“Find your own Calcutta”: On Betsy DeVos’ address at Ave Maria University

Service has the connotation of some event or deed happening mainly from a spirit of generosity, not from pay or coercion. At the heart of the world we find gift, not only necessity.

An undated file picture shows Blessed Teresa of Kolkata holding a child during a visit to Warsaw, Poland. (CNS photo/Tomasz Gzell, EPA)

The Commencement Speaker at this year’s Graduation Ceremonies at Ave Maria University in Florida was the Secretary of Education, Elizabeth DeVos. Ave Maria University had been originally founded in Michigan before it relocated itself in Florida. Mrs. DeVos, herself of Dutch origins, is from Holland, Michigan. She attended Calvin College in Grand Rapids.

The economist Thomas Sowell once remarked, amusingly, that there are two kinds of graduation addresses. One is by some famous government official, successful businessman, or public figure who explains to the graduates how he got to be where he is now. The other kind of address tells the students how awful the world is but that they are now equipped to go out and change it. Neither kind, Sowell thought, is worth much. Students really do not know much when they leave college, while public success really tells us very little about the character and inner-happiness of those who achieve it.

The central theme of Mrs. DeVos’ address was not, as we might expect, truth and its pursuit. Rather it was service and its many nuances. Service is not exactly something that we study, though we certainly notice it when it is not present. An uneducated person can serve others. A doctor of philosophy may not lift a finger for anyone. One of the most revolutionary passages in the Gospels is that when Christ told his disciples that He came to serve, not to be served. Indeed, it is astonishing how widespread this notion of service is in its secularized forms. We are dealing here with something closer to virtue than to knowledge.

DeVos began by referring to a graduating senior at the college by the name of Valeria, who evidently, from birth, has had but one arm. The main point was that we are not necessarily rendered inert because we have a limb missing. The loss does not make it easy. But it also just may be the one thing that alerted Valeria to the many other things that she could do and in fact ended up doing. Losses in one area can turn out to be gains in another area. Most schools, I suspect, have students who have faced and dealt with such privations.

The main theme of Mrs. DeVos’ address was service to one’s family, community, and country. Service has the connotation of some event or deed happening mainly from a spirit of generosity, not from pay or coercion. At the heart of the world we find gift, not only necessity. The phrase—“At your service”—is full of profound meaning. Likewise, the phrase—“Your obedient servant”—means that even things we do because of law or command can also be seen as a free service that understands the need for loyalty and order.

DeVos touched on the tricky issue of a government that wants itself to do all the servicing. In such cases, everyone else is reduced to an object of government’s benevolence. It is a subtle and widespread temptation. The size and scope of government are seen as an expansion of service, a kind of charity. A real common good, however, is one that wants the good in each person to flourish through his own initiative and insight.

But DeVos realizes that if we encourage government to do everything, it follows that we lose our initiative and desire to do what we can. One might suspect that in no field is this insight more true than in education. But the two exemplars of service for DeVos, who belongs to the Dutch Calvinist tradition, were, appropriately to the audience, St. John Paul II and St. Teresa of Calcutta.

The final theme about “Find Your Own Calcutta” obviously refers to Mother Teresa. She did not find her work in life in her home area of Albania/Kosovo.  In far off India we first hear of her. There the condition of the poor had become part of a social system that no one else wanted to touch. When Mother Teresa touched it with her care, the whole world, not just Calcutta, soon knew about it.

DeVos also stressed the theme of the importance of each individual. If each one is important, then our lives in service to them can be important. Many serious theoretical issues can be found here. What if we think human life is not particularly important? Even atheists usually have a way of justifying a life of service to others.

Sometimes, the ideas become confused. The British legal and health system evidently thought they were doing Alfie a service by forcing him to die in their hospital. All of which means, as no doubt the Secretary realizes, that we cannot really be “of service” if we do now learn first about what we are.

The exhortation to the students at Ave Maria University to “find your own Calcutta” is hard to forget. In the end, we do not have to travel to India to do that service that will not be done unless we ourselves have reason and virtue enough to do it. The Secretary of Education did not give a Commencement Address about education but about something much more important. We hopefully still live in a country wherein our officials are free to tell us something more about life than their job description would otherwise indicate.

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Editor’s note: Below is the full text of the Commencement Address given by Elizabeth DeVos, Secretary of Education, on Saturday, May 5, 2018, at Ave Maria University in Naples, Florida.

Thank you, President Towey, for that kind introduction and for your leadership of this university. In your seven years as president, Ave Maria University has grown in size and stature. And it will undoubtedly continue on that trajectory with you at its helm.

Thank you for this gracious invitation to be with Ave Maria’s board members, its faculty, and, most importantly you — its proud graduates.

