President William G. Durden ’71
Excerpt from Opening Remarks
Your class has chosen “First in America” as the theme of this year’s baccalaureate. This phrase was used by our founder, Dr. Benjamin Rush, as his highest aspiration for Dickinson College. Founded during the closing days of the American Revolution, Dickinson was to provide a distinctly American, pragmatic and useful liberal education that would prepare its graduates to ensure the success of the new democracy through employment and public service. ...
Rush’s aspiration for Dickinson and its graduates is no less imperative today. Just as Dickinson was chartered during the turbulent Revolutionary era that would mark the emergence of a new world order, our society currently faces unprecedented challenges of global proportions. Higher education, in particular, is undergoing a period of significant turmoil. ...
At Dickinson ... we believe that maintaining and strengthening our commitment to the useful, pragmatic liberal-arts education our founder envisioned is our best course of action. This fundamental notion of a useful liberal-arts education that intentionally links liberal study with employment and public service to our democracy is our historic responsibility—a responsibility that is never completely fulfilled as it is constantly adjusted to meet new challenges and new opportunities.
The complex, global issues of the 21st century, moreover, demand the skills and perspectives that one develops through the liberal arts. Those who opt for more narrowly defined training quite simply lack the ability to make the broad and innovative connections that will be necessary to solve the future’s most nettlesome problems.
I recently ran across two very different documents that make precisely this point. In early April, Newsweek magazine—whose editor, Jon Meacham, will be your Commencement speaker tomorrow—ran a commentary ironically titled “The Death of the Liberal Arts: How the Recession and Unemployment are Making Schools and Students Rethink the Value of an Education in Humanities.”
“While the liberal-arts education may be on the wane nationwide,” the article asserts, “the most elite schools … remain committed to the ideal. These top schools are not tweaking their curriculums to add any preprofessional undergraduate programs. ... As the economy rebounds, their students, ironically, may be in the best spot. While studying the humanities has become unfashionable and seemingly impractical, the liberal arts also teach students to think big thoughts—big enough to see beyond specific majors and adapt to a broader job market.”
At Dickinson, of course, we were given this critical insight over two centuries ago. We have been, in other words, far ahead of the curve and are now in a position to reaffirm at a critical time in world history what has always been our central focus and defining strength.
But it is not just elite colleges that are reasserting the value of a liberal-arts education. Again, I just recently ran across this new list of mandatory qualifications for a profession in the 21st century—the identity of this profession I shall reveal in just a minute:
- the ability to constantly dig into the applicability of knowledge to be prepared in times of rapid change;
- the need to apply capabilities within a political social and economic context;
- the ability to engage appropriate application or technology—as opposed to just knowing how to use technology—with a rich understanding of the social and political context;
- a rigorous understanding of history and the ability to identify enduring themes of human interaction;
- an understanding of how to communicate and speak across boundaries;
- knowledge of science, humanities, social issues and a foundation in foreign languages and cultures; and
- improved analytical capabilities that allow one to deal with uncertainty and ambiguity.
This list was not taken from any college or university. Rather, these are the qualities identified by the Center for a New American Security as those that must be developed in our nation’s military officer corps—those individuals who will be put in positions of leadership throughout all military branches and given responsibility for shaping and strengthening America’s global position. These are, of course, the same characteristics we have tried to instill in you as Dickinsonians—a global sensibility; the ability to cross borders; a deep appreciation of different cultures; the ability to connect the dots among disparate disciplines and divergent ideas where most see nothing; and, perhaps most importantly—and at times most frustrating for you—the acute challenge to find meaning and substance in ambiguity and uncertainty, especially amidst a broader culture that does everything it might to reduce meaning-making to a stark either/or with nothing in between. …
And so, this afternoon, as you reflect on your undergraduate years, think intentionally about what the phrase “First in America” means for you. Remember the historic responsibility you are about to inherit as you prepare to become the engaged citizens and leaders that will guide your generation. From the very inception of our college, Dickinsonians were intended to move beyond the turbulent years of identity formation and give back to their society, to leave the world a better place than they found it while never hesitating to speak out in an informed way about that which still frustrates the achievement of that grand experiment in democracy initiated simultaneously with the founding of our college. Whatever professional personal path you choose to follow and whatever your national citizenship may be, you must never forget that as a graduate of the institution that was “First in America,” you have a responsibility as a global citizen to apply your useful liberal education to advance the best in our international society. We are all forever linked to an idea far bigger than ourselves.