Tocqueville Award Dinner
Remarks of President William G. Durden
to the United Way of York County
Tocqueville Award Dinner, October 6, 2005
I am deeply honored to be asked to address the United Way of York County at your annual Tocqueville Dinner. The mission of the Tocqueville Society is "to improve lives by mobilizing the caring power of communities"-a mission that has taken on new meaning in the wake of the recent tragedies on the Gulf Coast . The response of communities across our country reminds us of our compassion as a nation, just as it reminds us of the power of an engaged citizenry. At Dickinson, we immediately reached out to two institutions of higher education with whom we are in partnership through our Crossing Borders program-Xavier and Dillard Universities. Within one week of the hurricane, we were able to bring 14 Dillard students to Carlisle for the fall semester. These students have adjusted phenomenally well to their new situation and are adding a wonderful new dimension to campus life that is benefiting all of our students.
Alexis de Tocqueville, of course, was absolutely on target when he observed in the early 19 th century that one of the abiding strengths of American democracy was a deep sense of community spirit. De Tocqueville was most struck by the conscious effort of Americans to come together as citizens for the express purpose of confronting contemporary problems and to advance collectively a more humane and functional society. He found a unique societal infrastructure that existed for the sole purpose of improving quality of life. De Tocqueville was writing approximately 50 years after Dickinson College was chartered in 1783. If we explore the intentions of Dickinson 's founder, Dr. Benjamin Rush, we find-perhaps not surprisingly-the seeds of that deep sense of citizen responsibility and commitment that de Tocqueville found so remarkable.
This evening, I would like to take a few minutes to talk about Dr. Rush's views and to think about them in a 21 st century context. Dr. Rush was instrumental in founding several institutions of higher education in the late 18 th century, institutions he thought should deliver a type of higher education that was distinctively American. Rush was an ardent revolutionary and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. A close friend and frequent correspondent with many of the founding fathers such as Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and James Madison, Rush instinctively knew that the success of the young democracy would be dependent upon an active and engaged citizenry. And those citizens would need to receive an education very different from the one traditionally offered across the Atlantic .
Through his first-hand experience as a medical student in Scotland , Rush found English education to be little more than "monkish studies" and virtually "unchanged for 250 years." European education was intended only for the elite and it was rooted in a study of the past, the esoteric and the unessential. Such an approach was wholly inappropriate for the citizens of the dynamic and entrepreneurial new nation. Instead, Rush advocated a liberal education (in the sense of opening minds through knowledge and experience) that was noted for its academic rigor and excellence, but was also very much a part of the contemporary world. He encouraged, for example, the study of contemporary languages, rather than Latin and Greek, recognizing that a command of French and German would be essential as America established an international presence. He insisted that sciences, particularly chemistry, be included in the curriculum knowing that they would serve as the foundation for new knowledge, invention and discovery. Recognizing the multiplicity of voices and cultures that already existed within the emerging society, Rush also sought broad access to higher education by advocating for the participation of both women and African Americans just as he argued for the inclusion of the study of Native American languages and culture. Rush was even an early proponent of "study abroad," believing that not only every student, but every American should spend some time in a foreign country.
Active engagement with the community was a particularly important component of Rush's conception of a distinctly American education. For Rush, community service was a measure of one's patriotism and one's commitment to the democracy. In 1773, within a letter to the nation about a distinctively American patriotism, Rush wrote, "The social spirit is the true selfish spirit, and men always promote their own interest most in proportion as they promote that of their neighbors and their country." Rush, therefore, expected students to become actively involved with the community beyond the campus. For that reason, he purposely located Dickinson a mere two blocks from the county courthouse so that students could regularly observe government in action.
Rush also expected students to dedicate themselves to those in need, and he set a stellar example through his own actions. His early and open hostility to slavery, his commitment to the care of the mentally ill and his work as a physician among the poor and the disadvantaged-to the extent that he insisted on remaining in Philadelphia at the height of a deadly yellow fever epidemic-all underline his commitment to community and to his fellow citizens.
Rush's distinctively American approach to higher education was, then, to be connected to the contemporary world and, above all, useful-useful in building and sustaining the government, the economy and the social institutions of the new nation. Unlike its European counterpart, this new distinctively American education was not intended solely to produce scholars. It was intended to produce citizen-leaders-some of whom would be scholars, and leading scholars at that.
At Dickinson , we consciously strive to fulfill the historic legacy bequeathed to us by Dr. Rush. His vision is woven throughout the Strategic Plan that guides our short- and long-term actions; his recently installed statue outside my window gives me daily inspiration; and, I am told, that Dickinson students regularly count how many times I mention Benjamin Rush in each speech.
I am continually amazed at the timelessness of Dr. Rush's vision and, at the same time, dismayed that the general public and even many colleges and universities themselves have lost sight of the broader purpose of American higher education-to prepare young people for lives of engaged citizenship and leadership so that they might create a more just and compassionate world.
