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One Last Lecture

By Ralph B. Brown

Illustrations by James Steinberg

I have been given an expiration date—a “best if enjoyed by” date. So I want to talk about a few things I have learned throughout the years, given as thirteen principles.

Principle 1: The search for truth versus simply its defense

The film director Luis Buñuel used to say, “I would give my life for a man who is looking for the truth, but I would gladly kill a man who thinks he has found the truth.” This statement is quoted in Imaginary Homelands, a book by Salman Rushdie.

A valued belief of our university is that “the glory of God is intelligence, or, in other words, light and truth” (D&C 93:36). Also within the Mormon tradition it is said that “truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come” (D&C 93:24). Too often, however, I feel our students interpret the spiritual dimension of their natures as a rubber-stamp defense of truth. They come to BYU to reaffirm what they already know to be true and fail to see that education, especially graduate education, is about what one does not know. We must be careful not to create cohorts of naïve braggarts who have simply reaffirmed for themselves that “yes, I already knew that.”

Research by Stan Albrecht, published in BYU Studies in the mid-1980s, showed that Mormons and Hassidic Jews are the only major religions in which increased education is accompanied by an increase in religiosity. We need our students to realize that they do not have all of the answers and that they therefore need to actively engage in the search for truth as a cornerstone of their education. They also need not fear the personal changes that may be required of them in their own lives, attitudes, perceptions, and so on once they discover some of these truths. Education is fundamentally about change.

Principle 2: Scholarship is the language of the search for truth

Read—and read broadly. When I took my first graduate methods class at Utah State University, Gary Kiger was my instructor. I remember sitting in that class when someone was talking about the project they were working on, and Gary started rattling off all these different books and articles that this student should be looking at. I raised my hand and I said, “How do you know all that stuff?”

And he said, “You read.”

Books set the big picture. Books speak of other books. There is a long conversation across books.

Principle 3: Be an intellectual migrant

Question reality, and cross the frontier. I was in Thailand a couple of years ago with an LDS missionary couple. The sister missionary said, “With all this travel you do, how do you keep perspective?”

I almost choked. I said, “That is how.” You pop out of the bubble and you look around, and you realize it is a bubble.

Lenses, perspective, language—they shape what we do. They are more than just an attitude. They shape what we desire, avoid, and fear, and they shape what we believe. Know what lenses you wear. Understand that they shape your reality and that you do not have a corner on what is real; you have a corner on what you have interpreted as real.


Principle 4: Step out of your box

First step out of your box. Then build a new box and step outside of that one too. In other words, question your own dearly held beliefs. One of the worst things that can ever transpire in academia is if you do not have good criticism coming back to you and you start believing your own ideas. Somebody has got to take a baseball bat to your ideas sometimes. Build lots of boxes. View things from different cultural contexts, from different perspectives. Learn new languages.

When I lived in Starkville, Mississippi, the ward boundaries were a 175-mile radius. Where I live in Springville, Utah, my ward boundaries are four city blocks. In Starkville the lumberjack was sitting next to the heart surgeon, who was sitting next to the farmer, who was sitting next to the insurance salesman—it was complete heterogeneity in terms of social economic standing. In my four city blocks in Springville it is complete homogeneity, except for the one democrat. Everybody knows who he is and prays for him—that is, me. Heterogeneity verses homogeneity. In other words, if you are taking this to heart, take nothing for granted. Take nothing at face value. Ask about it. Things are not always as they seem.

Principle 5: Embrace the contradictions

There are opportunities to cross an intellectual frontier. My job as a sociologist is to study paradoxes, to study ironies, and that is all social life is. None of us lives a contradiction-free life. We just choose which contradictions are more important than others. We would be wise to formulate our quests in the light of permanent uncertainty and to look upon his uncertainty not as unfortunate and temporary blindness nor as an insurmountable obstacle to knowledge but rather as an incredible opportunity to imagine, to create, and to search. At this point pluralism becomes not an indulgence of the weak and ignorant but a cornucopia of possibilities for a better universe. Permanent uncertainty should inspire, not depress.

Principle 6: Be yourself—but if “yourself” is a jerk, be someone else

There are a lot of ways to interact with people, and there are a lot of people who interact with other people as jerks. This is not necessary. Be nice. I just want to be known as a nice person. The best coaches in the world are the ones who inspire people to work for them, to achieve higher goals, not put fear in them and punish them when they fail to achieve. Duke University’s Mike Krzyzewski is one of those wonderful coaches. He makes people love his system, and they buy into it. They do not want to disappoint him. They work hard.

