2005 Convocation Address
Convocation Address by President Durden
"Defying Your Generation's Stereotypes - Dickinson-style"
Each August, we come together as we do today to convene the opening of another academic year at Dickinson College —an institution with a history that now spans four centuries. You will immediately note that today is a formal academic ceremony. We are led by the Faculty Marshal. The senior faculty member according to years of service bears the college mace. Faculty and staff participants in the academic procession are dressed in traditional academic robes that years ago were actually worn in classrooms.
For those of you unfamiliar with academic dress, the generic robe is black but all colleges and universities have multi-colored robes particular to the institution (mine is red signaling the Dickinson color—normally as an academic I would wear the robe in the colors of the university from which I hold my most advanced degree, but as president of a college, I wear its distinctive robe). The hood which is worn about the neck and draped upon the back is composed of two color sections. The border represents the academic field in which the bearer holds his or her most advanced degree (in my case, that color is blue representing the humanities) and the other pattern represents the colors of the university from which he or she received the most advanced degree (in my case yellow and black representing the Johns Hopkins University). It should also be noted that at a person holding a doctorate degree from an American institution bears three stripes on the arms of the robe.
A formal academic ceremony is an occasion for each of us to pause and think about what we want to accomplish in the next nine months and perhaps beyond. For example, we might ask ourselves what new intellectual and artistic directions and risks will we allow ourselves to take? How will we chose to allocate our time? What key concepts and skills will we make sure we fully comprehend? In what on- and off-campus activities will we immerse ourselves to advance best our ever maturing selves?
There is always so much I want to convey to you at Convocation--so much optimism and confidence I have in your ability to develop into Dickinsonians who will become the leaders of your global generation prepared to confront the extraordinary challenges you will face in this increasingly complex world.
This year, however, these upbeat musings were somewhat compromised as I made my way through my summer reading list which contained three books that do not paint a particularly flattering view of your generation and its ability to deal with that complex world. Before I summarize what these critical views are, let me hasten to remind you that my generation—the one that came of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s and is, perhaps, also the generation of some of your parents—certainly withstood considerable criticism and condemnation in our day. We were thought by many to be highly disrespectful of authority, rebellious, irresponsible and impulsive. Frankly, in many ways, we were. And the question still remains as to whether we will leave the world a better place when we depart.
Your Generation: The Emerging Stereotype
Your generation—particularly its college students—has become the target of a different kind of criticism than mine.
Let me begin with the journalist Thomas L. Friedman, whose book with the catchy title, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the 21 st Century , has captured the nation's attention. Friedman spent considerable time traveling the globe and observing the extraordinary progress that exists in rapidly emerging countries such as India and China. There, he was struck by the ambition of young people to become the best and the brightest, particularly in those areas that will shape the 21 st century economy—science, math and engineering. Friedman's unsettling conclusion was that many American college students lack the intellectual requirements and drive for competitive success in the 21 st century.
Mike Arguello, a Texas IT systems architect, agreed with Friedman when he was interviewed for the book. "I taught at a local university," he explained. "It was disheartening to see the poor work ethic of my students. Of the students I taught over six semesters, I'd only consider hiring two of them. They lacked the creativity, problem-solving abilities and passion for learning... I call this the 'American Idol' problem. If you've ever seen the reaction of contestants when Simon Cowell tells them they have no talent, they look at him in disbelief." Arguello and Friedman believe that many American students are in for a similar rude awakening when it comes to their entering the global marketplace. You simply don't have what it takes. Those who will be getting the big jobs will be the Chinese and the Indians—not the Americans.
Some of you also may have seen the PBS special broadcast on higher education, called "Declining by Degrees," that aired in late June. In a book by the same name, Julie Johnson Kidd, president of the Christian A. Johnson Endeavor Foundation echoes Friedman's concerns: "For a vast majority of our 18- to 24-year-olds," she laments, "life at college or university may become little more than a four-year frolic through late adolescence with a little learning thrown in along the way."
And surely, some of you must have read Tom Wolfe's latest best-selling novel I Am Charlotte Simmons . Set on a fictional campus in Pennsylvania , Wolfe portrays college life as a "live-for-the-moment" drunken frenzy that is irresponsible, short on serious study and totally oblivious to the world's challenges that these students will inherit.
Collectively, these books reflect an emerging generalization of your generation that should disturb us all. You are increasingly perceived as a "success-driven, people-pleasing, control-freak generation" (Binge, Barrett Seaman, 2005). Your age cohort is thought to be invested with a feeling of extreme "entitlement." You expect to live the "good life" without really having to put out the effort to secure it. You are judged to expect high grades without having to do any significant studying. You expect to receive acceptance to the graduate or professional school of your first choice, or a high-paying initial job merely by "showing up" at college for four years. And you are believed to be so emotionally fragile that you can't weather naturally even the most minor setbacks such as not getting into a class of your choice, receiving a grade lower than an A, or not making the first cut on an interview.