Some of you may not have always imagined yourselves here this day, but at least one person did. When my fellow-Michigander Tom Monaghan founded this university and planted this Catholic mustard seed, he was ridiculed and criticized — as many with vision and bold ideas often are. With each diploma conferred, the mustard seed grows. Thank you, Tom, for your faith, for your idea and for your courage.

But, graduates, Mr. Monaghan wasn’t the only one who saw this day coming. Your families, friends, colleagues all walked side-by-side with you as you pursued your education.

They supported you, coached you, tutored you… and probably spent more time in prayer for you than you’ll ever know.

Graduates, how about standing and showing some love to all those who have helped make this day possible?

As I prepared to be with you today, I reflected on my own graduation from a small Christian college in my favorite corner of the Midwest. Sitting there that day, I never imagined I’d be a commencement speaker someday and I surely did not plan to become a cabinet secretary.

But my perspective then was limited. If there’s anything I’ve learned since, it’s that our horizons should be ever-broadening. We must engage our imaginations, be open to possibilities and be prepared to respond to the unplanned opportunity.

You know your classmate, Valeria. She was born without a left arm, but you wouldn’t know it from her deft handling of a lacrosse stick. Or from her ability to capture special moments through her camera lens. Or from her representation on Student Government. Or from her service to the homeless and the elderly. “Even though I only have one arm,” Valeria said, “God has given me so many other beautiful gifts.”

She acknowledges that “life isn’t always going to be easy,” but she encourages those she serves and those who have lost their spirit not to give up. Valeria seizes any opportunity to give them “just a little boost to help them find their faith.”

It would be easy for Valeria — or for any of us — to focus on what limits us. What’s hard.

“The world promises you comfort,” Benedict the 16th said, “but you were not made for comfort.” No, he said. “You were made for greatness.”

Valeria’s story is just one of the many stories out of this class we can all emulate.

God gave each of us unique talents and we can choose what to do with them. However, we should not bury them in the ground. I urge you to go for greatness!

Ave Maria has helped each of you develop your gifts, guided by your faith. Yours is a unique institution of higher education with the highest of aims: one that pledges fidelity to Jesus Christ and His church; one inspired by the lives of Saints John Paul the Second and Teresa of Calcutta; and one dedicated to authentic character formation — young people with hands and hearts prepared to serve.

I want to focus today on a key component of life here at Ave Maria: service. You’ve learned that service isn’t just a noble concept. It isn’t just for someone else to do. Service is a demonstration of our faith.

I’m reminded of that at home, where carved above our fireplace is this verse from Joshua: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

Service — to God, to country and to neighbor — is a calling, and it’s an imperative.

It’s at the core of what it means to be an American. And it should be a calling for you.

First, to God. Christians are called to live out their faith in the context of everyday life. I can think of no better example than Saint John Paul the Great.

Here was a man, who by the age of 20, had buried his mother, brother and father — he had “already lost all the people [he] loved.” Karol Wojtyła then went to study in a clandestine seminary as Nazi tanks ravaged his homeland. That experience steeled him for the long struggle with the “evil empire.” He would need it in May of 1981 when the communists tried to have him killed. “One hand pulled the trigger… another,” John Paul said, “guided the bullet.” What an expression of faith!

He was a humble man, but he knew he was called to serve a greater purpose. John Paul answered the call to serve God.

He also served his homeland. And that brings me to my second point, service to country.

Before he became the Bishop of Rome, Wojtyła was the Archbishop of Krakow, where he defended not only his fellow Poles but the dignity of every person — behind the Iron Curtain and beyond. John Paul’s courageous voice for freedom over tyranny helped reduce the Berlin Wall to rubble and freed millions in Poland and across Eastern Europe. Not many would have expected this young Pole to become the successor to Peter, but his example speaks to all of us… a life inspired by faith and obedient to service, can change the course of history.

When we reflect on his powerful example, we soon acknowledge that solutions to problems don’t come from governments — they come from individuals. They come from you. Serving one’s country ultimately means serving those closest to home.

Public service isn’t self-service. It’s about serving others. For me, it is in the moral obligation to expand educational opportunities for each and every child.

Since its founding, Ave Maria has a history of raising up educators — indeed, the single largest profession among all of its graduates! Could I ask those who are planning to teach to please stand? I want to thank you in advance for how you will serve your country and her future!

And please stay standing a moment. I want the rest of the graduates to stand as well. Look around you. You are all going to do different things in different places, but you all serve the public and in turn, serve your country.

So, thank you!

No matter your anticipated profession, each of you has the potential to make a profound difference for others. John Paul was not the only one called to greatness. We are all called every day, no matter where we are in life, no matter where we live or work. There is no ordinary task, no ordinary work.And there is no greater call than to serve others.