So be yourself, but if “yourself” is a jerk, try being someone else.


Principle 7: Be different with a purpose

Dare to be different, but know why you are different. The following is from one of my favorite Greek philosophers, Epictetus, who wrote a book called the Manual in 300 BC: “If a man has reported to you, that a certain person speaks ill of you, do not make any defense (answer) to what has been told you: but reply, The man did not know the rest of my faults, for he would not have mentioned these only.”

I like that. Pile it on, “for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). It is okay to be different. You want to be. We need to be different because it is the diversity that brings a really cool search for truth.

Principle 8: Live life fearlessly

Go out in a ball of flames. The coward dies a thousand deaths, the brave man but one. Too many see and thus create a world of fear. Every time I take off to the Middle East somebody inevitably says, “Oh, you be careful. Those Muslims out there.” I feel safer on the streets of Oman than I do in Orem, Utah.

I have discovered that the world is a pretty amazing place, but again, that is what launched me into college. I had never planned on going to college. I was a shipping clerk at a biological serum factory, and I thought that was cool. I went to Indonesia, and I had five hours every day, from twelve o’clock to five o’clock, when everything shut down. I could sleep the afternoon away or I could study, and I spent two years, five hours a day, with the only books I had at my disposal: the Mormon scriptures. I ended up spending three months getting through six pages because I decided I was going to cross-reference every concept I could find. I learned how to learn, and in learning how to learn, I learned I wanted to learn more.

Principle 9: Speak truth to power

Sometimes it does not matter who you are, you are wrong. And sometimes somebody needs to tell you that you are wrong. Know what you believe and why and act accordingly, regardless of who may see it differently, but do not be a jerk. You can actually have a conversation about differences—“I do not think this is the way it should be”—without being a jerk.

Principle 10: Look for ways to affirm versus destroy without lowering the bar

I think we need to see the good in people first. Seeing the other is just way too easy. In the Mormon tradition we make the argument that “if there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things” (Articles of Faith 1:13). Unfortunately, I do not think we do this very much. Be a self-proclaimed ambassador to the world. It is a great place. The world is not evil, the world is not horrible, the world is not awful. There are seven billion people, and you cannot get five people to agree on where to go to dinner. Let’s change our perspective. The world is cool.

Principle 11: Allow yourself to be taught by others with different perspectives

Be open to new truths. I want to talk about some things I have learned through my travels and interactions with those ubiquitous “others.” Give people a break. Learn who they are and not just the categories they represent. I believe we live in what I would call a microwave society. As Americans we see things almost exclusively from an economic standpoint. That is how we have been trained. Everything is an economic equation. Bargaining, though, is not an economic exercise; it is a human relationship.

Principle 12: Joy is in the interaction—in the relationship

Things are instrumental; people should not be. People are ends and not means to an end. We have organizations in universities called human resources. That sounds nice from a business or economic perspective, but it sounds pretty despicable from another perspective. Human beings are ends and not means to an end. The joy is in the things that bring us together.

Principle 13: Life is in the journey and not in the arrival

Live for the journey. Live for the opportunities to cross frontiers. Live for the opportunities to be challenged. None of us likes to go looking for character–building experiences, but we should go looking for them. Appreciate what you have but also realize what you do not have. I tell the students who go on international internships: Be in a place long enough to realize what you have as an American (if you are American) and appreciate it, but then be there long enough to realize what you do not have, and bring it home with you. Cross a frontier, do something different, challenge your epistemic closure, change your context, change your perspective, get a new idea of what is going on, and never stop searching for the truth.

Also in the Mormon tradition we argue that there are only a couple of things you can take with you when you go. We argue that the same sociality that exists with you here as well as the knowledge you gain will go with you. I am blessed with both these things. I am blessed with wonderful relationships with you. You honor me by being here—humble me by being here—and I love the idea of the search for truth. The truths we are looking for are to be found in our oh-so-human relationships with each other.

This article was excerpted from a lecture presented on 13 December 2013 as Ralph was fighting pancreatic cancer—a battle that ended on 11 August 2014. At the close of the lecture, Dean Ben Ogles invited forward Ralph’s brother Boyd and three students, Macy Baker, Bronwyn Dromy, and Zade Attar. He identified the students as the first recipients of the Brown Family Endowment set up by Boyd and contributed to by family and friends. At Ralph’s death, the name was changed to the Ralph Brown Endowment. Contributions may be made through LDS Philanthropies.

Watch a video of the full lecture on the Kennedy Center’s YouTube channel.