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New College Class of 1993 Commencement address


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New College Class of 1993 Commencement address
Alternate Title:
A Liberating Journey
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Shinn, Larry D.
New College of Florida
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Sarasota, Fla.
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Graduation (School)
government publication (state, provincial, terriorial, dependent)   ( marcgt )
Baccalaureate addresses
Commencement address
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United States -- Florida -- Sarasota


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Six page commencement address.
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.,_, ,. A LIBERATING JOURNEY Greetings and congratulations to all of you who are members of the 1993 senior class of New College. Congratulations also to you who as faculty mentors, administrators, family, and friends have in one fashion or another contributed to the educational and personal development of these students. I want also to thank my friend and former colleague, Gordon Michalson, for inviting me to come to New College to speak to you on your commencement day. Perhaps you should know that Dr. Michalson had a truly outstanding speaker signed up to speak at your commencement who-alas-withdrew at the last minute. Invitations to several people listed in Mike's professional directory were declined with regret-until he got to me under the "Ss." So, on your way home tonight you won't have to ask "Where did he find that speaker?" I can tell you. It was on page 514 of the Higher Education Directory! It is a real privilege to be with you this evening. I have followed the development of New College over the past decade and have been impressed with the conception and quality of the educational environment you have created within a public system context. My remarks this evening, therefore, assume that your choice of New College as a place to work and to study reveals a commitment to the ideals of a liberal arts education. However, have you considered what it means, now, at the dawn of the 21st century, to be liberally educated? The world in which you will work and live is considerably more complex than the one many previous generations of college graduates had to face. The continuity of our age with the past is to be found in the intractable human problems of poverty, war, and violence in all spheres of life. Our break with the past is found in the increasingly technological and scientific sophistication of all dimensions of our lives from communications to health care remedies. A correlate to these often life-enhancing technologies are numerous environmental crises of global proportions. But perhaps the two most challenging features of the 21st century in which you will live and work are the shrinking size of the world that has made all nations our neighbors and the increasing rate of change that characterizes all aspects of that "global village." Agreeing with this depiction of our rapidly changing, technological age, Tom Peters argues in his book, Thriving on Chaos, that those people and institutions will survive best who best manage change. The futurist, Alvin Toffler, agrees when he acknowledges that rapid change and globalization are two ingredients that have forced businesses, financial markets, and educational institutions to restructure the very conceptions of what constitutes their basic tasks. He says in his recent book, Power Shift, that it is knowledge, not physical force or wealth, that will direct the course of the 90s and beyond. Simply put, spaceship earth's diversity, complexity, and rapid change require a new breed of liberally educated citizens who can chart new skies never traveled before.


I suspect I do not need to convince many of you sitting here this evening that we live in such a perplexing world. Does any of us really know how to create a just and equitable world economy? Does any of us really have an answer to the genocide in Bosnia that does not require more killing? These are the kinds of seemingly intractable questions facing those of you who step today beyond the confines of New College into a world that requires answers to such complex questions. It is this realization that causes me to ask this evening-how can you, New College graduates of 1993, conceive of your liberal education as a foundation for living and working in such a challenging, 21st-century world? To provide a framework for our ruminations this evening, I want to tell you a brief true story of an uncommon person whose life holds provocative responses to our query. This now-famous man was born in 1869 in the small city of Porbandar, in Western India, to a father who was a local politician and to a religious and quietly strong-willed mother. Although he was bright, his childhood was marked by a rather undistinguished academic career. In accord with the custom of the day, he was married at the age of thirteen to a shy, young woman of the same age. He suggests in his autobiography that his passion for his new wife was perhaps greater than his love of learning the lessons his teachers put before him. However, I suspect that is an excuse you have found difficult to use with your professors here at New College! After graduating from high school, this shy, young Indian set off to London to study law. As a vegetarian, he experimented unsuccessfully with English foods he hoped would be palatable. He abandoned his Indian dress and donned the top hat and spats appropriate to an English barrister's status. At the University of London, he studied Western history and literature but was especially drawn to the writings of Thoreau, Tolstoy, and Ruskin. It was also while in London that he was entertained by Christian families who introduced him to their Bible and provoked reflection on his own Hindu faith. He was truly a liberally educated man. He accomplished his studies in good standing and passed the bar with little difficulty. As he headed home to India he looked every bit the British dandy, or at least, an Indian caricature of one. Back in India, the young barrister went to work for a Muslim law firm that posted him in South Africa. It was while on a journey from Durban to Pretoria to conduct his first case that his education took an unexpected turn. He booked a first class ticket, packed a small suitcase and bedroll, donned his formal British attire, and boarded the train for Pretoria. At about nine p.m., the train reached the hill station of Maritzburg. A new passenger boarded the train, looked the barrister up and down, and saw that he was a "coloured man." He summoned an official who said to the Indian, "Come along, you must go to the baggage car." The lawyer responded, "But I have a first-class ticket." The ensuing argument led a police constable to throw our traveler off the train rather unceremoniously, putting all his luggage on the station platform beside him. It was winter in South Africa and the train station was unheated and poorly lighted. As the young lawyer sat shivering throughout the night on a hard wooden 2


