Commencement 2012: What Shall We Do With These Memories?

From my remarks at commencement, May 27, 2012. To read the really important speeches, see: http://newsletter.blogs.wesleyan.edu/2012/05/27/commencement/

When most of you began your Wesleyan education in the fall of 2008, the world was in a precarious state. It was an odd time to be investing in the future. But that’s what education is: a hopeful investment in the future. When you began here, America was waging two distant wars, the twisted legacies of a vicious attack on our country that took place when most of you were still in middle school. Today America has ended combat operations in Iraq and announced our intention to withdraw our troops from Afghanistan in the next two years. It is Memorial Day weekend, a time to reflect on the sacrifices that so many have made on behalf of our country, as we also reflect on the civilian lives that have been lost during these conflicts. We remember, but what shall we do with these memories?

In the fall of 2008 our country was headed toward the most significant economic dislocation since the Great Depression. Gigantic financial institutions that had ingeniously found ways to make enormous amounts of money while claiming to have mastered risk with casino-like schemes, were suddenly calling loudly for government help. The entire financial system seemed to be on the brink of collapse, and through a series of measures designed to restore some basic stability to our economic life, the Federal government averted an even greater disaster than the one which has caused millions of Americans to lose their jobs, their homes and their hopes for the future. We can recall those who suffer still in this economy, even as a fortunate few reap huge rewards.  We remember, but what shall we do with these memories?

In what was for most of you your first year at Wesleyan you witnessed a classmate brutally murdered by a man whose mental illness is so severe that he has been judged not responsible for his actions. Not responsible for his actions but easily able to buy a gun while continuing to stalk a woman. We will never forget Johanna’s vulnerability to gun violence; we will not forget that her vulnerability as a woman is not a rarity in America. We remember, but what shall we do with these memories?

For the last four years you have found ways to keep these memories alive while pursuing your education with, as we like to say at Wes, “boldness, rigor and practical idealism.” Allow me a word or two about that boldness. I don’t mean just the ability to dance for hours while roaming the campus in large groups, nor do I mean the chutzpa to buy and then sell the ACB, or to challenge Rosenthal and Roth to a game of hoops. I mean the audacity to write poetry that is as searing as it is heartfelt; to perform classic works of theater or music with a personal reframing that is startling yet faithful; to crunch through terabytes of data to better understand patterns that others have long misunderstood. This is audacity in the service of experience, in the service of learning.

The class of 2012 has often displayed a commitment to rigor that complements this boldness. Whether it be the meticulous efforts to better understand the role of interneurons in seizures; or to analyze representations of trauma in great works of literature; or to study geochemisty and sedimentology through an analysis of local river systems; or to understand the differences between Hegel and Adorno on aesthetics…these all took a commitment to focus and detail, to painstaking analysis and clear communication. There is also, I believe, a form of idealism in this work: the ideal that the experience of learning, the labor of learning, will result in something worth building upon.

With regards to practical idealism, too, this class is truly remarkable. So many examples come to mind: Kennedy Odede’s work in education in Kibera, Kenya; or Tasmiha Khan’s project for clean water and sanitation in Khalishpur, Bangladesh; or Raghu Appasani’s efforts to improve mental health treatment in rural India; or Harry Bartle and Maddie Neufield’s collaboration with Middletown Youth Radio, or the scores of tutors at MacDonough, Traverse Square, Green Street and Upward Bound – so many members of the class of 2012 have defied hipster pessimism and irony with their brains and sweat. Along with my colleagues on the Board, faculty and staff, I marvel at your vivacity and your care.

At Wesleyan we believe that this vivacity and care are key to the happiness of a lifetime of learning, commitment and participation. We want you to remember the pleasure of the camaraderie and openness that have characterized the Wesleyan community to which you will always belong. We want you to remember these pleasures, the feelings of freedom and accomplishment, because we believe that these will stimulate you to continue to be bold, to be rigorous, and to nurture your practical idealism. This may not be as easy as you imagine.  From all around you will come calls for a practicality that is not so idealistic — calls to be more serious, more attentive to “the real world.”  Make no mistake: these are really calls for conformity, demands for conventional thinking that, if heeded, will impoverish your, our, economic, cultural and personal lives.

As I say each year, generations of Wesleyan alumni can unite around the rejection of conformity and conventional thinking. Wes alumni have used their education to mold the course of culture themselves lest the future be shaped by those for whom creativity and change, freedom and equality, diversity and tolerance, are much too threatening. Now we alumni are counting on you to join us in helping to shape our culture, so that it will not be shaped by forces of fear and violence. As you shape this future, we are counting on you to remember.

