Charge to the Class of 2004
by Dale T. Knobel, University President
And so, graduates of the Class of 2004, we approach the end of this ceremony -- and a beginning. In fact, knowing, as we all do that you are more at a beginning today than an ending, that you are about to be launched 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 by a tradition of our 173 year-old college to give you a "charge" as you set out. And so I shall -- with a few observations for context.
Almost a month ago, many of the students, faculty, and staff assembled here gathered mid-day on a special Friday in Swasey Chapel to participate in our college's annual Academic Awards Convocation. That event, a high point of the Denison year, celebrates scholarly and leadership excellence. As the master of ceremonies, I'm faced every spring with coming up with another way to describe "excellence." Those who were at Swasey may recall that this year I took advantage of the fact that our campus had commemorated in a variety of ways over the course of the academic year the 100th anniversary of the publication of a seminal work of scholarship and cultural studies, W.E.B. DuBois's The Souls of Black Folk.
The Fisk and Harvard-educated DuBois was both historian and sociologist, both contemplative scholar and social activist, and virtual inventor of the scholarly field of race relations which took seriously that white and black were mutually interactive and jointly put their stamp on American culture. On the occasion of the Academic Awards Convocation, I paraphrased DuBois, who once said that in the world of learning, what we today call the liberal arts and sciences were "excellence," for they alone offered the tools to look at natural and human phenomena from many perspectives and to overcome the inaccuracies -- the "unexellences," if you will -- that come from the one-sided view or the unexamined prejudice.
Today, in bringing this Commencement ceremony to a close and sending our graduates on their way, I want to turn to DuBois once more. For in The Souls of Black Folk, DuBois said something about the purposes of a broad and liberal education that certainly has been said in various ways by others before and since but said it with a special conviction and power because of the audience he was addressing in 1903. Though aware that his book would have a wide and disparate audience, he addressed his thoughts specifically to men and women who were overwhelmingly the children and grandchildren of slaves (and sometimes had been born into racial slavery themselves). Moreover, he was addressing them at a time -- right at the turn of the 20th Century -- when social segregation and political disfranchisement had become codified in law in the South, when lynching had reached its peak in the southern states and was beginning to accompany the great migration of African-Americans to northern industrial cities, and when leading black spokesmen were cautioning their people against classical, liberal, "academic" education, encouraging, instead, practical jobs-oriented training.
In that environment, DuBois wrote that the kind of education most needed by Americans of his race -- and by all Americans -- was an education, as he put it, "that encourages aspiration, that sets the loftiest ideals and seeks as an end culture and character" and, he added, not just "breadwinning," though he did not doubt that breadwinning was important to life, too. Education, he said, was not only for work but for life -- a theme he would repeat over and again for decades in his writings for Crisis, the journal of the NAACP, of which he was a leading founder.
I hope DuBois's is the education you have received here at Denison, graduates of the Class of 2004, and that it is an education that you will continue to nurture and add to the longer you are away from this place. I am encouraged that your liberal arts education will be not only for work but for life because of what I hear from many who have gone from this college hill before you. It wasn't long ago that we conducted a systematic survey of graduates, who were asked about the breadth of their education at Denison, particularly about the majority of their coursework that fell outside of their major field of study, and more particularly about the "general education" component of their curricula.
The responses were encouraging. Graduates five years out were divided. Some said, "I'm not really sure how I may have benefited from many of my courses; I don't seem to be using a lot of what I learned in any direct way." But others offered something like: "My life has worked out a good deal differently than I thought it would on graduation day. Along the way, these past five years, I've discovered new interests, found a passion, developed new skills and, surprisingly, much of what I studied outside my major or even my minor has aided me far more than that which I thought I was focusing on as an undergraduate." Graduates 10 years out began to come to a consensus. "I'm discovering that as I grow in a career or in a community or in a family or a household, "relationships", human relationships, are what are important to my success and personal fulfillment. And relationships have less to do about what I learned in any one college course than what I learned from many classes and many interactions with fellow students and professors. I realize now that it was the very breadth of my college learning that has given me perspective, empathy, and a better ability to relate to others."
Twenty-five years post-graduation, the consensus remained but the emphasis had shifted. Graduates simply said, in one way or another, "Because of my education, I'm a more interesting -- and interested -- person. I've discovered that the start I got in learning in college has helped me continue to learn and I've had the chance to explore interests that simply didn't exist when I was 21 or 22." That is education for life and for living. May it be your experience as Denison graduates.
And so, Class of 2004, I charge you: take your Denison education and see to it, as DuBois challenged, that it be an education of aspiration, aspiration to not only make a living but for a life. Aspiration will not lock you to a narrow path or career but will inspire you grow as your circumstances and our world change. Seek, indeed, culture and character, and you will not be tempted to sacrifice honor and empathy as you pursue vocation or avocation. Cultivate aspiration, culture, and character and they will prove not only beneficial to you but those around you, near and far, and you will bring pride to your teachers and luster to your alma mater.