2006 Convocation Address
Challenge Address by President Durden
Welcome to the official opening of the 234th year of Dickinson College. Today, at the start of another academic year, I extend a special welcome to the members of the Class of 2010 and other new students who are just beginning their preparation as life-long Dickinsonians. I also offer special greetings to those of you who are beginning your senior year—those who are nearing the end of your formal Dickinson education and who have already demonstrated through your achievements thus far the qualities and dispositions of a true Dickinsonian. By your continuing accomplishments and your examples, you will serve as mentors and sources of inspiration to the incoming students. You will set the standard. You define our aspirations and those of students who follow you. You mark, no less, our reputation to the world and the preservation of Dickinson's prestige for approximately 19,000 alumni.
New students, several days ago you were given the opportunity to "sign in" to the College. This tradition signals the beginning of your life as a Dickinsonian. During Orientation Week, you have begun to realize the full magnitude and promise of your decision to attend Dickinson College. By choosing Dickinson , you have chosen a lifelong affiliation with a select and accomplished group of individuals with a shared commitment. The College, in turn, has chosen you because we believe you have the qualities, tenacity and intellectual ability to embrace this commitment and become the citizen-leaders of your generation.
Today, I want to talk a bit more about this choice you have made, your choice to become a Dickinsonian and all that that entails. Articulating our intentions for you just before you enter your first classes is, I believe, an important capstone to your Dickinsonian orientation. I only vaguely recall my own Dickinson Convocation Ceremony and certainly don't remember what the president said in his remarks. At that time, we never talked about our founder, Dr. Benjamin Rush, or how his remarkable foresight set in motion a distinctively American approach to a liberal arts education.
Benjamin Rush is a name with which you will soon become very familiar—some might say too familiar. An ardent revolutionary and signer of the Declaration of Independence, Dr. Rush realized that a democracy which depended on active and engaged citizens necessarily demanded a new approach to higher education. Founded just days after the Treaty of Paris recognized independence for our nation, Dickinson College was intended to provide this distinctively American liberal arts education and, in the process, prepare the engaged citizens and bold leaders who would ensure the success of the new nation. It is Dr. Rush's intentions that still drive our institutional mission appropriately recontextualized for the 21st century. His statue, of course, is positioned outside of my window in Old West where he serves as a constant reminder of our revolutionary heritage and an inspiration for the entire campus community.
As I mentioned just a few minutes ago, when I was an undergraduate at Dickinson, we didn't explicitly recognize the connection between Dr. Rush's vision and our own individual and institutional aspirations. We didn't talk about how we, as Dickinsonians, differed from our counterparts at other colleges and universities. And we had little conception of how our Dickinson education would prepare us to become informed, participatory citizens and, in many cases, leaders of our professions, our communities, our nation and our world.
In recent years, we have become much more intentional in outlining our expectations for our students and articulating Dickinson's distinctive identity. Our students and our alumni know unequivocally what it means to be Dickinsonians and they carry that knowledge with aspiration and pride. This is not to say that there was not considerable pride in earlier alumni in themselves as individuals and their relationship to the College; it was simply of another order.
Today we are a confident and ambitious institution. By returning to Dr. Rush for inspiration and projecting his vision into the 21st century, we have rediscovered our distinctive identity with a passion. For Rush, and now for us, there is absolutely no "identity crisis" as to whom we are and what we are to accomplish for and with you in your undergraduate education.
And now, with high hopes that you might remember even slightly my Convocation remarks in the years to come, allow me to describe for you Dickinson's historically distinctive approach to a liberal arts education and recap the dispositions you will develop and to which you will commit a good portion of your intellect and energy while at Dickinson.