We remember, but what shall we do with these memories? I trust you will gratefully acknowledge those who have sacrificed to nurture you, to guide you, and to protect our freedoms. I trust you will act to reduce violence in the world around us, especially those forms of violence that target the most vulnerable.  I trust that you will practice forms of thinking that create opportunity rather than defend inequality and privilege. I trust you will resist the temptations of conformity even as you reject puerile and narcissistic displays of separateness.

I have this trust because I have seen what you can do. What you can do fills me with hope, fills me with confidence in the investment of education. I know that you will find new ways to build community, to experience the arts, to join personal authenticity with compassionate solidarity. When this happens, you will feel the power and promise of your education. And we, your Wesleyan family, we will be proud of how you keep your education alive by making it effective in the world.

My dear friends and colleagues, four years ago I helped unload your cars here on Andrus field, and as you go off to your exciting pursuits I will be cheering for you back here in Middletown. Come home often to share your news, your memories and your dreams. Thank you and Good luck!

Creativity and the Curriculum

For the last four years or so, we have been making a great effort to emphasize some of Wesleyan’s traditional strengths. For example, Wes students are known as having intense political concerns, and we have tried to find ways of making the curriculum more responsive to those interests. The Civic Engagement Certificate and many of the activities of the Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life, the Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship and the Center for Community Partnerships are helping our students find ways to make a difference in the public sphere. Provost Rob Rosenthal often speaks of the “engaged university,” and we are making progress in linking engagement with educational content.

Wesleyan students also are known for great creativity. Whether in Film Studies or Biology, the study of religion or the practice of artistic performance, Wesleyan students are innovative and productive. Nowhere is that more apparent than in musical performance. On Saturday night Jubilee was inspiring an audience in the Crowell Concert Hall, while in Memorial Chapel Aaron Peisner ’12 led a terrific chorus as part of his senior thesis work. Aaron had prepared choral music that spanned four centuries and several languages. The singers joined together in a labor of affection, intelligence and joy.

I’ve wanted to make sure that our curriculum is responsive to this energy from the student body. Last year I asked Charles Salas, Director of Strategic Initiatives, to think about how we should pursue the objective in Wesleyan 2020 of spurring creativity and innovation across the university.  He decided to focus on the disciplines represented in our curriculum.  The term “creativity,” of course, can be vague.  One department’s view can be quite different from another’s, so Charles met with a number of programs and asked them what creativity meant in their worlds and how they felt that they enhanced the creative capacities of their students. I hope many of you will read the full report, which gives a great sense of the discussions. Here’s the final paragraph, which gives a taste of what he found:

As for the discussions, I was struck by two things in particular.
(1) Regardless of how resistant faculty were to the subject of creativity in the beginning, it wasn’t long before that resistance dissipated. Faculty often remarked in the end that the discussions had been less predictable and more enjoyable than anticipated. It’s my estimation that faculty, in talking about their experiences in the classroom, found themselves in touch with their own passion for learning—itself a crucial if indirect contributor to student creativity. By modeling a passion for learning in the classroom, Wesleyan faculty spark the desire for such passion in their students—a desire that is necessary if students are to make use of the opportunity to develop their own creative capacities. And (2), many departments observed in passing that they viewed their seniors as more creative than their first and second-year students—observations indicative of the enhancement (purposeful or not) of student creativity across the curriculum.

 

Opportunity, Engagement and Confidence: Cures for the Civic Recession

Reading about a new civic engagement initiative announced at the White House this week made me think of all the powerful ways that Wesleyan students use their education to engage with the world. The Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship is the latest incarnation of the university’s commitment to connect liberal learning to making a positive difference. Here’s a short piece I wrote on this topic yesterday for the Huffington Post.

The news about the American education system has been bleak over the last year — from elementary schools that seem “designed to fail” to for-profit universities that are scooping up borrowed tuition dollars without providing their graduates with much hope of gainful employment. No surprise then that the American public has grown increasingly suspicious of educators and their institutions. Once widely respected college programs are criticized for raising tuition in excess of inflation, despite the fact that they are giving significant financial aid and satisfying the demands of students and their families for (increasingly costly) support services. There is a growing lack of confidence in American education – one that mirrors the general crisis of confidence in the future. Of course, there are the pundits who feed on this crisis, having found a market niche for their cultivated pessimism.

But as the new year has gotten underway, I’ve been encouraged by some more optimistic and thoughtful notes amidst the nasty, noisy cacophony of negativity. One is the continued confidence that students outside the United States place in our higher education sector. Hundreds of thousands of students around the world are doing their utmost to get into American universities because they perceive them to be the best in the world. They are not driven by federal support for loans, or by illusions of an “education bubble.” They want a great education that can create value and opportunity. This is not the same thing as guaranteeing a particular career path (when did a diploma ever do that?), but these students know that a broad and rigorous liberal education increases one’s capacities for shaping one’s own future.

