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Lafayette College Commencement Address | “In Praise of Liberal Learning”

William D. Adams, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

Lafayette College Easton, PA
United States

May 21, 2016

“In Praise of Liberal Learning”

Lafayette College Commencement Address

May 21, 2016

President Byerly, members of the Board of Trustees, members of the faculty and staff, proud parents and family members of graduating seniors, and members of this impressive graduating class, thank you for inviting me to be here today. I’m honored and excited to be with you.

My excitement has in part to do with the chance to return to Pennsylvania at this wonderful time of year. As you’ve heard, I spent several years not far from here at a kindred institution. I want to thank the seniors for forgiving my past association with one of Lafayette’s keenest rivals—I won’t say the name—both on and off the athletic field. I’ll confess to you that I spent many anxious moments on the sidelines of our athletic contests. I don’t recall the outcomes, but I learned that in this and many other ways the institutions have much in common.

Commencement is always a happy day, full of pride and good feelings for students and family members alike. But I know from long experience that it’s also a day of mixed emotions, of sweet and sad sensations.

For seniors that’s due in part to the fact that you’re about to scatter to different places and experiences. And you’re leaving behind the people with whom you’ve shared these years and this rare form of community. As masterful as you are with social media and other ways of staying connected over long distances, I’m sure you already know that nothing can replace the close proximity you’ve experienced here. That’s a good thing to keep in mind, and to have known, as all parts of your lives become more and more mediated by things digital and distant.

And here’s a piece of really good news: The important friendships you’ve made here will endure and grow.

Years from now, when you return to this place for your reunions, or as you meet college friends in the places where you’ll live and work, you’ll know that some of your deepest and most meaningful relationships include the people you met here at Lafayette.

Another thing you’ll take with you when you leave is the relationships you’ve developed with faculty during your time here. If your experience here was anything like mine, you’ll come to appreciate that one of the greatest gifts Lafayette has given you is the chance to work with smart and dedicated people who’ve been so committed to your intellectual development. You may be surprised by the strength and endurance of your memories of these mentors, and by how glad they will be to see you when you return.

But let’s face it—there is some anxiety in the air today as well. And one of the principal sources of that anxiety is uncertainty about your futures, and especially about your professional and vocational futures.

That very natural anxiety is exacerbated by the fact that too many Americans are too fixated on the question of the market value of higher education. It’s not hard to see why—I get it—and I don’t wish to dismiss entirely the reasons others are so concerned on your behalf. Still, it’s been unfair of us, your elders, to be so narrowly and shortsightedly focused on how your education will pay off in the world of work and the economy.  

I say that for two reasons. First, the liberal education you’ve received here is in fact a wonderful preparation—in fact the best possible preparation—for the world of work. And second, the degree you’re about to receive should be, and is, about much, much more than finding your way in the economy.

I hope you’ll indulge me in sharing some autobiographical evidence for the power of the liberal arts at work.

As you’ve heard, I attended a small liberal arts college a lot like this one, and I majored in philosophy. I’m sure you’re aware that philosophy is not at the top of the list of vocation-ready majors. After graduation, I went on to graduate school at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where I received a doctorate in the mysterious History of Consciousness program.

In my time at Santa Cruz, the History of Consciousness program was a liberal arts curriculum on steroids. We were urged to study history, literature, philosophy, art, social science, and the history of natural science all at once. We were also urged to look beyond the traditional boundaries of academic disciplines and to seek the underlying unities of the world and of knowledge. This was heady and exhilarating stuff.

Throughout my professional life, I’ve felt extraordinarily grateful, and lucky, that I had such a wide-ranging education in the liberal arts and sciences. Philosophy taught me how to think about complex ideas and how to connect those ideas to one another and to experience. It taught me how to analyze and synthesize. It taught me to be critical—to ask questions about why things are the way they are and to resist simple answers. It taught me how to think deeply about demanding subjects. Anyone who’s spent a long night in the library trying to read a difficult philosophical text knows what I mean.  

In graduate school I learned a fair amount about lots of other things. I learned history, which gave me perspective; I learned about our own culture and about other cultures; I ingested strong doses of literature and art. I was not a scientist, but I was prompted to think seriously about science and to appreciate its ways of knowing the world. In short, my ability to imagine worlds beyond my own narrow experience grew considerably.

All of this gave me confidence in the organizations in which I later worked, especially when I changed roles, which happened often. It made me a better and quicker thinker and a good learner. I felt a lot like the good utility infielder in baseball or softball, who can throw and run and field in multiple positions. Or like the switch-hitter, who can bat from both sides of the plate.

I also learned a lot about writing and speaking, and about how to express my thinking in cogent and persuasive ways. And having now worked in a variety of organizations—large and small, public and private, profit and not-for-profit—I know that the single most important limit to institutional advancement is the inability to communicate clearly and persuasively about things that matter to the enterprise. I’m convinced that the capacity to write and speak with power and conviction is the most important professional asset that one can carry into the workplace.

