R. Barry Levis’ Commencement Speech

Retiring Professor of History Barry Levis addressed graduates of the Hamilton Holt School during the 2013 commencement ceremony.

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook) The following is a transcript of Professor of History R. Barry Levis’ address to graduates during the Hamilton Holt School’s 2013 commencement ceremony on Saturday, May 11.

Good Morning

I know some of you are disappointed that yet again a faculty member will address you. You have been listening to us for many years now; to some of you it probably seems like decades. You perhaps thought you would get to hear from a luminary such as Al Gore, or Brian Williams or Beyoncé or say Justin Bieber. But instead you have to sit through another faculty lecture.

When I was first invited to give this address, I considered a topic that is very close to my academic heart: changes in preaching styles in the 18th-century Church of England. I abandoned that idea once I was told that 90 minutes was perhaps too long for a commencement address. (I’m sure you would have enjoyed it). Instead, I went to the library to check out Bartlett’s Familiar Commencement Address Clichés. In between “seize the day” and “follow your bliss” was “a mind is a terrible thing to waste” followed by some helpful suggestions about what trite things I could impart. But before I get to them, I wanted to say a few things about how I became involved in the Holt School in the first place.

I arrived at Rollins fresh out of graduate school in September of 1968. (It says here pause for yelps of amazement.) I did not teach in what was then the School of Continuing Education at first. In my third year, however, I agreed to teach a course, and I have taught just about every semester since then. And let me tell you why. At that time, many of the students were often women who had left college to get married, raised their kids, and now decided that it was time for them to return to college to finish their degrees. They had all the makings of great students. They were highly motivated to finish their degrees but not necessarily for career purposes—they wanted to be educated. They also had life experiences which gave them an entirely different perspective from the traditional students I taught in the day program. Their maturity provided them with a sophistication sometimes lacking with my other students. They had often confronted all that life can dish out. Nevertheless, they determined to complete what many of them had given up to follow family pursuits. One woman in particular I will never forget: Henrietta Thompson. She had come from my hometown in Pennsylvania. She had quit college to marry her husband, a successful business executive. She raised a large family and did volunteer work. After he retired, they moved to Florida. But then her husband became ill and died. At that point, she decided she was going to finish her degree. She enrolled at Rollins in the humanities program and finished with a very high GPA. She was 72 years old. She then went on to complete a master’s degree in history at the University of Maine. Apparently, we now have another student vying for the honor of oldest graduate currently enrolled in the Holt School. She’s 72 now and just beginning her degree work. Students like that give us all hope!

Now, from the looks of things, most of you graduates aren’t quite that old. But from my experience, your enthusiasm for learning ranks right up there with Henrietta. That is what makes teaching in the Holt School such a joy. Now don't get me wrong; I have some very bright undergraduate students in the day program. For the most part, however, they lack the maturity and life experience that most Holt students possess. Moreover, there are distractions for 18 year olds which at times impinge on the college experience: hormones, sports, hormones, parties, hormones, surfing, hormones. You get the idea. Now there is nothing wrong with hormones; why at one time, I had hormones myself! But for the most part, you have focused on academics in a way that makes life much easier for a college professor.

Teaching Holt students, however, is not always so easy. There are a few of you—and you know who you are—who did not always keep up with the readings, for instance. Perhaps the most intimidating for me was when we had a criminal justice program. Imagine if you can, handing back a midterm examination to a group of heavily armed students. Nevertheless, the diligence and excitement for learning exhibited by most of you more than compensates.

You have achieved your goals despite various challenges and hardships. One young man did not own a car and had to depend on Lynx buses to get to campus from the other side of Orlando, a trip that took almost two hours each way. Another student was just recovering from an addiction problem and despite warnings advising now was not the time to return to college she achieved an “A” in my class and did not start drinking again. That student completed the B.A. degree with a praiseworthy GPA and went on to receive a master’s degree from an Ivy League. I have worked with students who have gone through messy divorces, the birth of a child, a death in the family, a spouse or partner losing a job. Yet these students overcame their trials, forged ahead with their academic work, and earned their degrees. And I know that most of you have had to juggle classes, a job—sometimes two—community obligations, and a family. Some of you are not only caring for children but also aging parents. Some of you drive long distances, from Tampa or Melbourne, because you want your degree from Rollins. You have foregone family vacations, movie nights, reading a favorite book. You have all shown real dedication, or you would not have reached this point.

