Charge to the Class of 2009
by University President Dale Knobel
Graduates, you have your diplomas in hand. The ceremony is almost done. But it has been a tradition of our college for quite a long time to leave you with a thought, to issue you a “charge” as you begin life anew after this day. Over the course of a year, I find myself collecting ideas for a “charge,” building a file of possibilities drawn from what I’ve read or heard or reflected upon. Sometimes, though, I’m influenced more by a simple experience, and that is where my Charge to you, the Denison Class of 2009, comes from today.
Exactly nine weeks ago, I became a grandfather for the second time over. When our grandson was born just before Denison spring break, we dashed down to Houston, Texas to see the newborn and help out for the first few days, especially by distracting the baby’s older brother, a very active toddler.
Now I’m not going to try to spin a charge to the class around grandparenthood. But I will weave it around an observation I made while I was spending a few days doing my grandfatherly duties. One of those tasks was to take the toddler on an almost daily walk, pulling him along in his beloved little red Radio Flyer wagon. Fortunately, we had convenient places to walk. Our daughter and her husband live in one of those scenic suburban subdivisions that is a so-called “planned community,” with neighborhood parks, community centers and swimming pools, and — best of all for what I had been assigned to do — gently winding paved walking and jogging paths in nicely landscaped greenbelts.
Now these paths do wind scenically, but they do not really wind very much. They run alongside streets that are more or less straight or gently curved, but the paths meander back and forth. In most places, they probably don’t wander more than four or five feet off the center line, but I was struck on my regular walks by this occasional sight: every now and then, the designers put in a slightly broader curve, maybe taking the path ten or twelve feet right or left off the centerline. The remarkable sight wasn’t this modest little ripple from the straight line. It was that a dirt path had been worn in the grass by walkers and joggers to cut off the ten or a dozen feet and effectively straighten the route.
Now this seemed odd. The paths have been designed for either a) walkers, walkers who presumably are out on a stroll, alone, with a pleasant companion, or, as I was, entertaining a child. They were, as I said, scenically designed to encourage enjoyment of the trees, plantings, and occasional flower beds as well as of the birds and other wildlife that take advantage of the foliage. They were fit for the kind of walk one might call a “saunter.” Or b), they were planned for joggers and even more serious runners, who would be out to maximize their exercise, to increase their heart rate, to expand their lung capacity in the fresh air — to, one might say, “jock it up.” The paths were certainly not designed to get one the quickest way from point x to point y. If that was ones object, it would make far more sense to walk along the edge of the adjacent residential side street. No, if you were taking the path, the experience was the thing. Thus my puzzlement: if you were out for a saunter, to enjoy nature or company, what would be the profit in cutting off a ten foot meander; or, if you were out for the exercise of a run, doesn’t it rather miss the point if you are seeking to abbreviate the experience?
Well, that little muddy cutoff got me to thinking about both college — and life after college. Oh, we’ve all seen that cutoff taken in college — maybe not by us (no, not us!) but certainly by someone else. We see it when someone dashes through the curriculum just as fast as they can, fulfilling the bare minimum of requirements for a major, minor, or degree — forgetting, I think, that its not just the end, the diploma, but the experience, the education, that’s the object. The diploma you received today will reside, perhaps, in a frame on a wall or, as likely, gather dust in a bookshelf or closet, but the education that you’ve had — or perhaps could even have had more of — is the thing that will open doors to careers, adapt you to the vicissitudes of life, help you be a more fulfilled and interesting person, and allow you to contribute productively to the communities in which you will find yourself.
Lest you think I’m chiding you or your generation, let me assure you that I speak frankly of myself. When I was an undergraduate, at the very moment that I discovered that I could reduce my course load and still meet all my graduation requirements, I reduced it. It only took me a few years after college to begin saying to myself “What was I thinking?” I quickly discovered that it would be unlikely any time later in my life that I would have as available an opportunity as the one I had just voluntarily cut short to learn more, to poke into things that would have been useful, personally enriching, or both. What was I thinking?
