President Cornwell’s 2017 Convocation address
Note: This address draws on a recently published chapter, “On Purpose: Liberal Education and the Question of Value,” in Joseph L. DeVitis & Pietro A. Sasso (Eds.), Higher Education and Society, Joseph L. DeVitis & Pietro A. Sasso, eds. (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 2016), pp. 11-24.
Today we begin, officially and in earnest, a new year of liberal inquiry. It is an honor, a privilege, and a joy to launch our noble work together.
Let me extend a special welcome to those students, faculty, and administrative staff members for whom this is their first new beginning at Rollins College. Know that you are joining a community of learners that has been committed to the enterprise of liberal education for over 130 years.
What I want to do in my remarks today is talk about our mission, our common purpose as a liberal arts college. I think it is important to remain mindful that our work here together is a social investment into the future, not just of our students, but of global civil society. This is why we are gathered here. It is why Rollins College was founded in 1885 and why it exists today. Though we have a variety of roles in this undertaking, we are each here to engage in this noble work.
Students quite often refer to “the Rollins Bubble,” the phenomenon of feeling isolated in our small campus community, which can seem self-sufficient and disconnected from the larger world. In one sense, this is both true and intentional; liberal arts colleges were founded in bucolic settings, with the idea that these four years were a time to be removed from the distractions of modern society for the purpose of being immersed in liberal learning.
In another sense, though, this gets it all wrong. As our mission statement says, we exist to be educate for global citizenship and responsible leadership. The world beyond our campus is complex indeed, and an essential element of our mission is to help you make sense of it, not just for the purpose of abstract understanding, but for the purpose of engaging that world—to help guide its direction, shape its future, and solve its problems.
Let me begin with the very concept of liberal education. There is not a person here who does not want, or value, a good job, a meaningful and prosperous livelihood. The good news is that an outstanding liberal education, while it is a substantial investment by any measure, is the best preparation for working one’s way to the most meaningful and prosperous livelihoods in today’s global economy.
But our work here is not about job training, but rather about something much more fundamental and profound. This is something of an irony of liberal education; it is the most effective launch pad for access to leadership and a rewarding career and yet that is not the first purpose of our mission.
I often find myself drawing on the work of the contemporary philosopher and legal scholar, Martha Nussbaum. The project of liberal education is, as she says, nothing less than the cultivation of humanity. In a book by that title and elsewhere, Nussbaum advocates an education designed to produce “citizens of the world,” people of cosmopolitan subjectivity, who see a world full of equally valuable human persons, all of whom have a claim on our sense of moral obligation.1
Nussbaum believes that the task of liberal education is to enable us to imagine the realities of peoples distant in time and space, to understand both what humanity has in common but also the variety of ways in which it manifests itself. Through the reading of history, literature, and poetry, through the study of the social and natural sciences, liberally educated persons develop empathy without borders.
There is absolutely no better way to prepare yourself for this world than with a solid liberal education. To understand globalization, to understand your place in this complex world at this moment in history, your moment:
In other words, you have a hell of a lot of work to do in your short time here. I am profoundly optimistic about the world’s future, not the least because of the potential that you and your global peers have to lead it forward, to take all of the incredible tools of mind, technology, and industry that you have to work with and to apply them with more wisdom and insight than those who have come before.
Let me offer some thoughts now about the ethics of liberal learning and on the honor pledge to which you just committed yourself.
One of the biggest transitions you are going through right now is the change from living in a family to living in a community. There are some similarities between the two: there will be playfulness, a sense of belonging, loyalty, and, of course, conflicts. But the differences between the two are very significant.
Rollins is a community of learners; we are not a religious community, an agricultural community, a military community…we come together in this time and space for one reason, and it is to foster your liberal education. What this means, though, is that we are not only a community that is diverse in every way you can imagine, but that diversity is sought and welcomed very intentionally as part of our mission.
I love the GPS on my iPhone. At any given time it can tell me exactly where on earth I stand. Do you know how a GPS works? It triangulates your position from orbiting satellites. Here is what is so important: a GPS cannot tell where you stand if it is receiving information from only one satellite…it needs to be getting data from three or four satellites to get a clear and accurate sense of location.
This is the way liberal learning works. If we were a homogeneous community, composed of people who see the world the same way, no one would be able to really know where they stand. It is only by listening to ideas and opinions from different points of view that one can locate one’s own position.
Thus we are—importantly and intentionally—a community with all kinds of differences among us. Liberal education happens when we learn to listen across those differences, learn to understand them, discern common grounds and probe the meaning and rationale of the differences.
