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Elizabethtown College Commencement, May 19, 2012:  Your Life of Learning

Pauline Yu, American Council of Learned Societies

Class of 2012, you’ve made it!  Congratulations to you on your many achievements, and to those who helped you get here:  parents, relatives, friends, teachers, and the leadership of the College.  I’m delighted to join you on what will be your first day as alumni and to share with you the honor of receiving a degree from Elizabethtown College.      

Here, on this glorious day in the verdant hills of south-central Pennsylvania, we’re commemorating the great lineage of learning, stretching back centuries, to which you now belong. Our quaint medieval costumes help to make that connection visible.  But they also have more modern purposes.  I see that many of you have taken advantage of your flat mortarboards to send messages to the assembled crowd and to the heavens above.  One should always express important thoughts in concise language on an important occasion.  If your cap says, “Thanks, Mom & Dad,” that’s noble sentiment.  Generations of Chinese sages would applaud your expression of filial piety. 

But the mortarboard messengers among you may be practicing a soon-to-be lost art.  Could it be perhaps only a matter of time when today’s cloth cap is replaced by a flatscreen?  Think of it:  a new “smart hat” will allow digital downloads of texts and images.  Software engineers could develop “cap apps” that will create ever more clever designs.  It is innovations like these that spring from liberal arts colleges like Elizabethtown—which, I discovered this morning, has already succeeded in making us Nuts about Granola.

The institution of the liberal arts college is in fact one of our nation’s finest inventions, one that has equipped generations of graduates—thanks to a breadth of studies and truly engaged faculty—not just with a mass of static facts, but for a future of relentless inquiry and continual discovery.  I often quote my friend Pat McPherson, the President of Bryn Mawr College for nineteen years, who said that “the purpose of a liberal arts education is to make your head a more interesting place to live inside of for the rest of your life.”  I know you’ve done that:  be thankful for it and keep those doors open.

And I know you will, for the mission of Elizabethtown, after all, is to prepare its students for a “life of learning.”  In an interesting coincidence, for the past three decades, as President Strikwerda knows, my organization, the American Council of Learned Societies, asks a distinguished senior scholar every year to deliver a major address with that very same title—a Life of Learning—an intellectual autobiography that recounts his or her growth in knowledge and accomplishment. The lecturers’ stories are each distinctive, but they make one point in common.  Questions – tough questions, puzzling questions, sometimes uncomfortable questions –mark the steps they took on their ascent.  You may be commencing life as a graduate, but you’re not concluding your career as a student of life.   Keep asking, and keep climbing.  Follow the next question; take the next step in your life of learning.

In 2012, we are in the midst of a seemingly tumultuous presidential campaign, but a century ago, the electoral canvas was even more animated.  Those of who studied American history know that in the general election of 1912, there were four major candidates on the ballot, one of whom was Eugene V. Debs of the Socialist Party, who received nearly 1 million votes.   The man who was elected president that year, Woodrow Wilson, was a former university president: he had led Princeton before becoming governor of New Jersey. It’s hard to imagine candidates of either profile on our ballots today, so much has our political culture changed in the past century.

Now, it’s not surprising that Wilson had distinctive views on the importance of higher education, but so did another of his 1912 opponents, Theodore Roosevelt, the candidate of the Progressive or “Bull Moose” party, which he’d formed after losing the Republican nomination to incumbent president William Howard Taft.  I’m not sure anyone has affirmed the career value of higher education in quite the same way as Teddy Roosevelt did.  As he put it, “A man who has never gone to school may steal from a freight car; but if he has a university education, he may steal the whole railroad.”

I think it’s fair to say that Woodrow Wilson’s theory of higher education was a bit different from Roosevelt’s.   One of his best-remembered essays was entitled “Princeton in the Nation’s Service.”  The purpose of college, Wilson asserted, was to prepare students for “the grave duties of citizens and neighbours.” And, he continued, “it is the duty of an institution of learning set in the midst of a free population and amidst signs of social change. . .to illuminate duty by every lesson that can be drawn out of the past.”  “[I]t somehow comes about that the man who has travelled in the realms of thought brings lessons home with him which make him grave and wise beyond his fellows.”   May you, class of 2012, be such men and women.

In quoting President Wilson I’m not bringing new ideas to you.  I know that service is a core ethic of Elizabethtown College, enshrined in its motto, Educate for Service, and now embedded in your DNA.   But you should prize what has become an increasingly endangered notion.  The ideal that a strong system of higher education serves the public good has faded and frayed in our country.   What dominates now instead is the conception that the prime value of education is private gain: better jobs, higher incomes, larger homes, faster cycles on the hamster wheel of affluence. This is a deeply limiting view.  Now, don’t get me wrong:  education, especially a liberal arts education like yours, does equip a person for many different careers, and for the changes in careers, work styles and work places that are inevitable and accelerating.  And you may well prosper as a result.

