Preparing to Address Society’s Paramount Challenges: 2013 Founders Scholars

2013 Honors Convocation
IU Auditorium
Bloomington, Indiana
April 7, 2013

The Need for Ideas that Lead to Successful Practical Action

In the early 1960s, the American Council on Education published a collection of essays in which the presidents of 20 American universities reflected on developments in higher education and American society during the period from 1952 to 1962.

It was, of course, a very different time. Most of your parents were either very young or had not yet been born. At the beginning of this period, the Korean War was raging, and, sadly, those tensions endure to this day. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and many others were working to advance civil rights through nonviolent civil disobedience. The Cold War was in full effect, and McCarthyism had emerged as a deeply divisive force in the nation’s political discourse. By the end of this period, the Soviet Union had launched Sputnik, the first satellite to orbit the earth, and the Mercury astronauts had captured the American imagination.

In this collection of essays penned more than half a century ago, a contribution from C. W. de Kiewiet, then president of the University of Rochester, reads as if it might have been written today.

“Our most desperate need,” he wrote, “is for ideas, that is to say, great ideas on great issues that lead to successful practical action. We are incessantly in search of the idea that rises above all others as the workable answer to an intricate problem, as the escape from a dangerous predicament, as the creative entry into new fields of human endeavor.”1

Of course, much has changed over the ensuing decades. Neither de Kiewiet nor any of the other 19 university presidents who contributed essays to this volume could have predicted the revolution in Internet technology, which continues to revolutionize higher education and our global society. They could not have envisioned the degree to which the world would become smaller and flatter, largely as a result of revolutionary technologies.

But the fact that, in the 21st century, we continue to face intricate problems, dangerous predicaments, and seemingly insurmountable challenges has not changed.

Today, “great ideas on great issues that lead to successful practical action” continue to be required.

And it remains true, as de Kiewiet also noted, that “the most critically needed ideas are the most difficult to find.”2

From where, then, are these ideas to come?

Ability and Sound Education

As outstanding students in one of the greatest American universities of the 21st century, it is you, and others like you at America’s other foremost universities, that will help generate the great ideas that will address the paramount challenges we face.

It is to you, and thousands like you all over the country, that the world will look for your commitment as citizens, for your energy and seriousness of purpose as you grapple with the most formidable problems that confront us, for your commitment to human dignity and freedom, and for all you can do to renew the global economy, to innovate, to invent, to build, to heal, and to teach.

What we need—what we will always need—are skills in analysis and discernment.  We need broad and deep knowledge that provides insight into the human condition, and into the world around us in all its vast variety. 

During your time at Indiana University, you are receiving an education that will not only prepare you to enter the workforce, but one that enhances your skills of analysis and builds surety of judgment. Your Indiana University education will instill in you the desire to ask—and the capacity to try to seek answers to questions about prosperity and poverty, about energy, globalization, technology, and fundamental questions about right and wrong.

Flexibility and The Continuous Seeking of New Solutions

Given the increasingly rapid pace of change that we have seen over the last several decades, we also need—perhaps more than ever—the flexibility to look to new areas of study and exploration.

The late John William Gardner served in President Lyndon Johnson’s cabinet and later founded the nonprofit, nonpartisan organizations Common Cause and Independent Sector.

In his book, Excellence, Gardner wrote:

“In a world that is rocking with change we need more than anything else a high capacity for adjustment to new circumstances, a capacity for innovation. The solutions we hit on today will be outmoded tomorrow. …Only ability and sound education equip one for the continuous seeking of new solutions.” 

“We don’t even know what skills may be needed in the years ahead,” Gardner continues. “That is why we must train our ablest young men and women in the fundamental fields of knowledge… and must equip them to understand and cope with change. That is why we must give them the critical qualities of mind and the durable qualities of character that will serve them in circumstances we cannot now even predict.”3

Gardner wrote those words nearly 20 years ago. Today, it is more true than ever that the “world is rocking with change.”

Yet you, our Founders Scholars, are, without question, students of remarkable talent, filled with the potential to make fundamental and lasting contributions to society. 

The “critical qualities of mind” and the “durable qualities of character” that you are developing during your years at Indiana University will serve you well as you become a generation of torchbearers, poised to respond to and help shape our future.

May you create an even brighter future for yourselves and for all of us.

Source Notes

  1. C. W. de Kiewiet, “The Necessary Price of Leadership,” as reprinted in Raymond Howes (ed.), Vision and Purpose in Higher Educaiton: Twenty College Presidents Examine Developments During the Past Decade, (American Council)
  2. Ibid.
  3. John William Gardner, Excellence: Can We Be Equal and Excellent Too?, (W. W. Norton & Company, 1995), 53.