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Op-ed: In these times, we could use more rational thinkers like O.C. Tanner

Published June 7, 2016 5:09 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

I've been thinking a lot about O.C. Tanner. Not the shiny jewelry company on Salt Lake City's State Street, but the Utah scholar who used his remarkable intellect to advocate for such humble attributes as inclusion, compassion, humility and kindness.

Obert C. Tanner, who died in 1993 at age 89, was, above all else, a thinking man. The rational life was his mantra. As he admonished new graduates at then-Dixie College in 1980, "Think your way through life." He also warned them it wouldn't be easy.

Having been asked by our dean in Utah State University's College of Humanities and Social Sciences to write about the impact of an O.C. Tanner Foundation-funded lecture series here, I was pulled in by the impact of the man himself.

Tanner, a Farmington lad who began selling class rings and pins out of his car as an undergraduate at the University of Utah, would likely be chagrined at this description. But he was, I believe, a visionary who, although he wrote most widely from the 1950s to the '80s, could have been talking about this century.

Consider his warning about Utah's teachers. Amazingly, the year was 1958.

Failure in our schools, he said, began with, "The open public statements of some political and business leaders that destroyed the personal dignity and public esteem of our teachers. … Utah needs an apology for the public slander of a great profession."

This interplay between education and business was a theme that wove through much of Tanner's writings and speeches. As a successful businessman and champion of free enterprise, he understood the tension between profit and public schools. But he cautioned that we will be "destroyed from within" and risk our beloved democratic America if we neglect our schools and our teachers.

Another of Tanner's attributes strikes me today as we maneuver the very real potholes of this election season — his stand for absolute truth. To this end, he criticized "truth-claiming myth." These myths — i.e. non-truths — appeal to some of us because they masquerade as ideals. Or, they can be an "easy alternative" to the often risky endeavor of practicing faith. But trouble really begins, he said, when truth-claiming myths are employed by "shrewd, power-hungry leaders."

"Truth-claiming myths spring from primitive explanations," he said in 1960. "It is better to face life as it is, thereby seeking for ways to improve it, than to use the escape of believing what is an untrue, unreal or fictional interpretation of life."

And in the midst of the apocalyptic fearmongering of which we see so much here in Utah, Tanner reminds us that mankind is much more good than bad. Life is indeed hard, filled with unwelcome death, unfairness, children's whining, bosses' put-downs. "Even so," he said, "I find, on balance, more beauty than ugliness by a million times, more truth than falsehood, more kindness than we deserve and possibly, just possibly, more goodness than tragedy."

The philanthropic organization that carries his name continues to promote his wise ideals across the globe. One small example is the Tanner Talks series here at USU, which since 1992 has brought contemporary thinkers and influencers here to speak to tomorrow's thinkers and influencers.

Among the speakers the Tanner Talks hosted this year was the respected scholar Fareed Zakaria. Our humanities dean John Allen was drawn to Zakaria because of his recent book, "In Defense of a Liberal Education." However, Zakaria affected our students in ways much broader than could a lecture. For instance, 2016 graduate John Sonderegger sat across the table from Zakaria in a group discussion. He told me that, "Never in any way did anyone in the room feel silly or stupid for asking the questions they did." And what Sonderegger will remember, he says, is "how he didn't demand the attention of the room, but his natural demeanor made it easy to respect what he had to say."

He might have been talking about Obert Tanner himself — the jeweler who reminded us: "These things are better than gold – ideas, theories, values, truths."

Certainly, Tanner was a man of his own chaotic times — Cold War and communism, growing nuclear threats, social upheaval. But we could use his example of rational, thoughtful dialogue today. I never met him, never sat in on his lectures, never shook his hand. But I sure miss him.

Janelle Hyatt is public relations and communications coordinator at Utah State University's College of Humanities and Social Sciences.






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