way to the bitterness of her truth. Not that the audience that applauded nearly every line she spoke had expected otherwise. Ms Williams’ reputation as a no-nonsense speaker and dispenser of justice is well known. We can do no better than to let her once again speak for herself.
Williams Advises Graduates On Surviving In Real-Life Saint Lucia!
I want to start by saying education consists not of what we learned in school but mainly in what we have unlearned. Now, I am well aware of the risk I take by choosing to open my address in this fashion. Chances are you are wondering why I would say something so potentially distracting—some might even say shocking—at a ceremony to celebrate education. After all, my greatest wish right now is that you give me your undivided attention. In all events, I am altogether undeserving of the credit you may unwittingly have bestowed on me. I am not the author of that arresting opening line; I borrowed it for the occasion. The recalled observation—that education consists mainly in what we have unlearned—was made by a legendary American journalist named Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, author of such literary classics as ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ and ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.’
As it turns out, Mr. Twain is but one of several acknowledged literary giants who, paradoxically, seem not to have had much regard for institutional education. The list includes the revered English philosopher, mathematician and writer Bertrand Russell, who died just forty-something years ago. He considered education “one of the chief obstacles to intelligence and freedom of thought.” Imagine that! Education an obstacle? Then there was the singular Oscar Wilde, famous for, among other things, ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’; ‘The Decay of Lying’; ‘De Profundis’ and the ‘Ballad of Reading Gaol’—not to be confused with Dr. Martin Luther King’s equally thought-provoking ‘Letter From Birmingham Jail.’
Two more subscribers to the sentiment that opened this address were George Bernard Shaw, who saw education as “a succession of eye openers, each involving the repudiation of some previously held belief” and the American author and historian Will Durant who defined education as “a progressive discovery of our ignorance.” I almost forgot to add the British writer Norman Douglas, for whom education was “a state-controlled manufactory of echoes.” As depressing at first reading as are the recalled thoughts of these universally acknowledged well-educated individuals, they should not be dismissed too quickly. They would all agree that the main purpose of education is to develop the mind, which should be a thing that works. What is the point in producing a vast population that can read but is unable to distinguish what is worth reading and what’s not? And if it is true, as so many of us have been taught to believe, that education is meant to serve as a tool by which to better our lives and the lives of others, then what to say about our people and country at this time?
Where is the indisputable evidence that we live better lives today than did our great grandparents in their relatively primitive time? Are we better able to feed ourselves? Or are we dependent for most of what we eat on unknown sources? What have we done to the once fertile lands we inherited from our ancestors? The experts continually remind us that we are what we eat and that much of what ails us today are consequences of food imported from lands unknown. Still we gorge on the processed concoctions on our supermarket shelves, hardly bothering to read the fine print on their pretty packages.
Then there are those who say our ancestors seldom lived past forty or fifty. And they may be right. But were they laid low by diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer and cardiac arrest, all commonplace at this time? Or did they die from the most common disease of the day—lack of medical attention? As educated as we purport to be, why do we continue to stuff ourselves with imported poisons?
Let us talk about crime, crime that is ravaging our country. Is rape more common today than then? Or is it that today we are more likely to report such abuses to our relatives, friends and the authorities than were our predecessors who accepted rape as normal? Whatever the answer, why haven’t more of our people learned, that the truly educated do not behave towards one another like wild dogs in heat? What is the point of an education system that appears to have no salutary impact on deviant behavior? Are our institutions of learning at all concerned about what the caliber of people they graduate?
Even President Theodore Roosevelt was not above saying “a man who has never gone to school may steal from a freight train; but if he has a university education he may steal the whole railroad.” I daresay my address is targeted less at today’s graduating students than at others with influence who, despite their educated status, are silent in the face of unspeakable horrors, horrors that have contributed to our young people’s distrust of the so-called system and our institutions.
Is the church today as concerned as it used to be about the way we live? About our politicians? About the general attitude to authority? Are our young people bad because they tend not go to church; when they complain that the church has lost its collective voice; that the church has itself sold out; that it is part of the problem that plagues our society? Ours may well already be an irreparable nation of educated drop-outs and cop-outs—if we are to judge by the evidence in this case. I realize this may not be the speech you anticipated. I have no doubt many here would have preferred me to deliver a milk-and-honey address that you would consider inspirational. If that be the case, then I can only advise you to wake up and smell reality. It’s not a comforting smell. But it is what it is and destined not to get better while you continue to view it through filtered glasses and with noses no longer able to smell.
