Austin College Commencement Address – May 16, 2010
Kern Wildenthal, M.D., Ph.D.
Thank you for the honor of being with you on this important day.
I must confess that I accepted President Hass’s invitation to speak to you with some degree of reluctance. You see, I am an authority on graduation speeches (I may even be approaching a world record for attendance at commencement ceremonies), and I have a mild degree of skepticism about the value of graduation speeches.
Let me explain. While I was growing up, my father was the president of a small liberal arts college in a small Texas town—Sul Ross State College in Alpine—a school and town similar in some respects to Austin College and Sherman, such as small classes and the ability to really get to know your classmates, your professors, and your community. As a result of my father’s job, plus the fact that there wasn’t much else to do in Alpine, I grew up going to three college commencement ceremonies every year. Then, as a high school, college, medical, and graduate student, I also attended to watch my friends graduate.
As a faculty member beginning 40 years ago, I went back to a three-a-year schedule at my own institution, supplemented by the graduations of children, nieces, nephews, and friends. So, over the years I have heard well over 200 graduation speeches, and I think I am an authority.
And I have reached two conclusions about commencement speeches which make me reluctant to deliver one:
First, they’re all boring.
And second, that doesn’t really matter, because nobody pays much attention to them anyway.
In his long career in education, my father also became an authority on graduation speeches, of course, and he once shared with me the ultimate advice about them: Keep it short; nobody will remember what you said, but everybody will remember how long you took to say it. Well, you might say, if all this is true, why accept this invitation? The reason is that this is not a graduation address at just any old school. It is at an institution I have long admired greatly: one that has charted its own mission and niche in the higher education constellation; one that has avoided the temptation to become a junior “me-too” version of larger universities; one that has focused on quality over quantity; one that has sought an enviable balance of liberal arts and science—indeed, a blending of liberal arts and science that I personally regard as essential to a first-rate education.
So, I have happily accepted the invitation to address you—briefly. I realize that I am the last speed bump on your road to getting your diploma, and I promise not to slow you up too much.
My assignment is to speak to you. By your presence here, you have accepted the assignment of listening. In keeping with my father’s advice, I’ll try to finish my assignment before you finish yours.
In considering what to talk about, there was really only one choice: I want to discuss what I regard as the single most important item facing our society as a whole, and each of us as individuals: education. I want to share some observations about education with you graduates, who have just completed an important stage in your education, and whose future is dependent on further education—your own and that of others.
Let’s ask ourselves the questions: How good an education have you gotten? How good an education do most Americans get? What constitutes a “good education”? What is our responsibility for educating others? For educating ourselves?
To answer these questions, we first have to understand what we mean by “education”. Many people assume that getting an education means absorbing information, memorizing a set of facts and gaining job skills. Certainly, in the process of becoming educated, one receives a lot of information, learns a lot of facts, and acquires special skills; but being the recipient of information and being trained to do a job are not the same thing as being educated.
The real goal of education is more complex and subtle and far-reaching than mere information gathering and acquisition of job skills. Rather, the goal of education must be to enable the student to analyze information and to evaluate it critically; to draw reasoned and balanced conclusions; and to become able to think and act wisely and fairly.
Yes, the goal of education is partly to transmit basic information, of course, but also to generate open minds—to generate adaptability and versatility; innovation and creativity; a balanced perspective; rationality and an analytical, logical approach; a breadth of interest and an ability to burrow deeply to the heart of an issue; the ability to weigh the validity of what you’re told and the motives of those who are telling you; a commitment to learn all sides of a story before jumping to conclusions; a healthy skepticism about what you’re told and why you’re told it; and a commitment—a zest—to go on learning for the rest of our lives.
In this new age of digital data, we are confronted with instant access to literally millions of internet sites (many of them anonymous or un-vetted or with hidden agendas), and a multitude of media sources frantically competing to be sensational and “first” without caring particularly about accuracy, balance, or fairness. A truly educated person will not be a passive, uncritical receptacle of whatever information happens to appear on Facebook, blogs, Tweets, or email blasts, or in shoddy or biased journalists’ reports. An educated person analyzes, and delves into a subject deeply, skeptically, and with an open mind—to develop a full understanding of important issues.
