Middlebury

 

September 12, 2004: Convocation Address

President Ronald D. Liebowitz delivered this address to the Class of 2009 on September 12, 2004.

Welcome! I trust your first week on campus has gone well. From everything I have heard, it has ... and tomorrow, you will officially begin a new phase of your lives.

Those of you who went on MOO trips, I hope all the mosquito bites have stopped itching. And for those of you who didn't go on the MOO trips, I hope those mosquito bites have stopped itching, too.

Just so you know, although many joke that the mosquito is Vermont's state bird, it really isn't. This year the mosquito situation was unusually bad, matched perhaps only in recent memory in 1989 ... the year the then-Governor of Vermont, Madeleine Kunin, went on CBS news, in an attempt to save the state's summer and fall tourist industry, to tell the country that the mosquitoes were really not that bad.

According to locale lore, confirmed, at least, in principle by the Governor herself during her three-year term here as Bicentennial Scholar in Residence, Governor Kunin chose to use one of the state's beautiful lakes as a backdrop, which made sense since this was, after all, a pitch to help the tourist industry. Unfortunately, someone in the Kunin administration forgot that water is a mosquito's favorite habitat, so when the cameras rolled, and she began to explain how all the reports of a mosquito epidemic were greatly exaggerated, she was attacked by a swarm of mosquitoes and had no choice but to begin swatting her face, her arms, and all other parts of her body.

Reporters being reporters, there was little sympathy shown and the cameras just kept rolling. Needless to say, the summer tourist season was not saved that year.

Killing frosts do decimate the mosquito population, so don't be concerned that this will continue for much longer. Soon we will be mosquito free and will turn our attention to snow, ice, and sub-zero temperatures ... craving the warmer weather and forgetting all that comes with that warmth!

Professor [Stephen] Donadio [who gave the faculty address at this year's convocation] has spoken a bit today about liberal education—its timelessness, the pureness and sometimes elusiveness of its substance, and the dedication of a former Middlebury faculty member, Professor Eve Adler, to share with students her love of her own pursuit of understanding what we, today, might learn from ancient texts, and how those texts explain some of today's most pressing issues. Also of great interest to Eve, and the subject of a course she taught, was the question. "What is the goal of education?"

That question, of course, is, and should be, on all of our minds, and certainly on the mind of one who is just beginning his tenure as president of this College. So as I thought about the topic for my very first address to a first-year class, wishing to draw parallels between your experience in starting your Middlebury careers and my experience in starting my time as president of the College, I thought it appropriate to share with you some thoughts on your education as you begin your studies here and I begin my presidency.

These views are not an attempt to answer in full Professor Adler's question of "What is the goal of education?"—that would be presumptuous. But the views I will share with you will help to frame the larger discussion we will initiate on campus this year as part of a planning process intended to help chart the College's course over the following years.

Though many argue that liberal education is education in the purest form, separate and divorced from the influences of specialization, professionalism, and the pressures of the here and now, I believe this need not be the case, nor can we afford to let it be the case.

The specific subjects that make up what a liberally educated individual should study today may be a matter for interesting debates, but beyond the specific subjects, for sure, a liberal education has a moral dimension to it. That dimension defines an obligation on the part of the individual to give to society, to share the fruits of what one has learned with society at large. Our society, in turn, needs what a successful liberal arts education provides its students, regardless of one's major field of study. And those who benefit from such an education should feel compelled—an obligation—to understand how that education fits in with the greater good.

So it's the mode of study—the how, and not so much the what—that I want to focus on. Education here, as you will find out, is human intensive. Very intensive. Our relatively small scale of operations, and our emphasis on undergraduate education, means that students interact quite regularly and intensively with an engaged and talented faculty, or at least they have the opportunity for such engagement and interaction.

This mode of education is the exception and not the norm; fewer than 2 percent of all undergraduates enroll at residential liberal arts colleges with this method of teaching and learning, largely because of the cost of such an education. The true or real cost of educating each student is around $60,000 per year. Our comprehensive fee, at just about $40,000 a year, means that every student, whether he or she receives grants and loans from the College or not, receives a subsidy or scholarship of at least $20,000. The $20,000 difference between what it costs to attend Middlebury and what it costs to provide the education is made up by annual gifts to the College by alumni and friends, plus the annual earnings on the College's endowment—its long-term insurance policy against potentially difficult financial times.

I mention the cost of this kind of the education and the subsidy or scholarship that everyone receives for two reasons: a liberal arts education is not first and foremost about efficiency or cost-containment—it is about providing the teaching and infrastructural resources necessary to ensure our graduates can engage their complex world seriously and with great confidence when they graduate; and second, so you will be less likely to take for granted the incredible array of resources available to you here to prepare yourself for consequential engagement in the world.

I should note that the essence of what I am saying today is hardly original. Some institutions of higher education with which you are all familiar have come to the same conclusion in recent years: you might want to read Yale College's recent self-study on undergraduate education, or Harvard president Lawrence Summers' several speeches on undergraduate education, or a number of the elite state universities' rationale for the development of undergraduate honors liberal arts colleges within their larger structures. In each case, these larger institutions of higher education have been forced to discover—or rediscover—the centrality to their mission of a liberal arts education, with the emphasis on intensive human exchanges.

The finest large universities, both private and public, have made a commitment to reestablish their focus on undergraduate education. Will they succeed? Only time will tell. Success at those institutions may well influence our own future path, but for now, the ethos of devoting remarkable time to each student is alive and well here, and we must be sure to do whatever we can to preserve that ethos and commitment.