That brings me to my third point, and perhaps the most familiar kind of service… service to neighbor.

Your model for service — our model — is a diminutive Albanian nun we now call saint. When Ave Maria opened the country’s first museum to Teresa of Calcutta, it was an honor President Towey knew would have made her blush. But the museum serves as an inspiration to live as Mother Teresa did, humbly serving “the least of these.”

I’m inspired daily by a painting in my home. It is a poignant portrait of Mother Teresa embracing a group of children. And I think of a story I’m sure some of you have heard before.

Mother Teresa reportedly visited a bakery to ask for bread for orphans. Rather than responding to her request, the baker spat at the nun. Teresa took out a tissue, wiped her face and said: “OK. That was for me. Now, what about the children?”

That’s a question we must ask ourselves every day. We may face spitting and derision, but we should always return to the essence of the question she posed: what about the most vulnerable… the forgotten among us?

One of the many pernicious effects of the growth of government is that too many have abdicated responsibility for one another. Ever-growing government has inserted itself into relationships, making folks less connected and more insulated from the needs of others.

In the Gospel story we all know well, the disciples urged Jesus to dismiss a hungry crowd of 5,000 to go and buy food on their own. Jesus said, No, you feed them. You. Jesus didn’t instruct the disciples to lobby the Roman Empire for more food assistance. He said, you do it.

America is the most prosperous nation on the face of the earth, and it’s also the most generous. But that strong tradition isn’t just passed along from generation to generation in the blood stream. It’s taught. It’s learned. It’s shared. To keep a lamp burning, Mother Teresa believed, we have to keep putting oil in it.

Service, then, is ultimately about humbly choosing to see the face of Christ in your neighbor and recognizing and addressing their needs. That opportunity to serve often happens with the quiet voice of the Holy Spirit urging you to act.

My friend and author Clare De Graaf came up with what he termed the “10 second rule.” When you think you are prompted, take 10 seconds. Stop. Pay attention. Pray. Then “do the next thing you’re reasonably certain Jesus wants you to do.”

That means being open to possibilities that aren’t pre-planned. Up until this point, you may feel like your life has been ordered for you and you have reached this new chapter rather perfunctorily… class to class, grade to grade, graduation to graduation. But you will find in your careers, your lives, your faith journeys that nothing is as predictable as it seems.

Think of a fine-looking needlepoint tapestry. When you look at the “right side,” it is beautiful in both design and execution. But when you flip it over, it’s a mess! It’s filled with knots and stray threads. It looks chaotic. The same is true when reflecting on a life well-lived, you remember each thread, and you learned from each knot. What appears perfect in form and design to others is actually comprised of many imperfections.

So, I encourage you to embrace the mess. Know that your life won’t always unfold according to plan. Anticipate being called to something different, to something unexpected. Be not afraid! Don’t avoid a change in course, an alternate path. Don’t fear the unknown; step out with faith onto those stormy waters!

You’re blessed to live in the most successful and most free country in the history of human civilization. But there are those who are vulnerable, those who are forgotten right around us.

“Find your own Calcutta,” Mother Teresa begged us. “Find the sick, the suffering and the lonely right there where you are — in your own homes and in your own families, in your workplaces and in your schools.”

So, here’s a question for each and every one of you:

Where is your Calcutta?

What will you do to put your newly gained skills to work in the service of others?

Now is the time to start doing it. And what you do now is up to you. It’s not up to your parents. It’s not up to your professors. With God’s guidance, it’s up to you.

Congratulations class of 2018! Thank you for the opportunity to share in this special day with you, and I wish you all the best as you embark on the next step of your journey.

About James V. Schall, S.J. 170 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until recently retiring. He is the author of numerous books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His most recent book is On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018). Visit his site, "Another Sort of Learning", for more about his writings and work.

4 Comments

  1. Fr Schall in recognition of De Vos’ compassionate practice commencement approach underscores a lacuna among Catholics who fervently launch a Tsunami of tirade against the Pontiff’s miscues while drowning in their own ire. Aside from a flood of Papal heterodox miscues is a flood of Papal orthodox admonishments for neglect of the poor and disenfranchised. We are remiss in neglecting that dimension of this Papacy as if anything that he says is wrong because much of what he says is wrong. What will we answer Christ at Judgment if we haven’t pursued our Calcutta?

  2. Betsy DeVos is an anomaly. Dick and Betsy DeVos spent most of their careers promoting Amway and Michigan’s charter schools which enjoy a virtually unregulated existence. Betsy DeVos is not focused on her main responsibility… public schools, instead she focuses on private schools by diverting money away from public schools with no accountability on how the private schools spend their taxpayer’s dollars nor does the government have a say on curriculum content. DeVos like Pruitt are a Trump mismatch in their assignments.

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