bench, he felt humiliated and confused. Was he not a British citiz e n? Had he not been educated in one of the best English universities? Had he not learned to dress and act like the educated citizen of the British empire that he was? What should he do now fight for his rights or retreat to India where he was born? Our traveler decided that his experience was not personally intended but a symptom of a much more pervasive disease that of racial prejudice. Hence, he decided to fight-not flee. Unlike many of his counterparts, however, he chose the path of non-violence; a strategy of seeking the practical truth in every situation while adhering to the universal truth of compassion toward all persons-even one's enemies. It was through living experiments in opposition to South Africa's racial laws that the fledgling lawyer was transformed into a powerful political force who's fully developed strategy of non-violent, yet active, opposition was instrumental in Britain's decision to abandon its long held rule of India. This lawyer, of course, was Mahatma Gandhi, who because of his intellectual, political, and religious struggles with truth and justice over a sixty-year period, entitled his autobiography Experiments with Truth. And this evening, I want to suggest that your liberal education may be conceived as a life-long journey comprised of experiments with truth. One thing that is clear from your four years at New College is that there are many kinds of truths to know and many ways to approach them. Most colleges are structured around programs, departments, and disciplines or divisions, often called "fields of knowledge." Hence, the same question or problem can be approached from many different perspectives. For example, your mentors very likely have presented the issue of biodiversity from the perspective of their particular divisions. Scientists approach this critical issue through studies of natural eco systems, animal habitats, or the history of the earth and life on it. Social scientists usually allow the economic, political, and social implications of human interactions with each other and the natural environment to set the parameters of their concerns on such an issue. Among humanists you have likely encountered those who seek philosophical, literary, or religious understanding of the ethical relationship and responsibility we have in our interactions with the creatures with whom we share this planet. No one perspective represents the absolute truth on how you should view the importance of biodiversity in your lives or in the future of our planet. In a sense, all are, in Gandhi's words, "practical truths." However, when considered together these separate perspectives provide a rich and textured foundation upon which complex judgments can be based. Much as the shadows on the walls of Plato's cave, your liberal arts education has provided you with imperfect, yet useful, human, social and scientific ways of knowing. It now remains for each of you to use these varied perspectives to create a flexible and multifaceted framework for decision-making beyond the confines of the classroom and the laboratory. As you now complete your sojourn in New College's community of truth seekers, you enter a world where you will be expected to make "consequential judgments on multi-faceted problems." As an aide to a senator from the Northwest, you will be expected to give advice that takes seriously economic, social, human, and environmental tradeoffs. As an assistant to the Ambassador to the United Nations, you may well be asked to propose several negotiation scenarios to end the half-century-3


long violence between the Palestinians and Israelis. Sometimes, in our more sheltered communities, we are allowed the luxury of conceiving and promoting simple untned solutions to the world's complex problems. Like Gandhi, however, you will that absolute, or objective, truth is usually well beyond our intellectual and spmtual grasp. You will usually have to settle instead for close approximations and imperfect applications representing your experiments with truth. The problems the world will present you are messy at best and, often, so are their solutions. A second observation I would make is that liberal learning requires interaction between truth-seekers. New College is such a multi voiced community. I am sure you have discovered among the faculty and many of your fellow students a passion for learning and a desire to solve real human, scientific, and social problems, even when they have known their truths to be limited or their solutions partial. A liberal arts community by its very nature intends that each of you becomes an independent, life long seeker of truth whose curiosity carefulness of thought, problem-solving abilitiesand, most of all, your passion for learning-extend to all parts of your life. It is in classroom and dorm-room dialogues, however, that a college becomes a meaningful community-and not just a collection of individual seekers. Liberal learning has required you to adjust to learning and living in a community of truth seekers who have challenged you to grow beyond simple platitudes and self-satisfied reasoning. Every one of you leaves New College today changed by the intellectual passions, the discordant dialogues, and the collaborative learning such an educational process had provided. More importantly, you should have discovered the fundamental interconnectedness of all of life. As Martin Luther King .Jr. put it, In a real sense, all of life is interrelated. All persons are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be ... Gandhi's experiments with truth led him to seek justice for the outcasts of India as an extension of the prejudice he, an educated and privileged Indian, had experienced. Rather than focusing upon the personal offense to himself, he spent his life trying to identify with the plight of the poorest of the poor. Herein we learn a second limitation of many academic solutions ... they are often predicated upon emotional detachment borne of an enlightenment reverence for the human intellect. (Of course, this is a view that we all hold passionately!) But, Gandhi's lesson for us is that we should seek truth in a committed life whose blend of head and heart produces a devoted search for meaning in life. I saw a sign recently that contained a bit of folk wisdom that we would do well to heed. It said: "We make all the small decisions with our head, we should make all of the big decisions with our heart." Consider the blend of reason and emotion in a marriage proposal, or in deciding to be a conscientious objector or even what home to purchase. To decide rationally what constitutes a meaningful job by focusing only upon the economic comfort or social status it provides can only produce transitory satisfaction. If you seek a vocation within the assumption of the interdependence of all of life and your commitment to others, you will be more apt to experience a meaningful 4


