Alpha Beta Ceremony
Let me begin by personally congratulating all of you-- and your parents as well, because I suspect that they had a little something to do with your success. We are all so proud of you.
Dean Zimmerman explained the technical meaning of the titles Alpha and Beta Scholar. But this designation is about more than GPA. It indicates that you have been successful not only in your area of strength but in other academic areas as well. You are mastering the combination of breadth and depth that defines a liberal arts and sciences education. You can move from Chemistry to Art to History to Philosophy, understanding the different ways in which each of those disciplines contributes to your knowledge of the world. You are well on your way to helping us fulfill our mission, to graduate lifelong learners who are prepared to make a significant contribution to the world in which they live.
As those of you familiar with the writings of Thomas Jefferson are aware, your accomplishments would indeed have made Jefferson proud. He was one of the most articulate proponents for a liberal arts and sciences education as an essential precursor for democracy. The structure of a liberal arts and sciences education was designed in this country—it is the hallmark of American education. If you were in school in England or Denmark, or China, or Peru, you would be asked to declare your special field of focus before you entered high school. From then on, you would study exclusively Math and Physics, or History and Literature, or Business and Accounting. But our founders like Jefferson knew that, in order to have a strong democracy, America needed citizens who were both specialists and generalists. And so they designed an educational system that encouraged breadth and depth, mastery and general knowledge.
As we close tonight’s ceremony, I want to take a step back and think about this college and the role it plays in preserving America’s democracy because I think both higher education and our democracy are increasingly misunderstood and therefore endangered. You are learning in order to master your subjects, in order to prepare for careers and in order to experience the delight of learning something new and astonishing. But you are also learning so that our democracy can continue to thrive.
When this country was young, Jefferson implored his friends, his neighbors, and his fellow leaders to put education at the top of their agendas for this new land. He had studied the ancient Greeks and knew that they required citizens to be educated before they could vote. That is the genesis of our term “liberal education.” The Greeks knew that education was liberating—it liberated the mind and the spirit, and it also liberated the people so that they could govern themselves effectively in a democracy rather than being ruled by a king or despot and having no voice in their own futures. When John McMillan was still teaching in the log cabin that would eventually become W&J, Thomas Jefferson wrote to George Wyeth, his law professor, “Preach, my dear Sir, a crusade against ignorance; establish & improve the law for educating the common people. Let our countrymen know that the people alone can protect us against these evils [tyranny, oppression, etc.] and that the tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance." Twenty years later, he reiterated this important idea, writing to a friend, “if a nation expects to be ignorant & free . . ., it expects what never was & never will be.”
We seriously devalue education when we focus exclusively on its role in career preparation. I am not discounting the groundwork we are giving you to succeed in medical school, as lawyers, as business leaders, and as educators. It is extremely important. After all, your parents want to see you become self-sufficient, move out of the house, and financially successful. But we cannot forget the larger outcome—your role and the role of educated people throughout the country--in our democracy.
The events of the last few years have shown us what happens when democracy is introduced into a country that lacks a broadly educated citizenry. I lived for three years in Egypt, and I am not at all surprised that democracy there is disintegrating and despots are taking power again. More young children in Egypt work on the farms and in the factories and the auto repair shops than go to school. Parents who have no education see no reason to send their children to school. And those lucky few who do get a formal education, even at the university level, are taught to memorize the answers, not to discover the answers. Their classes consist of students writing down what the professor says and then regurgitating it on exams. There is no debate, there are no questions.
How can a country vote if its citizens do not know what issues lie before them or what stands the candidates are taking? How can they understand candidates’ positions without being able to critically analyze speeches and newspaper reports? How do they debate the questions that need to be answered in order for them to select a wise leader? When voters merely do what they are told by the neighborhood bully or a powerful figure in government or the military, they are not truly voting—they are merely casting a ballot. There are many reasons why democracy is struggling and I fear will not survive in Egypt, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and in so many African countries. They lack strong education systems to teach people how to analyze problems critically, how to weigh evidence, and how to make choices informed by research and meaningful conversation.
Those are the skills that you are learning here at W&J—the essential skills that transcend all the majors we offer. They are the skills of democracy. And they can only be learned through the kind of conversation in small classes that is the trademark of W&J—where you can ask questions, probe ideas, listen to your classmates when they agree or disagree with you—now that is education. Sitting in front of a computer can expose you to information, but even the most interactive programs cannot nurture wisdom. The internet provides truly miraculous access to data and texts of all kinds—and to misinformation as well. But information is just one of many ingredients that goes into a liberal arts and sciences education. To be truly learned, you need to be able to manipulate information, to link ideas from one class to another, to question ideas, to expand on them, and ultimately to form your own opinions and your own new ideas. That questioning spirit is the basis for wisdom.
This week’s TIME magazine profiles Larry Page, one of the founders of Google, who exercises this kind of wisdom daily. He talks about the importance of pursuing new ideas in a wide range of different areas. So Google has attempted what he calls “moon shots,” experimenting with products from Google glasses to self-driving cars—that stretch the imagination and change the world around us in new and previously unimagined ways. He talks about not just thinking outside of the box but thinking outside the known universe. Some of his enterprises succeed, and some fail, but he is one of many, many people who are putting their educations to work to change the world. He knows how to ask questions, weigh evidence, and how to dream. That kind of entrepreneurial thinking—that kind of wisdom—is what Jefferson knew was needed to build a country in which individuals could be truly free.
To learn to exercise wisdom, you need to be surrounded by and interact with other human beings who are curious and hard-working like you, who are passionate and well-informed like you, and, like you, who want to work hard to find the truth and improve our lives. For this reason, cherish the friends you have made here. Look around at the people who have pushed you—your professors, your fellow students—and cherish them. In just a few months, you seniors will be graduating. Make the most of your remaining days with us. And you sophomores and juniors, you have more time. Don’t waste it. Talk to friends. Do research with your professors here or elsewhere. Travel the world in order to learn about others but also to learn about this country and about yourself. These are the treasures that you will take with you when you leave W&J.
You’d be surprised how many alumni—many of them now world famous—who tell me that one of the most important lessons that W&J taught them was to go beyond their comfort zone, and to do what they had never dreamed they could. Some were afraid to travel, others were afraid that they could not compete in graduate school against students from the Ivy League. But their faculty advisors and mentors, their friends and classmates, urged them to have confidence, to do more than they thought they could. And they excelled. Never be afraid to excel.
You all have incredible intelligence, perseverance, and capacity for greatness. You will be the individuals who will sustain our democracy and our freedom. I urge you to continue to focus, to be resilient in the face of setbacks, and to be passionate about your work. As Dean Zimmerman said, hard work is the key to success. And so as we celebrate your accomplishments from the last one, two, or three academic years, let me wish you another year of continued success. Go forth and continue to make us proud.