Wednesday, September 05, 2012

That Which Never Taketh Rust.

Continuing the 'back to school' theme of Monday's post, I'd like to share a classic essay that I've long wanted to post on this blog. "That Which Never Taketh Rust" is the work of Richard Alan Gordon, a Georgetown alumnus (COL '50, LAW '53, LLM '61) who taught law at his alma mater for just over four decades before his death in October of 2003. I saw this essay for the first time when it was published in the Georgetown Academy in the fall of 2000; this essay can't be found elsewhere on the Internet, and the Academy is evidently defunct, so I'm taking the liberty of posting the complete "That Which Never Taketh Rust" here on this blog.

I should say a brief word about my personal history with "That Which Never Taketh Rust." When I was an undergraduate, I used to see Professor Gordon fairly often because we were both regulars at the 11:15 pm Mass which Father Tom King celebrated six nights a week in Dahlgren Chapel; while we spoke superficially on a handful of occasions, I can't say that Professor Gordon said anything then that really stuck with me. Professor Gordon's most notable impact on my life came through this essay, which I've kept and read over a few times over the last decade. Though Gordon wrote for an audience of Georgetown students and makes a lot of very local allusions (like his reference to The Tombs, a bar near campus), I believe that this essay makes good reading for any college student - or, even better, for high school students preparing for college. I hope that posting "That Which Never Taketh Rust" on this blog will bring Professor Gordon's words to a new and broader audience. Without further preamble, Gordon's text follows.


A dear friend told me once of an inscription displayed above the stage of an atypical high school auditorium – an exhortation never forgotten despite the years. "Thou, my mind, aspire to higher things! Grow rich in that which never taketh rust!"

All efforts to dislodge from my friend's brain the identity of the author of these stunning lines failed, as did my own efforts to discover it. In desperation I turned to the source of almost infinite wisdom – Father James Schall, S.J., here on your new campus at Georgetown – and in less than an hour he had accomplished, as he usually does, the impossible. "Why, it is Sir Philip Sydney, Sonnet number 110," he announced with blithe satisfaction. I was deeply pleased, as should you be, for I could not imagine better advice to urge upon you as your new, exciting and confusing life begins at Georgetown.

When I was a student entering Georgetown College (could it be over 50 years ago?) life was, at least in some respects, easier. Wise souls had decreed that which was deemed essential educational equipment for a truly cultivated person, and we were all required to confront these fascinating and often disturbing courses. First, a thorough knowledge of English Grammar was simply not presumed, and we were compelled to revisit this quicksand briefly to assure that we could all write, think, and possibly even speak in a truly coherent manner. To this same end, Logic (which may be termed formal logic) was exposed to us all in its brutal and ultimately liberating severity. "Knowledge," said Socrates, "makes a bloody entrance." And indeed it did. We were not asked at the time if we were "feeling good" about the experience. But the ultimate health of our minds, in their often curious and discursive detours, was saved by logic – and this was one of the treasures we gained "that never taketh rust." How could I not most strongly encourage you to seize upon logic as one of your first courses – and one of your most serviceable companions through what I hope will be a rewarding, productive, and long life?

What else? Well, of course, a reasonable curiosity about our world’s infinitely fascinating past compels us to gird ourselves with a knowledge of history and of those historical figures who have impacted for better or worse on the fitful course of mankind. And, at least, a basic course on the principles of economics seems mandated for all, even for those who may be chilled by the modern industrialized world’s apparent surrender to an unhealthy level of materialism.

But I hope you chose Georgetown for more than these however insistent concerns. I hope you chose Georgetown for its grand potential to prepare you to create a spiritual awareness for yourself through philosophy and yes, its highest order, theology; to help you learn to know yourself, and to see and feel and admire the richness and triumph of the human spirit. Names of course offerings can strangely mislead, I found it amusing that Father Thomas King’s superb course is called, "The Problem of God"! I was unaware that God had problems. I always assumed it was Man who had the problem!

Blaise Pascal, genius of science, was quick to warn us that all is not solved with even the most sublime human rationality. "The heart has reasons," he said, "which Reason cannot know." Well, then, is there any way to learn about the human heart? I suggest to you in total sincerity that nothing is more abundant in these lessons than Literature – English, Continental, Asian, American. In truth, could not a lifetime of Liberal Arts curriculum be called God, Man, and Literature? How can one so young as you live many lives and learn endless lessons which "never taketh rust" in a few short years? By plunging into as much literature as you possibly can and living through the layered multiples of life that great literature displays for those whose eyes can see true gold.

Who has not been exalted by Emily Dickinson? Restored to sanity by Jane Austen? Flannery O’Connor? George Eliot? I mention these four among a world of others, because truly magnificent literature knows no gender and should not be "gender-tilted" in the teaching to be "fair to the sexes." The redoubtable Rudyard Kipling, than whom none was more "macho," wrote a little poem entitled "Jane Goes to Heaven." In it, Dante, Cervantes, and Shakespeare are about to enter the Heavenly Gates when Jane Austen appears. All step aside to allow her to enter first - not, as some might suppose, as an act of chivalry, but because, in Kipling's view, Jane Austen's work showed a deeper insight into the human heart than any of the others. This is true praise indeed.

If you feel exhausted after all this advice, I don’t blame you. Choice is often excruciating; but to play casual with a lifetime is not the answer. Especially if it is your lifetime. You are the major participant here in determining the cultural, intellectual, and spiritual awareness you will acquire.

And that reminds me. To change a phrase, do not make your experience at Georgetown your "own private Idaho." You are not in Idaho. You have chosen to attend a school with a grandeur of traditions – learn them, debate them, improve them – but do not ignore them. You have chosen to go to school in a city whose cultural diversity is staggering. Many of the world’s greatest paintings are in museums that are free. This is the chamber music capital of the nation and, with the exception of Vienna, the world. Almost 300 specialist libraries of various types – many open to you upon special application. This is the place to get all the thrill of government in action and much of the life of the mind. Wake up! Walk out! Explore! That, after all, is what John Carroll had in mind. He wanted you to partake of all the culture of the city. Perhaps the "Tombs" is too well named. Do not bury your youth within its seductive walls. Endless concerts, plays, and history await you!

But in the swirling excitement of registration, meeting new friends to be, learning to find the paths for you – choose wisely. Choose anything taught by Father Schall, George Carey, Father King, and countless others who, like rarest treasure, are waiting to be discovered by you. But attention must be paid! Gold alone "never taketh rust."


Please know of my continued prayers and best wishes to all teachers and students starting a new academic year. AMDG.


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