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An Educated Person: A Graduation Speech by Varindra Vittachi

COMMENCEMENT ADDRESS DELIVERED TO THE GRADUATING CLASS OF METROPOLITAN STATE UNIVERSITY,  JUNE 25, 1988, AT NORTH HEIGHTS LUTHERAN CHURCH, ARDEN HILLS, MINNESOTA, BY THE HONORABLE VARINDRA TARZIE VITTACHI, DEPUTY SECRETARY-GENERAL (RET.) OF THE UNITED NATIONS.


I come from a culture which believes that everything and every man and woman has  an inner being and an outer being. Even a word has an inner and an outer — an  outer, literal meaning and an inner and deeper meaning. For language is not merely  a mechanistic device to express or communicate a wish – like please pass the salt – or state a direction or a fact. That is only  the outer function of words. The inner  function of words is to speak the truth to ourselves and to others.


Words are the language of our dreams about what we love and fear. Words are the repositories of the values we hold most dear. That is why we associate language and education so closely, as though they were first-cousins if not brother and sister. That is why when a child in Sri Lanka, my country, needs to be taught to read the first letters, it is done with some ceremony. The child is taken by its parents to the guru down the road and presents him with a handful of betel leaves as a mark of respect and then is taught to read the first letters of the alphabet. That is the beginning of a process of education that continues through life and on through the next and the next until the cycle of birth and rebirth ceases to spin.


I have never doubted that in the beginning was the word. Yes, language is the beginning and middle and end of a conscious life. But this does not mean that those who have learned many languages are necessarily more educated than others. I know that many Americans and Britons who are robustly monolingual feel a sense of inadequacy in Europe and Asia where people almost naturally speak several languages.


You may take some comfort from my experience of many United Nations officials of my acquaintance who know six or seven languages and are illiterate in all of them. I once asked Marcel Marceau, that great genius of mime, if there were something he could not mime. He paused for a moment. He had never before been asked that question. Then he replied, “Yes. You cannot mime a lie.” What I am trying to convey here is my conviction that whatever language you learn and use, it is important to be able to hear its inner resonance, see its many facets and directions, and marvel at its wonderful ambiguities. In that sense every educated person is a poet, even if they have never written a line of verse.


To use an instance from recent scientific conjectures about the brain — the left hemisphere of the brain uses the outer language of facts and data while the right hemisphere finds meanings and patterns in them. The right hemisphere is where concept and revelation and inspiration are to be found. In an educated man or woman both functions are balanced — the inner and the outer, the left and the right, the male and female principles are balanced. That is the meaning of enlightenment, of Buddhahood.


That of course is to speak of perfection. You and I are not there yet and may never get there in this lifetime. But this is not a reason for wringing our hands in despair, for education is a process, a progression by degree — slow, immeasurably slow most of the time, but occasionally advancing to greater heights, suddenly, by the gift of revelation. All we can do, therefore, to be educated people is to be willing to see that education is not only an accumulation of information or knowledge, but a process which internalizes knowledge and transforms it into being and practice.

A university professor may have a very large fund of knowledge but also exist at a very low level ofbeing, while a peasant in an African village may have very little book knowledge but have the being of an angel. Nor is education merely a means of acquiring skill or a formal testimonial of qualification for career advancement. It is that, but much more. 


Being an educated person is an end in itself. We often measure a man’s worth by the hierarchical status he has in the company he works for, by the number of college degrees he has tacked onto his name, or by the size of the material wealth he has acquired. What a travesty of the truth about life to assess a person by what he has rather than by what he is. What nonsense to imagine that education is an acquisition of college degrees or that formal education and wisdom are synonymous. Some of the wisest people in human history — Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Mohammed, who are revered by hundreds of millions for their transcendental wisdom and also for their moral teachings — had no formal education. I dare to suggest that Jesus would probably have flunked an examination for a doctorate in divinity.


I have now placed education and wisdom together here and proposed that wisdom is not necessarily identical and synonymous with education, nor is it the product of education, but a quality that grows along with education. The word “wisdom” has an accretion of many different connotations. I was once on a television program where several of us journalists were interviewing Dr Jonas Salk, the discoverer of the first polio vaccine. He had just published a pivotally significant book, Survival of the Wisest – as distinct from “fittest.” An American journalist asked him, “Dr Salk, what do you mean by wisdom?” I said to myself, “Aha! This is going to be interesting.” We Asians think we have a monopoly of wisdom. We think that the West is clever, but we are wise. So I said to myself, “How is this Westerner, Dr Salk, going to respond to this question?” Without batting an eyelid Dr Salk explained: “I think wisdom is the ability to look at the future retrospectively.”


