Centre College Founders’ Day, January 16, 2013: “A Contrarian View”
January 17, 2013 By R. Stanton Hales
Good morning. My thanks to you, President Roush, and to the Centre College community, for the honor of the degree and for the invitation to speak today. It is indeed an honor to be in Danville and to join the Centre community in celebrating the founding of this college on its charter date of Jan. 21, 1819. Founders Day at a 194-year-old institution is not to be taken lightly, either by me as your speaker or especially by you as members of this remarkable community. I cannot resist mentioning why my wife and I never take Jan. 21 lightly: our first child, a daughter now a professor at Davidson College, was born on that same date, precisely 150 years after Centre’s birth!
In other ways, too, it is more than just a professional honor to be here; it is a great personal pleasure. I value my long acquaintance with Centre College, one that goes back more than thirty years to my first visit in 1982, and I value my friendships both past and present with a number of Centre people. There is the late Edgar “Pete” Reckard, your dean in the 1970s and later interim president, who served as chaplain at the Claremont Colleges during my student and early faculty years at Pomona College. There is former President Richard Morrill, a friend and colleague for many years, and of course President Roush, with whom I’ve had the pleasure of associating in both the Annapolis Group and the Association of Presbyterian Colleges and Universities. Finally, there is a special family relationship: one of your alumni, Stuart Hales ’80, is my double second cousin once removed; I am happy to explain that relationship later to any interested parties!
The nature of today’s celebration is a familiar one. Both institutions in my career—Pomona College and The College of Wooster—also observe their own Founders’ Day, and I resonate with such celebrations. So let me begin with an inquiry: what is a “founder?” It is not simply a “starter.” Responsible dictionaries, including The Oxford English Dictionary, are careful to instruct us that a “founder” does not just “begin” something but, more importantly, establishes a truly significant entity on a solid foundation that guarantees its future vitality. This linkage of founder and foundation is essential. We would all be doing something else today were it not for the long-term vision of Centre’s founding trustees, such as noted surgeon Ephraim McDowell and Kentucky’s first Governor Isaac Shelby, dedicated people central to Centre’s flourishing from its founding onward. The notion of long-term vision is also central.
I would like to pose two initial questions to the students here this morning. You are most fortunate to attend this fine college, and I understand you are even earning course credit for attending today. In return, will you—someday—be a founder? If so, of what will you choose to be a founder? Do remember these initial questions; I will return to them at the end. Let me now explore two educational issues of importance to all of us.
The first issue concerns the purpose of higher education. In the United States, there are over 4,100 institutions of higher education, founded over a period of 376 years, from Harvard in 1636 all the way down to the latest on-line “institutions” opened in 2012. Among this huge collection of institutions, there are some important and worthy purposes that are common to all of them. Our country, and indeed the world, are enriched by these common purposes, purposes that unite these institutions in the educational enterprise. Just two weeks ago, for example, the presidents of more than three hundred institutions, all members of the Council of Independent Colleges, held their annual meeting around the theme “Catalyst for the Common Good.”
The common good is indeed well served by these common purposes of higher education institutions. What are a few of such common purposes? First, of course, there is, at the most basic level, the value of knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Human curiosity has always been a fundamental driver of education at all levels, and the goal of satisfying human curiosity is, or at least should be, a powerful unifying ideal of all educational institutions, particularly institutions of higher education.
Naturally following this first goal is, or at least should be, a second common goal, that of educating the whole person in preparation for a fulfilling life. As was argued by senior writer Dan Barrett in the Chronicle of Higher Education in October, one real value of a worthwhile college education is how it shapes the manner in which graduates think and act throughout their lives, a manner including such habits of mind as open-mindedness, thoroughness, humility, intellectual courage and, indeed, a never-ending curiosity.
And, third, there is the particular common purpose of citizenship. From a practical point of view, each generation must be prepared to address society’s needs and to ensure the viability of human civilization in general and its civic structures in particular. This purpose of higher education, to cultivate responsible citizenship, is not just valuable—it is essential. Such an education should result in a citizenry that is both well-informed and well-meaning; it should be a general education effective in encouraging and enabling responsible participation in all of one’s polities: local, regional, national and worldwide.
