Commencement 2012 - Charge to the Class of 2012
By Dale T. Knobel, B.A., Ph.D.
Men and women of the Denison Class of 2012, you have your diplomas in hand. The ceremony is nearly done. But it has been a tradition of our college to leave you with a thought, to issue you a “charge” as you begin your lives as graduates.
If you ever have read editorials or op-ed pieces in our student newspaper, the Denisonian, over any extended period of time, you've almost certainly encountered the assertion that we live in the "Denison bubble." Other colleges have this notion, too. I earned my undergraduate degree at Yale and the old expression "Mother Yale" was understood to mean sort of the same thing. On the more positive side, the notion of a "Denison bubble" seems to imply something about the perceived serenity and safety of Granville and about the intimacy of our college community. We're a place where --as the jingle for the 1980s television comedy series "Cheers" goes--everybody knows your name. On the less positive side, there's the implication that students are cut off from what's really going on in the world and that somehow this is a place where you don't need to take too much personal responsibility, where you can cross some lines without consequences. In either case, if you read about the Denison bubble in the campus newspaper or hear it in campus conversation, it is almost always contrasted with "the real world" that is presumably outside the bubble.
Sometimes--especially for those a few years beyond college (not just old guys like me but fairly recent graduates)--the implied desire to find the "real world" outside the "Denison bubble" seems a little trivial and even comical. So we hear that if we only didn't find it necessary to reside in campus residence halls, we could learn the "real world" skill of renting an apartment and paying utility bills. It only takes a moment's reflection to realize that renting an apartment and even paying some of its bills with what is more likely to be our parents' money than our own earned income hardly qualifies as a "real world" experience. Anyway, the nice thing about apartment hunting and bill paying is that when the time comes to do it, you'll figure it out. We all do.
But it's not my point to chide and fuss about certain trivial aspects of the notion of a "Denison bubble." It is to blow it up altogether and to get you think about your experience here and how it relates to the experiences you will have. I have news for you. Different though it may be in some ways, in many of its fundamental characteristics, in and out of the classroom, college life is "real life."
College is the essence of the "real"--both the good and the challenging.
- Have you ever struggled to balance time and activities during these four years? Real world.
- Have you ever had to meet deadlines? Real world.
- Did you ever go to work--that is class or study--sick?
- Did you have to choose friends?
- Did you ever lose friends--or find it necessary to break with them?
- Did you make any mistakes--and learn from them?
- Did you encounter people with real problems--with eating disorders or substance abuses?
- Did you have to continue with your education while dealing with challenging issues among your family or friends back home?
- Did you have to determine at some point what you just WON'T do?
- Did you learn something about figuring out other people?
- Did you learn to live with a roommate?
- Did you experience rejection and some degree of failure?
- Did you experience success and satisfaction?
- Did you identify new aptitudes and interests?
- Did you have to deal, as you interacted with others, with difficult issues of race or nationality or gender or religion or region or class?
- Was your tolerance tested?
- Did you experience love?
- Did you experience loss?
- How about frustration? Or triumph?
What happens in the classroom, the library, the laboratory, the studio is, oh, so "real world." If it weren't, there'd be little reason for a college.
At Denison, you've:
- Experienced the "real" of understanding other cultures and people through the acquisition of languages not native to you.
- You've engaged in the "real" of expressing yourself accurately and persuasively in speech and writing.
- You may have acquired real understanding of how the economics of the organization, the nation, and the world work.
- Some have found the real in learning how societies are organized, how the mind is organized, how cultures evolve and persist.
- Then there's the real discovery that art--drawing and painting, music, cinema, and dance--are languages, too, and describe worlds both interior and exterior to us in ways other languages can't.
- The real of understanding the uses and misuses of history and how it is that we have a hard time knowing where we are without knowing something about from whence we've come.
- The real of understanding science and the scientific method.
- The real of discovering unmet needs in communities nearby and far away and finding that you, as a citizen, have the opportunity-- even the imperative--to address them.
- The real of understanding just how it is you learn.
- The real of understanding how you find out more when you don't know enough.
- The real of grasping how to separate fact from fiction, assertion from substantiation: in other words, how to mistrust Wikipedia!
And maybe you've discovered what Judge Learned Hand, probably the most famous Federal judge never to sit on the Supreme Court, said just before the middle of the last century when he tried to answer the question, what is freedom, what is liberty, concluding: "The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias." I hope you have. That's real--and a key to living in the real world for the rest of your lives.
If you've experienced just some of these things through your formal studies in the classroom or through your interactions with others on or near this campus over the last four years, you've engaged in the real world, you've escaped the bubble. In fact, you were never really in a bubble at all.
John Dewey, the late nineteenth and early twentieth century philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer is still probably the plainest expositor of the idea that education is "a social process" that involves the interaction of people of diverse background, interests, and skills in community with one another. Perhaps the most over-worked--but I still think insightful--quotation from Dewey is that "education…is a process of living and not a preparation for future living." He is saying with me that what you have experienced here is real--and also saying what I hope you know, that your life of learning isn't ending here but just beginning. And it will be a life of learning off campus as it has been on: within real communities of men and women living real lives. Actually, if you remember, I launched you with a version of this thought when we held your Induction Ceremony on the Reese-Shackelford Common almost four years ago, when I recounted Plato's rendition of the last conversation of Socrates with his pupil Crito, wherein Socrates revealed his debt to community and learning in community, even if fealty to community cost him his life.
And so, members of the Denison Class of 2012 I charge you: No, don't, as the slang expression goes "Get real." Instead, stay real. Take your life experiences and your learning from Denison years not as an interlude, a "bubble," but as a beginning to a life of learning with, from, and about a worldwide community of people whose lives you can enrich and who will enrich yours. Neither living nor learning is a solitary act.