Graduate Education and the Renewal of Democracy in the 21st Century

Graduate Commencement Ceremony
Assembly Hall
Bloomington, Indiana
May 9, 2014

Education and the Renewal of Democracy

Trustees, Provost Robel, Secretary O'Neill, honored guests, colleagues, and members of the Class of 2014:

Philosopher John Dewey, regarded by many as one of the greatest writers and thinkers on education in the 20th century, once wrote that “Democracy must be born anew in every generation, and education is its midwife.”1

The idea that a well-educated citizenry is essential if participatory democracy is to thrive and be renewed has its roots in democracy’s very origins. The first academies of Ancient Greece were, in fact, established to prepare citizens for their civic responsibilities and for the roles they would play in society. So important was the idea of education in Ancient Greece that the great tragedian, Euripides, wrote: “Who so neglects learning in his youth loses the past and is dead to the future.”2

During the Second World War and in the years that followed, much emphasis was placed on the role of higher education as the foundation of democratic liberties. In 1946, President Harry Truman established—for the first time—a presidential commission to analyze the nation’s educational system. The commission’s landmark report, issued in 1947, proposed that higher education should “bring to all people of the nation:

  • education for a fuller realization of democracy in every phase of living,
  • education directly and explicitly for international understanding and cooperation,”
  • “education for the application of creative imagination and trained intelligence to the solution of social problems and the administration of public affairs.”3

The Class of 2014: Contributing to the Fuller Realization of Democracy in the 21st Century

The more than 2,300 students who receive advanced degrees from IU Bloomington today are outstanding examples of the fact that higher education continues to serve these very aims in the 21st century.

As graduate students in one of the world’s leading public research institutions, you have experienced the sense of accomplishment and achievement that comes from extending yourselves to ever-higher limits in new areas of professional endeavor and making new contributions to human knowledge.

As the 2010 report of the Commission on the Future of Graduate Education in the United States—a commission, incidentally, on which Indiana University’s Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Multicultural Affairs and Dean of the University Graduate School, James Wimbush, served—noted: “people with graduate degrees teach in our schools and universities, drive innovation, attract intellectual and commercial investment, and strengthen American prestige and economic power.”4

At Indiana University, you have received an education of the highest quality—one that will enable you to make lasting contributions to the prosperity and wellbeing of society, to what the Truman Commission called “the fuller realization of democracy in every phase of living.”

Fostering International Understanding and Cooperation

Graduate education in the United States has also fostered international understanding and cooperation in great measure.

Among the more than 2,300 graduates today is, for example, the very first student to earn an IU doctoral degree in African American and African Diaspora Studies. Also among the members of the Class of 2014 are the first graduates of IU’s new School of Global and International Studies. Many of them have focused their studies on the languages, history, cultures, religions, politics, economies, institutions, art, and literature of other countries or regions of the world. Such scholarship has done more than perhaps any other project to contribute to true international understanding.

Moreover, scores of scholars who have come from other countries to receive graduate education in the United States have gone on to become heads of state—or to serve in other high-level positions in government or business—in their native countries. His Excellency, Michael D. Higgins, the President of Ireland, who will address our undergraduates tomorrow, is but one example of an international student who, after earning an advanced degree from Indiana University, went on to serve his home country at the highest level.

The Solution of Social Problems and the Administration of Public Affairs

The members of the graduate Class of 2014 also leave Indiana University with the advanced knowledge and the refined critical-thinking skills that will help you to meet some of the defining challenges of our century—conquering disease, responding to the effects of climate change, alleviating poverty—and to seek answers to questions that we have not yet even begun to formulate.

Our distinguished Commencement speaker, Secretary Paul O’Neill, is also an outstanding example of how Indiana University graduate’s degree holders have answered the Truman Commission’s call to apply creative imagination and trained intelligence to the solution of social problems and the administration of public affairs.

His presence here today is a reminder that, regardless of the discipline in which we have trained, each of us bears certain responsibilities in a participatory democracy to do all that we can to contribute to a more informed electorate and a concerned citizenry, and to encourage our political leaders to work together in a true spirit of bipartisanship to do what is right for our communities, our states, our nation, and the world.

Working Together

Peter Liddel, professor of ancient history at the University of Manchester, suggests that, as we seek solutions to complex modern problems, we might emulate the collaborative processes of the Ancient Greeks. He writes: “the ways in which the Athenians attempted to pool ideas, knowledge, and concerns might suggest ways of focusing local and global action on concerted solutions. Organizations which encourage participation necessarily broaden the pool from which they can draw and develop good ideas.”5

During your time at Indiana University, almost all of you have worked in this same collaborative, interdisciplinary, and participatory spirit. For many decades at IU, the late Elinor Ostrom, who received the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, promoted this approach as a model of scholarship and as a method of working toward solutions to some of the world’s most vexing questions. IU’s Ostrom Workshop on Political Theory and Policy Analysis, founded by Lin and her late husband, Vincent, continues to bring scholars together from around the world to answer questions related to water resources, peace-building, environmental pollution, democracy, and governance.

Large and Human Significance

As graduates of Indiana University, you have been preparing for years to become the next generation to discover, to understand, and to apply all that you have learned.

As philosopher Thomas Dewey also wrote: “the great thing is that each shall have had the education which enables him [or her] to see within his [or her] daily work all there is in it of large and human significance.”6

As you continue the great adventure of creation, invention, and discovery in your own lives, may you see in your work and in your lives all there is in them of “large and human significance.” 


Source Notes

  1. John Dewey, “The Need of an Industrial Education in an Industrial Democracy,” (1916), in Jo Ann Boydston (ed), The Middle Works of John Dewey, 1899-1924, Volume 10: 1916-1917, (Southern Illinois University Press, 2003), 139.
  2. Euripides, Phrixus, Frag. 927
  3. Truman Commission on Higher Education, Higher Education for Democracy: A Report of the President’s Commission on Higher Education, volume 1, Establishing the Goals, (New York, 1947).
  4. Debra W. Stewart, Kurt M. Landgraf, introduction to Council of Graduate Schools and Educational Testing Service, The Path Forward: The Future of Graduate Education in the United States, Report from the Commission on the Future of Graduate Education in the United States, (Educational Testing Service, 2010), i.
  5. Peter Liddel, “Democracy Ancient and Modern,” in Ryan K. Balot (ed.), A Companion to Greek and Roman Political Thought, (John Wiley & Sons, 2012)
  6. John Dewey, The School and Society, (1899), in Jo Ann Boydston (ed), The Middle Works of John Dewey, 1899-1924, Volume 1: 1899-1901, (Southern Illinois University Press, 2008), 16.