Middlebury

 

Baccalaureate Address

Baccalaureate Address to the Class of 2006
May 27, 2006, Mead Chapel

Good afternoon! On behalf of the College, I extend a warm welcome to the members of the Class of 2006, to their parents, siblings, grandparents, and friends as we gather here to celebrate an important milestone in our students' lives.

I am certain your four years here have been memorable ones. I am also certain that when you look back at them 50 years from now, you won't call these the best four years of your lives. The great gift of your Middlebury College experience is that it will have prepared you for the exciting, challenging, and uncertain world we all face today. And it is that preparation, I believe, that will play a significant role in generating many rewarding experiences in your life.

The world that you face upon graduation from College has most definitely become far more complex than the one I or any of my faculty colleagues would have thought likely when we were sitting where you are today. For you and your generation of college graduates, I am convinced that one piece of advice is the most relevant to success: live the liberal arts.

Now, admittedly, there is a wide range of possible interpretations of "living the liberal arts."

One needs to go back to before the Civil War, in the mid-19th century, to find a common vision of liberal education in the United States. Since then, colleges and universities have gone in several different directions, ranging from requiring a heavily prescribed curriculum with obvious curricular ties to the past, to offering complete freedom of course selection, to becoming more practical and establishing a vocational mission with little in common with the origins of the liberal arts.

But the 1,000-year old European roots of our present-day liberal arts institutions were just as varied and ambiguous as their modern incarnation. Allow me to briefly summarize the nature of those roots and their evolution to our present day. I think we have an essential lesson to learn from that evolution, and that is that a coherent world view of what contemporary society demands from its educational institutions is both necessary and possible in the 21st century.

As Hannah Gray, historian and former president of the University of Chicago observes, "the first universities … did not grow out of a clear idea or plan." But they did have one thing in common, and that is that they were "grounded in the assumptions of Christian doctrine." In addition, over time, they came to "represent an idea," Gray explains "[an] idea of a university constantly re-conceived and reformulated, appropriated and re-appropriated, to the needs, structures, and aspirations of different times and settings." In other words, they also came to share a commitment to reflecting and responding to societal needs.

The extent of religious authority within the academy waxed and waned throughout the medieval period. The Church retained its dominance until the followers of Renaissance Humanism challenged the status quo in the 14th century. In Gray's words:

[The humanist reformers] argued that the professional education and forms of scholarship pursued in the universities had no relevance to the needs of their society or to the understanding of those matters that had to do with human life and its conduct. They wanted a form of secular learning, revitalized through the recovery of ancient culture and its norms, directly related to the development of human wisdom and character and inspiring active minds and moral energies that would have effect in the world of affairs and its institutions. They maintained that liberal education and humanistic scholarship should equip people to lead a good life.

The humanists succeeded in broadening the university curriculum by focusing their research on classical literature, rhetoric and history, and moral philosophy. The new emphasis inspired new fields, including archaeology, philology and textual criticism. As the humanist movement grew within the university, its success led to an increased demand for lay higher education, which, in turn, increased the demand for what Gray called, "the desire to create ... civil servants and gentlemen of ... some cultivation fit for society."

Though the religious order reasserted itself during the Reformation and the Counterreformation, the humanist movement, and its program in the liberal arts, was adopted, at least partly, by the Protestant Church. The motivation for this accommodation by the Church was to educate its clergy outside the traditional curriculum, while educating the lay population in faith. This expansion of mission was pursued in order to enlist a greater number of educated individuals to fight the religious battles of the day through increased and more accessible scholarship.

The history of higher education in the United States reveals a similar dynamic in the evolution of the components that make up the liberal arts. The traditional liberal arts education that emerged in the 18th century and extended through the American Civil War, emphasized the integration of what was called "character education" with what was termed "technical or mental discipline education."

In the words of a curriculum report issued by Yale College, in 1828, "the principal aim of college instruction [is] not to supply all of the important information that students might some day use, but to instill mental discipline." Such discipline, the report stated, would come out of the repetition of translating ancient texts, from solving mathematical problems, and debating intentionally irrelevant issues. The study of classical texts would help build character, along with daily required chapel attendance. Finally, a required course in moral philosophy, intended to convey expectations on civic responsibility and ethical behavior, and to provide a synthesis of the coursework the students did over their four years of study, was usually taught by the college president.