Which brings me to leadership. For virtually all of its history, the traditional liberal arts curriculum has been viewed as the form of education best suited to leaders. It’s not hard to see why. As Harvard president Drew Faust recently suggested to graduating cadets at West Point, effective leaders demonstrate several key mental and emotional attributes: perspective, the ability to improvise, imagination, empathy, and the ability to persuade. These attributes belong to all of us in latent form, but they require nurture, practice, exercise—in a word, they require the extended discipline of education. And no education develops these attributes so consistently or potently as the liberal arts and sciences. 

The skills and attributes of leadership haven’t come to you in the very same ways or in equal measure. But by way of the liberal arts and sciences, you’ve caught sight of all of them. Having done so will matter enormously to you in every kind and place of work, especially as you assume greater responsibility and authority.

Work and professional life are terribly important, but it’s equally important to remember that they engage only part of our lives. The rest of the time—lots of time—is spent in various communities, among family and friends, in social organizations, in political associations, in places of service, and in the deep recesses of our inner lives. All of these places matter, and the purpose of the liberal arts education you’ve received at Lafayette is to serve you in all of these places, so vital to our personal and collective happiness.

Right at the top of the list of important communities is your political community. You’re about to become full members of the great, challenging and exasperating project of American democracy, which needs your intelligence, energy, and knowledge more than ever before.

Here, too, your liberal arts education will prove enormously useful. For democratic citizenship requires certain skills and forms of knowledge that are central to the liberal arts—the framing knowledge of history, the knowledge of institutional arrangements and practices, the knowledge of the various cultural landscapes that influence our lives, within and outside the United States, and the knowledge of the core principles of democracy.

If your undergraduate experience was anything like mine, you’ve gotten reasonable doses of history and the philosophical underpinnings of our democratic commitments. You’ve learned something about how our political system works, and about some of the ways in which it doesn’t work. And you’ve been exposed to the cultural diversity of the country and the world. You can now begin the next phase of your lives as democratic citizens, with the important resources the college and your studies have given you.

What can’t be so easily taught is the desire to be politically engaged. I’m thinking about all of the ways in which democracy needs our sustained attention—in the exercise of voting, of course, but also in school boards, town councils, planning commissions, military institutions, state governments, the federal government, and the spontaneous associations that appear from time to time at every political level. I hope you can see yourselves in one or several of these roles at some point in your future lives. I especially hope you might be inclined toward public service. I know that there is abundant skepticism regarding the value and efficacy of government institutions. But those institutions will certainly not get better if young people stay away. It’s particularly important that young people with backgrounds like yours test the waters of public life and perhaps find careers there. If and when you do, you’ll discover yet another way in which your Lafayette experience is enormously useful.

There is at least one other place, a bit more mysterious and hard to describe, that will also lay claim to your time and attention.

I hope it doesn’t sound too high-minded to call this the existential domain. It’s the place where personal questions of identity and meaning arise and play themselves out. Who am I? What am I meant to do? What does my life mean? What are my obligations to others? How am I doing as a person? Does my life have integrity? Do I have integrity? It’s also the place where we experience our most important failings, and where we discover the possibility of redemption.

I hope that your intellectual journeys at Lafayette have contributed to your ability to articulate these questions. For each of us, this happens in a different way. But the presence of the questions, and the difficulty and importance of asking them, is universal. It’s the thread that ties together the greatest works of literature; it’s the common concern of philosophers across time; it’s the heart of the world’s great religious traditions; it’s one of the central preoccupations of great art. Even in a world as riven with difference as ours, we recognize the fundamentally human need to make our lives and experience meaningful and whole.    

There are many thousands of students graduating from colleges and universities across the country on this day, and I am sure that, in most cases, these students’ undergraduate experiences will help them a great deal. But I hope you’ll also understand why I think that you, the graduates of Lafayette, products of the liberal arts and sciences, are the really lucky ones. For you’ve had an education that will work across every part of your lives and that will continue to demonstrate its value over time.

Late last fall, in one of the many presidential primary debates, a candidate went out of his way to make fun of philosophers and philosophy, comparing them unfavorably to those trained in the technical trades. “We don’t need more philosophers,” he said, “we need more welders.”

I’ve pondered that statement many times since I first heard it, and I’ve been struck by the ironies it contains. The first of those ironies is located in the fact that one of the most important passages in American history was an extended philosophical argument about the nature of the good society and the form of government best suited to our collective and individual happiness. I’m thinking of the process that led to the ratification of the Constitution in 1788. Some of the principal participants in the process were the Federalists—James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay—and their Antifederalist interlocutors—Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, George Mason, and Richard Henry Lee, among others. Their argument was conducted in the newspapers of the day, under pseudonyms that harkened back to the Roman republic. I am sure that none of these individuals would have been embarrassed by the title “philosopher.” Indeed, their arguments were full of references to the classical philosophers, and they were themselves employing philosophical language and constructs in their arguments.

I suppose it’s some consolation that one of these public philosophers went on, in our own time, to become the star of a Broadway musical. But it’s otherwise deeply discouraging to hear a candidate for the highest office in the land—an office explicitly dedicated to upholding the Constitution—poking fun at deep thinking and deep thinkers, especially when the Constitution itself, and the Declaration of Independence, too, were products of such thinking, carried out in the public square.

