I. Opening Remarks
Thank you, President Abbot, and I join you and others in congratulating the extraordinary talent and commitment and engagement with teaching of all those whom we are honoring this evening.
If it is a convention to open remarks with an expression of gratitude by a visiting speaker for her or his hosts’ generosity in inviting the speaker to speak, that convention is the more heartfelt by this speaker, by me, this evening. It is so because this is where I grew up. And it is so because USD is the university whose progress I have long followed, for most decades followed at some distance, with enhanced admiration and respect. What these faculty members have shaped here, what President Abbot and others are leading, is a public liberal arts university of the first order.
At the two liberal arts college I’ve had the pleasure of leading, Kenyon College and at Carleton, I was and am asked with some frequency the following question: “What is your greatest competition?” Those posing the question then, typically, go on to say something like the following, “I’m guessing it’s those colleges with whom you have the greatest application overlap, so that in the case of Carleton, your greatest competition is Williams and Amherst and Middlebury, and Bowdoin, a few Ivies, and Pomona.” Here’s my answer: “Those are all fine colleges and universities, and they do represent the universities and colleges to whom our Carleton students most apply. But, but, to my mind, this is not our greatest competition. Our greatest competition rather comes from the public liberal arts universities. Such liberal arts universities, from the University of Michigan to the east to the University of South Dakota to the west offer altogether first-rate liberal arts educations, and they do so for slightly less tuition than we charge.”
And this I entirely mean, this is nothing like guest politeness. In this context, let me risk a personal note, in which I’ll indulge again in a moment. When I was a junior in college, at that small technical college founded in 1636 on the banks of the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts – you know, the college known above all for the humility of its graduates, there appeared an article in the college newspaper. The article’s tone was insufferably haughty if not downright snotty. The article was about the Valedictorian in the Senior Class, who happened to be from a small town in Minnesota. And the article’s tone was archly condescending, essentially arguing that this oddity, a Valedictorian from the middle of nowhere, probably was bound to happen once every three or four hundred years, and wasn’t it cute? My response was as follows: I truly love this college, have learned here much that I’ll treasure for the rest of my life, but the fact is that I went to high school with a half dozen folks as smart as anyone at Harvard. I did, and if I was not as smart as some of these folks at Vermillion High School, I was smart enough to marry the smartest of them, my wife Teresa.B. Another personal comment
Vermillion and this great university are the settings in which I was fortunate beyond easy measure to have grown up. It is here that I contracted, terminally, from my mother and father and from teachers at the Jolley School, in Junior High, and at VHS the most infectious of all ailments, the most addictive of all drugs: an aching, unsatisfiable intellectual curiosity, a hunger to learn. Like the trope of the ever impatient three-year old, my parents were always asking “Why?” and so was I. For me, this meant above all a love of reading, the joy of reading books that matter, which means to me books that merit reading and re-reading.
Indeed, I have thought more than once that if you had asked Teresa’s and my children, children who are now 36 and 28 years old, when they were perhaps four of five years old, “And what do your mother and father do?, meaning “for a living”, our children’s answer would have been, “Ah, I’m not sure what my mom and dad do. I think they read books.”
And speaking of books, among my earliest memories in life is that of picking up a book from a shelf in the home of some of my parents’ friends, who were professors at USD. The book was in a strange and beautiful script. The book was all Greek to me, because the book was all Greek. The book, I later learned, was Homer’s Iliad in that lovely, little Oxford Classical Texts series on India paper. I wanted, even then, to learn this language, and I did, even if later study moved me to the Near East and to more remote antiquity.
But Greek I continued to read and to teach, and still today were I forced to live with but one literary work, it would be the Iliad. My own favored definition of integrity comes from Book IX, when Achilles says to Odysseus, “I hate like the gates of death that man who says one thing and holds another in his heart.” That’s the absence of integrity, feeling one thing and expressing quite another. Integrity is the opposite; integrity is expressing what one holds in his heart.
If life is too short, and life is most emphatically too short, it is above all too short for us to learn and to explore. If we, human beings, are the beings uniquely aware of our own mortality, we are also the beings ceaselessly seeking to know and to understand.
Let me yield to the temptation to utter a final personal word, again about USD. One of my great friends in life is Dan O’Brien, with whom I hunt, over English Setters, sharptails and prairie chickens every autumn out West River, out between Pierre and Wall. Dan, who is the author of Buffalo for the Broken Heart and a half dozen other first-rate volumes of non-fiction and fiction, studied right here, at USD, and he and I often pause, atop some apparently barren but actually pulsing with critters butte in western South Dakota and share tales about Vermillion and the University. Dan is proud to have been a part of USD, and I hope many here are proud of what Dan has written. Dan says he learned to write at USD. And if you’ve not read Buffalo for the Broken Heart, the book is one of those which merits reading and re-reading.
