Annapolis Office of the President
Liberal Education: The Gift of Humanity
Convocation Address, Annapolis, MD
August 25, 2010
Christopher B. Nelson, President
Welcome to the Class of 2014 and to your families and friends. Welcome back to the rest of the college community.
I love the opening of the school year, when the excitement of a new beginning is palpable. Lately I have even come to look forward to the run-up to Convocation, the signs of school that appear about town in the few weeks before school starts.
I think I first took note of these early signs four or five years ago when my wife, Joyce, and I were gardening at our home in early August. One of our alumni, then a rising junior, Brittany McBride, was helping us that summer, working beside Joyce, pulling the late summer weeds now grown high as cornstalks, and cutting porcelain berry vines out of the trees and shrubs, as I was cleaning up behind them, thinking about writing my Convocation Address using gardening as a metaphor for learning, planting seeds as a metaphor for the seminar, weeding for freeing the soul from the things that hinder the learner from coming fully into the sun, and so on. I was struggling with the problem of how to use the metaphor to explain the need for exposing the roots of things when I heard Joyce say to Miss McBride that with another good weekend or two together they could bring back some semblance of order to the lower border before the start of school and the coming of garden parties. Could Brittany come again the following weekend? To which Miss McBride said “Oh, no, Mrs. Nelson, I have a date that weekend.” “Oh?” was my wife’s questioning reply, to which Miss McBride smiled and said “Yes, I have a date with Don Quixote!” There went my convocation address. After all, who needs a metaphor when we’ve got all these wonderful books to talk about?
And it happened again another summer, when a young Mr. Cleveland had helped me take down a tree, and I was inquiring about his availability the next weekend. “Umm, Mr. Nelson … Tolstoy??” A chain saw and splitter were no competition for War and Peace, not even close as far as I could see, as he told me what he was thinking about the book he was well into by this time. A year ago, as I walked downtown the week before school opened, I passed a few juniors taking a break from moving their furnishings into a new home for the year, with Cervantes sitting beside them on the arms of their porch chairs. Last week, I saw two rising sophomores returning to campus early to read their Ptolemy together, while a few others were reading big thick books out on the lawn in 96 degree heat. Even a few recently graduated alumni found there way back to play soccer on the back campus, replaying memories of the start of the intramural sports season, as they paused to ask me whether there was anything they might do to help us get ready for the new year. Something stirred in me again, and I came to realize that the return to campus for the fall term meant more than getting started again. Our students had already begun, without us, for the sheer love of it, I sensed, and they were excited about the approaching day when they could share all their enthusiasm with their friends, in and out of the classroom.
Well, it was just on this last day that I had a visit from T.R. Ahlstrom, a friend who is the headmaster of a new K-12 school, about to open its doors two weeks from now. Long a fan of St. John’s College, he was intent on refounding one of America’s oldest primary-to-secondary schools, renewing the charter of the Alexandria Academy that was founded, and substantially endowed, by George Washington, and continued operating through 1824, the year Robert E. Lee graduated and left for West Point. The reopened Academy will have at its center a rigorous classical curriculum, with a faculty devoted to the cultivation of the liberal arts among its students. We were discussing the school’s math and science curriculum when T.R. told me a story. It seems that he had been visiting with a Mr. Anand Mahindra, Chairman and Managing Director of one of India’s great industrial combinations, who had been speaking at a Harvard Business School symposium. Mr. Mahindra argued that America’s significant scientific edge was a thing of the past, noting that India already had several schools of technology as good as any in the United States. A great admirer of the U.S., Mahindra went on to say that what made America great was not its technological edge but its historic attention to “the liberal arts.” He insisted that it is “America’s compelling vision of humanity” that makes this country a beacon for the rest of the world, not its technology. This observation fed Mr. Ahlstrom’s own conviction, at the heart of his new venture, that “the renewed study of philosophy, history, civics and humane letters represents our best path to cultural renewal and international leadership. After decades of calculated abandonment, the classics are the new frontier of useful knowledge,” he says. This is Ahlstrom’s message to the nation, and he promises to devote the rest of his life to making the case and to building schools that do the job. He wants to have students leave his new Academy worthy of the best and most eager freshmen at St. John’s College – worthy of sitting here, with you, our new freshmen.
