"The Transcendent Power of Liberal Education"
March 30, 2008
Poetry and Politics
Over a half-century ago speaking at a commencement at Harvard University, President John Kennedy described an English mother’s letter to the Provost of her son’s college. “Don’t teach my boy poetry,” she wrote. “He’s going to stand for Parliament.” “Perhaps she was right,” Kennedy said, “—but if more politicians knew poetry and more poets knew politics, I am convinced the world would be a little better place in which to live.”1
This statement draws upon one of the strongest and oldest arguments about the value of a broad liberal education.
It traces its roots back to the age of Plato, who lived over two thousand years ago. It can be seen in Thomas Jefferson’s call for public education. And it can be seen in the breadth and depth of your own educations. Such ideas—eternal in their wisdom—still guide institutions like Indiana University.
Here, we pursue excellence in education and research, our two fundamental missions. Here we build upon traditions of excellence that push back the frontiers of knowledge. Here, outstanding students like you join the vast community of scholars who trace their intellectual heritage to ancient learned cultures in every corner of the globe.
The Imperative of Change
Even as we celebrate these great and lasting traditions, we must recognize the imperative of change. As John Henry Cardinal Newman once wrote, “The past never returns; the course of events, old in its texture, is ever new in its colouring and fashion.”2
This may be truer today than it has ever been in the past.
The Imperative of Change: Technology
In this world of wikis, blogs, and podcasts, the pace of change has increased dramatically. We can go virtually anywhere, buy virtually anything, and be virtually anybody with just a few keystrokes. We have achieved computing power that was unimaginable even a decade ago. Over the course of the twentieth-century, the number of people whose daily work involves computers rose from zero into the hundreds of millions, and that number will continue to increase until one day, not far away, it includes nearly every human being on earth.
Imagine how different your own educations would be without access to technology. Better yet, imagine this ceremony without your cell phone!
But Kennedy’s words remind us that we cannot narrow our vision to just this one landscape. We need politics and poetry, computers and the classics.
The Imperative of Change: Lifelong Learning
Our changing world reminds us of this as well. A recent report indicates that “the average person born in the later years of the baby boom” held over 10 jobs between ages 18 and 40.3 This is a world where learning will remain central to your success long after you leave this campus. To draw on theologian William Ellery Channing, “The world, from our first to our last hour, is our school, and the whole of life has but one great purpose,—education.”4 That Channing’s words still apply today, after a hundred and sixty years, strongly suggests their lasting truth.
The Imperative of Change: International Opportunities
In this environment of rapid change, we must also look to global horizons for opportunities and success. Improvements in communication and transportation have transformed our notions of space, time, and economics. We can watch the Tokyo Stock Market as closely as we watch the NASDAQ. Travel that used to take months now takes less than a day. This is, indeed, a smaller—and flatter—world than it used to be.
As U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said, it is vital “to continue our focus on helping people of all ages pursue first-rate education … so they can acquire the skills needed to advance in a competitive worldwide environment.”5 You are pursuing that first-rate education. You are the promise of our global future.
But again, we must broaden our vision beyond even the global horizon.
Beyond the Global Horizon
You may ask, what is beyond that horizon.
That very question is why we are all here. That question has driven you to explore new intellectual territory and to achieve the excellence that we honor this afternoon.
Beyond that horizon is a universe of possibility.
Beyond that horizon is the future of knowledge.
Beyond that horizon is the very foundation of this university.
Conclusion: Transcendent Skills
Together, we are moving toward that horizon.
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. We need the flexibility to look to new areas of study and exploration. We cannot remain forever in safe harbors if we aim to discover what lies beyond that global horizon.
As President Kennedy said on another occasion, “This Nation has tossed its cap over the wall of space, and we have no choice but to follow it. Whatever the difficulties, they will be overcome. Whatever the hazards, they must be guarded against. With … help…, we will climb this wall with safety and with speed—and we shall then explore the wonders on the other side.”6
- Commencement Address. Cambridge, MA. 14 June 1956. Although Kennedy was a senator at the time of this address, his later title, “President,” is used here to avoid confusion since a later speech of his is referenced toward the end of these remarks.
- The Idea of a University: Defined and Illustrated. New York: Longmans, Green, 1899. Page 17-8.
- United States. Dept. of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Number of Jobs Held, Labor Market Activity, and Earnings Growth among the Youngest Baby Boomers: Results from a Longitudinal Survey.” Press Release. 25 Aug. 2006. USDL 06-1496.
- “On the Elevation of the Laboring Classes.” 1840. The Works of William E. Channing, D.D. Boston: Amerian Unitarian Association, 1888. Page 62.
- Address. Columbia Business School. New York City. 1 Aug. 2006.
- Remarks at the Dedication of the Aerospace Medical Health Center. San Antonio, TX. 21 Nov. 1963.