Throughout the orientation process, we have introduced you to a set of five dispositions that will define you as a Dickinsonian—global sensibility, connectivity and intellectual flexibility, willingness to engage the world, responsibility to speak out on issues of importance with civility and knowledge, and sustainability and accountability. We will give you every opportunity to experiment with and develop these dispositions over the next four years—habits of mind that we hope will guide you throughout your lifetime. These dispositions are rooted in Dickinson's rich history, serve as the foundation for our institutional Strategic Plan, and represent the ultimate fulfillment of the vision of our founder, Dr. Benjamin Rush.
For Rush, an American liberal arts education was to be, above all, useful—useful to oneself, but also to society. Rush envisioned a distinctively American approach to higher education—an approach that eschewed the isolated "ivory tower," "monkish" model he judged prevalent throughout Europe at least beginning in the 14th century and that was available to only the most elite families. Instead, Rush promoted an engaged, comprehensive educational experience that demanded balance between a grounding in the best lessons of the past and those emerging academic subjects such as the natural sciences and modern languages that would define the future. He also expected there to be an active synergy between the campus and the contemporary community.
Rush adamantly believed that students must be engaged with their current society and all its seeming complexity and contradiction—even triviality—in order to prepare them to lead in it. Rush had no tolerance for "the college high on the hill," physically and symbolically removed from the people. For this reason, Rush strategically located Dickinson College on level ground, a short walk from the county courthouse, fully expecting students to make the trek after class on a regular basis to observe government in action. Through the creation of debating societies, Rush sought to give students the opportunity to discuss the most pressing issues of the day, an opportunity that connected rather than isolated them from emerging national developments. He was, by the way, a very early advocate for the substantive education of women, urging them to take up discussion of contemporary political topics—an unheard of suggestion for the late 18th century. Rush even went so far as to recommend that students live not on campus, but with families in the town where they could be mentored daily in community values and citizenship.
Rush's conception of an American liberal arts education drew no artificial boundaries among students' classroom experiences, their extracurricular activities and their living arrangements. For him, it was an educational approach destined to encourage character development that, in turn, engaged the matured self in issues of societal importance. It was a character honed by higher education that valued public service as a form of patriotism. Indeed, Rush identified two types of patriotism in America—taking up arms when appropriate and, as importantly, caring for ones fellow human beings.
Unfortunately, many colleges and universities have never fully embraced this vision of a distinctively American higher education. While Rush's idea of having all students live with families in the community is unrealistic in the 21st century, is the fundamental premise behind this idea outdated? Shouldn't we still be striving to provide daily mentoring to our students in community values and citizenship? Isn't it our responsibility to develop the 21st century contexts that accomplish this most basic and most important of goals? Shouldn't we be seeking evidence of engaged citizenship that emerges directly out of the primary pursuit of liberal education—the advancement of academic ability? Shouldn't one of our primary goals of an undergraduate education precisely in the United States (differing greatly from that in a good part of the rest of the world) be to encourage among our alumni and our students, when appropriate, a high percentage of informed voters in public elections, community volunteerism, monetary contributions to non-profit organizations, standing for public office, compelling support and resistance, when deemed necessary, to those we have elected to be our political representatives and submitting articulate, logical commentary about issues of public importance to the media?
The undergraduate experience at too many institutions has become fragmented into distinct compartments that seemingly have no relationship to one another. This fragmentation coupled with a timidity to take positions on the consequential, applied aims of a liberal education, forward absolutely no point of view about what a productive life in a greater society—a life of private and public responsibility—might look like for our students and our graduates. There has been, to put it bluntly, a rupture between the academic program and the division of student life that has resulted in a loss of a shared purpose and clear connection. This rupture is underscored by institutional silence about the personal qualities of a useful citizen and how they might be fostered in the undergraduate setting. Students are given little guidance as to how one aspect of their life relates to another, how their multi-faceted educational experience is shaping them into a totally committed person.
Today, students have more opportunities to engage in a wide and dizzying array of activities than ever before. But to what end? I assert that, in too many instances, colleges and universities as well as high schools before them, have reacted helter-skelter in a rush to meet rising student demands and challenges. We are "over-offering" and thus introducing a hyper-consumerism into the academic setting. In our haste to demonstrate that we understand that engaged students are healthy, energetic students, we have scrambled to provide them with opportunities to engage in—well, everything. We are again silent through our endorsement of abundance.