The impetus for reform of this vision of the liberal arts emerged soon after the Civil War, with the development of a national-level concern and vision for American higher education. This newfound national level of concern led to the two greatest changes in the academy to date: the democratization of the student body and the broadening of the curriculum.

Prior to the Civil War, there was no "American idea" of higher education. But the nationalizing, binding forces unleashed by the war provided the impetus for the federal government to initiate generous programs to develop the country's system of higher education. The war also provided the incentive for wealthy industrialists to invest heavily in higher education in order to ensure an educated and competitive labor force with which to rebuild the national economy and compete more broadly and successfully in the expanding world economy.

Those who had, for decades, questioned the mission of 19th century American higher education led the charge for reform. As Hannah Gray notes, many were captured by the idea of the German university. The reformers of American education, inspired by German model of education, introduced graduate programs, partly as a response to the country's evolving social agenda, which included the development of a professoriate large enough to meet the increased demand for higher education. As the professoriate grew, so, too, did the number of specializations and sub-specializations and the range of courses that entered the curriculum. Soon, a more modern curriculum replaced the old classical one, and requirements were eliminated, first at Harvard, and then at other major institutions.

Obviously, the link between religion and education also changed dramatically during this period. In fact, it essentially disappeared entirely. As Derek Bok, former and soon-to-be acting president of Harvard notes, "faith was no longer thought central to the development of moral character. Compulsory chapel began to give way on many campuses, making religious observance little more than another option within a broad array of extracurricular pursuits." The open or elective system that President Elliot introduced at Harvard did not provide much structure, and allowed students to complete a large portion of their education in introductory level courses. They learned, as the saying went, a little about a lot, but nothing about anything. Eventually, the Elliot-inspired elective system was replaced by a curriculum that required some depth in a subject, called a major or concentration, with some general education requirements to ensure there was some breadth of study as well.

Following World War II, American colleges and universities underwent further dramatic changes, thanks, in part to the G.I. Bill. With student bodies no longer made up predominantly of the well-to-do, curricula shifted to accommodate more vocational needs. More recently, following the social movements of the 1960s, the student body became more diverse again, yielding new fields of study, such as women and gender studies, Afro-American studies, and ethnic studies. This democratization and diversification of the student body, coupled with the century's worth of curricular innovation that characterizes the contemporary history of higher education in the United States is a key reason, I would argue, that the American system of higher education became the envy of the world in the 20th century.

Many critics have lamented the evolution of the liberal arts curriculum: some argued the increased emphasis on rational scientific thought at the expense of humanistic studies led to too great an emphasis on the practical and vocational. Others complained that the over-specialization of the professoriate led to an inordinate number of sub-specializations, resulting in the fragmentation of knowledge and piecemeal learning for the undergraduate student. Others, still, questioned the loss of the earlier emphasis on moral education and what was known as character building. In the modern era, as Bobby Fong, president of Butler University has written, "higher education's purpose was to train the mind; character formation was a concern of the family, the church, the courts, but not the academy. This wholesale renunciation [on the part of colleges and universities]," he concludes, "has now come to be regarded as an abdication of responsibility to our students and our communities."

In his latest book, Our Underachieving Colleges, Derek Bok echoes these observations, describing the evolution of higher education and the liberal arts as linear, moving from one phase to another, in reaction to the societal forces of the day. This tendency to view the evolution as linear, however, can lead one to believe that there is no going back; that what constituted the older foundational aspects of the liberal arts is likely to be irrelevant today.

I would argue, however, that the development of the liberal arts is not linear, and, therefore the earlier versions of what constituted a liberally educated individual could have much relevance today -- different kind of relevance than centuries ago, but timely and meaningful nonetheless. Medieval education was concerned primarily with creating an educated clergy, and the period following the Reformation with justifying the relationship between faith and reason, religious commitment and learning. The modern history of higher education illuminates why a coherent world view for structuring the make-up of a liberal arts education can no longer rely specifically on Christian foundations. But I believe that a coherent underpinning for the liberal arts is nonetheless emerging in the 21st century—and I would call such a coherent world view a global one.

How would such a global world view redefine the objectives of a liberal arts education into a coherent set of components?