vocation that will provide life-long rewards. This is the second characteristic of a liberally educated person. A final perspective on liberal learning offered by Gandhi's story is to conceive of truth-seeking as a means of living in the world, not as an intellectual end in itself. In Western philosophical traditions, truth is often conceived as a quality of speech or statement. In Gandhi's Asia, truth is understood as a quality of speech and action-that is, one does not simply speak the truth, one lives truthfully. Therefore, truth-seeking occurs not in reading and reflection only, but in purposeful living. It is clear from Gandhi's traumatic train experience that who we are and what we think and do is shaped as much by our daily experiences as by our intellectual ruminations or formal education. Seen in these active terms, your liberal education at New College will extend into a violent and complex world through your living and working. During your four years at New College you have seen that tile racism Gandhi experienced 100 years ago is far from eradicated today. Los Angeles, Sarajevo, and Johannesburg are all reminders of this legacy. If there is any single truth that emerges from this historical reminder, it is that racial prejudice and ethnic intolerance are often expressed in angry and harmful ways. In recent weeks we were all held captive by the unfolding story of David Koresh and his standoff with A TF and FBI agents. The untold story of that tragedy is that it was the violence of not only Koresh but of the A TF itself that led to this holocaust. The underlying violent assumptions in the actions of the A TF prior to February 28 already prefigured the inevitable death of innocent children now laid at the feet of Koresh only. Gandhi reminds us truth-seekers that "the means are the ends in the making." If you seek even the best of goals-like the end to Bosnian rape and murder-through violent means, do not be surprised if the outcome is not peace, but more violence., What Gandhi's example teaches us is that truth-seeking can empower you to act in non violent ways to alleviate the injustices and social ills that you discover. Such truth seeking empowered Martin Luther King Jr. to dream of a common humanity beyond race and then take to the streets to attempt to live out that dream. A liberal education thus conceived is, in Zelda Gamson's terms, a "liberating education." She tells us that an authentic liberal education provides complexity of thought, seeks an application of the knowledge gained, and empowers the learner to act upon the knowledge acquired. Gandhi would agree that the devoted truth-seeker is liberated from traditional views and confining prejudices. This necessarily includes any arrogance of certitude borne of pride in our own "liberal arts perspective." Unless we can seriously doubt the assumptions underlying our strongest-held convictions, how can we respect and enter into dialogue with those who hold opposing views? I can remember my surprise at being instructed by a banker about what it means to be liberally educated. At a meeting of the American Association of Colleges in 1986, Robert Callendar, President of Chemical Bank, told us educators that his bank seeks two kinds of employees. First, he looks for those educated in certain specialties like economics and accounting. These are the employees of Chemical Bank who do the routine work required of most bank professionals. But Callendar says he also looks for a smaller second group of college graduates who are liberally educated and who will 5


provide the future leadership for the bank. When asked what characterized this second group, Callendar said he looked for "the curiosity and intellectual ability to question ... and more importantly, to ask the right questions ... [he goes on to say] people are not necessarily liberally educated because of where they went to school or because of what courses they took. The question is whether 'it took.' Did the formal education leave an expandable or fixed mind? A malleable or a brittle one? ... Has the foundation of a liberal education left enough elasticity in the mind-set so that decision making involves a blend of complexity, doubt, introspection, and irony?" [AAC, 1986] How would each one of you answer Callendar's questions for yourself? Is your mind open to solutions or ways of thinking differently from your own? Do you doubt the basis of your own certitude as much as you do that of others? Does your introspection include careful consideration of the positions of those with whom you disagree? Can you hold your new-found truths at arm's length and see them as others do? Can you laugh at the extremes of your thought as easily you can that of others? It is in these senses that your education should liberate you from the shackles of conventional wisdom and worn-out problem-solving-including your own. Conceived in this way, a liberal education is a life-long and liberated journey of truth seeking marked by complexity of thought, an inter-relatedness in perspective, and a commitment to non-violent action toward purposeful ends. Class of 1993, may these be the marks of your liberated journey into the 21st century. I wish you well in the continuation of your journey. Bon voyage. Larry D. Shinn Vice President for Academic Affairs Bucknell University Lewisburg, PA 17837 6

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