You also believe these years at college should definitely not be ones of hardship! You move yourself from a stationary position to attend an intellectual or artistic event only when it is required and even then, you go begrudgingly. You are thought to demand comfort and luxury more than you do a rigorous education—and many institutions are foolish enough to chase your desires. In fact, you think of yourselves more as consumers of education, expecting services "on demand" such as sports palaces, resort-like student centers, "Ritz Carlton-style" residence hall, boutique foods served at your convenience—day or night—and college-financed shopping malls. Of course, you maintain that these services should be provided without an accompanying rise in your tuition and fees—costs that are usually born by the generosity of your parents, taxpayers or the colleges and universities themselves through financial aid.
You show disdain for the college's rules of conduct—as well as those of society—and assert your individual privilege. If you belong to a group that gets in trouble with community standards of conduct, you abdicate that group responsibility for individual distance. You have little concept of the word, "NO." When you claim that an authority does not listen to you, you really mean that the authority does not agree with you. You demand service at record speed, unaware that the speed you require can only be met by the most sophisticated and costly of technologies. At the same time, you demand extended and direct personal attention.
You understand debate as people loudly shouting their beliefs at each other, rather than a polite, civil and reasoned exchange of ideas. National television sets the example for you through its news "talk shows." Your approach moves no one off of his or her initial position and fails to arrive at common ground (and you frankly don't care if this is achieved). You regularly throw your respective opinions in each others' faces without first having the courtesy and wisdom to establish discretely the facts of a disputed situation. For your generation, it is said, facts don't really matter; what matters is the uninhibited, unedited and immediate assertion of your egotistical opinions and thereby, the preservation of your self-esteem at all costs. It truly is all about you. You criticize in a disrespectful, personally insulting and vindictive manner (especially over e-mail) and grow defensive in the face of constructive critique. You demand when you are stressed (which is often) for not getting what you what when you want it, that authority thoroughly "feel your pain," even if that "pain" represents something highly trivial or totally inappropriate.
And despite your blatant exertion of independence and bravado, you all too frequently continue to rely on your parents to fight your battles for you. In fact, your parents are now your best friends (not your peers) and you speak to them constantly on your cell phones. In fact, they are now called the "helicopter parents,"—hovering always above and about you. Their justification for this, as outlined just this week in the Wall Street Journal, is that colleges and universities (and world in general) are now so complex and perplexing (there are so many confusing regulations), so threatening and generally dismissive of you who are but young adults, that only they-mature adults-can battle these opposing, highly dispersed forces on your behalf. Without them, you would have to face life in its pure form; you, too, would have to face challenge, initial confusion and perhaps, ultimate disappointment. They are, say critics, your natural human shield; they are your unilateral ally in battle with the "other!"
Perhaps most troubling to me is the perception that your generation lacks true global awareness and a sense of the broader developments that are shaping our world. Friedman claims that your age group seems to be oblivious to the tremendous potential and threat to your anticipated lifestyle poised by the economic and human engines of India and China . Their rapidly rising capacities threaten seriously the prosperity of the United States —a prosperity you have come simply to expect when you commence your professional lives in your twenties and thirties.
Advanced, global technologies have produced a pattern of employment, human capital and economic model that no previous generation of college students in the United States has faced. And while your contemporaries in India and China are seriously and diligently pursuing a higher education that will prepare them for success in the technology-driven economy of the 21 st century, you-undergraduate students studying in America (especially American students)-are thought to be principally concerned about one thing-finding the next party. Your sense of the future remains naïve and stuck in an earlier, more optimistic era forever lost to you. The judgment from your critics is that you are going to be in for a rude awakening as the bright future you anticipate fades before your eyes, just as it rises for the more diligent students continents away.
Dickinsonians Defy the Critics!
Before I depress or discourage you further, let me remind you that this emerging image of your generation is a stereotype—a generalization. And as with all stereotypes and generalizations, there are exceptions. At Dickinson , we believe you are the exceptions. We do not accept this popular judgment about you. Quite the contrary, we affirm fully your serious intent, your ambition and your willingness to grasp and appreciate global realities. We are confident you will seize the opportunity to receive a liberal education that is ultimately useful and that will allow you to lead and actively shape a just, compassionate democracy through your global sensibility.
