Charge to the Class
by University President Dale Knobel
Each year, as I think about the “charge” appropriate to Denison’s graduating class, I’m taxed to find a new idea. The charges to the class of 2007 or 2003 or 1999 may each have been right for them and could work just fine for you, too, class of 2008. But really, you deserve your own. Throughout the year, I build a file of ideas, drawn from what I have read or heard or reflected upon as we progress toward graduation, hoping that something will speak to me as just the right one on which a build a graduation charge for you.
This year, it wasn’t until just a couple of weeks ago that I met the idea I was looking for. And I have to credit a friend for it: Grant Cornwell, a professor of philosophy and the first year president of one of our partners in the Five Colleges of Ohio, the Great Lakes Colleges Association, and the North Coast Athletic Conference: the College of Wooster in the northeastern part of this state. Not very long ago, I listened to my colleague and friend speak briefly to an audience following a ceremonial dinner and heard him say a word — a word from another continent and a different cultural tradition — that I had heard before but upon which I had reflected little. On this hearing, though, I began to scribble — on my dinner menu, on the back of my napkin, on a stray business card in my suit coat pocket--and I’ve been trying to make some sense of those scribbles throughout the weeks since.
The word is ubuntu, a word common to several of the many languages of the Bantu linguistic group of southern and central Africa. You may well have heard this word yourselves. The more I began thinking about it, in fact, the more often I ran across it. What does it mean? Well, the English translation is, on the one hand, “humanness” or the “quality of being human.” But it is more complicated than that. The word in its traditional cultural context is part of a Zulu phrase that says something like “a person is a person through other persons.”
Now, it is possible to reduce this to something that is pretty commonplace, maybe even banal. You could reduce it—and some have—to the equivalent of a few commonplace expressions we have in English: “A man/woman is known by the company he/she keeps” or “No woman/man is an island.” It’s sometimes simplified, even among the southern African people to whom it is original, to a set of appealing interpersonal virtues: generosity, compassion, hospitality. It was adopted a dozen years ago by the South African government as a principle behind that nation’s social welfare policy, that “caring for one another’s well-being” is or ought to be an organizing principle of a society. It’s been appropriated as a catch-word by the international Fair Trade movement that seeks to engage buyers of world-wide traded commodities, like coffee, in the welfare of producers. It’s even been borrowed as a name for a linux-based computer operating system that is a free share-ware product. You can google it and see for yourself. Once you’ve become the name for a computer program, you’ve become pretty commonplace.
But as a philosophical concept, ubuntu is much deeper than this. South African Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu captured something of its philosophical — he might call it theological — depth when he shared that ubuntu means that “My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in what is yours.” Sometimes, its meaning is expressed in an even leaner way: I am, therefore you are; you are, therefore I am.
I am, therefore you are; you are, therefore I am. We have daily experiences in a college community that remind us of the fundamental truth of this. A teacher is a teacher in name only unless he or she successfully cultivates learning in a learner. A learner is a learner only in relation to the experiences that or the person who teaches. Additionally, perhaps in your four college years you have discovered that the quality of your engagement in the classroom affects the quality of the experience of all of the other students in the class—and vice versa. Or, outside of the classroom, perhaps you have found that the way in which you live in the residence hall directly affects the experience of others — maybe even all others — who live in that same hall. And the way they live affects your experience.
There’s more here, though. Ubuntu means that you are as I see and experience you, not just as you want to be or believe yourself to be. And, conversely, I am as you see or experience me, not just as I want or believe myself to be. This is something that we had a chance to experience and talk a good deal about on this campus over the course of this year. Perhaps malicious bigotry on account of race, or gender, or nationality, or sexual orientation, or religion is rare among us, but we learned or re-learned that we all are diminished as human beings if any among us through ignorance or carelessness diminish any one of us.
A liberal education such as you have experienced at Denison is intended to liberate individual potential — but it is not liberation from responsibility to other human beings but for responsibility to other human beings. It has equipped you to look at things — and persons — from many perspectives and to acquire, I hope, a special empathy that helps you to understand the experiences, outlooks, opportunities, challenges, and needs of those with whom you will share a home, a workplace, a community, a nation, a continent, and a world.
And so, Class of 2008, in the tradition of our college, I charge you: imagine ubuntu, explore ubuntu, live ubuntu. Because you are, I am. Because I am, you are. Because of each, all. Make a better world. Ubuntu, Class of 2008. Ubuntu. Ubuntu.