In today's highly competitive and market-driven world, this very fundamental purpose rarely receives attention or thoughtful discussion. Today's students-and their parents-all too frequently select schools on the basis of athletic prowess, the spaciousness of the dormitory room, or the size and proximity of the fitness center. Prospective applicants pour over highly subjective national rankings that measure a variety of disparate financial inputs that ultimately reflect the market appeal of a given institution. To be sure, these measures have their place, but shouldn't we more importantly evaluate other institutional aspects more in line with our distinctively American mission for higher education. Shouldn't we be concerned with a college or university's efforts to develop an informed and engaged citizenry? Shouldn't we be asking whether our institutions deliver on their stated mission of producing graduates who are prepared to assume positions of leadership within our communities and our government? Like so many other aspects of our society, the evaluation of the effectiveness of higher education has been reduced to those things we traditionally count and quantify. And in the process, we have forgotten the need to articulate, preserve and value one of the most important purposes for which our colleges and universities were established.
Our institutions of higher learning provide our students with opportunities for developing leadership and citizenship abilities that are hard to find elsewhere in society. It is within our hallowed halls that our students are given endless free rein to learn to think, to challenge and to debate. For many students, college is the first time they will come across individuals whose backgrounds, cultures and ideas are vastly different from their own. It is within these campus communities that students find ways to resolve their differences, to respect-although not necessarily accept-the diverse views of others and to engage in civil, spirited debate. It is-or should be-within our walls that we actively encourage a devotion to free inquiry that is the heart of the democratic process. At times messy and unsettling, it is only through the promotion of the freest exchange of ideas that we will create informed, inquisitive and effective citizens. It is, in short, within our colleges and universities that students learn to accommodate a range of opinions, beliefs and cultures. It is here that they learn how to create and sustain a caring community.
Just today, I received a short note from a student that confirms dramatically young people's appreciation of diversity for academic advancement. "I thought I'd tell you," she wrote, how I appreciated Dickinson on Tuesday. I was in my African Diaspora class and we were discussing double consciousness and nationalism. We have a student from Trinidad, a Native American and a girl from the Ivory Coast in class. Through them, it was absolutely amazing to hear how they associate with the United States and their homelands. How many other schools could you go to and be able to hear those points of view in person and discuss them? I thought it was so neat."
Unfortunately, our society in general gives short shrift to this most fundamental purpose of American higher education and by so doing, overlooks some of the most positive things that are taking place on our nation's campuses today. As a result, we are presented with a bleak and rather depressing view of the current generation of college students. My summer reading list included several recent books that reinforce this perception.
Set on a fictional campus in Pennsylvania , Tom Wolfe's latest best-selling novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons , portrays college life as a "live-for-the-moment" drunken frenzy where students are irresponsible, short on serious study and totally oblivious to the world's challenges. The PBS special entitled, "Declining by Degrees," and the book by the same name came to essentially the same conclusion. "For the vast majority of 18 to 24 year olds," the author stated, "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 Thomas L. Friedman in his provocatively titled book, The World is Flat , found American students lacking the intellectual requirements and drive for competitive success necessary to compete with the ambitious young generation emerging in India and China.
Indeed, the prevalent picture by most commentators of the current generation is not pretty. They are thought to be invested with a feeling of extreme entitlement, expecting to live the "good life" without really having to work to secure it. They are portrayed as disdainful of colleges' rules of conduct, as well as those of society, and incapable of understanding the meaning of the word "No." Most troubling to me, is the perception that this generation lacks true global awareness and a sense of the broader developments shaping our world; they simply expect American prosperity to continue unabated.
I, for one, refuse to be convinced by these sweeping generalizations. Perhaps because I spend my days on a college campus and at an institution that expressly considers the development of citizen-leaders as part of its rigorous academic preparation, I am happily and constantly confronted with countless exceptions to these darker perceptions.
At Dickinson , for example, our students engage in 40,000 hours of community service each year-reaching into our community as tutors to underprivileged youngsters at Hope Station, donating their time and energy to the Project Share food bank, and constructing homes through the Habitat for Humanity program. I receive regular updates from our students who engage in the Alliance for Aquatic Resource Monitoring (ALLARM) initiative as they reach out to the surrounding area to teach communities about ways to improve and preserve water quality. And this year, we are entering the third year of a multi-year study in partnership with the University of Pennsylvania to explore ways to reduce hypertension in the Commonwealth's at-risk populations.
From all indications, our students' commitment to public service extends well beyond graduation. Our latest survey data demonstrated that 39 percent of recent graduates chose professions in the public or non-profit sector. And, as of January 2005, nearly 200 Dickinson alumni had participated or are currently participating in the Peace Corps. At present, we have, for example, graduates in Guatemala working in applied agricultural science, in Morocco assisting with business development, in Madagascar aiding with public health efforts, and in Thailand teaching English.