A second optimistic note that I heard sounded this week was that the Newman’s Own Foundation had just made a grant of $750,000 to an organization called Shining Hope for Communities. Shining Hope, founded by a group of university students, has built an elementary school for girls in Kibera, Kenya, one of the largest slums in Africa. The organization has already built the Johanna Justin-Jinnich Community Health Clinic adjacent to the school, and the grant will facilitate the construction of clean water and sanitation facilities. There are hundreds of examples each year of students at American universities putting their education to work to create a positive difference in this country and around the world. I have a soft spot for Shining Hope, since two Wesleyan students created it and dozens of their fellow undergraduates have been part of the work. These young men and women became social entrepreneurs by building on a broad educational base.

A third note of optimism this week came from the White House, where a group of education leaders spoke about how universities could reclaim their civic mission. Carol Schneider, president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities, and Martha Kanter, US Under Secretary of Education presented findings and recommendations from a new report, A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future, authored by the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement.

Carol Schneider has identified what she calls a “civic recession,” but she and her colleagues aren’t satisfied with just coming up with another nicely pessimistic label. They actually have some recommendations for how to strengthen the connections between education and civic engagement:

1. Reclaim and reinvest in the fundamental civic and democratic mission of schools and of all sectors within higher education
2. Enlarge the current national narrative that erases civic aims and civic literacy as educational priorities contributing to social, intellectual, and economic capital
3. Advance a contemporary, comprehensive framework for civic learning–embracing US and global interdependence–that includes historic and modern understandings of democratic values, capacities to engage diverse perspectives and people, and commitment to collective civic problem solving
4. Capitalize upon the interdependent responsibilities of K-12 and higher education to foster progressively higher levels of civic knowledge, skills, examined values, and action as expectations for every student
5. Expand the number of robust, generative civic partnerships and alliances locally, nationally, and globally to address common problems, empower people to act, strengthen communities and nations, and generate new frontiers of knowledge.

I’d like to think that these optimistic notes are just part of a chorus of efforts in higher education that reconnects us to key trends in the world: opportunity, engagement, and civic confidence. International students who are competing for places at American universities see our educational system as offering opportunity. We must demonstrate to our own citizens that this is indeed the case. The young men and women who are creating free schools and clean water in Kenya are using their broadly based education to engage specific and important issues out in the world. They are pragmatists steeped in liberal learning. The authors of A Crucible Moment see our own recession – economic and civic – as the BEST time to invest in America’s future. By embracing civic learning and partnerships that strengthen communities, we can do the hard work of restoring confidence in the future. That is a core responsibility of education.

It’s easy to be a pessimist, and some writers get a lot of pleasure from showing how they are too smart to have faith in the future. As educators, we can’t afford these simplistic rhetorical moves. We need instead to join together to do the hard work of making our educational system truly a sector of opportunity, engagement and civic confidence.

 

Remembering Bob Burnett ’62 and the Highwaymen

I often celebrate the musical culture generated by the students, faculty, and staff at Wesleyan. Indeed, I’ve told prospective students to check out the music scene here if they really want to understand the personality of our school and to compare it with other places in which they are interested. I thrilled to hear Persephone Hall sing the national anthem at a football game, to listen to Sam Friedman ’13 play piano anywhere, or to marvel at the vocal ingenuity of our a cappella groups. I’m told that Eclectic still controls the music scene in Brooklyn (hence, the world), and I take great pride in the rock ‘n roll chops of Wesleyan’s Treasurer (John Meerts), Provost (Rob Rosenthal), head of the faculty (Gil Skillman) and dean for academic advancement (Louise Brown). Don’t even get me started on the all-star musicians in the Music Department! From the experimental to the traditional, they play with nuance and intensity.

This past week, we lost a storied voice in the chorus of Wesleyan’s music history. Bob Burnett died on December 7 at his home in Rhode Island. Bob and four other frosh were told to put on some entertainment for their fraternity in 1958, and they decided to become a folk band. While they were still undergraduates they had a #1 hit with their version of “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore.”

Bob Burnett is at the lower left. After graduating Wes he went to Harvard Law School, and it looked like he’d left the music business behind. But more than three decades after that freshmen concert, the original Highwaymen started performing and recording again — and winning great praise! I started hearing about Bob and the Highwaymen almost on my first day on the job at Wes. They inspired friendship and devotion. They still do.

I took the photo here from Bob’s obituary in the New York Times. You can read more about the Highwaymen here and here.

 

 

Broadening Your Aural Experience at Wesleyan

I bumped into a Wesleyan student recently who told me about a wonderful website about music at Wes: auralwes.org. It is a terrific compendium of some of the great music being performed on campus. As far as I know, the site is completely independent of the official Wesleyan powers. Hats off to the students who have put this together!

