Graduates of Montessori High School at University Circle were given an unusual task during their commencement exercises last June—to commit themselves to not-knowing. Not what you might expect from a speech sending students off to college and beyond, unless you consider the source: Ohio’s poet laureate Dave Lucas.
Mr. Lucas was asked to offer the address by a committee of students from the MHS 2017 graduating class. Students had met him through his participation in a two-week intensive course on world mythology and the archetypal journey of the hero.
Given his experience as an instructor at Case Western Reserve University, the John Carroll Young Writer’s Workshop, and Sweet Briar/James Madison University, students may have been surprised when Mr. Lucas summarized the wisdom that he has gleaned so far in life in one word: Nothing. He even went on to encourage students to embrace the state of not-knowing themselves.
Mr. Lucas acknowledged the challenge that poses. “It is easier to know than not to know. It is safer and more glamorous and offers all the trappings of what we so nearsightedly call “success.” But ultimately “to know” is a lie, and not to know is ever to pursue the truth.”
He warned students that, “To take up this challenge, you will have to read more than you have ever read before, you will have to listen more than you have ever listened, you will have to think harder than you have ever thought.
“This is a challenge of kindness as well as of courage: the physicist who wonders at the origins of the universe represents one kind of not-knowing. The person who offers a hand or a donation or an hour to the pariah, the outcast, the criminal represents another. The former knows how little they know of the mystery of the universe. The latter knows how little they know of the mystery of any other person’s life. Both kinds of not-knowing are a life’s work.”
With that, Mr. Lucas captured two fundamental aspects of the goal and motivation of Montessori education and MHS: to foster in students a commitment to life-long learning and to serving humanity. Maria Montessori was interested in fostering “an education capable of saving humanity.” She said that such an education, “involves the spiritual development of man, the enhancement of his value as an individual, and the preparation of young people to understand the times in which they live.”
Mr. Lucas suggested that knowing the times in which we live requires a degree of skepticism and a distrust of certainty. But implicit in that is a call to trust one another. As he says, we must listen harder. Listen to one another. We must be willing to reach out a hand.
He encouraged students to wrestle with profound questions and to find—and stick with—those that keep them questioning. For him, that was poetry. He quoted Yeats saying, “Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry.”
Mr. Lucas’s quarrel with himself has been a gift to poetry lovers, and his work will take a new stage as he begins his term as the Poet Laureate of the State of Ohio. Governor Kasich said that the calling of that position is “to help us look at our world from a new perspective.”
Mr. Lucas certainly did that for the graduates of MHS last June as they looked toward their future. He ended his remarks with one final hope for them, and one that offers great hope for us all: “Most of all I wish you a life of great questions.”