So what do I mean when I say that a liberal arts education needs to prepare its students for a highly complex world, and one whose complexity seems to increase more rapidly than ever before? What do I mean, in terms of the way we should educate and you should learn, when I say we need to ensure that all of you leave here ready for serious engagement with the greater world, confident in your skills to make a difference?

Confidence to engage the world following graduation comes, in part, from mastery of knowledge, which all of you should eventually achieve to some success by completing work in one of the College's 40 majors. But if you only have confidence in the areas in which you major—that which you studied for four years—you are likely to be limited in the kinds of serious engagement you will have once you hit the "real" world.

Confidence to engage the world seriously comes less from the subjects you will study, and more from theway you learn while you are here. The ability to write clearly, to speak and argue persuasively, and to think in a disciplined manner represents the most crucial set of skills you will learn here in preparation for what you will face following graduation. I will expound briefly on each of these areas, and relate how this learning environment is the very best to prepare you, if you are willing to do the work.

First: seek classes and professors that force you to write, write, and write some more. One of the clichés one hears all the time is that graduates of liberal arts colleges do well after graduation and are sought highly by a wide array of professions because they are taught to think critically, communicate clearly, to ask the right questions, and then find their answers.

Clichés become clichés because, quite often, they are true, and this one about liberal arts education is indeed true. However, it is true not because one simply enrolls at a residential liberal arts college or takes a required number of courses in the liberal arts curriculum. Rather, it is true because of the relatively small classes we offer and the relatively small student-faculty ratio we have here. The combination of these two characteristics means you have your professor's attention and your work is given substantive critical commentary.

Middlebury requires two "intensive" writing courses, one is your first-year seminar, and the other is a course recommended to be in your major. In those courses, because they are designated as writing intensive courses, you will write a lot. You should also rewrite a lot, sometimes multiple drafts of one assignment. In addition to your professor's comments, you should take advantage of the significant array of resources provided here to help you with writing. Seek feedback routinely on your argument, or on the clarity of your writing, or both, from peer tutors or staff at the College's new Center for Teaching, Learning, and Research. Never feel satisfied by doing the minimum when it comes to having the opportunity to have a faculty member read your writing.

The final result is that you become a better writer, a skilled writer, able to make an argument forcefully, and with confidence. That confidence is crucial if you are going to be engaged in the world following Middlebury, and it requires the sustained and intense guidance we offer here.

Second: seek out courses and professors who require you to speak and present your views in class, both in seminars and discussion sections. Along with writing effectively, the ability to speak clearly is an important part of developing the confidence you will need as you set forth from college. There are ample opportunities to take courses in which oral presentations are required. Don't sidestep these courses because you are shy, or you think others know more than you do. If you keep in mind the question, "What is the goal of education," why you are here, and how part of being liberally educated involves a moral obligation to give back, you will feel more comfortable taking the initiative to get as much out of what this human-intensive learning environment offers you.

Most faculty will cherish the opportunity to help you hone your oral skills in class. At the least, they have a vested interest in the quality of discussions in their course; but for many more, the opportunity to help you develop your oral skills is part of what they view as their role at a place like Middlebury.

And third: give great thought to scientific study ... labs and all. In and of itself, the need for a more scientifically literate population is self-evident. The scientific dimension of so many of society's current issues—be it the environment, the ways in which human beings communicate with each other across the globe, genetic manipulation and cloning, alternative energy sources, food alteration, or new forms of warfare—the scientific dimension is central to understanding the world around us and to our ability to participate and make a difference in it.

Middlebury offers students who pursue science beyond a course or two a huge comparative advantage: the ability to work side by side with a faculty member, to do research, and to use state-of-the art instrumentation that one would think is found more frequently, and made available to undergraduates more readily, at larger research universities. In fact, at most larger universities, it is the graduate students who have access to the scientific equipment, not the undergraduates.

There is a reason why a disproportionate percentage of Ph.D.'s earned in the sciences are by students who went to small liberal arts colleges for their undergraduate degree and not to large research universities. The kind of science education that is available at the very best liberal arts colleges is unique and is something to consider now that you are here.

Even if you do not major in science, the pursuit of scientific education will expose you to the scientific method, to the importance of replicability to the development of sound theories and new knowledge, and will instill a discipline that is likely to become part of how you think and address multi-faceted issues well after you complete your studies here.

Now, I don't expect a significant change in the "drop-add" activities over the coming weeks as a result of these comments. Or, specifically, a run on writing-intensive courses this semester. Or finding out we have run out of space in McCardell Bicentennial Hall—if that is possible.

I do, however, hope you will rethink what it means to attend a College whose mode of education—intense human interaction—and dedication to that mode of education, offers you an opportunity to prepare yourself for a world far different from the one my faculty colleagues and I inherited when we completed our undergraduate studies.

In fact, I can't help but observe how yesterday's third anniversary of September 11th fits into all of this: if nothing else, September 11th should represent to each of you and your generation a clarion call for action—for serious engagement in the world and a commitment to prepare yourselves for that engagement as best as you can. I can think of no better place for that preparation than here, or a better time in your lives to begin that preparation than now, just as you begin your studies at Middlebury. As Professor Donadio said of Professor Adler, whose teaching and scholarship revolved around her love of ancient texts, her main intellectual pursuit was to understand how the problems we are witnessing today, and how they will play themselves out in the future, are rooted in what we know of the past.

You have an important role to play in how those things we are witnessing today play out in the future. I encourage you as strongly as I can to take advantage of the resources you have before you, and will have over the next four years, to develop the knowledge and skills necessary to engage the world and those complex issues with confidence and conviction. We are here to help you; that is the nature of a Middlebury education. Please don't pass up the opportunity that is before you.

Thank you.