We see this all the time, don’t we? We see degree requirements treated as obstacles rather than opportunities. We see them regarded as simple checklists: got that last GE (at Denison, a General Education course) knocked off, never mind what it was. We sometimes see course requirements, too, as hurdles rather than tools promoting and assessing mastery of ideas and techniques. And so we — or maybe somebody we know — gives them short shift, doing the least possible to get by with a “B.” Occasionally, someone gets so confused about the difference between learning and getting a pass that they take the ultimate shortcut and engage in an act of academic dishonesty. Pleased as I am that Denison students led the charge to develop a new Code of Academic Integrity that was forwarded from DCGA and passed by the Faculty as University legislation, the truth is that cheating is its own penalty. It’s a forfeiture of an opportunity to learn.
But taking the cutoff and missing the pleasure of the metaphorical walk or run doesn’t just happen in the classroom. We see it in the life of the residence and dining halls, of athletics and student organizations, and of social life broadly construed. When we stereotype people — as it’s all too easy to do in the hothouse environment of a residential college campus, stereotype people by assigning alleged characteristics to them because of race or gender or nationality or religion or sexual orientation or socio-economic status or appearance or age, we’re taking the cutoff, denying ourselves the opportunity to actually get to know someone as an individual and reaping the benefits and rewards of that knowledge.
When we take our understanding of something in our community from the rumor mill, from the narcissistic “here I am, listen to me” slash and burn attacks that often adorn the Bullsheet — our not so underground campus free speech vehicle, or from the unexamined opinion voiced by friend or acquaintance, we are often in danger of taking the cutoff. It’s easier, of course, to do this than to explore a subject — especially from multiple angles, to enquire about something, to listen to many voices, and to use our powers of critical analysis to come to a fuller understanding of it. But it’s not likely to make us better informed, much less able to ACT in an informed way.
Now, you say, this sounds like old news. This is the kind of thing that one talks about to a NEW class of college students, of those just beginning. These are the words to share as one is just taking up the college curriculum or just beginning to live with others on campus. It’s the stuff of orientation or of Denison’s Induction Ceremony for first-year students. Anyway, it’s too late; we’re graduating.
And you’d be right. But, of course, it is also appropriate to you, too, graduates, for you are right back at a beginning again. You aren’t starting college again, of course, though many of you will be beginning graduate or professional school this fall or not long thereafter. You’re all starting on the rest of your lives, whether it’s with job or grad school admission in hand or with neither but a plan or a notion about how you’re going to find what you will do next.
And throughout life there will be the temptation to take the cutoff, the shortcut, to forget that the winding path is there for a reason. Sometimes, cutting off the meander will shortchange no one but you; you will have missed another chance to experience, and learn, and grow in the haste to get somewhere faster and apparently more directly. But often it will affect those around you if the shortcut causes you to ignore or mishear their voices, encourages you to cling to misconceptions without examining alternatives, or lump individuals together with groups because of unexamined preconceptions.
Now, I hope you do not find me pessimistic. In fact, I’m anything but. The liberal education you’ve undertaken at Denison is, by design, the winding path. It has not focused your attention narrowly upon a discipline, even your major, directing you to sample courses across the college whose worth will only be fully apparent as you grow in life experience. It is an education rarely teaching you all you know about mastery of that first job, predicting instead that what you most need is to learn how to learn as your career evolves. It’s an education, in fact, that specifically denies that the job or career is what the most important education is about, seeking instead or at least in addition to prepare you for a life that you will live well and fulfilled and replete with empathy for those you live with in a household or a world.
And so, Denison Class of 2009, I charge you, prepared as I think you are by your liberal education:
Whether walking or running through life, shun the cutoff. Take the meander. In choosing thus you will, ultimately, do better, be better, and enjoy the experiences of life more. Graduates. Beginners. Take the meander.