There you have it. There is an education from the past, knowledge about previous human experience which when internalized into current behavior and practice gives us pointers to the present and future. In that condition what a person is and what that person does are the same. He is educated and morally right. He is wise. Let us try now to list the characteristics of an educated person. (Because of the clumsiness of the English language, I have to apologize if I use masculine pronouns when I refer to both genders. Forgive me and allow me to use the word man to speak for both men and women. Let me speak for a moment from our Asian wisdom. The word man comes from the Sanskrit manu, meaning “hand of God”. So when I use the English “man”, I am using it in that sense of a human being as an extension of God not as male vs. female). What then are the special characteristics of an educated person – an educated “man”?

  • He will never make a display of his knowledge. He is the sort of person who can amuse himself when he is alone in a room or alone in a crowded plane on a long Pacific flight.

  • He will have developed a habit of skepticism. (In my reading of the NewTestament, Doubting Thomas has always seemed the most educated one among Christ's disciples.)

  • He will ask the question “why?” more often than he asks other questions such as “how?” and “how much?”

  • He will ask himself, Is it right to do this or that? rather than, can this or that be done?

  • He will be excited by symbols and miserable until he explodes the meanings out of them, because symbols are the keys to culture.

  • He will constantly look for perspective and context in his search for understanding, because there is no meaning without a relationship.

  • He will not be satisfied with how things look but will want to know how things are.

  • He will bear in mind that most people’s view of the world is determined by what they want to protect, be it power, job security or status.

  • He will know that in politics and diplomacy everything is about something else.

  • He will not commit the pathetic fallacy of believing that the absence of proof is proof of absence.

  • He will look at the world from a moral viewpoint but avoid being moralistic and self-righteous. (I feel that I can cope with a sinner but not with a person who is selfrighteous.)

  • He will be willing to defend other men’s right to choose as rigorously as he defends his own. The mark of a human being is having the faculty of choice.

  • He will be able to empathize with the tribulations of other people even though they are strangers in looks and culture. There is only one human race.

  • He will understand that human relationships are about caring and sharing and equity.

And, most important of all, the educated man will know and feel that he is not living in a self-sufficient, self-motivated nation-state as our nineteenth-century ancestors did, but in a single, intricately intermeshed world, in a mosaic of peoples which makes a wonderfully varied but related culture of one human race. I have a young son just completing his undergraduate degree at an American university. He is half Sri-Lankan and half-French, and he is fluently bilingual. His mother died recently and we made a pact when she died. When he graduates next year, we shall go on a two-year journey around the world, and I, at his request, shall help him to open his eyes and see people and the lives they lead, poor and rich, without blinkers and without the distortions of prejudice and stereotypes. That, I believe, will be the beginning of his life as an educated young man, a man without boundaries, a citizen of the world, a truly universal man. He will also learn, I hope, the important life-giving lesson that human wealth comes not from what we have, but from what we can do without. Many years ago I leaned that lesson from the greatest Indian since the Buddha.


As a very young journalist in December 1946, I had the opportunity and great privilege to meet with Mahatma Gandhi. My father-in-law at that time was representing our country in India, and I was to be introduced to the great man at his house. So, with my colonial values I went to a British tailor and got myself a spanking new suit in Royal Air Force blue. That Sunday morning there was Mahatma Gandhi seated on a rattan settee on the lawn, his cane at his feet by his side.


About twenty other visitors were gawking some twenty feet away, for in India distance is a sign of respect. I was taken to meet him. He looked up at this splendid sartorial vision and said, “Oho, one of our smart southern neighbors?” Sri Lanka being southeast of India, I felt distinctly slapped on my face. And he turned, because he could not stand the Westernized Oriental gentleman which he himself had been at one time in his life. The others giggled at my embarrassment because people so often love to giggle at others” discomfort. Mahatma Gandhi saw all this and took compassion on me. Patting the place next to him, he said, “Sit down right here.”


He wanted to make it up to me. So I sat gingerly, poised at the edge of his chair. And I was thinking, “How on earth am I going to raise my head again?” But like a smart boy in class who asks an intelligent question to get out of a jam, I produced one. I said, “Gandhiji, because of your work all of us in Asia are going to be free very soon. If you have one piece of advice to give all of us in Asia, what would this be?” He looked around, his face kind of purpling with sadness, reflecting for about twenty seconds, I suppose. Then he looked up again smiling with that incredible toothless grin of his. He said, “Reduce your wants and supply your needs. Make no mistake. Our needs make us vulnerable enough. Why increase out vulnerability?”


Ladies and Gentleman, I have reflected on that advice for forty years. It might be worthwhile your reflecting on it for the next forty.

Thank you very much.


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