You will note that in none of the above have I said a single word about jobs or careers or employment. This fact is related to my belief that, in addition to the great value of many of the common purposes of our higher educational institutions, we have also been greatly enriched by some of their differences of purpose, by the diversity of the goals they adopt and the approaches they take. These differences, this variety and diversity of purpose, are also crucial; not all purposes are well-chosen to be common ones. Unfortunately, there is increasing pressure toward a particular common purpose that, in my opinion, is ill-chosen. This is the growing assumption and expectation that the primary purpose of all higher education is to prepare you for, and to land you, your first job.
Over twenty years ago, the noted educational leader David Breneman identified this trend in his 1990 research showing that many liberal arts colleges were losing their distinctive identity and gradually merging into the larger population of vocational institutions, euphemistically called “professional colleges.” More recently, this “first-job” expectation has risen even higher out of an increasingly anxious general public. The editorial director at the Chronicle of Higher Education wrote in a September 2012 article, “Today, parents and students want answers to the questions: ‘Will I get a job?’ and ‘Will I make enough money in that job to pay for the debt I incur?’” John Churchill, national secretary of Phi Beta Kappa and, in fact, your speaker at this Founders’ Day celebration ten years ago, wrote this fall, “More students … feel an urgency to make college ‘pay off.’” And, most troublingly, some analysts and so-called experts on higher education are now so preoccupied with the immediate job market that they seek to measure the value of a college degree just by comparing starting salaries in the first job.
Now I have nothing against jobs. Jobs are nice to get, and nice to keep. If one is ever going to have a job, one must have a first one. And I have nothing against salaries; they too are nice to get and nice to keep—well, spend and keep. So, the questions and anxious concerns described above are not unreasonable, especially in tough economic times, but they are taking on, in my opinion, an over-importance and a dangerous dominance in public discussion. This morning, I wish to argue for a view contrary to the primacy of the first job, contrary to making it a common purpose of all higher education. Such a presumed uniformity of purpose is, I believe, short-sighted, unwise, even irresponsible. With respect to job preparation, differentiation of purpose among institutions is essential.
As John Churchill argues, our job is to broaden the sense of higher education’s purpose, not narrow it. He writes that “jobs matter, but so do purposes that look beyond the first job to the whole career and to capacities for long-term success.”
The heart of my belief, and the first of my messages today, is that, if we at liberal arts colleges are pressed to identify which job our education should primarily prepare one for, it is not the first job. The most important and the most valuable kind of education is the one that prepares one primarily for the last job. The last job will likely be tremendously more complex and challenging than the first. Any education that does not take this and the full scope of a career into account, and in particular does not look to its culmination, is insufficient and perhaps even defective. Given the increasing number of jobs that a graduate has in a career, the importance of the first job declines. An education focused only on the first job is likely to become less and less valuable as years pass. The most valuable education is one that becomes increasingly important throughout one’s career.
There are times when in frustration I mount the fully opposite view: that I don’t care at all about the first job, knowing that it will inevitably change. Indeed, more important than an education that gets you the first job is one that leads you to know when to change jobs and how to find your way. I get angry with educations that prepare for just the beginning and not the end, for just the minimum and not the maximum, for just the first part and not the last.
Allow me a metaphor. Education for the first job is like manufacturing a finished product that can be forgotten about once it leaves the assembly line, a product without a serial number, one that will become obsolete long before it wears out.
Another metaphor. The best education is all about planting seeds, seeds of wisdom and judgment, seeds of toughness and compassion, rich and fertile seeds with time-tested DNA in their genes. It is about watering and nurturing these seeds into sprouts, about cultivating these sprouts into vigorous, growing plants. And finally, it is about harvesting the fruits of these efforts at the prime of their existence, fruits of leadership cultivated from powerful habits of mind.
What kind of education meets this test? My humble opinion is that a higher education centered on the traditional “liberal arts” best provides such an environment for growth. Because of the unfortunate political implications too often attached to the word “liberal,” perhaps a better term is “liberating arts.” Such an education has been valued since classical antiquity for freeing one’s mind, liberating one’s mind from enslavement by ignorance, dogma and prejudice. It is valued for preparing its students for enlightened leadership and the potential to grow throughout one’s career to that last job, where maturity, knowledge, judgment and wisdom must combine. The recently appointed president of Roger Williams University, Donald Farish, once observed, “The practical gets you the first job,” he said. “The liberal arts get you to be CEO.”