We have not, however, organized this plethora of activities into a cohesive or progressive series of meaningful, educative experiences. Instead, we have provided students with a shopping mall of choices without overarching purpose. In the process, we have created a lot of busy, busy students, many of whom are intent on adding activity upon activity to build an impressive undergraduate resume. We have, in short, succeeded in giving students the opportunity to be busy—but simply being busy is not the same as being meaningfully engaged with society and understanding the connection of those activities to the larger educational mission of the institution and the ways to which that privileged education might best serve society.
At Dickinson , we intend to reclaim the distinctiveness of an American liberal arts education. It is time for change and your college intends with a few others to lead that change. We at Dickinson are making a conscious effort to connect all aspects of your undergraduate experience. We intend to offer a total and seamless education that encourages you to traverse effortlessly and with purpose from the classroom to the residence hall, to the athletic fields, to student societies and clubs, to internships, to community activities. Over the upcoming months, you will hear more about a new initiative called "Pathways for Citizen Leadership: The Dickinson Student Experience." This initiative, which will take several years to establish, defines Dickinson's commitment to interweave the broad spectrum of existing civic engagement opportunities into a more intentional, comprehensive and progressive student experience. Through this effort, we intend to establish meaning and purpose at the "uncluttered" nexus between your academic and your student life experiences. We seek an undergraduate experience for you marked by "less noise," where "less" is often "more," and where scattering yourself too broadly across all aspects of your undergraduate experience is actually counterproductive. I suggest that you will discover the same drive to simplicity to be a healthy impulse and a key to success in your later professional and personal lives.
Yet while we seek Dickinson's distinction, we embrace also our place as a well-considered American liberal arts college. You see, we are part of something far larger than ourselves. We seek to introduce you fully to what it means for us all to engage life and learning from the context of a prototypical liberal education. Today, as you set out with us to grow as a person within this college, you must grasp the definition of a liberal institution which for it is that larger concept to which you are committing your mind, body and soul (if you will) these next for years and we trust for your lifetime.
Harold T. Shapiro, the former president of the University of Michigan and Princeton University , our "18 th -century sister college, addresses this in his recent book, A Larger Sense of Purpose: Higher Education and Society. For Shapiro, a prototypical liberal education [is] "always looking for a better set of arrangements within a wide spectrum of our individual and community lives." Liberal education accomplishes this by acting in two seemingly contradictory ways: [it serves] "society as both a responsive servant and a thoughtful critic." A liberal institution's defining charge is to act as the enduring critic of the status quo, always attempting in the process to be "a force for change, playing a significant role in society's critical self-examination, helping to allow a shift in the allocation of resources and power "and, perhaps most importantly, to believe that the world and its inhabitants can achieve "a better set of arrangements."
It is this latter defining responsibility that can be so challenging to parts of the American public who view it as disruptive, disloyal and unpatriotic. Indeed, many individuals believe colleges and universities should restrict their activity and especially their interaction with you, our students, to the former purpose—to be society's "responsive servant" and to ensure that "programs, attitudes, and commitments fully [reflect] this "subservient status." They want us to act as medieval universities and colonial colleges and, thus, to serve "as a bastion of the status quo" and "a defender of [their] interests and values."
Such a posture is totally devoid of understanding for the grand democratic experiment of the United States following the American Revolution and the critical role liberal education was intended to play in advancing informed, critical, yet optimistic citizens who could inhabit our new political arrangement and make it work then and well into the future.
By consciously returning to the vision of our founder, Dickinson College will strive to raise the bar for American education and lead the way in redefining it for the 21st century. It is out of the pitch of this seamless, integrated and yet, hardly tranquil "revolution" that you will forge those dispositions that are the foundation of Dr. Rush's vision and which will define you as Dickinsonians prepared through strength of intellect and character to engage the world and leave it a better place than how you found it.
