Timothy J. Sullivan, President Emeritus
Liberal Learning–Does It Still Matter?
I have been honored—greatly honored—by your invitation to join in celebrating the 188th anniversary of Centre College’s founding. When I say that I am honored, I mean it. The work of a university is sacred. Places like this—and others like it—touch the heart and the soul of humanity. And yours is the privilege of helping some of America’s—and the world’s—best young women and men find the best in themselves. So the work of Centre College is indispensable—because you contribute in no small way to protecting the fragile fabric of civilization against the relentless depredations of the proudly and willfully ignorant. Is there anything more important? I think not.
I hope you find comfort—as I always have—in the repetitive rhythm of the academic calendar. At summer’s end, we begin anew—full of hope that this year will be better--perhaps even the best yet---that this will be the year when we finally—finally get it all right. Soon enough we stumble through the inevitable disappointments—new proofs of an old truth—that human nature is not perfectible—and that as an inescapable part of that humanity—neither are we. But there are triumphs too—some small and some large—triumphs that inspire and fortify—that give us hope that we can make things better—that will make them better. Then, somewhere between the beginning and the end we mark our College’s founding—charter day—or he founder’s moment—or the magic which inspired the imagining of a place like this. Then, at the end—so oddly called commencement—we share in the joy and exultation of our students—who celebrate briefly, but unconditionally one of the great triumphant moments in their lives.
The pride you feel in Centre College’s current eminence must be immense. It should be—for to stand proudly among a small company of America’s best liberal arts and sciences institutions is an achievement of genuine significance. It is even more significant if you study even a small sliver of Centre’s history. That history—not unlike that of my own college’s—is more about adversity than plenty, more accurately described as a victory for courageous perseverance than as an unimpeded march to glory. This place has felt the weight of history--and it has not merely survived—it has triumphed.
Those of you who love this College can offer a far more authentic explanation for its greatness than any short-term visitor—of whom I am certainly one. Allow me to suggest, however, that no small part of Centre’s current distinction may be marked down to an enduring fidelity to its founding ideals. You express this fidelity in the phrase “the Centre experience.” Among the materials I read before coming here was a fine essay written by Professor Clarence Wyatt.
“But while each of us” he wrote “has our own particular patchwork of memories, a common thread runs through all of these. It is a combination of high expectations and high commitment, of ambition and affirmation, of rigor and reward. It’s tough love. It’s stepping out on a high wire, knowing that many hands want to catch you when you fall.”
“Knowing that many hands want to catch you when you fall”---ladies and gentlemen—those are great and moving words and they tell me much about why this is a great college.
As I said earlier—one level, we meet today to mark formally the founding date of Centre College. We do that—with pride and thanksgiving—but we do more. Our presence here bears witness to our faith in the power of learning; and witness to our conviction that a great education is indispensable to building great lives--and that great lives give us both the hope and the power to protect the precious heart of civilization. “If you ask what is the good of education,” Plato wrote, “the answer is easy--education makes good men—and good men act nobly.”
If we believe Plato was right—and I do—surely we must also ask what kind of education makes that goodness and that nobility possible? And once we have the great blessing of such an education—what good does it do? Of what help is it to the society—which the nobly educated--ultimately join? There are no ends of answers to these questions—but today you have given me the privilege of this platform--so I propose to tell you what I think.
A great education requiresCan unyielding—an unblinking commitment to excellence--defined in absolute not relative terms. Excellence so defined requires in turn:
First, in this country a disciplined command of written and spoken English.
Second, a clear grasp of the essentials of mathematical calculation and basic scientific principles—an understanding, too, of the power of technology not just in our lives today---but also of its certain potency in shaping the human condition for the rest of the 21st century.
Third, an understanding of history--not just as a jumbled, incoherent collection of indigestible factsCbut as the eloquent, complicated and compelling story of the troubled march of mankind.
Fourth, an opportunity—to know—indeed—to feel the consoling beauty of music and the joy of great art.
Fifth, a love of great literature—love fired by knowing that fiction is sometimes more true than truth--and that the deepest secrets of the human heart may often be found most authentically in the lives of those called into being by the imagination of our greatest writers.
Finally, in this century, a mature grasp of other cultures, of other religions and of other nations—an understanding, too, that is deep enough to inculcate respect for the bewildering diversity of this global village—but also an understanding profound enough to give us an honest feeling for the true unity of humanity—of the universality of its hopes—of its fears—and of its dreams.
But that is only the beginning. The best of our universities and colleges—and Centre College is certainly one of those—know the duty they owe to those who come to learn—now that duty extends not just to training the mind but to teaching the heart. Ideas are fine, great minds even better. But ideas--without the discipline of values—can be not only misguided but dangerous. Great minds—unencumbered by a feeling for humanity—so often seem uselessly brilliant—and ultimately irrelevant.
And what are the values great universities teach? Quite simply the values thatCin civilized placesChave survived the centuries and always will. The values which—to recall Plato—make men and women good and then cause them to act nobly. We all know themClove of othersCa deeply felt compassionCa powerful sense of dutyCa scrupulous regard for truthCa high-flown and proudly borne sense of honor. These things taught not as theory but by example—produce something beautiful and all too rare—something Lionel Trilling called “the intelligent heart.”
Great colleges by definition depend upon great teaching. Who are the teachers who teach in such places? I know that seems a silly question. But—it is not. Of course, those of you here today—the faculty—you are truly teachers—and you are the pride of any great place of learning. But others also teach--at least in places like this, blessed by a powerful and deeply felt sense of community. Administrators, secretaries, coaches, custodians, cafeteria workers, grounds people--all share the honor and the opportunity of being teachers—and contribute in important ways to the education of our students.