It is not only the students who make the sacrifice but other family members as well. A student in our MLS program informed her husband what he would give up for the next three years while she completed her degree. She also told us that because of her busy work schedule she often propped her book on the dashboard as she drove from Cocoa to Winter Park. I have continued to discourage other students from following her example and during her time at Rollins, I avoided the Beeline Expressway.

I have always been willing to work with Holt students to overcome their challenges and succeed in achieving their academic goals. I must admit that I am a tad less sympathetic to some of our other students who, for instance, want to have an extension because a girlfriend dumped him last night. Rather, a Holt student recently came to my office with three of her children in tow because she could not find a babysitter. Perhaps a more significant problem, which she solved. There has been more than one occasion when my office seemed like a nursery.

Obviously, I don't teach in the Holt school for the pay… just kidding Lewis. I hope that my legacy will be a group of students who will become good citizens. I know most of you have worked hard all these years because you expect that the completion of a degree will aid you professionally. Perhaps gaining a better and higher paying job. But I have never really been interested in preparing students for careers. I guess that's a no-brainer considering I teach history and humanities courses and not accounting. While it might be nice, I don’t quite care if you are able to buy that second Lexus or that modest house in Isleworth because of your Rollins degree. What I teach, I believe, is actually far more important. Students who enroll in a technical program often find that the technology they learned is obsolete by the time they get that new job. Yet, according to a recent column in The New York Times by Frank Bruni, the state of Florida is considering charging higher tuition for humanities majors than engineering students. On the other hand, China is encouraging its students to major in the humanities. Perhaps they know something that our state officials don’t. What we do at Rollins is more important than vocational training. I have a special soft spot in my heart for students who undertake courses without even a hint of a vocational focus: humanities and English majors for instance. They major in these disciplines for the sheer love of knowledge. And then there are the Master of Liberal Studies students. Now there’s a worthless degree if I ever saw one, and the one in my humble opinion with the most intrinsic value. But of course, I’m prejudiced.

What I strive for in my classes is to get my students to read, write, and think. If you master those skills, then no matter how much technology changes you will be able to adapt. If you can read a text closely and critically, then you will be able to master new materials and be able to judge the useful from the worthless. After all, most of the learning you accomplished in your years at Rollins was self-taught. We certainly did not just spoon feed you information but asked you to read material and come to class to discuss it, enlightening your instructor and fellow students with your own insights. You realized that what was once a world of black and white suddenly became gray. You found that the most concrete pronouncement is always followed by a “yes, but.” You confronted the fact that authors have very different interpretations and compelling arguments to support them. That’s where those 18th-century sermons come in. Historians differ about the impact the Enlightenment had on English clergy. They can muster lots of evidence from sermons to prove their point, either it had little effect or a tremendous change took place, leaving you in a quandary to determine which position is correct. That rather arcane debate actually prepares you for the “real world” in which you are required to weigh widely contrary positions, deciding the best course of action in your work and for whom to cast your vote in local and national elections. No technical education will provide you with the skill of analytical reading in the same way that you acquired it here.

We have emphasized communication skills, especially effective writing. You have mastered the skill of defending your point of view in class. You have even been forced to argue a position that you do not necessarily support. One could maintain that a liberal arts education is impressive training to become a used car salesman or a lawyer. You have also learned to become good writers. From INT 200 to English 300 to many courses in your major and electives you have been required to write, a great deal in fact. You groused perhaps and complained about how much red ink your professors spilled on your manuscripts, but in the end you developed a solid writing style which impresses employers. Personally, if over my teaching career I have prevented 100 students from using the passive voice too frequently or 50 from using “impact” as a verb or even 10 from splitting an infinitive then I have won.

Finally you have learned how to think. You have perhaps entered Rollins with a set of predetermined beliefs or prejudices, and you have been challenged and forced to rethink them. You have been encouraged to think critically about what others argue and what you yourself believe. But in the end you have come away with much stronger foundations for your views, not only the ones you brought with you but also the ones you have come to accept after discarding the old. And you have developed the skill of challenging the positions of others without normally getting into fisticuffs. (I say normally since in one MLS class a woman got so angry with another that during the break she crossed the room and slugged her! But that doesn’t happen often.) I am especially proud when a student says in essence, “Listen, Levis, you are wrong,” and explains in a convincing manner that in fact I was. Not only has the student learned not just to follow blindly an authority figure but how to articulate and defend an alternate position. Thus, you, like the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, will soon receive a degree in thinkology.

