Changing More Than Just the Size and Color of the Room
by President William G. Durden ’71
Welcome to Convocation—the official opening of the 2011-12 academic year of Dickinson College—the 239th year in our history. Although we had hoped to be conducting this ceremony in front of Old West as usual, Hurricane Irene had different intentions. That said, I extend special greetings to the members of the class of 2015 and transfer students who are about to become lifelong Dickinsonians. I also welcome back our seniors for what will be their last year as undergraduates.
Convocation is intended not only to permit students, faculty and staff to assemble ceremoniously and commit as a community to the new year, but also, for the president to suggest to incoming students some insights into the current state of higher education as well as those topics—those “big ideas”—that might concern you and engage your intellectual and emotional energies on- and off-campus during your undergraduate years. Given that, it is not uncommon for my comments to be provocative, not merely for the sake of the “cognitive disruption” they might cause, but also, to indicate that this college is a “noisy” place and does not shy away from candor and reasoned, yet passionate engagement with issues that matter.
Metaphorically I am turning on the “intellectual ignition” for the coming academic year at the college. However, even my statement that I wish to provoke this community through “ideas” is provocative in our current age. In a Sunday, Aug. 14, 2011, article in The New York Times entitled “The Elusive Big Idea,” the dismissal of ideas and their influence is starkly portrayed. I quote, “If our ideas seem smaller nowadays, it’s not because we are dumber than our forebears but because we just don’t care as much about ideas as they did. In effect, we are living in an increasingly post-idea world—a world in which big, thought-provoking ideas that can’t instantly be monetized are of so little intrinsic value that fewer people are generating them and fewer outlets are disseminating them, the Internet notwithstanding. Bold ideas are almost passe. It is no secret, especially here in America, that we live in a post-Enlightenment age in which rationality, science, evidence, logical argument and debate have lost the battle in many sectors, and perhaps even in society generally, to superstitution, faith, opinion and orthodoxy. … [W]e may be the first generation to have turned back the epochal clock—to have gone backward intellectually from advanced modes of thinking into old modes of belief. … [Today] we prefer knowing to thinking because knowing [information] has more immediate value. It keeps us in the loop, keeps us connected to friends and our cohort. Ideas are too airy, too impractical, too much work for too little reward. Few talk ideas. Everyone talks information, usually personal information. Where are you going? What are you doing? Whom are you seeing? These are today’s big questions.” So I launch into today’s remarks about ideas knowing that many of you might be most impatient with what I say—with its duration, seeming vagueness, and lack of easily disposable, concise fragments of information.
But first, let me offer a bit more about this ceremony.
At the conclusion of the today’s Convocation, incoming students will participate in one of Dickinson’s most treasured traditions when you ascend the Old Stone Steps into Memorial Hall to “sign in” to the college. Several years from now, you will reverse this symbolic action when you descend these same steps to receive your diploma and move beyond these limestone walls to engage the world as Dickinsonians. For the seniors who have joined us today, this rite of passage will occur in just nine short months.
When you ascend the Old Stone Steps, be sure to glance to the right at the statue of our founder, Dr. Benjamin Rush. You will hear much about Dr. Rush over the next four years. Dr. Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, serves as a constant reminder that Dickinson College is linked inextricably to the founding of our nation with all its triumphs and blemishes. By extension, you also are connected.
Our founding fathers in fact understood that a nation whose success depended upon engaged and informed citizens demanded an education far different from the isolated, “monkish,” ivory-tower model that was prevalent throughout 18th-century Europe and upon which America’s colonial, theologically oriented colleges and universities had been modeled. They advocated, instead, an education that easily traversed the boundaries between the classroom and the community, an education in which the lessons of the academy could be applied immediately to a society seeking to define its own parameters. It was a revolutionary education for a revolutionary time. In order to accomplish this enlightened revolution they demanded that citizens engage in purposeful conversation and debate. In a commencement speech last spring at Susquehanna University, a friend of the college—Dr. Hal Saunders, husband of an alumna and trustee, honorary-degree recipient, distinguished diplomat, author and founder of Sustained Dialogue—referred to a colleague of his who defined the early American town meetings as “the quintessential American political speech—‘We have a problem; let’s talk about it.’ ” At Dickinson we strive daily to preserve this same type of interaction. I’ll refer back to this again in a few minutes.
Benjamin Rush was one of the most passionate and eloquent advocates of a distinctive American education. His fundamental precepts offer us important directives as we explore ways to define the relevance and value of liberal education in our own rapidly changing, revolutionary era.