And that has been the real purpose of your education here at Austin College—to teach you how to analyze and understand the physical and biological world, and the world of liberal arts, and the political and business world; to analyze and understand our society and our place in it; to think critically and deeply about the enormous onslaught of facts— and falsehoods—that we are constantly bombarded with; and to reach logical conclusions and make sound judgments.
In this context, any debate about the relative importance of science versus liberal arts becomes meaningless: It is necessary to absorb both, broadly and deeply, and to apply them to all aspects of our lives.
Educating students to develop these traits is not easy. It requires highly talented and dedicated teachers; and it requires money to pay for the education. But, these traits are what characterize educated people. And these traits are also what characterize successful societies.
Now, it is my personal opinion and experience that focusing your education exclusively on science will help train you to think rigorously and will provide an essential understanding of the nature of the physical and biological world, but it does not necessarily provide the perspective and subtlety that is needed to deal effectively with personal and societal issues.
On the other hand, educating yourself only in liberal arts yields a valuable depth of emotional insight and essential historical perspective, but does not necessarily provide a grounding in the complexity of modern technology, probability theory, and logic that is essential in navigating our modern society effectively.
So, the truly educated people I know do not study and value science at the expense of the arts, and equally, do not become so enchanted with the arts that science is ignored as a pedestrian and somehow less noble calling. No, the best-educated people I know have achieved a balance in their knowledge of and appreciation for both science and liberal arts.
(I confess to a certain personal bias in this regard. I am a scientist, but my guilty secret is that in college I took only the minimum number of science courses necessary to get into medical school; and I majored in English. But although I began biochemistry and cell biology in medical school without the depth of background in those subjects possessed by most of my peers, and had to study harder to catch up, I always felt that there were intangible benefits from immersion in liberal arts as well as, in science, which has stood me and other scientists in good stead over the years. Similarly, I can’t help but believe that the novelists and composers and historians and philosophers of the 21st century will need to be well-grounded in science if their work is to be relevant and wise.)
What I have especially admired about Austin College over the decades is its conscientious and successful effort to ensure that all its students—scientists and artists alike—are exposed to and appreciate the entire continuum of human knowledge and education, from hard sciences to fine arts.
I have always been impressed with Austin College’s applicants to UT Southwestern Medical School—applicants who incidentally are remarkably successful in getting into medical school (the percentage of Austin College graduates we accept is the highest in Texas and comparable to the Ivy Leagues and Stanford). But what impresses me most is that most Austin College applicants, whether they majored in chemistry or philosophy, are usually well-educated broadly, in the way I have tried to define.
Well, what is the “take-home” message from all this?
Over the last century, the United States emerged as the most successful society in the history of the world. Why? Bountiful resources, entrepreneurship, freedom—a multitude of reasons are important.
But fundamental to all our progress has been the fact that for most of the 20th century we provided a good education to more of our citizens than any country in the history of the world. Some countries perhaps provided as fine or finer an education to an elite few. Some others perhaps provided some degree of education to as many. But, none provided a better education to more of its citizens than did the United States.
The world doesn’t stand still. The reasons behind our success are readily apparent to others. They have learned from our history, and they have begun investing tremendously in education. And today, the simple stark fact is that more people are becoming better educated in many countries in Europe and Asia than in the United States.
And while others have improved, our educational system has deteriorated. Too many of our colleges and high schools and grade schools are mediocre. Too many students are unchallenged. Too many students are taught a few facts and today’s job skills, with no background to help them understand and cope with tomorrow. Too many are pigeon-holed into science or art, and fail to become broadly educated. Too many students aren’t even taught the basic tools of learning, and can’t read or write or calculate. Too few learn to analyze critically the information they’re bombarded with, and to burrow deeply into the heart of issues rather than jumping to hasty knee-jerk conclusions.
