2006 Commencement Address
by Sylvia Hurtado, Ph.D., Professor and Director
The Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA
Preparing for a Complex and Diverse World
Denison graduates, proud parents, distinguished alumni and faculty, and Drs. Knobel, Anderson and Tillson: I am honored to join you in this ceremony and day of celebration. Mothers in the audience, this is your day for thanks and appreciation. What better gift than to see your child beaming with happiness in achieving a significant milestone of success?
I promise to keep my remarks brief in order to get on with the celebration of the day's events. I also thank you for the honorary doctorate in the social sciences from what I have come to know is a fine University. I came to Denison a few months ago to visit with faculty, administrators and students; and to share national research about college students and their preparation for a complex and diverse society. As a scholar of higher education, I think our society needs Denison graduates who are prepared to confront a future we cannot yet imagine.
Graduates, you have acquired knowledge about the physical and social world that we couldn't dream to have known only a few decades ago, and you are ready--poised--to go into an increasingly more complex and diverse world today. More importantly, the economic report on NBC news in the last week reported that more employers intended to hire in skill areas that will result in opportunities for this year's college graduates. The numbers of students entering graduate and professional schools also continue to climb, indicating the pathways into the work world and advanced education are open for this graduating class. Parents are thinking, it just might be time to remodel the nest at home...hmm, what should we do with the extra room? But wait, before calling the contractors--how do we know the beaming college graduate sitting here is prepared for the challenge of living and working in a complex and diverse world?
I have studied and worked with college students nationally for nearly 25 years, and I know there are a few things to consider about readiness to take on the challenges. Cognitive psychologists have conducted studies that demonstrate most of human thinking is built on habits and routine. That is, we tend toward mindless and automatic thinking most of the time, and we all have a basic tendency to revert to what is familiar and comfortable to us. Times of transition present new challenges in our lives, and we may have a tendency to retreat and seek comfort -so that bed in that familiar room in your parents' home might look pretty comfortable in a few weeks.
On the other hand, developmental theorists suggest that life transitions (as in the transition from home to college, or from the familiar environment of Denison to a new work or school environment) are times of significant growth and use of active-thinking skills because these situations produce a high degree of uncertainty. We can no longer rely on familiar habits and routines in a new environment. Thus, the excitement that is highly palpable today of this next life transition will present challenges that are likely to test your comfort levels in the near future.
This is a good thing. Realize that significant growth is likely to occur as you encounter new situations, diverse people and perspectives, and that you will put to use the thinking skills and knowledge you have learned at Denison.
"Denison University is a school on the move, aiming to graduate independent thinkers who become active citizens of a democratic society," according to a review of the best liberal arts institutions in the country. This is an important message your institution is sending, important for undergraduate education, because we find a tendency for automatic or "group thinking", instead of independent thinking, in many work environments where important decisions must be made. The growing social and economic gaps, intergroup and international conflicts, and national disasters in our lifetime and reconstruction of cities suggest that now, more than ever, we need independent thinking citizens who can develop creative solutions to complex social problems so vitally important to our society. Employers state they seek graduates who can manage diverse people and perspectives due to the rapidly changing demographics and global connections--workers that have the capacity to move from their own (comfortable) worldview and are willing to "walk in someone else's shoes." Moreover, we have yet to come to terms with what it means to be a full participant in a pluralistic democracy, one that thrives on the rich backgrounds of its citizens and differing perspectives. It will take a special kind of college graduate to handle these issues, and Denison University is aware that our collective future depends on making sure you have these skills.
Not every college can succeed in creating independent thinkers and active citizens, and in fact, we can't take learning for granted in higher education. National research from my Institute (the Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA) on college students has indicated that nearly 48 percent of freshman report falling asleep in class at one time or another. This is not so surprising--so much transition can be exhausting for new students. However, falling asleep in class appears to occur with greater frequency over time in a university, or perhaps students are more honest about it during the later years of college. While there are personal reasons why students are falling asleep (and we can think of many), there are also institutional reasons such as large lecture classes and a lack of engaging teaching styles that will challenge students to become active thinkers. Before parents become concerned about what your son or daughter might have missed, we think this was less likely to occur at Denison. Why? As a graduate of Denison, you had the benefit of significant contact with dedicated faculty, at a small university where the primary aim was your intellectual and personal development. You had more opportunities to engage with faculty than most students at any university. You also had the benefit of significant and close interaction with a highly motivated, bright group of peers. These are factors that many educational researchers found important to learning and personal development, including establishing your own identity, values and commitments in college. You were in an environment that nurtured the process of "becoming what other people trust you will become," according to psychologist Erik Erikson (1968).
We trust you have become a thinking citizen and that you will set out to make a difference in the world, or as Steve Jobs said, he wanted to "make a dent in the universe." If you are truly the independent thinker that Denison nurtured, you are prepared to be the different "voice." It is these divergent thinkers that will produce the next major innovation to capture our imagination. Though working groups with divergent thinkers might find it initially harder to reach consensus, they ultimately construct more creative solutions in the workplace (see the work of Taylor Cox). It is the independent and different voice that could prevent the next major national incident, as researchers have studied our involvement in wars and disasters and concluded that too often such situations lacked an independent thinker who was willing to speak up (see the work of Irving Janis). Martin Luther King thought this was essential when he said "Our lives begin to end the day we are silent about things that matter." As a future leader, you will also have to be prepared to accept challenges to your own views, consider and embrace independent thinkers in your communities and workplace. In reality, you will be able to reach better decisions by facilitating the work of other independent thinkers around you.
How are you prepared for a future we cannot even imagine today? The irony is that the more educated you become, the more you realize how little you know--or that you know quite a bit about only a specific field of knowledge. After the broad liberal education you received here, your training will focus on increasing specialization of knowledge and skills from here on out. As a Denison graduate, however, you have an imprinted roadmap or navigation system to handle expanding areas of knowledge: This education gave you the tools for lifelong learning. And if the faculty at Denison did their job, you have the capacity to ask good questions, seek and evaluate the answers you find or are given, and view discovery as a lifelong adventure. You will look forward to challenges, and place yourself in new and unfamiliar situations because it presents a tremendous opportunity to learn. You will never fear having to learn something new, and applying this new knowledge for the first time--we trust you have become an independent learner.
We trust you have become an active citizen. Citizens within democratic multicultural societies endorse the ideals of justice and equality, are committed to these ideals, and are willing to take action to support and defend them when faced with practices that violate these ideas (see the work of James Banks). You have become the informed, empowered, and responsible citizen. You will seek to understand different experiences, ways of life, and perspectives. In reality, you will be actively constructing a strong democracy out of these differences. You will treat others as equal citizens, and take care to ensure that the progress of the least among us is the metric by which we must judge the overall progress of our society. You represent our best investment in securing the just and equitable society we aspire to achieve--the future of our pluralistic democracy depends on you.
Now if you are like most human beings, you will have reverted to some automatic thinking space, and forgotten what I said (most commencement speeches are forgotten) or worse--fallen asleep like the students in my studies. Just in case: Remember to see each challenge and even conflict as an opportunity to learn and grow. Dare to be the different voice and embrace those different voices that might help you reach better decisions for the good of our society. "Make a dent in the universe" and, most important of all, make us proud to say--and tell others--that you are Denison University graduate!