The key thing I want to offer tonight is the idea that all of this can only work if we treat our differences, and each other, with respect. This is the foundation of a learning community.
Immanuel Kant is one the most influential philosophers in Western intellectual history. I hope many of you will cross paths with his work during your time here. In 1785 he wrote a short treatise on ethical theory the title of which we translate as “Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.” It is fair to say that this is one of the most significant books in the Western intellectual heritage, and many trace it as the philosophical ground zero of our concept of human rights.
In this work, Kant is searching for the fundamental principles to guide human relationships: how do people deserve to be treated, and why? These are very basic questions. After a great deal of very careful reasoning, he comes to this basic principle: So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means.2
Later he says that whatever degree of freedom you might have, it never extends to treating another only as a means to your own ends. What does it mean to treat other persons as ends-in-themselves and never merely as means?
The central idea is that every human being deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, that in all of our interactions, even, or especially with those with whom we disagree, or who we don’t like, or even who disgust us in some way, that we must engage them in ways that recognize their humanity.
Why do this? What is the nature of this obligation? What is the basis of human dignity? For Kant, what is metaphysically distinct about humans is that we have free will, that is, we can make choices and control our behavior according to the exercise of reason. It is only because of this that humans have the capacity for morality; if you can’t choose, you can’t choose otherwise, so creatures that are not capable of rational choice are not capable of ethical deliberation – that is, they are not capable of critically reflecting on how they ought to act.
We can. And for Kant this makes all the difference. The capacity for choice, for ethics, gives humanity a rare quality of dignity. We have what he calls “intrinsic worth.” This dignity, or worth, imposes limits on how others should treat us and on how we should treat others. That is, to repeat, we should always treat another person as an end, as a being with worth and dignity that must be respected.
Why do I share this basic idea with you today? Because as I reflect on some of the ways people treat one another globally, nationally, and here on our campus at times, I despair at the disrespect, at the cruelty, at the neglect to recognize the humanity of the other and treat that humanity with its proper respect. I despair at the harsh and crude rhetoric that is in play in the media and political discourse, at the bias and prejudice that we hear.
Notice that all forms of prejudice choose some surface feature of identity – race, ethnic or national or sexual identity, religious confession – and focus on this as a purported grounds for not deserving equal respect. Kant helps us see how shallow and wrongheaded all forms of prejudice are.
Charlottesville: the very public, brash, confident emergence of ideologies of white supremacy and racial nationalism. I will spare you lengthy analysis or critique, though I expect you will have opportunity to engage in your own, except to say this. Our mission sits in profound tension with these visions and values about our nation and the moral structure of civil society. Global citizenship and responsible leadership are grounded in an affirmation of the basic equality of humanity across the full spectrum of identities.
This campus is but a particular place in a larger society. For almost all of you, whatever your background, this will be the most diverse community in which you have lived. You will be living, eating, playing, and studying with peers who have different backgrounds and identities…different races, different nationalities, different sexual orientations, different religious beliefs, and about all of these, different conceptions and misconceptions.
Remember what I said earlier: we have sought this diversity on purpose! It is a critical dimension of excellence as a liberal arts college. Living in a campus community as diverse as Rollins is rich with opportunity but also challenging. It is something of a field of practice where mistakes are more generously indulged as part of the process of learning.
As you go about your life in this community, I am urging you to aspire to always recognize the ideal of human dignity. This will mean acting with respect and compassion. It will mean looking for these qualities in others and honoring their intrinsic worth even when—or especially when—it is hard to see.
It will mean exercising your own dignity, your own capacity for ethical choice. In the end, the quality of your life will be measured by this above all else.
This is my understanding of the honor pledge you made as you join this community. Implicit in what I have said is that this campus must be a place where views of all kinds can be expressed freely, but also examined critically. For democratic deliberation to work, free expression must also be respectful expression; free speech in the context of our mission also entails critical listening. I hope that Rollins can be a model of a learning community composed of a great diversity of voices and points of view in active, mutual, and respectful engagement. What we know is that the issues that command our attention are too important and too complex to be reduced to simplistic proclamations on social media. What we know is that reasoning is the educated alternative to ranting.
I want to recommend something to you which, on the face of it, might not seem like good advice. It is this. As you make your way in this community, I urge you to look for opportunities to listen, to spend time, ideally even to collaborate, with people who don’t think like you.
