May 25, 2001

Higher education's purpose

As another year draws to a close, friends and family will descend upon Harper Quadrangle to see their loved ones graduate from this institution. I can remember almost every minute of my own graduation, which was but three years ago: The balmy temperature, the low murmur of the Motet Choir singing Bruckner's “Locus iste," and the profound and articulate words of Professor Jonathan Lear delivering the Convocation Address. If there was any doubt in my mind about my strong passion and love for this place, it immediately dissipated the moment that I completed this highly ritualistic ceremony three Junes past. But what of the rest of my college career here at the University? Was it equally enthralling and worthy of my undivided attention?

While my personality already has a strong predisposition to nostalgia, please permit me this indulgence. I remember driving in a smart cab (from the soon to be rehabbed Blackstone Hotel) up to the Shoreland and thinking: “I get to live here?" I think then and now, there are few places that can equal this type of student living at any college or university. Moving in was such a whirlwind of trepidation and unease at this new place, that I can barely remember a thing about the first few days. The next moment I remember was finally finishing my placement exams the next week. I imagine the rest of the time was given to late night talks and meeting a wide variety of people on my floor and throughout the dorm.

The first few weeks of school here consisted of numerous challenges: My first college writing assignment (on Plato's Apology), my first dining hall experience (eating in B-J was like eating in one of the wood-lined chambers of the late medieval refectories of Oxford), and the inescapable thrill of deciphering the time schedules. Other things came to me in time, like travelling around the city, joining different groups and all the other things that are so important to becoming a independent young man.

Above all, some of the most important lessons I learned were in the classroom. Such seemingly obvious lessons such as “Question all established knowledge" and the like were part of my everyday classroom experience in the College. I wouldn't say my mind was an empty slate, just waiting to be written upon with all the “right" answers, but rather that many of my instructors always forced me to question the assumptions and beliefs that I brought with me to my classes. With a few exceptions, there is very little more that I could have asked for in my educational experience in the College.

It is for that reason that I am saddened by the comments of many people who have graduated from the College and are now pounding at the President's door asking, “Why don't we have an undergraduate accounting class?" or “What kind of jobs will the ‘new' College prepare me for?" This kind of nascent vocationalism is quite predictable given current trends in higher education, but it strikes at the core of what is so special about the College and other places like it in the broader experience of higher education. As Dean Boyer has recently commented, the education in the College is not to help students “fifteen minutes after they graduate" with finding a job, but rather to teach people how to engage in critical thinking and to enhance and enrich their intellectual development. The point of higher education for young people is not to provide a form of socially appropriate baby-sitting for four years, but to educate them. Any college or university that abandons this unique charge is not worthy of the appellation of “an institution of higher learning." On that note, I congratulate the Class of 2001 and applaud their numerous accolades and honors. And for the rest of you, I look forward to seeing you next year.