I could easily have delivered a comforting speech that many would consider uplifting; even inspiring. I have made many such speeches in my time. But afterward I returned home unable to face the woman in my mirror. For I knew, that the truth I had chosen to serve my young and trusting audiences were words that glittered, but were not nearly golden. I have promised myself no longer to be part of the problem. Inconvenient truths are often the most telling! Speaking of inconvenient truths: Even as I write there is news that venerable St. Mary’s College has once again been invaded, ransacked, desecrated, a watchman brutally beaten by individuals obviously with no sense of what the college represents. Are there lessons to be learned from this most regrettable, outrageous incident? Can we say with a free conscience that we did not contribute to it—even by turning a blind eye when all the signs were telling us our young people were headed in the wrong direction and needed special attention? That there would be a price to pay for ignoring what one UN-funded report after another were telling us about our so-called leaders of tomorrow?
Graduating students, ladies and gentlemen, I have been most fortunate. While growing up I had family that stood by me when life unexpectedly kicked me in the teeth. I have been disappointed and betrayed by trusted lifelong friends. But fortunately for me, I had parents who taught me never to stay down, to get up again, dust the dirt off my skirt and go for the gold. I have had many opportunities to learn what I was never taught at school. I have been a lawyer; a magistrate; an attorney general; a diplomat and now a judge.
I am also a single mother with a son who means the world to me and who has, if you will permit me a little crowing, done very well himself. My work has taken me to foreign lands with cultures not at all similar to ours. And yes, I learned about the ups and downs of life. I have been afforded vantages of life unimagined by regular citizens. I learned to speak foreign languages. It has also been my duty to sentence to long-term imprisonment certain citizens whose crimes demanded it. I have had in the line of duty to reluctantly pass sentence on individuals who could not afford a lawyer. I have had to send a lawyer to jail for fraud. Meanwhile, they and I knew about the well-placed, well-educated enablers of crime that are celebrated and respected by a society daily growing more rotten. We hear no one is above the law. But some people, by their actions, obviously imagine themselves above the law. One of the big questions confronting society today is: Who will guard the guards? Why has education not impacted to a large extent the wrongs I’ve cited? Remember the US president’s line about the uneducated thief and the thief with a university degree?
Could it be the education our schools provide is disconnected from modern living? How many of us here today can say, truthfully, we are not enablers of our society’s worst ills? How many of us further victimize the victims of horrible criminality like rape by what we say, or don’t say, especially on social media? Recently the Chief Justice hinted at interference with the process of justice by the same people who had sworn to do the precise opposite.
For how much longer will we teach our young that it’s not what you do that matters but whether you are caught doing it? That it’s not what you know but whom you know that will determine your success or failure? How many of us who have witnessed murder, rape and other crimes chose to maintain the silence of cowards—and in the process became criminals ourselves? There’s a phrase for that: victims of our own device! Our teachers and parents in the society must understand that it’s not enough merely to teach our people to read; it’s even more important to teach them to stand up for what’s right; to fight what’s obviously wrong. A people who determine right and wrong by political colors are a people doomed forever to be mentally enslaved.
It is better to have no education at all than to perpetuate an education system that encourages the very evil it purports to abhor. Sometimes words are just not enough. It will never be enough merely to walk the walk and I am pleased to say Monroe College has for some time now in Saint Lucia been walking the walk.
Graduation students, regardless of the twists and turns that are coming your way, the stark reality that your degrees and certificates are no guarantee to the jobs out there, because frankly most of these jobs do not exist, you have received a great education here at Monroe College; it is up to you how you use it. You can learn and grow by investing in yourselves and in others, and I promise you that you will live a life rich with meaning and purpose. And so in parting and in the words of the iconic civil rights leader John Lewis, I say to you “Let the spirit of peace, justice and love be your guide as you walk out of here into the real world with the wind at your back!”