I do not, for one minute, think that Dickinson is the only college or university that can provide these examples. I know there are many, many able and committed young people across the country who are prepared to embrace their communities and their nation through public service.
Perhaps we, as a society, are asking the wrong questions-or maybe not enough questions-about the purpose and accomplishments of higher education. Shouldn't we be seeking an accountability from our colleges and universities that is consistent with the intentions of those who created a distinctively American approach to higher education? While there exists a sort of vague and undefined expectation that higher education should have something to do with leadership and citizenship, and the furtherance of our democracy, it is certainly not the first thing that springs to mind when one thinks about the mission or excellence of an institution.
In fairness, I was most heartened by the recent release of The Washington Monthly's new higher education rankings. Rather than relying on the traditional financial data, The Washington Monthly looked at three different variables: national service, social mobility and the impact of research on the economy and society. In other words, as the publication itself puts it, "While other guides ask what colleges can do for students, we ask what colleges are doing for the country." Not surprisingly, the resulting rankings looked far different from those issued by others, such as US News and World Report .
While The Washington Monthly methodology, as they themselves admit, needs to be refined, it is a step in the right direction. We do need a better way of understanding how well our colleges and universities are preparing graduates to assume the mantel of democratic leadership that is, as it has been for nearly 230 years, the essence of our nation's profound success.
As we turn this new lens on higher education, we must remember that, in one important way, American higher education remains true to its distinctive heritage. On most campuses today, there is a significant and very active student life division-a function that simply does not exist at universities in other countries. Responsible for organizing activities and events beyond the classroom, most student life organizations focus heavily on developing leadership skills, promoting meaningful public service and establishing a respectful and healthy community on campus.
Most colleges and universities, including Dickinson , are consciously striving to better coordinate in-class and out-of-class student experiences. The emerging pedagogy known as "Service Learning or Integrative Learning"-again, an American creation-is designed precisely to encourage meaningful community involvement through academic coursework, thereby strengthening the connection between students' lives both in and outside of the classroom. The mission of promoting responsible citizenship, leadership and public service is, therefore, clearly evident and the commitment to advance these qualities is real.
This commitment derives directly from the intentions of our founding fathers and links the purpose of higher education to the future well-being of our communities and our nation. Shouldn't these aspects of our mission also be criteria by which we are evaluated by the public, the media, our prospective students and their parents? Shouldn't we, as a society, be asking if an institution's approach results in a demonstrable increase in, say, its students', and to gauge the long-term effect, its alumni's record of voting, running for elective office, serving on non-profit boards, expressing opinions through op-ed pieces, contributing financially to non-profit community and educational organizations and writing letters to the editors? Shouldn't we be consciously exploring connections between higher education, effective citizenship and leadership-particularly as we enter a century that is increasingly complex, challenging and requires not only national but also global leadership? It is time that concerned citizens and higher education leadership throughout the United States join together to recapture and reassert accountability for a distinctive ambition of America 's colleges and universities. Let us hold truly accountable our institutions for the reasons for which they were founded in the first place.
The American Revolution gave birth not only to a new democracy, but also to a new approach to higher education that was distinctly suited to a society dependent upon the active involvement or its citizens. It was this willingness to become engaged, to confront together contemporary challenges that de Tocqueville found so remarkable as he traveled across America in the 1830s.
Today, many commentators worry about an apparent decline in community spirit and a weakening of our civic organizations. It is, in my judgment, an observation that merits both concern and attention. As we face the realities and opportunities the global society of the 21 st century present, many of the mechanisms that traditionally bound us together are either strained or evolving. It is time for Americans-as they have done repeatedly in the past-to rethink and perhaps redefine active and engaged citizenry for the 21 st century.
Our nation's colleges and universities have already begun, albeit in an uncoordinated manner, this renewed dialogue. As we proceed, it is, I believe, imperative that we revisit the vision and intentions of individuals such as Benjamin Rush. The qualities he valued still resonate today - an academically rigorous education that is ultimately useful and clearly grounded in the contemporary world; broad educational opportunity for all segments of society, expectation of active engagement with community; and, above all-preparation of the citizen-leaders of future generations.
These are the qualities that distinguished American higher education-and therefore, American society-from our earliest inception as a nation. These qualities still exist within our colleges and universities-but they deserve greater focus and visibility as well as the explicit acknowledgement that they are , in fact, important. By so doing, we will reinforce those expectations of active citizenship and the deep sense of commitment to community well-being that de Tocqueville found so remarkable, and so distinctively American, nearly two hundred years ago, and which you, as Tocqueville-level donors-as leadership donors-to United Way value highly. My call tonight, if heeded, will inspire from generations of citizens to come the same leadership and generosity you display to secure our nation and our communities.