Charge to the Class of 2005 by Dale T. Knoble, University President
Knowing, as we all do, that you are more at a beginning today than at an ending, that you are about to embark upon portions of your life that will last far longer, possibly with less predictability, and probably with greater consequences for you and for others than the portions now behind you, I am bound in a tradition of our 172-year-old college to "charge" you as you set out. And so I shall — with a few observations for context.
Last year, while visiting Dublin, Ireland, I joined a small group that heard a reading by and entered into a conversation with Thomas McCarthy, a leading modern Irish poet, who, despite many international honors and awards, continues to pursue his day job as a librarian in the Cork City library. Because McCarthy had spent a year as a visiting professor at another leading American liberal arts college, Macalester in Minnesota, McCarthy was well-acquainted with Denison, and he spoke to me with enthusiasm about what it is we try to accomplish at institutions like these. Our conversation turned to Yeats — William Butler Yeats, the late 19th and early 20th century Irish poet and playwright. I suspect you may have encountered what Yeats once said about the best education. "Education," Yeats observed, "is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire."
You, members of the Class of 2003, know better than anyone that a Denison education is certainly not about filling pails — even if you accept Yeats' analogy of minds to buckets. Your education has been nothing if not participatory. Your classes have been intimate in scale and face to face. Your professors have challenged you to be engaged learners from the time you arrived as first-year students. You have, in fact, undertaken a great deal of mentored self-teaching, through independent scholarly projects which, for a number of you, grew into year-long passions.
Nor have you been passive recipients of experiences outside the classroom. While we regularly bring to campus world-class artists through such initiatives as the Vail Series, I cannot help but think that the real glory of the arts at Denison is the hundreds and hundreds of students participating in ensembles, vocal and instrumental, in theater performance, in dance, and in the visual arts (for parents and guests, if you move fast at the conclusion of this ceremony, you can still see the works of the Senior Art Show in Burke Hall gallery before the artists depart with them!). A very large proportion of all of these participants in the arts are not pursuing arts majors or pre-professional activity but engaging in the cultivation of their wholeness as human beings.
Nor, for that matter, have you, Denison graduates, shown much passivity in your embrace of the 25 or 30 service committees of the DCA, of the Service Orientation, of Alternative Spring Break, or by your participation in the activities of many student organizations that have led you off campus to learn about other people, the challenges they face in their lives, and how you might respond as a community partner — experiences that have helped shaped many of you into the kind of people that communities around the nation and around the globe will want to embrace as participatory citizens.
And the lessons of life — and there are lessons — that you have learned from living with others in the halls of this campus, by participation in an extraordinary variety of student organizations, by engagement in athletics and recreation at all levels, and joining in student and campus governance have not come by passivity and reception but by jumping in and, in many cases, discovering new things about yourselves.
If the techniques of learning have not been anything like the filling up of pails, the results, we hope have, indeed, been the lighting of fires. What could Yeats have meant and what do we hope for you?
That you leave this Commencement knowing well that your education is not ending but just beginning. This is not confined to those of you who will pursue more formal education next year or in the future in graduate and professional schools. Rather, if the fire has been properly lit and stoked, all of you, throughout your lives, will seek new perspectives and new understandings and locate new skills and interests.
To have your fire lit through education means that as our world changes and as you change, you'll not be stuck and unadaptable because you are locked into only what you learned in college. What our faculty most hope for you is that you have not so much learned "stuff" but that you have learned how to learn anew as the circumstances call for it.
To be burning, in an educational sense, means that you will approach life as a questioner — not as a cynic or skeptic — but as one who looks beyond the superficial or the obvious, who recognizes the possibility of multiple perspectives, who is wary of simple causes and explanations, who refuses to deal in simple stereotypes about individuals, peoples, or nations.
And if the fire of learning has been ignited by your experience here, you will inspire others to learning as you go through life: neighbors, colleagues, family members, and perhaps even your own offspring.
Accordingly, members of the Denison Class of 2003, I charge you: Tend the fire of learning, cultivate your receptivity to new intellectual growth, share your passion for inquiry — and you and those alongside of you here in academic gown and hood will both find your time at Denison to have been fulfilling.