You would not have chosen Dickinson College and we would not have selected you amongst thousands of applicants who were also highly competitive at other colleges and universities if such were not the case. We believe in you and your serious intent. And we intend to dedicate our vision, our knowledge, our insight, our time and our energy to guide you to leadership and active participation in a globally complex world that is yours to define and lead.
Our commitment to you can even be measured monetarily. I know that the $40,170 annual price tag to attend Dickinson seems astronomical. In fact, even that amount does not cover your full tuition. Through the generous contributions of our alumni and friends, the College contributes an additional $13,000 each year for each of you to study at Dickinson College . That is a serious quantitative measure of our faith in you. You can party for a lot less elsewhere!
Today, we gather to commit jointly and publicly to this ambition and to the rigorous partnership for all of us as you make your way through your four years at Dickinson , acquiring those dispositions and patterns of life that will bring you down the steps of Old West at Commencement prepared to become the citizen leaders of your generation.
Perhaps it was because of my disbelief and discomfort with the emerging stereotype of your generation that I decided to turn to our alumni this summer to confirm my faith in Dickinsonians and their approach to the contemporary world. I wanted to be certain in my own mind that we were one of those colleges that Ms. Kidd referred to in Declining by Degrees when she said "Pockets of excellence do exist, particularly among the small liberal arts colleges, where some students are transformed and broadened in thrilling ways."
About two months ago, I sent an email blast to all alumni asking them what message I should convey to you during this year's Convocation. The volume of responses was overwhelming and the messages so thoughtful and heartfelt that we have made all of them available to you on the Dickinson web site. I encourage you to take the time to browse through these insightful comments.
These messages, both in volume and content, did indeed reaffirm my faith in a Dickinson education. Indulge me for a few more moments while I share with you some of the alumni comments.
Perhaps the most consistent message alumni wanted me to convey to you was to seize every opportunity Dickinson presents to you during your four years here:
"Read the books on the reading list," wrote one alum. "You will never have as much time to read them again."
"I know I missed a huge portion of the Dickinson experience by not immersing myself fully in the academic life of the college," wrote another alum. "If I could do it again, I would not let the excitement of campus life, new friends or living ‘on my own' overshadow the true gift of a college education—the opportunity to think about and explore new ideas in a leisurely and self-directed manner. Never again will I have the luxurious amounts of time to dig deeper to learn about whatever captures my interest . . . Never again will I be surrounded by such . . . fascinating educators and peers who were so willing to teach me so much!"
"Don't worry too much about class selection ," advised another, "and I (as someone hiring you) won't either. Take the courses necessary for your major—but also take those that capture your interest. Dickinson provides wonderful opportunities for learning in lots of areas—by all means take advantage of them."
"Take risks," urged yet another alum. "Try courses out of your chosen field . . . there is plenty of time and room to explore and learn for the sake of learning."
"Don't be afraid to address huge global issues with your fellow students," advised another. " Dickinson is all about the discourse of ideas and options."
Taking advantage of the intellectual flexibility that Dickinson offers you will have lasting rewards. As one alum put it, " What has affected my life the most is the ability to think across disciplines, to see connections between conflicting ideas, to perceive overriding themes and patterns in complex contexts. You can't learn to stretch your brain unless you approach and wrestle with new ideas."
Other alumni were fairly specific about the skills they hoped you would develop at Dickinson :
"Learn how to write." "Learn a second language." And most importantly, "Learn how to learn. Life should be an ongoing learning process. It doesn't stop when you get your degree. Dickinson is a superb place to try out different learning styles. Determine what works best for you and make it an intrinsic part of your life."
Many alumni spoke to the global sensibility we seek to instill in each and every one of you, a global sensibility that will allow you through personal and public diplomacy to become a citizen leader in the increasingly small, competitive and "flat" world about which Tom Friedman writes.
"Study abroad, study abroad, study abroad," wrote not one, but many alums. The time spent abroad was clearly a turning point for those who had the opportunity to do so. " Dickinson prepared me to be a ‘citizen of the world,'" reported one alum. Another wanted me to remind current students that, " America needs ambassadors to the world who display prowess and sensitivity. You cannot know the whole world well; you cannot affect all places; but you can know one place well and be an ambassador there for our nation—one who will belie the stereotype of the well-entertained and aloof American."
Even those who didn't study abroad or major in a language were touched by Dickinson 's pervasive global awareness. "I was a Classics major, so everything I studied was long gone," wrote one alum. "It was the atmosphere of inquiry and the opening to the world that Dickinson provided that affected me most."
"I didn't study abroad and regretted it until I landed a job which allowed me to travel the globe, " wrote another. "You will only realize your potential when you are totally outside your comfort zone. Go out there. . . . work and live there, it will change your soul for the better."