It’s always a bit risky to talk about current politics—it’s easy to offend—but irrespective of our political allegiances and differences, I hope we can agree on this: it’s hard to feel encouraged these days about the state of our political culture in the United States. My concern is not that there’s serious agitation, for positive change often comes with agitation. My concern is that the agitation seems to lead so quickly and inevitably to gross simplifications, reductive formulations, and vilification. Watching this drama play out around us, it’s very difficult to conclude that we need less history, less philosophy, less cultural knowledge and awareness.

And yet that is in many ways what is happening in our schools and colleges. Especially since the onset of the Great Recession in 2008, we’ve seen substantial declines in enrollments, concentrations, and course offerings in the arts and humanities throughout higher education. And high schools have been narrowing their offerings in the arts and humanities in favor of more robust offerings in STEM and in response to the extraordinary pressures of the testing regimes required by recent federal and state regulations.

This is ominous for several reasons. Without the broad public understanding of history, culture, and the principles of liberal democracy, our political culture is sure to flounder. The withering of the aspiration to educate students for citizenship in our schools and colleges is something we will come to regret in the future, perhaps in the very near future.

I do not mean to create a competition between the STEM fields and the humanities. Given how important science and technology are to the way we live, scientific and technical literacy are enormously important—indeed, they are more important than ever. But we must have balance in our educational commitments. For the most significant challenges we face as a country are not, in the end, technical or scientific in nature. They are, rather, problems that arise at the intersections of our culture, our history, our ideas, and our values. Think of race relations, the conflict between liberty and security, the painful legacies of recent wars, the relationships between humans and the natural world, immigration, the ethical challenges posed by advances in bio-medical engineering, and indeed the many ways in which all forms of technology are changing us. We desperately need the forms of knowledge and the sensibilities cultivated by the humanities because we cannot understand the actual terrain we inhabit without the perspective and wisdom the humanities provide.

A bit more than 50 years ago, when the legislation creating the National Endowment for the Humanities was put before the Congress, Frederick Burkhardt, the President of the American Council of Learned Societies, testified before Congress on behalf of the legislation. Here is a brief passage from that testimony:  

In science, we have done well. . . . But there is now a widespread concern that the emphasis on science . . . has produced an imbalance in our civilization and specifically in our educational system where much of the vast amount provided for the support of science and scientific research has been invested. There has been no comparable investment in the humanities and the arts and in consequence the education of our young, including our young scientists, runs the risk of becoming narrowly technical and short-sighted. . . . A lopsided, half-starved educational system is something this country simply cannot afford, however strong in technology, however strong in defense and wealth. Science itself will suffer in such an environment.

Burkhardt was right then, and his observation is even more important now. Given the strength of science and technology in our culture, given their fundamental importance to the economy, and given the fact that they themselves raise questions that they cannot answer, we need more than ever before the forms of understanding that place us back in the immediacy of our experience of the world, where our humanity has its roots and where all thinking and, indeed, all culture begin. 

Lafayette and other places like it remain stubbornly committed to the notion that we must educate the whole person, and that the whole person embraces our lives in the economic order, in the political order, as members of the global order, our lives as parents and friends and spouses and partners, and our lives as individuals trying to make sense of things.   

Lafayette has another gift for you. In everything you are about to encounter the day after tomorrow, in both the professional and personal realms of our lives, you are going to have a lot of new friends in the broader Lafayette alumni community. You’ll be impressed, I think, by how much they care about the college and by how interested they are in what’s going on here, and in the ways the educational experience and program have evolved since they were students.

The other thing they will care about is you, soon to be graduates of the college. Some of you know already that a fair number of alumni and alumnae are involved in counseling and mentoring young alums. Many of them are making work experiences possible. Nearly all of them are eager to make you feel at home in the places to which you’ll be going.

These generous forms of outreach and support come with reciprocal obligations. In return for their friendship and help, the members of the extended Lafayette family will be expecting you to join them in finding ways to help the next generations of Lafayette students. For some of you that will mean getting involved in college associations in cities across the nation. For others it will mean service as admission or career counselors. Some of you will become volunteers in even more substantial ways, as members of the alumni association or perhaps even as trustees. I hope that all of you will help the college financially, in accordance with your means. It’s your task now to ensure that future generations of Lafayette students have the same opportunities that you did during your time here.

Now you join your predecessors here in what the philosopher William James called “the conduct of life.” As you do, I hope you will carry with you the confidence that you have had the best form of education that human beings have yet invented, and that it has given you the capacities you need to succeed. We know that there are no certainties, and we also know that there will be challenges and surprises. But I hope you share with me the certainty that you take a great deal with you—the intellectual empowerment you’ve experienced here, a richer sense of your identities as individuals and as members of a common enterprise, a deeper and more empathetic understanding of the world around you and of your own possibilities within it, and the strength of the extended Lafayette community and the friendships that you’ve made here. That’s a lot to start with; almost all the rest is about the effort and carefulness and integrity that you bring to the task and excitement of making your lives.

Thanks again for inviting me to share in this significant day, and good luck to all of you.