I am talking again about those dispositions, those inclinations to positive behavior, that emerge directly from the confluence of undergraduate academic life and residential/student life and to which you have been introduced over the past week. Tomorrow, as you commence your academic work and begin to select the student activities in which you wish to participate, you will begin to develop and fully understand the importance of these habits of mind. To that end, permit me to recap for you the five dispositions that will distinguish you forever among your peers.
As a Dickinsonian, you will develop a global sensibility far deeper than that acquired at other colleges and universities. Through your coursework and your extracurricular activities, you will gain a profound awareness and appreciation of other languages and cultures. Regardless of your major, you will learn that you must pursue your intellectual interests fully cognizant of their global context. You will become comfortable and confident associating in unfamiliar environments and know that, within the multicultural world of the 21st century, you will succeed by building bridges of communication unpretentiously. And through your global sensibility, you will demonstrate your commitment to inclusiveness, pluralism and democracy.
This Dickinson commitment counters dramatically recent developments in the larger society, and thus gains urgency. Recently, The Pew Center for The People and the Press released a "Biennial News Consumption Survey" that indicates that Americans are interested less and less in news of any kind. The decline in attention to international news is particularly staggering. In 2004, 52 percent of those surveyed said that they paid attention to news from abroad; two years later, this number had dropped to 38 percent. In a commentary on the survey, journalist and Dickinson faculty member, Rich Lewis, summed it up this way: "In a totalitarian state, people do not have access to the news. In a dysfunctional democracy, people have access but no interest. And the latter, of course, can easily become the former." As a Dickinsonian with a well-developed global sensibility, you will have a responsibility to work to counter this alarming trend.
Through your Dickinson education, you will also develop an intellectual flexibility and nimbleness to make meaningful connections among people, ideas and disciplines. Where others will only see disparate dots, you will immediately see the value and power in connecting those dots. You will lean into the intersections of seemingly inconsonant combinations of ideas. You will recognize that it is at these interdisciplinary crossroads that new knowledge will spring, spawning the discoveries, breakthroughs and creative conceptual paradigms that will shape our future.
Your Dickinson experience will help you realize what it means to "engage the world" in every conceivable sense of the phrase. And, of course, at Dickinson we define the "world" as both that which lies beyond the borders of the United States and what is closest to home—yes, richly diverse and instructive Carlisle. This comprehensiveness has been our inclination for centuries. You will recognize and seize learning opportunities—a purposeful set of travel, internship and volunteer activities. You will move beyond your sphere of comfort to embrace with intellectual risk that which is different or uncomfortable and thereby enhance self-knowledge. Of course, this does not mean that you have license to do whatever you want without preparation and standards of qualification. At Dickinson , you prepare for risk and you recognize opportunity when you see it. What ultimately appears effortless, however, is based upon significant effort and accomplishment. As you practice leadership in service to society—both locally and globally—you will come to comprehend fully what Dr. Rush meant when he spoke of a "useful" education and, by so doing, work to build a just, compassionate and economically viable society.
As a Dickinsonian, you will assume a responsibility to speak out on issues of importance to you and society. You will recognize that you will be most effective in advancing your position after thoroughly engaging in informed and reasoned reflection. You will affirm that for Dickinsonians facts, indeed, matter and that mere opinion or how you "feel" does not suffice. By so doing, you will stand firm in your convictions and thus find the courage to wield tenacity in the face of adversity. As you seek and develop your own voice on the pressing issues of the day, you will come to recognize the value in always respecting and exercising civility in your discourse and your actions, and you will learn the power of employing active empathy and a sense of humor to establish substantive, sustained communication.