I realized then that I had been hearing such things a lot lately, most often from visitors from abroad, those many officials, school representatives, and teachers who visit St. John’s each year because they have heard or come to believe that this college best embodies that vision of America and American education. They come from China, India, Germany and France, from the Czech Republic, Georgia, Israel, and Slovenia. Most recently, I have begun to hear such things from the Middle East. Some of you may have read The Cairo Journal in the May 6th edition of the New York Times about the American University of Cairo. The story described a young man, Rafik Gindy, who had graduated from high school and wanted to go to the university to become an engineer. Instead of allowing him to throw himself into mathematics and science, the University first had him take a class called “The Human Quest: Exploring the Big Questions.” If Mr. Gindy thought he knew who he was because he knew his name and his cultural background, he soon found that the question was “really complex.” Who am I? And what does it mean to be human? These are the questions posed during a year that the University’s president calls a year of ‘disorientation.’ Instead of memorizing facts and regurgitating them in tests, the students here have room to speak for themselves and to express their own ideas. The article in the Times seemed to me to be well titled: “A Campus Where Unlearning Comes First”. It sounded like a line out of the St. John’s College Statement of the Program.
It is hard to imagine that such free learning experiences are unfamiliar to many people across the globe. But this past Spring, Joyce and I had the opportunity to see for ourselves what an awakening experience a liberal education can be to those who have had no exposure whatsoever to a learning environment that allows students to participate in their own education. I was invited by the American Academy of Liberal Education to chair an accreditation team to visit the American University of Iraq – Sulaimani, an invitation I turned down out of deference to Joyce’s plea that I slow down and not say ‘yes’ to every invitation that came my way. When I proudly told her that I had done just that, in the midst of a very busy spring, she said “What? Now you say “No”, just when something really interesting comes along? Call them back and tell them you’ll go. I want to go too.” I wondered to myself how many happily-married people had spouses who wanted them to go to Iraq. Nonetheless, off we went, the University’s Self-Study in hand.
The University’s literature opens with a statement of its mission “to promote the development and prosperity of Iraq through the careful study of modern commerce, economics, business and public administration, and to lead the transformation of Iraq into a free and democratic society, through an understanding of the ideals of liberty and democracy.” The Self-Study described it this way: “We are attempting to do something that can only be described as singularly American. The two things on which America has always prided itself – practicality in training and liberality in learning – we have attempted to forge together in one substantial program of study.” That program requires first a fluency in the English language, as all classes are taught in English. Thus, a two year program in English literacy, six hours per day, five days per week, is prescribed before the four year university course of study is begun. Then the students undertake an all-required program in liberal studies, philosophy, literature, history, mathematics, and science, which accounts for a full 50% of the credits the students must earn in their four years leading to a degree. Only after the two year core requirements are met may the students elect majors in business administration, international studies, information technology, and environmental sciences.
Over the years, I have seen how a liberal education can transform the lives of students. But can a single university, through the liberal arts, transform a country? I thought this was a pretty tall order. On the first evening of our visit, we had the honor of dining with Dr. Barham Salih, the Prime Minister of Kurdistan, the Kurdish region of Iraq where the university was located, a region that had known peace for a considerably longer period of time than the rest of Iraq. Salih was also the chairman of the board of trustees of this private university. He acknowledged that every young man and woman who had grown up in Iraq would hope to get a professional degree, especially in engineering, business, or information technology. But he said that this would never be enough to build a free and prosperous Iraq, one that had been under totalitarian rule for too long. Even good workforce training can be a servile occupation, while only students educated in the arts of freedom, practiced in thinking for themselves, learning the skills that would allow them to enter into discourse with the world on their own terms, would be fit for democracy, fit for self governance.
Yes, Salih said, we care about the cultivation of the intellect in the individual, but the test of the value of this university will be what these graduates do with their lives; he saw them responsible for the rebuilding of Iraq in the next generation. I could understand his strong sense of mission better now. Salih was not just the chairman of the board of this new rising university, he was also Prime Minister of Kurdistan and had a larger vision for these young men and women. But still I wondered whether the best American liberal arts colleges didn’t succeed precisely because they were not trying to educate the young for prosperity and democracy. It seemed to me backward --- that a free and prosperous Iraq, like a free and prosperous America, must depend first on free men and women, and that this ought to be the work of a liberal arts college. And yet I was impressed that this man had staked his political reputation and his influence with the wealthy upon this new educational venture, one of only a few in the whole Middle East, and almost unheard of in the Muslim countries.
