“Getting All A’s and Still Flunking Life.”

A week ago I gave a lecture to a large gathering of town-and-gown on the Cornell University campus in Ithaca, NY. A weekend given to the “between two worlds” dynamic that John Stott articulated in his life and writing, it was a gift to be part of their life for several days.

I took up the famous words, and warning, of the novelist and essayist Walker Percy in his story, “The Second Coming,” viz. that lurking around the corner of everyone’s heart is the possibility of “getting all A’s and still flunking life.”

While the question of the responsibility of knowledge goes deep in my life—the relationship of knowing to doing –its reality ripples through everyone’s life. In fact I would argue that it is the heart of everyone’s heart, sons of Adam and daughters of Eve that we are. Since the beginning of time we are people who stumble over what we know, and what we do with what we know. Or in the words of the Great Temptation, “What will you do with what you know?”– an epistemological temptation with a moral thrust.

I chose to begin the lecture with the very new news of the final court resolution of a heart-breaking tragedy here in Washington. Only a week earlier the horrible murder of a young woman by another young woman, both employees working at the Lululemon Store in an upscale shopping district of the city, had finally come to a sad end with a murder conviction. Awful as that was in every way, that the employees of the Apple Store next door, sharing an adjoining wall, heard the repeated cries, “Help me! Help me! Help me!” and chose to do nothing, only added to the horror.

How is it possible that we call people like that “geniuses” and “experts”? Those being, of course, the designations that Apple gives its store employees. Having been at the local mall several times in the last few days, needing work done on my MacBook Pro, and seeing a Lululemon store across the hall from the Apple store– a commercial proximity that is repeated all over the country, if not the world –keeps this question before me. What does it mean to “know”? And to be responsible for what we know?

Before the lecture was all over we stepped into a longer reflection on Michael Polanyi and Walker Percy, and the ways that both critically recast the meaning of the Enlightenment in light of what Percy called “the murderous, mechanized 2oth-century.” Or as Polanyi asked, after watching two world wars run through Europe, ruining a civilization, “How is it possible that we can be brilliant and bad at the same time?”

Hard questions, always. Learning to learn in a way that connects knowledge with responsibility is the only way forward, the only way to be fully human. It was not a small thing that Vaclav Havel argued that “the secret of man is the secret of his responsibility”– responsible, able to respond.

Bringing the evening to a close, I offered the wisdom of the French philosopher Simone Weil, and especially her vision of sacramental learning. As if to put a point on that insight, the last night of her too-short life she wrote these words in her journal, the final words on the final page, “The most important task of teaching is to teach what means to know.”

It is always possible to get all A’s and still flunk life– for everyone of us.

Steven Garber is the Senior Fellow for Vocation and the Common Good for the M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust. A teacher of many people in many places, he continues to serve as a consultant to colleges and corporations, facilitating both individual and institutional vocation. A husband, a father and a grandfather, a he has long lived in Washington DC, living a life among family, friends, and flowers.

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