Our culture is drifting the other way. In popular media and in politics, both national and global, I see an alarming gravitation of people into like-minded groups, at once isolated and self-affirming; blogs and social media groups can be a prime example of this phenomenon. Fundamentalist organizations, of any kind, are another. There is a great deal of talk within these groups that can reach a fever pitch. The problem is that the only ones listening are others who agree.
Democracy only works if its members have both the skill and commitment to listen across differences. The theory here, which both history and my own experience prove true, is that ideas become changed through the negotiation of differences, and that the thinking that emerges from this process is better, richer, more complete, than any one of the contributing voices.
Given what I have said, it follows that young people everywhere deserve the opportunity that liberal education provides, the opportunity to prepare themselves for effective participation in a democratic society, the opportunity to cultivate and nurture their humanity, mentored by erudite and caring faculty.
Liberal education should not be a rare privilege, but it is. These four years are a time set aside for rigorous, relatively undistracted inquiry, for reflection, for intellectual, aesthetic, and ethical development, in short for liberal learning. To be able to spend these years engaged in this project is a privilege a fraction of a fraction of your global peers have access to.
I want to ask you to do a mental exercise with me, so work with me here.
First, would all new students—first-years and transfers—please stand up. Okay, there are about 600 of you. Did you know that in the world right now of 7.5 billion people, around 600 million of them are your age peers, roughly between eighteen and twenty-two. Therefore, for the purposes of this thought experiment, each of you represents one million of your global peers.
Now, how many of you have access to higher education in any form? How many of you are having access to some university education? Okay, if your last name begins with the letter A through the letter N, please sit down. All the A’s, B’s, C’s all the way through M’s and N’s please sit down. Take a minute; there should be about 400 of you sitting down right now. You 400 million are not attending university in any fashion.
You know, I trust, how much university education increases your life prospects. It is also important to say that one’s access to university is deeply correlated with wealth, race, and national identity. Only twenty of you left standing would be from Africa, for example. Speaking only of the United States, in one study I consulted, around 10 percent of students from families in the lowest socioeconomic quartile achieved a four-year degree while around 75 percent of students in the wealthiest quartile achieved a degree.
Okay, now everyone sit down. Everyone except Crawford Zebroski; are you here Crawford? (How about Donika Zeka? Shunling Zhang?) Please stand up again. Okay, you represent the one million of your global peers that is enrolled in one of this nation’s top 100 liberal arts colleges or top public universities. Okay, thank you, you may sit down.
This was just a very rough exercise in data visualization, and I trust you get the point. You are in a most favored, most privileged situation right now. What is my point? Remember the passage from Luke 12:48: "to whom much is given, much is required.” With privilege comes responsibility: the responsibility to pursue this opportunity with seriousness of purpose, to use this time well.
Students, I know it doesn’t feel this way to you right now. I know many of you certainly don’t feel privileged; you worry about the debt you have taken on to pursue a degree, you worry about the competitive environment of your chosen career path. Still, compared to your peers, both national and global, the prospects you have, and the capacity for your choices to have influence, means that you occupy a position in the global order that you need to understand.
The world is a place full of problems to be solved, and they create a context of urgency for our work here. Your education isn’t just about you; it is about your role in the world’s affairs and your capacity to create positive change.
Rollins is one of the finest, resource-rich liberal arts colleges in the country, and you will leave here with the knowledge, skills, and credentials to have what we might call “social access.” You will go on to graduate schools, and professional schools, and to jobs that situate you to have significant influence on this and future generations, not just locally, but globally.
When you graduate you will be part of an educated elite; I do not use this term as praise, but as fact. As graduates of Rollins you will be members of a transnational, multicultural cosmopolitan class. In time, you will have access to leadership positions, to the ranks of those conceptualizing and influencing the direction of globalization. Some of you will be stockbrokers, business executives, and corporate lawyers. Others will be U.N. workers, Peace Corps volunteers; some will work for NGO’s, or environmental or social activist groups. If history is any guide, many of you will yourselves be college professors. Others still will be teachers, lobbyists, artists, and writers. Whatever you do, you will be voters, consumers, and, yes, stockholders.
What this means is that we all—students, faculty, staff—have a profound social obligation, to this and future generations, to graduate alumni who can and will use their access and influence to work for social justice, environmental sustainability, and world peace. Through our work, we are all accountable to the near and long term future of humanity. Therefore, with great respect for our common purpose and profound optimism for our common future, the 133rd year of liberal education at Rollins College is hereby convened.