II. Timeliness of your Generous Invitation
There is a timeliness to your concentrating on the liberal arts and to your invitation for me to join you in talking about the liberal arts.
The timeliness of what you are doing comes in part because we are, right now, living through yet another era in the history of higher education in the US when the worth of the liberal arts is being tested. The debate about the worth of the liberal arts has a lengthy history, and the debate is a good and important debate: We should, we must, we are bounden to test again and again our convictions about the life-long value of the liberal arts.
Criticisms, criticisms we should welcome, of what we aim to do in offering a liberal arts education are as old as the distinctively American invention of the liberal arts college. In the 1820’s, for example, Amherst and Yale devoted most of a decade to discussing the value of the liberal arts. More recently, criticisms come at us from both sides: on the one hand, there are those, like Tony Kronman, the former Dean of the Yale Law School who recently published a volume called Education’s End and with whom I appeared on Boston public radio recently, there are those like Professor Kronman arguing that we’ve given up the battle, we’ve abandoned a liberal arts education for something like training in careers, while on the other, there are those arguing that we ought to do just this and more, that the liberal arts have about them a sort of nostalgic patina of culture, but that such inquiry is in the end of little real value. Let’s get on with it, the latter argue, let’s begin training in law and business and medicine from the beginning, with first-year students.
More personally, thoughts about what we do in what we teach have been much with me of late because of an Off Campus Study Program I’m leading in Cairo this coming winter. It is, let me openly confess, more than slightly unhinged for me to forsake other of my responsibilities to lead 32 Carleton students to Cairo and Alexandria and Memphis and Karnak and Luxor this winter. Have I lost my grip? College presidents cannot do this: all that fund-raising, faculty recruitment, work with Trustees, etc. But not altogether unhinged: teaching and research is why I got into this noble profession nearly forty years ago.
III. Liberal Arts as Distinctively American invention
It is worth recalling, as I have just done, and accenting that the liberal arts are a distinctively, a uniquely American invention. Prey we all are to smugness and self-satisfaction, which we must always work to combat. But it’s neither smug nor self-satisfied to note that the liberal arts college we invented.
In most of the world, if a high school senior knows she wants to become a physician, she heads off immediately to medical school. In most of the world, if a high school senior knows he wishes to practice law, he heads off immediately to law school. Almost alone, we think it’s worth a whole lot of money and four years of our life to study a rich variety of disciplines, to study Chemistry and Russian, Mathematics and History, Arabic and Cinema and Media Studies.
And what these four years cost financially is often noted, especially by our critics. All those thousands of dollars, and for what? To study Chemistry and Russian, and the like? Dear as is the financial cost of what we do, this is, I firmly believe, the wrong place to begin and the wrong place to conclude. Money, however difficulty earned, money is replaceable. Time is not. Hence, the real test of a liberal arts education ought rather to be: Is this worth four years of our short lives? Does it make any sense to devote a full forty-eight months of our brief lives to studying the liberal arts? That’s the more daunting test we should pose of ourselves.
IV. Definitions and Aphoristic Phrases re: A Liberal Arts Education
So, let me turn to some of the reasons we value a liberal arts education. As I make this turn, let me accent that the liberal arts are not just about traditional liberal arts disciplines. A liberal arts education is rather a stance, a method, an attitude, which can and should infect all disciplines, including those traditionally excluded from the liberal arts canon.
Here’s an initial reason that the liberal arts stance and method and attitude matters. It matters because of a perverse but undeniable habit we all have, the habit of going days, weeks, months of our lives without thinking actively about, without discussing in the company of friends what matters most in life. And a liberal arts education is dedicated to just this: thinking actively about and discussing in the company of friends what matters most in life. What are the responsibilities of free citizens? What are the sources of human happiness, or at least, contentment? What is a just society and how do we work toward shaping a just society? Is there such a thing as a just war? Are there lasting alternatives to warfare?
It is this that my own favored definition of a liberal arts education stresses. This definition is one up with which a former and now late colleague of mine at Dartmouth and I came en route from Hanover, N.H., to Boston’s Logan Airport, and it required of us the entire journey. As we exited a tunnel just short of the airport, we formulated our definition: A liberal arts education, we decided, is beginning to think seriously about what it means to lead a worthwhile life. What you are doing here at USD, what we are dedicated to is beginning to think seriously about what it means to lead a worthwhile life.
V. Global Leaders on What Is Needed for Such
Are we alone, in the academy, are we alone, as professors and educational leaders, in adhering to the lifelong significance of the liberal arts? We are not. Here are the voices of others from a recent issue of The Harvard Business Review, from an article entitled “In Search of Global Leaders.” The article offered interviews with five leading global leaders and executives on what they look for in those whom they hire and in those who will themselves be world leaders soon.