Finally, as a Dickinsonian, you will strive for sustainability and accountability. You will work to understand the ramifications of limited resources in a global society and act responsibly to do your part to deploy those resources appropriately and effectively. You will realize that you must be accountable for your own actions and accomplishments to others beyond yourself. You will accept responsibility in pursuit of independence and individuality, always mindful of the ecological, financial and social consequences of even the smallest of your actions. You will understand that developing lifelong habits of mind and action—such as these five dispositions—are the key to functioning successfully as a member and a leader of a community and realize that your contribution to society, which is driven by integrity and tempered by modesty, is the greatest measure of that success.
Importantly, these " Dickinson dispositions" share many affinities with those skills that the highly acclaimed writer, Thomas Friedman, author of The World is Flat, recently asserted should be the outcome focus of American colleges and universities. Rather than training students for specific jobs, as many advocate, Friedman recognizes the long term value in developing eight active skills: the ability to synthesize, explain, adapt, leverage, localize, collaborate, personalize and develop sustainable environments in and out of the workplace.
As you begin to develop your Dickinson dispositions, be aware that Dr. Rush believed spirituality could be an integral component of the distinctive American college experience. As you may know, our nation's founding fathers held fairly strong views about the place of religion in the new democracy. Current scholarship suggests that they advanced a "public" religion for the emerging nation and steadfastly rejected any individualistic or private religion that would be forced upon the nation-at-large. For example, they ignored calls for Christianity to be labeled the official religion of the United States as this would run counter to the guarantee of all varieties of religious expression—or non-expression—for the nation then and into the future.
Dr. Rush's views were very much in line with this thinking. Rush specifically founded Dickinson College as a non-sectarian institution that favored no particular religion. However, unlike his good friend, Thomas Jefferson, who founded the University of Virginia and demanded that absolutely no theology be part of the curriculum there, Dr. Rush believed that religion and exposure to the behavioral manifestations of spirituality were still appropriate pursuits in the America 's evolving, rationally based course of study. Indeed, our college motto which was offered by our namesake, John Dickinson and is found on the official college seal establishes unequivocally the place of spirituality in the Dickinson experience. The motto is "Pietate et Doctrina tuta Libertas," which means "Piety and Learning protect Liberty." Interestingly, the adoption of this motto also signals the first time that an American college or university (perhaps, any university in the world) associates the purpose of liberal education with the advancement of a political concept—liberty and the democratic process.
While Rush believed in the importance of a spiritual dimension in a liberal arts education, he was also one of our country's earliest proponents of religious tolerance. As such, Dickinson has always welcomed students from many faiths and spiritual persuasions as well as those with no particular belief and we continue to do so.
Today, spirituality is a vital and important pursuit on and off campus for many Dickinson students. As you progress through your education, we will give you every opportunity to explore and develop your own relationship to spirituality, the depth and definition of which will add further dimension to the Dickinson dispositions.
These five dispositions are, indeed, lofty and daunting aspirations for us all. I assure you, however, that they are for most of you within your reach. I believe that you chose Dickinson because you sensed our deep commitment to these high ideals and that this College, among all the others which you might have attended, stands for something important and wants you to be part of a larger, important story. You understood that, in coming to Dickinson, you would commit to an education that encompasses your entire experience from the classroom to the residence hall to the community. You chose Dickinson because you are individuals who defy artificial compartmentalization between the various facets of your life. You know full well that the pursuit of academics and the mind is the primary activity of your undergraduate years, but you also appreciate that this knowledge is enhanced extremely by a seamless connection to your residential and out-of-class activities. You selected Dickinson because you seek purposeful development in all of your campus activities. You are here today because in four years you wish to step out from the doors in Old West and walk into the wider world secure in the personal and academic knowledge and maturity that permits you to make what you consider and the public accepts as your critical difference in the world.
And Dickinson has chosen you because we know you have the capacity to fulfill our expectations (and we trust yours) by absorbing and employing these dispositions, these lifelong habits of mind and action and the accompanying knowledge that informs them. By so doing, you will leave these limestone walls prepared to grasp the challenges and opportunities of the complex world of the 21st century. You will join an international network of alumni who have worked a lifetime to absorb and display these dispositions. And, through your future accomplishments based upon these dispositions and the knowledge and skill gained during these next four years, you in your time will contribute to Dickinson's distinctive identity and prestige—a prestige that ultimately is yours.