For Rush, an American liberal-arts education was to be, above all, useful—useful to oneself, but also to society. This education was to accomplish nothing less than preparation of those citizens and leaders who would shape the economy, government and social structures of the young democracy. Rush adamantly believed that students must be engaged with their society in order to prepare them to participate and, when called, lead. Rush had no tolerance for “the college high on the hill,” physically and symbolically removed from the people. For this reason, he strategically located Dickinson College a short two-block walk from the county courthouse, fully expecting students to make the trek on a regular basis to observe government in action. This is why even today we see and hear vehicular traffic running right through us—the mode of transport has simply changed over the centuries. Through the creation of debating societies—an early incarnation of extracurricular student groups and, as you may know, the origin of our college colors, red and white—Rush sought to give students the opportunity to discuss the most pressing issues of the day, an opportunity that connected them to, rather than isolated them from, emerging national developments. He even went so far as to demand that Dickinson students live with Carlisle families and not on campus so that they would confront the moral and ethical demands of a broader society and not become isolated and cynical within the protected—and arguably isolated—construct of a college campus.
Rush’s conception of an American liberal-arts education also did not draw arbitrary boundaries among students’ classroom experiences, their extracurricular and recreational activities, and their living arrangements. It was an educational approach designed to encourage human development and one that valued public service as a form of patriotism.
We have, I am afraid, lost this vision of an integrated and distinctively American approach to liberal education. We have also lost the art of conversation—the “Let’s talk about it” model—as a way to confront problems. The two losses are not without connection. We have compartmentalized campus life across the nation into its parts. There has been, I assert, a rupture between the student life and academic sides of our enterprise. A focused emphasis on the “useful” and the essentiality of sustained and historically informed conversation with purpose has dulled with time. Likewise both our broader political culture and our college and university cultures are stridently divided by either-or posturing about a whole spectrum of issues. We defend and aggressively assert silos of self-certainty. We experience this painfully in the conduct of our political culture today. Here is what our friend said in the Susquehanna commencement speech:
“First, I believe our country is more deeply and angrily divided today than at any time in my lifetime. Too many of us have lost the capacity to talk respectfully or relate constructively to one another. I define dialogue in a very specific way, and I use it for a very specific reason. First, dialogue is not about talking [nor theatre, I might add]. It’s about listening. Dialogue is one person listening carefully and deeply enough to another to be changed by what he or she hears. Second, that openness of one person to another makes dialogue the essence of genuine relationship. Relationship is at the heart of a peaceful and productive society. Unfortunately, DIALOGUE and RELATIONSHIP are among the words in American usage that have become trivialized by casual use.”
While Rush’s idea of having all students live with families in the community, as mentioned earlier, is unrealistic in the 21st century, the fundamental premise behind this idea is not outdated. American college and university leadership should still be striving to provide daily mentoring to our students in community values and citizenship, not just the pure transmittal of academic knowledge—such was not the intention of a distinctively American undergraduate education. From this communal life on campus, young people like you should be asking of yourselves and the community fundamental ethical and epistemological questions arrived at through rigorous study and regard for facts and logical argument. Our shared responsibility is to develop and maintain the 21st-century residential setting—academically and socially—that accomplishes this most basic and most important goal.
I assert further that key defining areas of American higher education have derailed in both the academic and student life. I wrote in detail about this claim in a spring 2007 article in Liberal Education magazine, entitled “Reclaiming the Distinctiveness of American Higher Education.” In general, we have not fulfilled in American higher education our responsibility to open your minds comprehensively, to encourage serious inquiry about all aspects of your life at this critical time in your development, and to develop an understanding of what it means to be part of a wider, diverse community that is not always cast ultimately in your own image. In many cases we have left you unchecked—even supported you—in your conviction that what each of you individually believes—or “feels”—is right, and that you need not be challenged by the facts or dialogue with those of other beliefs or life styles that are perhaps equally valid and ethically sound. We have not yet been able to bring about in the national college community a climate of tolerance and respect for difference—a challenge that persists for the world in general. We are still subject to some unnecessary and unwanted expressions towards others filled with prejudice, anger—if not violence—and assumed privilege. By simply enabling selfish, defensive desires, we have denied you the genuine sociability and connectivity necessary for continuous learning and ethical and intellectual maturation (I suggest—and have spoken and written about this elsewhere—that such exaggerated self-focus is the result of decades of a self-esteem curriculum in the nation’s schools gone wrong).
The whole notion of a “useful” liberal education publicly applied has become focused on a personal usefulness as each student asks him or herself, “How can I get ahead?”, “How can I assert what I want and get it just by the sheer ‘noise’ that I make?”, “How can my way of seeing the world prevail over any other perspective?” In this context it is critical to remember Dr. Rush’s observation about what a student should know about himself in the emerging United States, “Let our pupil be taught that he does not belong to himself, but that he is public property.”
