Jonah Apel, Class of 2020
Valedictory Address at Founders Classical Academy of Leander's Fourth Annual Commencement
Jonah Apel, Class of 2020
Families, Founders faculty, honored guests, and fellow seniors, thank you for coming to the 2020 Founders Classical Academy of Leander Commencement. I know that this isn’t the graduation we normally would have wanted, and even just a few months ago, no one (except for perhaps Mr. McClallen) could have guessed that our senior year would end the way it did. Writing “we survived corona 2020” on the senior sidewalk, might have been a tad premature. It really is one sad loss among many, though a small loss compared to what others have suffered around the world. But we seniors also have a lot to be grateful for. I would like to thank our administrators and our teachers for their work all these years—you have poured out your time, energy, and knowledge teaching us students. It’s been an honor to learn from you. And thank you Founders parents for your commitment to our school community and for the sacrifices you’ve made. Finally, thank you fellow seniors—for the friendships we’ve made, for the discussions we’ve had, for the challenges we’ve endured, for the memories we’ve shared. “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” This proverb embodies the experience I’ve had among you, Class of 2020.
During our time here at Founders, we’ve undertaken many challenging yet rewarding endeavors: we wrestled with the song of Achilles’s wrath and felt the bitter sting of Hamlet’s death; we read Aristotle in Physics class, and we debated the merits of the Constitution and the Federalist Papers. And this year, each of us chose one great text—and a few rebels chose two texts—to write about, present on, and defend for our senior thesis. We each answered the question, “what wisdom does this book teach,” diving deep into the books we were reading to gain insights into human nature and to better live the choiceworthy life. While the senior thesis symbolizes the end of our Founders education and the beginning of our personal ownership of these ideas, it’s also what we’ve been doing here all along.
Founders centers its education around the classical liberal arts—the arts which are intended to make people free. But what does it mean to be free? People often say that freedom is the right to do whatever you want, whenever you want, however you want. If that’s what freedom is, then why do we need education to be free? What’s the point of school dress codes, learning to love virtue, and writing essays on Aristotle? While this permissive conception of freedom rightly understands that a tyrannical government can’t support human flourishing, its problem is that it tends to see happiness as merely a material end. But men are not just material, and neither is happiness. To believe that freedom is simply a material good is to make the same mistake that many men did when they thought that Jesus came to free them from Rome, when in fact, he came to free man from the greater and more universal evils: sin and death. Aristotle said that “the human good is an activity of the soul in accord with virtue,” and virtue is living in accord with right reason. But men are naturally sinful, and while all men have the ability to reason, we often find that they fail to reason well. We find that it’s all too easy to live life as if stuck in a cave, watching shadows, slaves to vice and ignorance.
Education, then, is tasked with freeing people from these two masters. A true education must develop the whole of the student: not just the mind, but also the heart and the soul; not just intellect, but also character and virtue. An education in the classical liberal arts does this by cultivating in its students a love for the most important things: truth, justice, beauty, and the good. By engaging with the great authors of the Western tradition, we learn to reason well and express ideas clearly as we pursue our quest for the truth. These writings provide timeless insights into human nature and the natural world, and the wisdom they offer helps us to grow in moral and intellectual virtue. It was this education and these ideas which allowed the Founding Fathers to participate in “the greatest of all reflections on human nature” and to establish a republic with “good government from reflection and choice,” not “accident and force.”
Liberal education prepares men and women to pursue truth and virtue, but our lives still lie before us. We will face powerful temptations, real struggles, serious risks, and grave consequences, and we will have to choose to love and do the right things when the stakes are high, even when there seems an easy way out, if only we give up the good. True freedom is hard, and it’s a dangerous business, because you, and no one else, are responsible for your actions. The Declaration of Independence recognizes that men are endowed by their Creator with the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But it’s our responsibility to make use of those rights and fulfill our purpose here on earth. We have the rights to life and liberty, but no one can stop us from throwing our lives away and becoming enslaved to all manner of monsters. We have the right to pursue happiness, but we will only find happiness, if we choose to love the things that really matter.
In the path ahead, we must continue the struggle to become genuinely free—free from vice and ignorance, free to seek truth, and free to truly live well.
Thank you, and congratulations, Class of 2020!
Jonah will attend Hillsdale College in the Fall.