From there, we had a chance to see the 3-year old temporary facility the university was occupying, while it was building a grand campus to accommodate a growing student population from its present 300 to a full 5000 students. We met the provost, who was none other than John Agresto, a former president of St. John’s College in Santa Fe. This university had been the joint brainchild of these two men, Salih and Agresto. We heard from faculty who worried whether what they had designed at AUI-S could, over time, “reverse not only an anti-liberal pre-collegiate educational system but also a culture that rewards repetition and discourages independent thought.” And we visited classes (all with fewer than 16 students), examined course materials, and met with students. We read the student newspaper, the “AUI-S Voice,” which claims to be the first independent newspaper in all of Iraq, and it didn’t look so very different from our own “Gadfly”. We heard a student debate on affirmative action and the propriety of requiring quotas or setting goals for the enrollment of university students from different ethnic backgrounds. But we also saw an ethnically economically diverse student body, half men and half women, who showed in and outside of class the respect for one another that is required for learning to flourish.
It was these students who opened my eyes. They were alive to learning. In each class I visited, every one of the 14 students spoke. They were encouraged to ask questions of the teacher and of each other. They gave oral presentations to the class, took questions, and received comments well. Outside of class they were passionate in their desire to learn more, saying that they had never had such an experience, being given the freedom to make their education their own, asking the questions that were theirs rather than their school master’s. And in the beautiful, though tiny, garden in a quad area in front of the school, we saw students lying about on the benches, reading their books.
These young men and women took to learning for its own sake like fish to water. They simply loved it. And why not? Is it not human nature to want to learn for the sake of knowing --- and just that? Perhaps they knew that something would be expected of them later for the privilege they were enjoying at the university, but what I saw pleased me no end, for in these few years, these students would have the kind of experience we would want for our students anywhere in this country. And I began to think of our own students at St. John’s and how they – how you -- throw yourselves into your books and your classes. How you do this even before formally returning to school! And I became reenergized seeing all this going on in a war-torn nation, still threatened with a possible return to totalitarian rule, and struggling with a cash economy, a huge gulf between rich and poor, and a lack of experience with a liberal education designed to free its citizens from such constraints. These people could nonetheless envision a better world, made possible only with the help of a liberally educated populace, and at a time when so many in our own country were abandoning the liberal arts in favor of workforce training that they imagined would pull them out of a struggling economy.
Why, I wondered, could so many in our own country not see what these Iraqis saw, that the way through these difficult times is to embrace an education that frees the students to imagine a world in which they are capable of intelligent self-rule but also prepared to make their way in a world of uncertainty and change, a world that will respect independent, thinking souls who are flexible enough and self-sufficient enough to find their way happily through the day’s vicissitudes? Why could so many here not see the need to struggle with the big questions: Who am I? What kind of world do I live in, and what is my place in it? What am I meant to do with my life? After all, these are big questions because they concern the whole of the human experience.
The world will always drive us to specializations and to careers that are highly focused on just a part of the human experience. Better to join that world, prepared with an education that allows us to have some idea of the whole project we call humanity. Unless we understand what it means to be human, unless we can get a glimpse of the whole of the human question before studying one or two of its parts, we can never confront for ourselves freely and intelligently the question how to live our lives well, how to live lives that belong to each of us. To do this we need to have some understanding of our physical world, the chemistry and behavior of living things, the forces affecting non-living bodies, our political world and some history of our race, the world of our intellect and our imagination, and our need to nourish the spirit. We cannot choose a life for ourselves freely without having just a little more understanding of these possibilities than we have before we enter college.
I have taken this experience in Iraq as a lesson we can learn from in this country and as an exhortation to continue here what we do at St. John’s College. I was reminded that the highest calling for us who teach and work at the college is that we use all of our power to support your love of learning, learning for its own sake, that we remember that this love is best nurtured by providing you with an abundance of opportunities to read and discuss together the best and most beautiful works known to us, and that we are at our best when we can share your joy by participating with you in your learning adventure at the College. I suspect that even the newest members of our college community already know this, or have a sense of it, and that this is why you are here today.
My wish for you is that you experience the joy of learning for its own sake in your four years with us! And that you experience it over and over again! May it free you from the bonds of convention and prejudice, free you from those persistent voices that would have you lower your expectations and abandon your dreams, and free you to explore widely and expand your search for self-understanding so that you may choose a life worthy of your humanity!
I declare the College in session this 25th day of August.