But Dickinson College in particular is taking on this challenge in American higher education—our students, faculty and staff are united in this effort—although the approaches may still differ. We believe that our students come to us wanting more out of an undergraduate education than to hear the sound of their own voice. We believe, as we like to say here, that you “want to walk on the diagonal” and thus go where others do not go—perhaps due to peer pressure. This is a transformational process for you and for us as an institution that will take decades to realize. Mistakes will be made. Some will say that we are engaging in hopeless idealism—that we can never make a community perfect or free it from intolerance and prejudice—but these critics forget that our college was born out of revolution—a revolution that many critics some 235 years ago also thought could never be achieved. And while we will attempt to provide leadership over the years to come, you must want change also and want to come with us—you must examine how you act and how you deal with difference and conflicting ethical values. Nowhere is this dynamic of recognizing multiple ethical positions more compelling than in the tension between freedom of speech—an ethically valid position—and the advancement of a civil, tolerant community—also an ethically valid position. It is precisely here that individual wisdom, responsibility and restraint must be exercised.
Let me explain. Imagine that you are walking on campus and you walk by another group of students saying things that malign or stereotype certain campus organizations, groups of students or individuals—things that you know are not true or are based solely on rumor. These sorts of statements happen unfortunately far too often on America’s college campuses—they happen on this campus—and yet, they are hurtful to members of the community; they are disruptive and uninformed, but if they are not directed at a specific person with unequivocal harmful intent, they are permissible by law. They represent a notion historically critical to the definition and functioning of the American democracy—freedom of speech. The tension between these two ethical positions is playing itself out today throughout our greater society and most specifically, at our colleges and universities. Some would punish anyone who is overheard using language as I just mentioned. Others would argue vociferously that any compromise in the ability to say what you wish—as long as it is not directly threatening—must be defended as the notion of a free United States is at stake. The United States Supreme Court has also weighed in recently on the issue and on the side of freedom of speech. I suggest that you, as a member of our community, should appreciate that all that is legal does not have to be exercised. You assume the personal responsibility and exercise the restraint that permits the existence of a civil and tolerant community. By your words and actions—or lack thereof—you create a community that is “safe” and accommodating to all responsible identities.
On a related note, your experiences both in and out of the classroom will determine your advancement as an informed, increasingly mature and tolerant person nurtured by a liberal-arts course of study and an undergraduate residential life. You will have to think more intentionally about why you are in college—at Dickinson—and who you are and wish to be as a result of your time in this community. Beliefs and behaviors will undergo intensive examination and perhaps need to change. But again, we are moving towards something better than that which we, and the majority of colleges and universities, now have. When I speak on change in this context, I am reminded of the writing on a canvas bag that I saw and bought at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. It says, “As it turns out when most people tell you they want to change things what they really mean to say is that they want to change the size and color of the room in which things take place.”
But the good news is that there is great interest and commitment among all at Dickinson—faculty, students, staff and trustees—to succeed at change. Our inspiration is again our founder, Dr. Rush, who welcomed change in many aspects of life and even proposed that the college feel at liberty to change the official college seal that he and John Dickinson devised if it no longer met contemporary requirements to advance the college.
Dickinson College has purposefully and successfully become over the last decade a more diverse campus in every way. And with diversity comes naturally a cacophony of voices—often conflicting voices—that can be alarming to those who expect a restrained and quiet campus and a monolithic point of view and lifestyle embraced by all students. We welcome this cacophony and view it as an added dimension of liberal-arts education in a residential setting—education for a democracy. As Special Assistant to the President for Institutional Diversity Joyce Bylander wrote last year in a position paper for our most current strategic plan, “We know that complex thinking occurs when people encounter novel situations for which they have no ready script. Thinking deepens when the environment demands more than our current scripts provide [that is, your frame of mind and action that you bring to Dickinson]. Because of persistent patterns of segregation in the world, college is the first opportunity for many students to experience broad diversity. Students in college are exposed to individuals whose life experiences and multiple identities challenge their worldview. Extensive empirical evidence has shown that college students educated in diverse settings are more likely to exhibit certain desirable ‘learning and democracy outcomes.’ Students who experienced racial and ethnic diversity in classroom settings and in informal interaction with peers experienced the greatest engagement in active thinking processes. This intellectual engagement produces growth in a wide variety of academic and social outcomes that college and universities [and the broader society, to include employers] say they prize.”