And too few of our best minds are choosing teaching as a career; and as result too many of our students are failing to receive a decent education.
It is not the fault of the students. Our young people are not dumber than Asian or European students. They’re not lazier. No group in our society is “un-educable”.
No, the fault is with those of us who are in a position to make the sacrifice and the investment to provide an opportunity for a first-rate education for all our young people…but who fail to provide that opportunity, and who fail to convince even those who do succeed in going to college that they must strive to become truly and broadly educated, not just graduated.
Asians and Europeans are increasingly willing and eager to sacrifice and invest in first-rate education. They know the costs; and they are willing to pay them because they also know the benefits. Coming along, hot on their heels, are many of the developing countries. And at the same time, we have failed to learn the lesson of our own history. We have become complacent and faint-hearted and no longer willing to sacrifice now for the sake of the future and our children’s future.
Don’t misunderstand. I fully understand the extent of Texas’ and the nation’s financial problems and the need to control expenditures. But I also understand the counter-productive shortsightedness of failing to invest in what offers our single best hope for the long-term improvement of our financial situation—and for our state and country as a whole and for millions of our young citizens who deserve a chance to compete on an equal footing with the rest of the world.
Well, what is the implication of this for you graduates? In a real sense, you represent an exception to what I have been saying. Your presence here at Austin College suggests that you do know the value of education. And for the opportunity to pursue your education at Austin College (supported by your families in most cases, and also by taxpayers of Texas through its Tuition Equalization Grants to private schools, and by the taxpayers of America through its aid programs for colleges and universities, and by a multitude of generous philanthropic donors over the years, without whom this College and many others would be mired in mediocrity)—for this you should feel privileged in the best sense of the word.
But with that privilege you should also feel an obligation: An obligation to pay back some of what you have received through the generosity and sacrifices of your families and your professors, and through the help provided by the taxpayers of Texas and the United States, and through the generosity of the many philanthropists who have given their personal resources so that you could get a better education.
Now, if you owe something in return for the education you have received, to whom do you owe it? Not directly to your professors and family, I would suggest, nor to the philanthropists whose donations helped you, directly and indirectly. You owe them gratitude, of course, and a kind word and thoughtful gesture now and then. But you have a much bigger obligation to another group of people: you must ensure that your children and grandchildren have an opportunity for an even better education than yours.
And more: You, along with all the other people who have been privileged and fortunate enough to have the opportunity to receive a good education, have an obligation to see that everyone has that same opportunity.
You have an obligation to support Austin College—(including with your financial contributions in due course)—so it can go on providing an ever improving education to all its future students.
And you also have an obligation to support education more broadly—from the crowded kindergarten of an urban slum, to a one-room rural school, to a talented-and-gifted high school program, to a junior college with open admissions to all who want to learn, to an elite graduate university whose research is paving the path for future progress … and not least, to small undergraduate colleges with strong science and liberal arts programs that offer an unsurpassed education to their students.
You must commit your own efforts and financial resources to help. And you must work to make sure that the government officials you elect understand the importance of education to the future of our state and country, and that they have the political courage to do what is necessary to provide a first-rate educational opportunity for all our citizens.
And finally, you have one more obligation—to yourselves. You aren’t finished with your education, and you never will be. You have an obligation to yourself to keep on learning, and expanding your horizons, and gaining a deeper understanding of your world, and your society, and yourself—in science and in the liberal arts: because the final product of a college education should be a commitment to continue educating oneself, forever.
So, as the rear wheels finally pass over this last speed bump on your way forward toward receiving your diploma, my message can be summarized very simply. It is: invest in education.
For our own sake, we must all continue to invest our own energy and talent and interest in our own continuing education. And for the sake of our community, state, country, and the world, we must join together to make sure that we as a united people are willing to make the necessary investments and sacrifices to provide an opportunity for a good education for everyone.
Our future—your future—depends on it.
Thank you for listening. And even if you don’t remember anything I’ve said, thank you very much for allowing me the privilege of being with you on this glorious day in your lives.