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Rev. Paul Scalia:
“On the Usefulness of Useless Things”

Posted: May 18, 2017

Note: Rev. Paul Scalia, the Episcopal Vicar for Clergy in the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, served as the principal celebrant and homilist at Thomas Aquinas College’s 2017 Baccalaureate Mass. The previous evening, he attended a dinner with the College’s Board of Governors, at which he delivered the following remarks.


I graduated from Holy Cross and I was a classics major there. When you are a classics major, the question you always get is, “What are you going to do with that?” Now, I don’t provide a good response to that question because I happen to have entered the only line of work in which Latin and Greek are immediately useful. But I would like to speak on the usefulness of useless things because a liberal arts education is typically regarded as useless. What are you going to do with that?

In the Phaedrus, Plato makes a distinction between wisdom and knowledge, and then between memory and recall. What a liberal arts education does is to steep the student in wisdom and memory.

Wisdom is different from knowledge. Knowledge just accumulates facts. Wisdom helps to make sense of them. It answers not just the what but the why.

Memory is not merely recall. You may have heard people talk about “outsourcing their memory.” Have you heard of this? You feel like you have done it because you don’t know phone numbers anymore, because they are all in your phone. You just hit a button.

But you can’t outsource your memory. You might outsource recall. Recall is just, well, it’s precisely that: It’s just recalling facts. But memory is something much deeper; it involves the entire person. I don’t just recall being at the beach with my family when I was a boy, I remember. I have a memory of the sand between my toes, the salt air, surfcasting with my dad, and probably fighting with my brothers and sisters. It is something that involves the entire person.

What a liberal arts education does is help the students with both wisdom and memory — and at Thomas Aquinas College, especially, providing that wisdom in the light of the One Who is Wisdom Himself. Students have that unifying principle for everything that they receive, and so it is not just a jumble of things that may have been thrown at them by a professor — which is what a lot of students get when they graduate. Rather, there is a coherent whole; they have that wisdom that helps to unify all of these things. And it is an education steeped in memory, in the tradition of the Church — not infatuated with the latest thing, not looking askance at the past simply because it is from the past, but appreciating and remembering what has been handed on, and reverencing it as something that is essential for true wisdom.

Fr. Scalia with members of the Class of 2017 Fr. Scalia with members of the Class of 2017So it is a great honor for me to be out here and to be associated with the school in this way. I have a great respect for what the school does, and it just increased this morning in meeting with a number of the graduates and seeing that what I had suspected was the case was actually the case — that there is a wisdom there, proportionate to their age, and a memory for and a reverence for what has been handed on to them. And so I commend the school for that, and I am delighted that there is going to be an East Coast campus, a closer incarnation of the same.

Thank you for the wonderful invitation. It is an honor to be here. Thank you.