‘Seek out the truth’: Hampden-Sydney students challenged

Published 4:44 pm Thursday, August 24, 2023

Education is the key to a functioning society, said John Charles Thomas. The retired judge, who previously served on the Virginia Supreme Court, spoke to students during Hampden-Sydney College’s convocation on Monday. He wondered how many of society’s problems all stemmed from a lack of education. 

“One of the things we have fought over the most, killed people over the most, destroyed whole towns and villages over is the color of our skin,” Thomas said. “But oddly enough, if you look at the writings and the science of the human genome, you will find out the difference in the color of skin in humans is the smallest difference between us. Isn’t that ironic? The thing that looks like it’s the biggest deal is the least deal. You will find it takes more genetic coding to shape your earlobe than it does to change the color of your skin. It takes more genetic coding to shape your hairline than it does to shape the color of your skin. So I wonder if, in the times that we have lived and people that lived before us, whether because we didn’t understand this structure, about the nature of mankind, we have thrown away answers to problems we have prayed about.” 

Thomas, who was the first African-American judge to serve on Virginia’s Supreme Court, challenged Hampden-Sydney students to research, to study and learn about the structure of the world and people in it, rather than just accepting what they’re told. 

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“You are supposed to be able to stand up and debate. You are supposed to be able to persuade with words,” Thomas said. “You are supposed to be able to seek out the truth. You need to light the soul.” 

The things we don’t know 

Thomas pointed to the Amazon rainforest, where thousands of acres are destroyed for development on a regular basis. And yet, in burning trees and tearing up plants, humanity destroys some of the vital things we need, he argued. 

“We know they find medicine in those plants, do they not? They find cures to diseases in those plants,” Thomas said. 

The problem, Thomas said, goes back to a lack of education. People didn’t realize or didn’t understand the medicinal benefits of the Amazon plants, so they were destroyed. It’s the same with fights between different groups of people, he added, as we don’t know or recognize what we might offer each other. 

“I just wonder when we see God and we say God, we prayed for somebody who could help us overcome global warming, we prayed for somebody who could help solve the crisis in the Middle East, we prayed for someone who would overcome poverty, if God in his wisdom is gonna say, I sent him,” Thomas said. “That little Black baby on that second boat that came from Africa in 1619, that was gonna be the person whose descendents would know the answer to these problems. Just as we’ve clear cut whole forests for our present day demand, we have wiped out what I think might be some of the great answers to the problems that we deal with.”  

Click below to hear more of Justice Thomas’ speech….

Hampden-Sydney continues tradition 

Convocations at Hampden-Sydney have been going on a bit longer than most schools. One of the oldest colleges in the United States, it’s been operating since Nov. 10, 1775. It’s also an all-male college, with a goal “to form good men and good citizens in an atmosphere of sound learning.” It was that goal Thomas encouraged all of the students to work towards, to be both good men and good citizens. But to be a good citizen, Thomas said, you had to study. 

“The Greeks had in mind teaching you the skills of freedom,” Thomas said. “Now if we paid attention to that, we would want more to come to a place like this, because what they were saying was you ought not be members of a democratic society unless you know the skills of freedom.” 

That meant learning logic and rhetoric, so you can understand and be able to debate and defend your position, Thomas said. That means studying science, math and biology, so you can understand the structure of the world. 

“The Greeks talked about the skills of freedom,” Thomas said. “They did not want you to be part of a society where you could be led by the nose.”

BRIAN CARLTON is the regional editor for Farmville Newsmedia, LLC. He can be reached at Brian.Carlton@FarmvilleHerald.com. You can read more of his stories by clicking here