Without consulting with one another, these global leaders offered markedly similar advice. Here is some of what they said:
-- “We don’t look so much at what or where our people have studied, but rather at their drive, initiative, cultural sensitivity, and readiness to see the world as their oyster. Whether they’ve studied classics, economics, history, languages is irrelevant. What matters are the skills and qualities necessary to be good, well-rounded [leaders] in highly international institutions.”There it is, and from world leaders, not solely from us.
-- The key is “having a global attitude.” “Putting people in foreign settings doesn’t automatically imbue new attitudes, and it is attitudes rather than experiences that make a culture global.”
-- “Cultural sensitivity doesn’t always come naturally… You need to remember that people are pretty much the same everywhere. The respect you must show for different cultures isn’t all that different from the respect you must show to people in your own culture… Developing a global mind-set and learning about other cultures [are keys … The world’s future leaders] will be those who have lived in several cultures and who can converse in at least two languages.”
VI. Putting Things into Context
Can we make further progress in defining what it is that a liberal arts education makes possible for us and our students? We can. And here I come both to my title, “Putting Things into Context” and to a story. The story is about Fay Vincent. The name you may recognize if you are a baseball fan. Francis T., Fay, Vincent became most widely known to many when, in 1989, he succeeded former Yale President Bart Giamatti as Commissioner of Major League Baseball. Fay was the Commissioner of MLB during the justly known San Francisco and Oakland “earthquake series” of 1989. Before that, Mr. Vincent had played very important leadership roles with the Security and Exchange Commission, with Columbia Pictures, and with Coca-Cola, and all of this after he had clerked for a US Supreme Court Justice.
Because of our shared love for reading and for baseball, and because Fay understood then and understands today my irrational passion for the Boston Red Sox, and because Fay was on the Board of Trustees and on the Search Committee for an institution I came to lead, he and I become fast friends nearly twenty years ago. Over the years, we have held repeated and lengthy conversations, conversations chiefly about the books we are both reading, and these books were mostly biographies, from which, I firmly believe, one learns far more about leadership than one does from reading manuals on leadership.
Our conversation took once a different turn, as I asked Fay Vincent a question I had long longed to ask him. “How, Fay,” I asked, “How does one person serve in the many roles you have served? How can one person play key roles with the SEC, with Columbia Pictures, with Coca-Cola, and then with Major League Baseball, roles demanding so many disparate responsibilities and talents? How can one person do all this? Are there really four or five Fay Vincents?” Fay’s answer came swiftly: “I handled,” he said, “I managed so many different roles because I studied history at a liberal arts college.” Fay said “history” because he majored in history at Williams, but he might have said Mathematics or Russian or Economics.I, of course, loved the answer because I was already then the president of another liberal arts college, a lovely college in central Ohio, and I asked Fay to expand a bit. “Well,” he continued, “It’s just this: A liberal arts education allows one to put things into context.” “A liberal arts education allows one to put things into context.”
Fay Vincent was right. And Fay Vincent is not alone:
Our students will need, as physicians or attorneys or school teachers or social workers or business leaders or investment bankers or politicians or diplomats or environmental engineers or research scientists, they will need a sense of prospective, a guide to what matters in any important decision and to what does not matter. Discerning the difference between what matters and what does not is rarely easy. Putting things into context is always a challenge. But it comes to one far more readily and far more surely if she or he is the beneficiary of a liberal arts education.
-- Here is Henry Adams: "Of all of the branches of education, the science of gauging people and events by their relative importance defies study most insolently." (The Education of Henry Adams, p. 391)
-- Or, closer to home, here is Omaha investment guru, no, not Warren Buffett, but another revered Omaha investor, Wally Weitz: “There are an infinite number of facts that you can learn about a company, but there usually two or three very important variables that make the company succeed or fail. A lot of Wall Street gets so bogged down in the minutiae and details that it misses these two or three big things that make or break the investment. Part of what worked for me over the years is being able to distinguish what matters from what doesn’t.”
-- Or, finally, here is what his fellow admirals said about Jackie Fisher, the greatest of the British military leaders in WWI : “He wasn’t the smartest, or the tallest, or the best looking, or the finest speaker, or the best educated admiral. But he knew what mattered and what did not matter.”
Let me conclude whence I began, here, at the University of South Dakota. There are, I know this without knowing their names, there are students and teachers at USD as talented, as committed, as hungry to teach and to learn as any anywhere. This is a great university, one of which you deserve to be very proud. And I am bold this evening to share your pride in the University of South Dakota. Thank you.