It will not, of course, be easy to fully develop all five dispositions in your four short years as a Dickinson student—they are intended to be lifelong "works in progress" that build upon the foundation laid during your undergraduate years. That said, expect to feel challenged most vigorously in your first year of study. This challenge to your preconceptions about yourself and how your classmates, your professors and the Dickinson administration conform to your expectations marks a true, and quite necessary, dividing line between the self-affirming and self-promoting pursuit of pre-collegiate education defined in large part by the admissions' rat race and the collegiate experience upon which you embark today. The next four years will offer you a progressive maturity and sense of individual identity within collective purpose.
You will discover along the way at Dickinson that all that you wish—that you demand—is not possible or desirable. It is counterproductive to apply the statement, "you are not listening to me," when negotiating to get what you think you want from someone such as a faculty member or administrator when what you really mean is, "You are not agreeing with ME!" Expect people on occasion not to agree with you at this college..
You will probably also initially be stunned that your immediate opinions about people or events—even incidents you hear about on campus—do not receive serious consideration unless they are informed first by your investigation of the contexts of the issue and the facts of the matter sought by you and reviewed judiciously. The mere rush to statement and the expression of what you "feel" about someone or something are of a far lesser order in this college community (and ultimately in the wider world) than substantive, responsible communication. Such rashness is particularly assisted by the instantaneous nature of e-mail and its evolved style of immediate utterance without editing or regard for the voice that is being shared with the person with whom you are communicating.
Indeed, this vulnerability was one that even Dr. Rush struggled a lifetime to master. He possessed an often productive, but sometimes impulsive temperament that caused him to express himself about issues before he grasped all the facts. His most grievous incident was when he prematurely criticized General George Washington for his neglect of the health of the troops during the American Revolution. I urge you to study this incident when you have a chance. It is highly instructive to guide your own actions even today. Rush's temperament and quickness to make personal and uninformed statements probably accounts most significantly for why he is regarded as a secondary founding father while those who knew him most intimately—John Adams and Thomas Jefferson—considered him absolutely essential to establishing the nation. His rashness removed him from more substantive and sustained consideration as a significant person in the eyes of his contemporaries. History then treated him as such.
Such frustrations will confound your attempts to absorb the Dickinson dispositions and cause you some temporary disillusionment and disappointment—even to the point that you might seek another environment that you believe is less demanding of you and more affirming of whom you have come to believe yourself to be. But please remember that an authentic undergraduate education is not about solely you and the affirmation of what you think you are and desire before you experience the rub of truly conflicting ideas and actions defined by a community far larger than yourself.
Growth is not at all linear and without static for most people, especially if they are truly intent upon growing into that liberally educated person whom they intend to become and for which they chose a Dickinson education. Authentic education is the pursuit of the incomplete. Those who accomplish a Dickinson course of study are indeed appropriately confident and prepared to leave the world a better place than they found it. To stay the course and engage thoroughly the wide, increasingly integrated world and accompanying social spirit that is Dickinson College, is ironically to give your self the greatest gift of advanced learning available. As Dr. Rush stated in 1774, "The SOCIAL spirit is the true SELFISH spirit."
I envy the educational journey on which you are about to embark. Use your time at Dickinson to its fullest. Grasp and examine thoroughly every opportunity we hand you or you judiciously explore and understand what it means to be a Dickinsonian. Accommodate at once exploration and limitation with civility. Join our collective effort to realize fully and for our time the vision of Dr. Rush and to meet the challenge issued in the family motto of our namesake, John Dickinson, "To be, rather than to seem." To "be" is to possess a clear personal and collective identity informed by knowledge, skill and disposition. This noble pursuit defines your next four years. Lean into the excitement and challenge of possibility.