Centre College exemplifies the values and integrity of a liberal arts education and has done so since its earliest years, even with the state government’s endorsement. Indeed, the Kentucky legislature declared in 1824 that “the College shall at all times be conducted on liberal, free and enlightened principles.” And the election of Professor Tom McCollough as 2012 Kentucky Professor of the Year illustrates that this tradition continues to the present. Recognized for cultivating engaged and exploratory learning, tackling tough issues, and encouraging a rough and tumble exchange of ideas, Professor McCollough exemplifies I am sure Centre’s entire approach, characterized by the tag line, “Personal education, extraordinary success.”
Such an education is truly fundamental, growing out of the classical and medieval categories for the liberal arts, or artes liberales: the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy). What could be more fundamental than studying words: grammar and logic for words at rest, and rhetoric for words in action; studying numbers: arithmetic for numbers at rest and music—yes, music—for numbers in motion; and studying objects and shapes: geometry for objects at rest, and astronomy for objects in motion. Words, numbers, and objects and shapes, at rest and in motion. The modern version of the liberal arts, or liberating arts, offered by Centre and its national colleagues, is simply an appropriately updated version of these fundamentals.
I often credit my late mother for alerting me as a boy to such educational principles. When she would hear someone make a foolish statement or reveal an embarrassing ignorance, she would mutter, “A fundamental part of his education has been sadly neglected.” In effect, she was asking, “How broad and how deep is this person’s education? How broad and how deep is this person’s mind? How well has the person taken advantage over the past 30 years to expand this mind? How well have the seeds been planted and how well cultivated?” People hiring you for the last job will ask the same questions. A college should never be found wanting by having such questions answered badly for any of its own graduates.
Are there financial implications to all this? A Newsweek article some months back carried the title, “Is College a Lousy Investment?” To that question, I would reply that a higher education focused only on the first job cannot hold a candle in investment value to one that addresses the entire working career, increasing in emphasis over time and focusing most strongly on the last job. It’s a good investment for the college too: graduates who associate their college with the last job tend to make their annual contribution more in accordance with the salary of the last job rather than with that of the first!
The second educational issue I’d now like to explore briefly grows straight out of the first and poses to me at least an interesting puzzle. Very often, especially for graduates of liberal arts colleges like Centre, the last job is in fact the one that demands ultimate responsibility and leadership: the job of president, or CEO, or executive director, of whatever institution, company, activity or enterprise with which one is affiliated. Among all such positions, I focus now on one particular presidency, the Presidency of the United States.
Indeed, in this country, the ultimate position of leadership is that of President of the United States, despite the fact that its salary pales unfortunately in comparison to that of most corporation presidents and most if not all D-I football coaches. Centre College happens to be distinctive in its ties to this political arena, through your hosting of vice presidential debates in 2000 and 2012.
In our democracy, we are justified and proud to claim that anyone might rise to the presidency. In fact, looking back about two years to the beginning and early months of the primary campaigns that preceded the recent presidential election and considering the galaxy of potential candidates on both sides of the aisle, I cannot help but observe just how true this claim might have been! But such non-partisan humor aside, our democracy is worth its salt only if it takes it as an essential goal that any citizen might become president.
But that immediately sets a challenge for us. If it is true that any citizen might become president, shouldn’t every citizen have an education up to the task? If anyone might become president, what sort of an educational system, particularly what sort of higher education system, would accomplish this? What kind of education would you prescribe for our president? What kind of educational system, particularly what higher education system, would you design and be willing to pay for so that no person who becomes president will be educationally unprepared?
As your academic year continues in the center term and into the second term, I hope you will keep in mind these questions and the educational issues I have raised. Please keep them in mind as you support Centre in carrying on its important work in the liberating arts. And, Centre students, as future leaders of this society, please keep asking yourself more generally, how will you make best use of your education, in your first job and your last? Of what organizations—educational institutions, for-profit corporations, non-profit agencies—will you be founders? And how will you use your education to provide them with the foundation they require in order best to serve the common good?
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Centre College, founded in 1819, is a nationally ranked liberal arts college in Danville, Ky. Centre hosted its second Vice Presidential Debate on 10.11.12, and remains the smallest college in the smallest town ever to host a general election debate. For more, click here.