Other alums spoke of the attitudes and outlooks they thought befitted a true Dickinsonian. "Lack cynicism," urged one alum. "I know it's hard these days to show idealism, but it's the only attitude that makes anything truly important happen."
"Persevere," wrote another. "Significant, worthwhile achievements generally take a long time. If you are embarking on a slightly new or different path, you will encounter many obstacles and receive little positive reinforcement. You will need perseverance."
Many alums wanted me to tell you about the special sense of community they experienced at Dickinson and the enduring friendships they formed during their years on campus.
"Dickinson is a place where you can learn not only from classes and books, but also from your relationships and experiences outside the classroom," wrote one alum . "The way you spend your time when you are not in academic pursuits will also define the way you grow and mature into the person you are meant to be."
Several alums—myself included—warned about the perils of peer pressure. Absurd notions of who is "cool" and who is not will be imposed upon you and you will be expected to restrict your contact based on someone else's immature and silly notions of social status. As a student, I, too, felt the pressure and accepted, in youthful immaturity, the impressions and perspectives of others. Twenty years later at a class reunion, I happened to sit down next to a classmate with whom I'd had little contact as a student. We had the greatest conversation, finding out in the process that we had many interests in common. Suddenly, we both looked at each other and said, "Why in the world didn't we talk to each other during college? What lost time!" We talked some more about this and discovered that we both were influenced by impositions of peer pressure. What a huge waste!
I encourage you, therefore, to stretch your social circles. Aim to connect with those you might not normally approach. Remember, as another alum put it, "Each person at Dickinson is unique, each has his or her own story and we have so much to learn from each other. Tell the Class of 2009 to not only engage the world, but to engage each other."
The education you receive, the friendships you form, and the activities in which you engage are part of a chain of events that will connect you to Dickinson for the rest of your life. And our alumni—your predecessors—commented on this connection as well:
"Convocation signals the commencement of a lifelong relationship with the College—a relationship that will continue to endure, grow and flourish long after graduation," wrote one alum. " While Dickinson 's goal is to help equip you to deal with the future, we anticipate that, both during and after your time on campus, you will equip Dickinson to continue to meet its future goals."
"While the new students won't see it now," one alum sagely observed, "they are about to start not just a journey towards a B.A. or B.S., but a life journey. The best part of it all is that it never ends. Today, I live and work in the Washington D.C . area of over 1 million residents. It is rare that a week goes by when I do not see a fellow Dickinsonian. Whether I recognize someone I know or simply see someone else wearing a Dickinson sweatshirt, the same smile is exchanged. Not just a smile recognizing we share an alma mater, but that we share an existence and an experience that is unparalleled at other institutions. We are a community, a family, and at Convocation, we—all Dickinsonians—welcome the newest members of this family with such great expectations."
Many of the emails I received and quoted from are from very recent graduates—your generation actually. These are not the reflections and responses of the disaffected, disengaged and self-indulgent generation described by others. On the contrary, they defy the negative stereotypes of your generation. These are the words of engaged, committed, hard-working and very accomplished individuals ready for that complex, competitive world. They were—as you will be—students of deliberate intent, independent spirit and a profound dedication to our community and all that we stand for. To be a Dickinsonian is to hold a passionate commitment to a way of life, an enlightened ambition and possession of adaptable knowledge and skill that meet the world and its people head on through a multitude of languages and with shared humanity, mutual respect and global experience.
Make no doubt about it. Dickinson is one of the "pockets of excellence" Ms. Kidd wrote about in Declining by Degrees . And excellence in education for Ms. Kidd, "has the power to enrich and deepen life experience, to open new vistas for consideration, and to develop critical thinking as a habit of mind. It helps students to develop ethical and moral principles by which to live, engendering compassion and open-mindedness and igniting the ability to see connections between diverse issues and ideas... In an uncertain world in which challenges to our physical and economic well-being are many, qualities of mind and spirit may be the life force that sustains us."
This year and every year, you are given the opportunity to experience "the life force" that is Dickinson . I challenge you to engage it as we in partnership embark upon the 2005-06 academic year.
Allow me to close with yet one final quote from an alumna, Class of 2001: "You will be successful—if you want to be. If you take advantage of all Dickinson has to offer, there is no doubt you will be prepared for the world... It will be amazing to you how far ahead of the game you will be when you leave...it didn't take me long to realize that I was unique, that no one else had the opportunities I did and no one else around me was as prepared and mature as I was. I didn't have a college experience; I had a Dickinson College experience. There IS a difference."