2007 Commencement Speech
by Enid Newberg, MA President, Kepler College
The title of this speech is rather audacious and certainly covers a broad territory. But it comes from an article in the Boston Globe written by Anthony Kronman, a professor of law at Yale University. It was an opinion piece written earlier this year entitled “Why are we here?” He was worried about the direction modern colleges are taking. He stated, “In a shift of historic importance, America's colleges and universities have largely abandoned the idea that life's most important question is an appropriate subject for the classroom. In doing so, they have betrayed their students by depriving them of the chance to explore it in an organized way.”
That raises the question of what colleges are for and why should any one go to college?
To answer this question, I decided to use Google to search the internet using the phrase “why go to college.” The top three responses included these statements:
- From The University of North Texas: “The competitive advantage is yours if you choose to graduate from college. Experts who have researched the performance and job success of college graduates have concluded that, nationwide, college graduates with a bachelor's degree earn about 80 percent more per year than those who only complete high school.”
- From Massacusetts “Education beyond high school will put you in a better position to help your family, your community and give you the kind of life you dream of having. The more education you pursue, the better career options you will have.
- From ACT, a testing organization for college entrance exams: “Every bit of education you get after high school increases the chances you'll earn good pay. Most college graduates earn a lot more money during their working years than people who stop their education at high school.”
So it does appear that Professor Kronman has a point. Colleges, although it may not be so much the college as the students, appear to be viewing a college degree as a consumer commodity – it gets you a better job.
Martin Luther King said: “Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power, we have guided missiles and misguided men.” If college reduced to simply a way to get a better job or earn more money, then we are in trouble. If education is reduced to the transfer of facts and figures, the measure of learning becomes a statistical number based on standardized tests. Unfortunately we have seen some of this occur in the “No Child Left Behind” program in K-12 education. Assessment is important, but not when it diminishes learning and we are left with “teaching for the test.”
In the past two years, the federal government has moved from K-12 and been stepping deeper and deeper into the field of higher education. The Department of Education seems to have increasingly succumbed to our modern obsession with proving success by means of standardized measurements derived from scientifically based research.
To those of you in the audience who have a degree, how much information did you remember a year after you received your diploma? How much after five years? For that matter, what do you remember from high school?
There is an old saying which states, “Education is what remains after you’ve forgotten the facts.” Education is a considerably more nebulous proposition than facts. A true education is one which touches the spiritual quest for meaning and can, if we are lucky, take us on the path that leads not just to knowledge but to wisdom.
Nowhere in the reasons I quoted on “why go to college” is there any suggestion that college is a place where you can join a larger community that asks the questions that have no easy answers. And college may also be a place where questions shake the foundations of what you thought you knew. If you are lucky, college might also reawaken the child’s delight in asking questions and you may find yourself asking them relentlessly and passionately in your search for answers that mean something.
At that point you have the basis not just for learning but for wisdom – that is point when you become open enough to follow your questions wherever they may lead.
There was a book written about 15 years ago by Robert Fulghum called All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten. He had some profound comments to make about the lessons kindergarten teaches about sharing, cleaning up after ourselves and living a balanced life.
Thinking about this book, I am reminded of all the time Kepler faculty and administration spend talking about critical thinking and trying to explain what we mean to our students. Perhaps we would do better to start our long-winded explanations with a simple - “Look both ways before you cross the street.” “Pay attention - you might miss something important.”
We should also write a companion to Fulghum’s book -- All the Important Questions in Life, I asked in Kindergarten: Who am I? Why am I here? Is there a place where the sun never sets? Why do the stars move?
The question of life’s meaning is rooted within the great literature of every culture. It is at the heart of every religion. It is in the heart of every human being. The yearning for meaning defines us and the choices we make.
For our students, the question of meaning is both implicitly and explicitly explored throughout your time here. And the greatest gift our faculty can impart to you is not the facts they disseminate. The facts are there to give you a base of information and knowledge that act as a springboard for your education.
The greatest gifts our faculty can give to you, our students, are:
- the push that encourages you to stretch beyond the ideas you find comfortable;
- the critical thinking tools that help you explore new paths;
- the encouragement to compare and contrast what you find with what you thought you knew, and
- the help they give you to find the courage to examine and analyze and argue with what others say.
These gifts offer you the chance to synthesize the answers you discover into your own being. And all along the way, your professors work with you to improve your ability to communicate what you have learned. We want you to be able to have the pleasure of sharing and exploring your questions and your answers with others.
So, for our graduates, I will end this speech with a few items from Robert Fulghum’s list of lessons:
- “When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together.”
- “Be aware of wonder”
- ”Goldfish and hamsters and white mice… they all die. So do we.”
- ” And remember… the first word you learned–the biggest word of all –LOOK”
To that I would add – Look and Always Ask Questions.