Extensive interaction with those different from yourself also permits you to discover the multiple aspects of who you are and who you might become. A Dickinson education intends to challenge your pre-existing understanding of who you believe you are and what you value. This is an education not for the faint-hearted or for those who believe that their intellectual and ethical growth have concluded at the age of 18 or so. You may well re-embrace the self with whom you entered the college, but you will be more secure in your identity as it has been challenged vigorously by difference. Of course, some of you will want to avoid these encounters motivated by fear of change, immaturity or un-reflected, prepossessed prejudice. That is possible, of course, but it would be a terrible waste of a superior education, evaporation of your self-potential and a disappointment to this community and all that it stands for in the pragmatic liberal-arts tradition.
This year, in fact earlier today, members of the first-year class had the opportunity to reflect and write down their thoughts on two important questions: “Why are you at Dickinson?” and “How will you engage, learn from and grow with people who are different from you?” The way in which you have answered these questions will provide the foundation for how you choose to live your life as a Dickinson student and beyond. Many of you have brought your written reflections with you today in sealed envelopes, which you will deposit in baskets as you leave the ceremony. Through the symbolic gesture of signing in to the college and through the time and reflection that you have put into your responses to the posed questions, you are signaling your intention to be thoughtful about your experience at Dickinson and also, how you will contribute to your own growth and development. Periodically over your time at Dickinson and perhaps as a young alum, you and you alone, will have the opportunity to revisit your responses to these questions and to assess whether or not your outlook has changed over time and through your life experiences. This can be a powerful exercise for all of us.
In addition to your initial reflections, within your first-year “neighborhood” you are going to be asked to consider a set of ethical questions that should be part of any superior American undergraduate education. The topics relate directly to thoughts and actions that define a citizen in our contemporary democracy. We hope you will engage in discussions about these questions in your residences and through informal conversation with your professors. There are ten of them in total, and they are offered to us by an innovative project—called The Big Q—at Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics (you will, of course, consider other key questions as well).
Here are a few of the ethical questions that will be posed:
- What am I doing here?
- How involved should my parents be in my daily life at college?
- How will I treat people from other backgrounds? How much do I want to move outside my own group?
- What about cheating?
- How do I treat the people who work [at the college]?
To give you an idea of the accompanying commentary, I cite two of the responses to these ethical questions:
- “What am I doing here?” The author writes … “Let’s be honest: A lot of kids are headed for college because it’s the thing you do after high school. But you’ll get more out of the experience if you think about why you’re doing it: To train for a job? To be exposed to great ideas? To party? A bit of each? Your answers to these questions will form the kind of person you become in college.”
- “How will I treat people from other backgrounds?” The author responds … “Your decisions about how you will deal with diversity may start before you even get to campus, when you must decide whether to live in a racially or ethnically themed dorm. Or they may arise when you’re invited to a ‘Ghetto’ or ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ or ‘South of the Border’ theme party.”
While I’m citing only two of the questions here today, I invite you to read all ten along with the accompanying commentary for each as prepared by The Big Q when my Convocation speech is posted on the Web on my President’s Page later tonight.
Thus begins our conversation for the academic year 2011-12 at Dickinson College. I have suggested a few topics for consideration. However, academic communities are dynamic and intellectually turbulent environments (or at least they should be), and what we think important at this moment may prove to be far less relevant as we begin to engage the year. Regardless of topic, may our conversation ultimately be engaging, provocative and personally enriching for each of us as well as advance our entire community to its next level of maturity. And let us not forget some of the aspirational imperatives for campus conversation in this Dickinson community:
- When there is a problem, we want to talk about it—ideally, face-to-face, rather than through social media.
- Our personality in social electronic media is to be the same as our personality reflected in our daily face-to-face interaction within our community.
- We recognize that improvement in our community and the wider world cannot be achieved by legislation alone—by rules and mere process. Sustained improvements emerge only when we are willing to face sources of negativity and offensiveness in ourselves and our community and, as a result, change human behaviors.
And as James C. Garland so eloquently wrote in an Aug. 21, 2011, commentary in the Chronicle of Higher Education—“Humility is an important educational goal because it is the bedrock of a liberal education. It is the quality that keeps us from overvaluing our own opinions and discounting the opinions of those who know more than we do.”
I offer these as but a few of the guiding principles that each of us—student, faculty and staff members like—should keep in mind when interacting with others within and outside of our community. A full list of these imperatives can be found on the Web site, along with the earlier mentioned ethical questions.
With that, let me now welcome the class of 2015 to our college community—its academic and residential student life that is already in process, but one that you will most decisively advance over the next few years. When you graduate, work will still be left undone, but you will have the satisfaction of knowing that you were part of something larger than your self—something that will last for generations to come—but also, something that should profoundly affect who you are as a person. Precisely this is a result of a useful liberal-arts education at Dickinson.
And now, with the ringing of this exact miniaturized replica of the Liberty Bell that symbolizes our revolutionary heritage, I officially pronounce the beginning of the 2011-12 academic year.