“If we are true to our own higher nature, we cannot fail.”

Lavinia Goodell, 1858

Graduation season is just around the corner. In 1858, Lavinia Goodell graduated from the Brooklyn Heights Seminary, a school for girls.

Lavinia wrote a graduation essay, which was read by a male professor at the commencement ceremony. Maria Goodell Frost included a rough draft of the essay in her unpublished biography of her sister. At age nineteen, Lavinia was still developing as a writer, but her piece clearly shows her love of learning and her optimism about the future. She began:

It is a queer place this world we find ourselves in when we first open the eyes of our minds and look about us. It is a vast unexplored field, everything a phenomenon to be studied, investigated solved.

She said, “In childhood there is a vague general idea that everything commenced with us. We are the center around which all revolves.” But as children age and have contact with others, who are also seeking after truth, “we open our hearts to them, admit them into the brotherhood.”

How can someone go about finding truth? Lavinia believed:

We find a touchstone in our souls by which to test things, to tell right from wrong, good from evil…. But what is the meaning of all these varied phenomena around us? What’s the meaning of ourselves? How shall we find out the truth?

Dis-cover means to un-cover. We must uncover hidden truth. Truth now exists. It is eternal. We have only to seek to discover it. The laws which govern the material world held sway long before they were discovered by man. The earth revolved around the sun, though man long insisted on the contrary theory.

Lavinia wrote, “Each must be his own philosopher. Each individual has a complete set of instruments by which to seek truth…. Others may represent truths to us, … but the test within must decide. She continued:

Each individual has a distinctive character of mind, seeing things through a lens of his own. And as the refraction of the atmosphere surrounding our planet influences the apparent position of different stars, so the peculiar individual atmosphere refracts so to speak, the appearance of truth to the mind.

Mind is developed in widely different directions under different classes of influences. Here also must be noticed the great law of reaction, which holds sway in the moral as well as the physical world, the mighty surges of thought which sweep over our intellect.

She concluded, “To view things truly in the intellectual system we must take our observation from God’s standpoint. He is the great center. But how to find out the standpoint! This is the great work. The materials are before us. The test within. If we are true to our own higher nature, we cannot fail.”

Read the entire essay here.

Lavinia’s proud parents attended the commencement ceremony. Afterward, her father wrote to Maria:

We were very much interested and gratified with the commencement exercises, not only with Lavinia’s success, but with that of her class-mates, and indeed the class generally… The students all acquitted themselves creditably, none more so than Lavinia.  Dr. S__was particularly interested in her commencement article, which  he read, very distinctly, and I sat where I could see the impression it made on the faculty.

The exercises detained us so late that we barely saved our passage home in the last car, near 12 o’clock and having nearly a mile to walk in Williamsburg did not reach home until nearly two A.M.

Lavinia never lost her quest for knowledge or her desire to learn new things. Whether it was moving into a German family’s home in order to immerse herself in the language or practicing her French by writing letters to her sister or studying law, she threw herself wholeheartedly into all of her undertakings. Her 165 year old graduation essay reveals many of the precepts that guided her for the rest of her life.

Sources consulted: “Life of Lavinia Goodell,” unpublished manuscript by Maria Goodell Frost, part of William Goodell family papers, housed in the Special Collections & Archives at Berea College, Berea, Kentucky.

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