Over the last couple of years, when high school juniors and seniors ask me about the various options among high quality liberal arts colleges, I tell them about a potential litmus test for the schools they are visiting. All the highly selective schools have great faculty devoted to teaching and research, and all of them attract interesting and talented students. One way to tell them apart, to determine the personalities of the schools, is to look into the musical subcultures of the colleges and universities. If a prospective student doesn’t care about musical culture at all, obviously this isn’t an appropriate “test”. But such a student might not be all that happy at Wes in any case. The vibrancy and dynamism of the student musical culture combined with the dedication to diversity and experimentation in the music department are essential ingredients of the Wesleyan experience. Whether you sing, play or just listen, music is something not to be missed at Wes.

So, check out the music department’s website, and check out auralwes.org. It’s unlikely that you will be attracted to everything that you hear. You may even be offended by some of the language. But if you open your ears, mind and heart, it is likely that you will expand your horizons and broaden  your aesthetic and musical experience. And that’s why auralwes is essential Wes!

 

From Clubbiness to Cosmopolitanism

I was talking to someone recently about one of my favorites subjects: the future of the residential liberal arts college. In an age where online communication is increasingly the norm, an age in which face-to-face contact is seen as inefficient or “uncomfortable,” why should families make the great investment of spending four years in an artificially controlled community aimed at regular, intense personal interaction? Decades ago students who went to liberal arts colleges were likely to find people much like themselves. The schools drew on a fairly homogeneous population, and the relationships one developed while a student were supposed to enhance the family networks and local connections one brought to undergraduate life. The liberal arts education was broadening (at least in terms of an introduction to the cultures of Europe and North America), and the social environment provided the “finish.”

All of this began to change in the wake of World War II, and conditions were dramatically altered when schools made fair access a priority. The combination of proactive outreach to under-represented groups and the expansion of curricula far beyond the high culture of the West changed the demographics and the content of liberal education. Wesleyan was a leader in this regard, aggressively looking for talented students from groups previously discriminated against, and creating classes that went far beyond the traditional offerings.

Let’s take the Music Department at Wesleyan as an example. At many schools the Music Department would have been the most tied to European high culture, and the least likely to stray too far from the traditional canon. Wesleyan had long been a very musical campus – even known as the “Singing College of New England” because of its talented a cappella groups and championship Glee Club. A few music professors went to President Butterfield in the 1960s to get support for advanced work in ethnomusicology, a field almost unknown at our peer institutions. Soon, musicians from across Asia and then Africa would find students and audiences at Wesleyan. Professor Mark Slobin, whose interests range from his fieldwork in Afghanistan to Klezmer to movie music, continues to exemplify this voracious appetite for cultural diversity at the highest level of skill and performance. So does Su Zheng, now Chair of the department, a scholar of traditional Chinese and Japanese music as well as contemporary music of the Asian Diaspora.

Around the same time as Wesleyan students were learning Gamelan and African Drumming, Wes was also drinking deeply at the well of experimental music and jazz. John Cage’s time in residence here had a profound impact on teachers and students, and the tradition of experimentation continues with current faculty such as Anthony Braxton, Alvin Lucier and Ron Kuivila.  This doesn’t mean we’ve ignored the European tradition, though. Professor Jane Alden’s work on medieval singing traditions, and Neely Bruce’s on more contemporary ones, have had an important impact on the field as they inspire our current students.

The cosmopolitanism of the music department is in tune with the wonderful musical diversity of student life. From Eastern European song, to ska, from “surrealist pop” to the mighty Pep Band, our students make music with passion and joy. This kind of musical culture, in and outside the classroom, has evolved in our residential liberal arts context —indeed, it depends on that context. The thirst for experimentation, the ability to cross disciplinary or cultural borders, the scale of our residential life, all of these factors are as key to music at Wesleyan as they are to our curriculum more generally. In Religious Studies or in English, in History or in Government, the course offerings have moved beyond the comfortably familiar to open cosmopolitan networks of learning. Programs such as American Studies and East Asian Studies have gone beyond the national paradigms of education to reframe problems and explore possibilities.

The great advantage of our cosmopolitan liberal arts education is that it allows students to explore international, virtual networks of knowledge while learning the virtues (the pleasures and productivity) of face-to-face conversation, participation and cooperation. Whether learning music or biophysics, consistent personal contact with teachers and fellow-students deepens the education. The university must continue to be proactive about finding students from diverse backgrounds because this enhances everyone’s education in a residential community. And we must continue to enrich our curriculum by developing classes that sometimes go beyond traditional canons because by doing so we open up new possibilities for learning and life. Today’s Wesleyan students do plug into expansive virtual networks, of course, but they do so without sacrificing campus interactions that give these networks additional intensity and relevance.

There are serious challenges to our residential liberal art school model. But I take heart from the example of music, which shows how we might meet them by becoming ever more open to the wider world while valuing the vitality of our campus community.

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