And on any list of teachers in a great college—we should be sure to include students themselves. On the basis of thirty four years as a faculty member of William and Mary--can tell you that some of my best teachers have been my students. From them I have learned things I never knew—and sometimes—I knew once but had forgotten.
That is another great thing about great colleges. There is abundant love of each other, humility before excellence and an understanding that that wonderful phrase Ateachable moment” describes an opportunity that comes—soon or late—to anyone who is part of such a community.
And then there is our work as scholars. Too often in this too materialistic age, we are told that scholarship only matters if we can measure its results in financial terms. How very wrong.
If we can’t quantify the results—if we can’t assign a dollar value to a new interpretation of an Anthony Trollope novel or to imagining a trip through the nucleus of an atom--we supposed to apologize for indulging in our love of knowledge? Well, scholarship is work for which none of us need apologize—ever. The true task of a scholar—so often and so foolishly mocked---is the discovery of new knowledge—or the patient reworking of what is already known so that we may sometimes discover what we didn’t know after all.
Is some of our scholarship esoteric? Is some of it inaccessible? Does some of it, finally, turn out to be wrong? Of course—of course. We all know the frustration of facing dead ends—the anguish of almost, but not quite, finding what we seek—the futile struggle with stubborn facts which punctured our once so promising hypotheses.
Yet there is compensation not monetary. And, on the other hand, not only in the joy of intellectual quest---as profound as that joy can be. There is also compensation in the knowledge that even dead ends are not without their consolations—and then---most of all--there is that very occasional triumph when it all works—when we do--we really do—add to the sum of human knowledge.
But the primary purpose of the university is not profit—thank heaven for that. It is to transmit the scholar’s love of learning to students who learn, in turn, not only facts but a profound humility in the face of all that is yet to be known. It is to imbue care about the life of the mind, reverence for the world of ideas, and the concomitant development of an intellect that will be more than a match for the change—good and bad—that the 21st century will most certainly bring.
So that is how I would define the proper work of a great college and the proper meaning of a great education. And once you have them---what are they good for? Three thoughts occur. Let me take a moment before I close to share them with you.
We live in a world of accelerating change. We all know that—at least in an abstract way—but the most profound impact of change is what we feel—what we actually feelCin the fiber of our being.
The historian Arthur Schlesinger once remarked that in the last century, the boy who saw the Wright brothers fly for a few seconds at Kitty Hawk in 1903 could have watched Apollo 11 land on the moon in 1969. All that in one lifetime. AThe acceleration of change,” he said “compels us to perceive life as motion, not as order; the universe not as complete but as unfinished.”
What I have defined as a great education makes that kind of change—if not un-intimidating—at least not fatally frightening. A great education provides the one thing—the only thing--that confers power not merely to understand change but to master it. And that one thing is a tough-minded—wide-ranging—intellectual agility that permits us to face down complexity and then bend it back to new and useful purposes.
There must be some here like me who have already celebrated—if that is the right word—their 60th birthdays. To those of us in that category, the name Janis Joplin is almost certainly familiar. She was a singer of raw and affecting power. She made an art form of burning her candle at both ends. She died young and tragically. Perhaps her best-remembered song—“Me and Bobby McGee” has a refrain Conce heard--that is hard to forget:
“And Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”
If she meant to describe her own life, she might have been right. For most of the rest of us, I think not. And so—or the rest of us—I would amend her thought: And Freedom is just another word for knowing how to choose.
As Americans we are deeply blessed. We have freedom and most of us have the means to make the choices that freedom allows. But in every life and the life of every nation, there are choices of a uniquely important kind—and—these—these—are always hard. As individuals we face hard choices about our education, about our personal lives, about when we will be selfish and when we will be selfless, about the risks we take and the price we are prepared to pay to win what we want. As a nation, we must now make choices about war or peace, about comfort or sacrifice—about self-delusion or honest appraisal—choices—ultimately about what kind of country we want ours to be.
Does anyone here doubt that in the struggle to choose wisely—a great education is a blessing beyond price? Education is ultimately about the getting of wisdom—and of wisdom we can never have enough. Wisdom, so precious and so rare—comes most often to those who submit themselves to the discipline and the joy of an education very much like that offered here at Centre College.
Finally, may I suggest that the greatest reward of a great education is learning itself. The consolations of literature, the beauty of art, the sublime comfort of music, a firm grasp of history’s lessons—all of these make life not just more bearable but more joyful.
But we must also understand another truth, and it is this—these are hard times for people who think. There are many in powerful places who doubt the usefulness of serious education--who view what you do here as an expensive irrelevance—who find advantage in the exploitation of ignorance rather than the cultivation of learning.
So our duty today is not just to celebrate the founding year of this great College, but also to pledge ourselves to stand firm in defense of great education—to assert—unashamedly—the profound importance of intellectual curiosity and the inexpressible joy of intellectual discovery.
Who here today in this company of believers in just that kind of education will not be moved by these marvelous last words of Sir Isaac Newton?
AI don’t know what I may seem to the world,” he said, Abut as to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”May Centre College remain forever a place warmly hospitable to the next generation of women and men who will come here prepared to dedicate their lives to the discovery of truth—all the while knowing that truth is a resourceful fugitive almost certain to remain just beyond their graspCbut who are nonetheless more than consoled by the glory of the quest—the glorious quest for that great ocean of knowledge that is destined perpetually to lay undiscovered before them.
- end -
Founded in 1819, Centre College is ranked among the U.S. News top 50 national liberal arts colleges. Centre alumni, known for their nation-leading loyalty in annual financial support, include two U.S. vice presidents and two Supreme Court justices. For more, visit http://www.centre.edu/web/elevatorspeech/
For news archives go to http://www.centre.edu/web/news/newsarchive.html.
600 W. Walnut Street
Danville, KY 40422
Public Information Coordinator: Telephone 859-238-5714