These skills of reading, writing, and thinking certainly have application to one’s career. They are really what employers seek for persons holding positions of responsibility. Rollins, I believe, has equipped you with the skills to survive and even flourish in your careers in a rapidly changing world. But as I said before, that’s not what really concerns me. What I hope I see sitting out there are several hundred newly minted good citizens who will make a difference in the world today and make things better for future generations. Unlike our day students who scatter to the winds after graduation, most of you will remain in this area. You already have roots in the community and are less likely to venture forth. And right now, we really need good citizens who will become involved in solving the problems this community faces. If you have only worked for your degree so that you can own two Lexi, then we have wasted our time. If, on the other hand, you plan to use the critical-thinking tools that we have taught you to make this community, this country, this world a safer, more equitable, and cleaner place to live then we have succeeded. If you don’t use your writing proficiency to compose a letter to the editor, if you don’t utilize your talents at oral communication to call attention to some injustice, if you don’t use your critical-thinking skills to help solve a community problem, then indeed we have a problem. Today this community, this nation, and this global society face tremendous challenges. We have congestion, a deteriorating infrastructure, and failing schools locally; we have a dysfunctional Congress and high unemployment nationally; we have economic meltdowns and violent conflicts globally. These problems aren’t going to go away by themselves; they won’t dissipate if conceded only to others. I reject Voltaire’s assertion that we should merely cultivate our own gardens. Inevitably the weeds from next door will creep into our own yard. Use the skills and talents you have developed and get involved.

There is one other characteristic that we hope you have mastered and will continue to foster: an active intellect. We have not only taught you skills, but a love of learning, a desire to explore new areas beyond your comfort zones, and an urgency to continue the process of improving your minds. A liberal arts education should have expanded both your left and your right brain. You should be comfortable in either hemisphere.

We have finally reached that cliché I mentioned at the beginning: A mind is a terrible thing to waste. Use it because apparently from scientific studies if you don't you will eventually lose it. We hope that you will read that book one of your professors recommended in class. We hope that you will begin some individual inquiry on a topic that has always intrigued you. You certainly now possess the skills to undertake such a study on your own. If you don’t question the information being fed to you in the media, if you do not critically examine what you believe and also scrutinize the other side, then we have failed. If you only read novels by Tom Clancy or Stephanie Meyer and never read at least one non-fiction book a year, then we have failed. If you don't pick up a book on a subject you know little about but think as a citizen of a rapidly changing world you should know, then we have failed. If you only go to vampire movies and never one with sub-titles, then we have failed. If you only watch Dancing with the Stars and never try Masterpiece Theatre or the Discovery Channel, then we have failed. If you go on a business trip and do not set aside time to visit a local museum or historical sight, then we have failed. If you never venture out of your self-inflicted boundaries, then we have failed.

Rollins also instills in its students a concern for community engagement. As good citizens, if you do not participate in some local or national volunteer effort than we have failed. And I’m not talking about just stroking a check. I mean giving of your time and talents to help others. We have lots of local opportunities such as hammering nails one Saturday for Habitat for Humanity or assisting with a Girl Scout troop. Just remember you have the time since you have no more term papers. Now this idea did not come out of Bartlett’s Familiar Clichés. I found this one in a fortune cookie at Forbidden City the other day at lunch: “The price of greatness is responsibility.” If you don't take your place as a responsible citizen, then we have indeed failed.

The Rollins motto is Fiat Lux, what the great designer exclaimed when she began the process of creation. That particular story ends with Adam and Eve eating from the tree of knowledge. While we have often considered that was the worst thing that ever happened to human kind, to my way of thinking it was the best. Blaise Pascal in his Thoughts wrote, “All our dignity consists, then, in thought. By it we must elevate ourselves, and not by space or time which we cannot fill. Let us endeavor, then, to think well; this is the principle of morality.” You have eaten plentifully from that tree. Now you have the responsibility to use those skills and talents to make our community, our nation, and this fragile planet a better and safer place. Congratulations.