First: An education for this world view should not prepare students, first and foremost, for a career—that would suggest too much certainty, structure, and predictability. The "content" of what you would have learned over a four period in preparation for a particular job, in all likelihood, would already be obsolete. Instead, the world in front of you requires you to be more nimble intellectually -- to be able to write clearly, think critically and analytically, communicate effectively, to be able to ask the right questions, and to know how to recognize and engage the "next big thing" when, or even before, it comes along.

Second: An education for our 21st century coherent world view needs to prepare its graduates to be able to confront difference and to be able to interact in an increasingly diverse and complex world. One can no longer choose the comfortable route of the "tried and true" and be successful—to be a consequential player in whatever pursuit you may chose. The United States, whether it likes it or not, is part of an accelerating, globalizing world where, both within the United States and internationally, it is essential to understand other cultures, live and work with people who are vastly different from ourselves, and to know how to communicate across religious, ethnic, and cultural divides.

Thomas Friedman has brought these issues to the forefront in his two best-sellers, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, which provided an excellent framework for understanding globalization, and, more recently, The World is Flat. In this book, Friedman explains how, through largely unplanned rapid changes in technology and a number of social forces, the world's economic playing field has been leveled. As Friedman has written, the perfect storm that brought rapid technological change and social change to literally billions of people in Asia "created a flat world; a global, web-enabled platform for multiple forms of sharing knowledge and work, irrespective of time, distance, and geography. Economically speaking, Beijing, Bangalore, and Bethesda, Maryland are now next-door neighbors." We cannot afford not to prepare our future leaders to interact and compete in such a world.

And third, an education for the 21st century needs to provide students with the ability to make good choices. It is in this regard that we now need to reclaim what was understood as the foundational components of the liberal arts education of the past.

What, in the past, would have been called the moral or character education component of a liberal arts education ... today, given the demands of the 21st century, must be understood as instilling the skill of judgment-making in our students.

This skill is crucial because of the changes the world is undergoing, with weakened institutions and structures, and fractured societies in which there is no consensus on what is good, bad, right, or wrong. It is a world in which many institutions have lost legitimacy, and therefore the responsibility for making choices has necessarily devolved to the individual.

To the graduates in the audience: think about these three components and how they've played themselves out in your education here. With regard to the first point, developing the ability to engage, successfully, in a fast-changing world, think about your academic experience here. The habits of the mind one develops by working closely with a professor, and by doing significant independent work or collaborative research, also prepares one for a world in which the meaning of a career has been altered to be something fluid and unpredictable rather than singular, constant, and long-lasting.

With regard to the second component, which is providing an education for difference, think about this: although you have resided in the most ethnically and racially homogeneous of our country's 50 states for the past four years, you have benefited from learning within one of the most highly internationalized curricula in the country. Coupled with the significant increase in the socioeconomic diversity of our student body over the past twenty years, Middlebury now provides its students the opportunity to encounter a diversity of experiences and perspectives that will prepare them to confront the flat world Friedman describes.

And now think about your experiences outside the classroom, and where you might have applied judgment, both positive and negative, to your own and your peers' behavior and interactions with one another. Inside the classroom, your most effective teachers forced you to become comfortable with the process of establishing for yourself a position on a given topic, even if the position differed from their own, and to experience the liberation of laying claim to a definitive position. They pushed you to articulate your own opinions and understand the roots of your convictions. Were you able to transfer these lessons of the classroom to life outside the classroom? Did you feel any need to? Were you comfortable applying the process of making judgments, based on the rigors of the academic program, to life in general?

As you prepare for life after Middlebury, the answers to these questions will be paramount. The major challenge is going to be how well you "live the liberal arts," which is to say figure out for yourself how to apply the skills you acquired in the classroom to help you navigate the new world order.

As a true believer in the virtues of a Middlebury education, I have no doubt that you will rise to the occasion. You are an exceptional group of young adults. Though of course we no longer have any institutions or systems that can claim a monopoly on how best to make the world a better, more tolerant and just place, talented, thoughtful, well-educated individuals like yourselves will know how to discern right from wrong, acceptable from unacceptable behavior, and know for sure when they see it, that something is ethical or not.

I believe the most important confidence you must have as you head into the so-called real world is that the education you received here will enable you to live life with the ability to make such judgments and to act on them. Our world depends on it.

Congratulations, Class of 2006, and thank you.