But I think the public valuation of education needs to be more than the sum of many private benefits.  Just as Woodrow Wilson reminded Princeton students that their education carried with it the obligation to be an engaged citizen and, perhaps literally, a public servant, I urge you to fulfill the mission of this College, to be exemplars of how the life of learning you have enjoyed at Elizabethtown can be the foundation of sustained learning and service that benefits not just yourselves, but your families, your communities, and your nation.

Indeed, in the 21st century we should expand Wilson’s notion from the “nation’s service” to the “global good.”  (Or perhaps, with Mars right here in Elizabethtown, an interplanetary one.)  It requires no keen insight to conclude that the commercial, economic, and cultural interconnections of the world’s many peoples must be grounded on principles and ethics of global citizenship.  In offering that conclusion, I don’t mean that we should forsake our national loyalty; those of us fortunate to live in democracies like ours must strive to ensure that our institutions are vibrant and strong.  But in an era when cross-cultural connectivity increasingly links us all, we must also seek to understand the complex traditions, challenging languages, and weighty histories of our fellow passengers on this planet. 

Of course, this is sometimes more difficult than you’d think it should be for otherwise educated people.  Some years ago, when I had just moved to California from New York, one of my new colleagues, an influential French scholar, said to me that I must miss New York very much. Now, I did happen to harbor mixed feelings about the move, but being a bit curious as to what lay behind his comment, I responded by asking him why he should think that might be so. He replied, "Because you're now so much farther away from China."   Needless to say, this was not the answer I expected.  What a curious expression of postmodern Eurocentric geography—in which one reaches Asia from California by way of Paris!

So how can we best integrate the study of diverse world areas into the intellectual framework of the liberal arts?  Responsible leaders in higher education, including President Strikwerda and the College’s faculty and trustees, are thinking hard about this question.  “Globalization” is a term that’s often exasperatingly imprecise, one with a planetary margin of error.  And it’s too often thought of in a purely business context.  Legislators and policy makers clamor for more “internationalization,” but in their eyes it’s only to ensure economic “competitiveness.”  I think that’s far too narrow a reason.  There’s no question that opportunities will abound as the People’s Republic of China becomes a Consumer’s Republic (although recent news reports should make us wonder how long that can continue).  But mere wealth should not be the final object.   There are intellectual riches to be gained in the knowledge of the world’s many cultures and voices.  And as we learn about other cultures, we grow in the understanding of our own.  The late Suzanne Rudolph, a distinguished scholar of South Asia, put it well:

The study of another civilization is not a one way street [in which]: We study Them. It is a two way process: we also study ourselves. Exploring another civilization makes evident the historically constructed nature of our self-understanding even as we confront the constructed nature of our understanding of non-Western others. . . .[Students] can learn to be reflexive about themselves and their civilization.

Graduates, in accord with venerable traditions of commencement speeches I must conclude with a last word of advice for you.  I know you’re sat through four years of seminars, labs, papers and exams, but please bear with me a few minutes more. I promise that there will be no test afterward.  No test, that is, but life itself.

My advice to you is to cherish farewells.  We think of farewells as poignant moments, and this commencement is surely one of them.  Farewells bear the weight of feelings equal to the emotional and moral energy invested in what you are leaving or in who is leaving you.  If in life you journey far, if you build many friendships and loves, if each encounter with a new place or new work can be meaningful to you, then you will experience many farewells.  But think of it:  if your good-byes are easy, you may have to ask yourself why you’ve left so little behind.   

For the Chinese poets I study, the farewell poem was an important and required composition of all government officials, who were frequently being transferred so they wouldn't get too cozy where they were posted.  Most poets, as educated persons, were government bureaucrats or aspired to careers as public servants, which was the highest calling.  All officials had to be able to compose poetry.  In fact, the ability to do so was tested on the civil service examination for centuries.  Imagine what politics would be like here if that were the case!  Let me conclude by reading one of the most understated yet elegiac of these poems, Farewell to a Friend, written by the beloved eighth century poet Li Bai:

Green hills edge the northern ramparts,
White waters wind round the east city wall.
Once departed from this place
The lone tumbleweed flies a myriad miles.
Floating clouds:  a traveler’s thoughts.
Setting sun:  an old friend’s feelings.
Waving hands, you go from here—
Horses neigh gently as they leave.

As you wave hands and leave Elizabethtown—though maybe in cars rather than buggies—you’ll surely take with you many thoughts and feelings. I hope that these will make the myriad miles of your own life’s travels a journey of continued learning, deep commitment, and dedicated service to humankind on this great globe.  And may they bring you much pleasure and joy as well.

Congratulations again, and thank you. 

 

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