The Diffusion of Light and Education: Serving the Public Good at Indiana University

IU Bloomington Undergraduate Commencement
Assembly Hall
Indiana University Bloomington
Bloomington, Indiana
May 5, 2012

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Higher Education as a Private and Public Good

The idea that public universities serve the public good and that they have an integral role in the preservation of democracy is one that is deeply rooted in American higher education.

Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States and the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, frequently articulated his conviction that a well-informed citizenry, enlightened by a liberal education, was “the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty”1 and he often expressed his desire to see education made available widely.

In a letter to New York physician Cornelius Camden Blatchly, Jefferson wrote:

“I look to the diffusion of light and education as the resource most to be relied on for ameliorating the condition, promoting the virtue, and advancing the happiness of man. …And I do hope, in the present spirit of extending to the great mass of mankind the blessing of instruction, I see a prospect of great advancement in the happiness of the human race, and this may proceed to an indefinite degree.”2

Today, as we celebrate the accomplishments of the Class of 2012, Jefferson’s words still hold great truth. Nearly two hundred years after his letter to Blatchly, the American system of higher education has become the finest in the world. And it continues to diffuse light and truth, reflecting them in all directions to serve the public good.

At the very heart of the academic enterprise is the vital principle that higher education has benefits apparent both to students and to society; that it is not only a private good but that it also serves the larger sense of the public good.  

Today, as you become graduates of one of America’s greatest universities, there can be no question that the education you have received has benefitted you.

Your IU education has allowed you to develop the skills of argument and reasoning, of analysis and discernment, of leadership and cooperation. It has given you time to explore many different worlds of knowledge that will lead you towards your passion and your life’s work.

Your education will enable you to remain flexible and creative, open to unexpected directions of thought and action. It will enable you to think analytically, synthesizing information from many different and disparate areas to generate solutions to unforeseen and challenging problems. It will encourage you to pursue every avenue to continue your education in both formal and informal settings so as to remain ready for and responsive to the change that surrounds you.

Your education here at IU has prepared you to contribute in transformative and innovative ways to the prosperity and progress of this nation and the world.

But higher education is also a fundamental public good. Universities make countless vitally important contributions to society, and, as Thomas Jefferson wrote, they help to “advance the happiness of mankind.”

Universities help to find cures for diseases; they provide leaders for businesses; they develop transformative innovations like the Internet; they preserve the knowledge of humankind, new and old, in libraries and in digital repositories; and they disseminate this knowledge through teaching.

The mission of a public research university, like Indiana University, puts great emphasis on the public, not just on public support, but also on a public mission that includes educating students for citizenship and preparing them for public service; contributing to advances that enhance the quality of life for all; contributing to the economic development of local communities, states, and the nation; and what Craig Calhoun, president of the Social Science Research Council, calls: “a public way of conducting inquiry and debate that has been crucial to modern science (and to) civil society.”3

The Value of Public Education

More than a hundred years ago, Benjamin Ide Wheeler, who was president of the University of California, described the spirit of America’s public universities, writing: 

“A university is a place that rightfully knows no aristocracy as between studies, no aristocracy as between scientific truths, and no aristocracy as between persons.”4

Public institutions, like Indiana University, offer equality of opportunity and they have always sought to make available to subsequent generations opportunities that extend the public good.

Public higher educational institutions educate about 80 percent of all college students and 65 percent of all four-year college students in the United States.5 Approximately one-half of the members of the U.S. Congress in the recent past and one-half of the chief executive officers of America’s 500 largest corporations were educated at public universities.6

Our Commencement speaker, Booker T. Jones, is another example of the opportunities and the benefits provided by public higher educational institutions.

The Class of 2012

The Class of 2012 is filled with many more such examples.

IU Bloomington’s undergraduate Class of 2012 includes more than 6,400 graduates who come from 92 different countries, from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, and from 89 of Indiana’s 92 counties. Our oldest graduate is 61, and our youngest 17, and we have 16 sets of twins and one set of triplets graduating today.

Your many achievements at Indiana University are testament to the years of diligent effort you have invested to reach this moment. Your class—the class of 2012—includes Marshall Scholars, a Truman Scholar, a Gates Cambridge Scholar, Goldwater Scholars, a Beinecke Scholar, a recipient of the Palmer-Brandon Prize in the Humanities, and recipients of the William Randolph Hearst Journalism Award.

Other members of the IU Bloomington Class of 2012 have dedicated themselves to civic engagement and public service, a further testament to the commitment of the university and its students to serving the public good. These include the co-founder of IU Global Medical Brigades, a student group that works to improve health conditions in Honduran communities; the founder of the Men of Color Leadership Institute; and members of the Political and Civic Engagement (or “PACE”) Program, which graduates its first class this year.

The Class of 2012 also includes members who have dedicated themselves to excellence in the arts, including at least one student who has already performed on Broadway, and student filmmakers whose work will be shown later this month at the Cannes Film Festival.

Other members of the class have excelled as student-athletes. One member of the Class of 2012 set three school records at the Big Ten Women’s Swimming Championships, earned Swimmer of the Championships honors, and was subsequently named the Big Ten Swimmer of the Year and earned three All-America honors. Another student-athlete, also a swimmer, will compete for her native France in this summer’s London Olympics. And, of course, also among the dedicated student-athletes who graduate today are members of the “first five,” the seniors whose determination and leadership contributed to the exciting resurgence of IU basketball!

Taking Your Place as Sensitive and Alert Citizens of the World

The accomplishments of your class reflect the world of the 21st century, a world vastly different from the one in which your parents grew up and one that your great grand parents likely would not even recognize. It is a world where you should expect to change careers multiple times, and, with the increasing globalization of our economic system, you should also be ready to work overseas for a period of your career. This is a world in which you can blog, tweet, and text from nearly anywhere. In fact, some of you are probably texting right now.

Your accomplishments also reflect the noble goals toward which many of you are already striving. Take your skills and talents, your diligence and determination, your intelligence and effort, and be the creators of tomorrow. 

As philosopher Martha Nussbaum writes in her book, Cultivating Humanity: “when we ask about the relationship of a liberal education to citizenship, we are asking a question with a long history in the Western philosophical tradition. We are drawing on Socrates’ concept of ’the examined life,’ on Aristotle’s notions of reflective citizenship, and above all on Greek and Roman Stoic notions of an education that is ’liberal’ in that it liberates the mind from the bondage of habit and custom, producing people who can function with sensitivity and alertness as citizens of the whole world.”7

Today, we celebrate the members of Indiana University’s Class of 2012 as you take your place as “sensitive and alert citizens of the whole world.”


Source Notes

  1. Letter of Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1787.
  2. Letter of Thomas Jefferson to Cornelius Camden Blatchly, October 21, 1822.
  3. Diana Rhoten and Craig Calhoun (eds.), Knowledge Matters: The Public Mission of the Research University, (Columbia University Press, 2011), xvi.
  4. B. I. Wheeler, “University Democracy,” University Chronicle, XV (1901), 2. The Chronicle was published by the University of California at Berkeley
  5. Ronald G. Ehrenberg, What’s Happening to Public Higher Education?: The Shifting Financial Burden, (JHU Press, 2007), xiv.
  7. Martha C. Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education, (Harvard University Press, 1998), 8.