"Liberal Education and the Beginning of Success at Indiana University"
August 26, 2009
So again a warm welcome to Indiana University class of 2013. Whether you are the youngest freshman—at 17—or the oldest—at 30—you have made a choice that will change your life. You have chosen to improve yourselves in the most fundamental and lasting way—through an education of the highest quality. And in this choice, you are in good company.
You hail from nearly every county in Indiana, from 42 states, and 33 different nations. Your class includes 38 sets of twins, 1 set of triplets, and 1 set of quadruplets.
For many of you, then, today is truly a family affair. Your presence here as freshmen is testimony to the years of love and support you have received from your family and friends. Would you please take a moment to thank them for helping you reach this day?
Flexibility of Mind, Skill, and Habit
Today is a day to think about innovators and what made them innovators. For example, Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, started his career as a music teacher. Grace Hopper, who invented the first “compiler” for a computer language, was also a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy and a college professor. And Chester Carlson, inventor of the photocopier, originally analyzed patents for a living.
Innovators like Bell, Hopper, Carlson, and thousands of others, developed the flexibility of mind, skill, and habit that made world-changing innovation possible.
A Liberal Education for a World of Change
Here, at Indiana University, you will develop that same flexibility of mind along with skills in argument and reasoning that will prepare you for your future.
This is a world where you can expect to change careers multiple times during your lifetime. 1 This is a world in which you can blog, twitter, and text from nearly anywhere. Some of you are probably texting right now. This is a world that requires an education that spans the breadth and plumbs the depths of human knowledge.
This broad education, in a wide range of subjects so central to understanding the human experience, has come to be known as a liberal education. And this is precisely the type of education that you will find at Indiana University. Over the course of nearly two centuries, one of Indiana University’s greatest and central strengths has been liberal education.
In 1931 IU’s tenth president, William Lowe Bryan, spoke of the importance of liberal education. He told a story about a young man from Fort Wayne who was soon to attend college. His father said to him, “assuming you, like your grandfather and myself, are to be a physician or surgeon, my advice is that you take what work you please, provided you take nothing that has anything to do with medicine or surgery.”
The young man accepted the challenge, and a little over a decade later took his place as a doctor beside his father and grandfather. President Bryan then went on to say, “without doubt Dr. Porter is a far better physician because he knows so many things that have nothing directly to do with medicine or surgery.” 2
On the Threshold of Exploration
So what does this story from nearly eight decades ago have to do with you? Like young Mr. Porter so many years ago, you stand on the threshold of years of exploration. On average, each of you will change majors around two-and-a-half times during your years here. And of course, there’s no embarrassment in that. For those of you who don’t change, your neighbor will have to change majors five times.
The only other time in your lives that you will have this opportunity to completely immerse yourselves in hours of reading and study—is retirement. And for most of you, that period of your life is some years off. Now you have the luxury to lose track of time as you read broadly and deeply. Now you can lose yourselves in any number of subjects, while at the same time honing your skills in logic and expression.
This is precisely what a 1982 IU graduate did through the Individualized Major Program, which allowed him the freedom to take a wide variety of courses and design his own major. He was planning to become a Slavic librarian with a specialty in Russian, but he also took courses in biology, computer programming, film, world politics, and Japanese. He says, “Every last thing I have ever done has gone into the soup that defines me, and has provided a foundation on top of which I have accomplished things I never would have conceived of when I was just starting out in college.”
This rich and varied experience prepared Jamie Hyneman for his future with the popular television show Mythbusters.
Of his time at IU, Jamie says, “I learned that I could do just about anything I wanted to do, as long as I was methodical and diligent about it. I learned that using my mind is a tremendous joy. Most importantly I learned how to learn. I don't mean how to memorize things, I mean by being curious, asking questions—An education will never give you all the answers you will ever need, but it can show you the importance of finding the right questions, and then wherever you go or whatever you do, the answers will be right there waiting for you.” 3
Breadth, Depth, and Tradition
IU creates such opportunities for all students. Over 2,000 faculty members, all interested in different subjects, will guide your studies in the nearly 12,000 courses being offered this semester alone. 4 The library contains over 7.6 million books in over 900 languages, and you have access to 30,000 electronic journal titles and 630,000 electronic books.
You can attend over 1,100 concerts, operas, ballets, and other musical performances, over 700 varsity sporting events, and hundreds of lectures on subjects ranging from American waterways to Japanese textile design; from the nature of consciousness to the rise of the Mongol empire.
You are joining a university whose traditions date back to its founding in 1820, nearly two centuries ago. Those are traditions of scholarship and research, arts and science, business and education, and so much more.
Our Founders Day ceremony, which now includes the Honors Convocation, dates back to 1889. The Marching Hundred, one of the nation’s finest college bands, was formed in 1896. And the first IU sports team was formed in 1867.
You will become familiar with the name Herman B Wells, IU’s legendary 11th president, who left an indelible mark on this university and its traditions of academic freedom and international engagement.
And you will feel the great spirit of this university at annual events like the Dance Marathon, IU Sing, Homecoming, and let’s not forget the Little 500. This is the world you are joining this afternoon. It is a world of proud traditions and limitless opportunity that lie at the heart of the best liberal education, an education that necessarily expands well beyond classroom walls.
Conclusion: The Need for Courage
Make no mistake, stepping into the unknown—as you are doing today—takes courage: courage to be a beginner among experts, courage to speak your mind, courage to suffer a thousand failures.
Consider, though, that Teflon was the result a failed experiment. Penicillin was discovered by accident. And it took George Eastman years to perfect the first portable camera. Your own intellectual journey will take courage, faith, and tenacity.
This is the message that Herman Wells conveyed the first time he—as IU president—welcomed freshmen in 1938. He concluded those remarks by turning to Hoosier author, Edward Eggleston, who wrote, “Persistent people begin their success where others end in failure.” 5
Here in Bloomington, today, may you begin your success.
Thank you very much.
- See, for instance, 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.
- Bryan, William Lowe. “The Liberal Arts College.” American Association of Colleges. 23 Jan. 1931. President William Lowe Bryan Speeches, 1903-1937. Indiana University Archives Online Finding Aid. http://webapp1.dlib.indiana.edu/findingaids/archives/view?doc.view=entire_text&brand=ead&docId=InU-Ar-VAA2627
- E-mail correspondence. Indiana University Office of the President. 24 Aug. 2009.
- The IU Registrar’s Office provided a count of every active class for IU Bloomington, Fall 2009. The number includes credit-bearing (10,234) and non-credit bearing courses (1,701) for a total of 11,935. Requested 24 Aug. 2009.
- Wells, Herman B. “Welcome to Freshmen.” Indiana University Bloomington Campus. 15 Sept. 1938. President Herman B Wells speeches, 1937-1962. Indiana University Archives Online Finding Aid.http://webapp1.dlib.indiana.edu/findingaids/archives/view?doc.view=entire_text&brand=ead&docId=InU-Ar-VAA2642