Making the Case for Liberal Education
Southern Oregon University, June 11, 2005
Hello out there - our honored graduates! This is YOUR Day!
It's YOUR day to celebrate - not just your degree (and hopefully
the job you have or are about to get), but what you have learned
that will help you continue to learn. It's YOUR day to deepen
your pledge to make a difference in the world around you so
that -- at the end of the day -- you have a purpose and sense
of direction, and enjoy the journey. It's YOUR day to make
promises to your families and dearest college friends, to
your most respected teachers and advisors, but most importantly
promises to yourselves!
Later in the program, we shall honor our faculty for their
part in your education; but I want us to take this moment
to thank your families and longtime friends for their support.
Would all families and friends please stand so that our graduates
and we can acknowledge you?! Your presence today means so
much to these graduates, and to this university. Thank You
Nothing is more heartwarming to us than seeing a thousand
inspiring stories sitting in front of us today. We are very
proud of each one of you; and also very hopeful for you!
Our pride, our hope and our joy are grounded in what we believe
about you and the meaning of your degree from Southern Oregon
University - a practical liberal arts college within a university
deeply rooted in this special region.
So, what do we believe about you as an SOU-educated person?
We believe that you have liberated minds that continue to
seek freedom from the constraints of ignorance, sectarianism
and myopia. Your minds are curious and yearn to know more.
They are pluralistic and embrace diversity of ideas. With
such minds, you are prepared for successful careers, meaningful
lives, and engaged United States and global citizenship.
We know too that you possess specialized knowledge and skills
that position you well for jobs and graduate study. You are
self-directed and intentional learners. You reflect on your
experiences so as to understand and build on them. You are
facile with technology and information literacy; and many
of you are at least bilingual. Moreover, you are on a journey
to multicultural competency and abilities to differ constructively
For these reasons, we believe that you are empowered, informed
and responsible - and will become more so with your capacity
to learn and to grow, to inquire and to lead. I want to linger
on these three qualities, one at a time:
First, we hope you feel Empowered by what you've learned
here - it will grow with experience and confidence!
Of course, we know what many of you worry about right now!
Getting or advancing in a job and paying off debts! Rather
basic for feeling empowered, to be sure, but there's more
to being empowered.
You're EMPOWERED with intellectual and practical skills;
you use quantitative and qualitative ways of solving problems;
you interpret and evaluate information from various sources;
and you communicate in many forms.
At Southern, you've worked with complex systems and diverse
groups. You've grappled with unscripted problems in internships
and community-based learning. You've developed intellectual
agility and abilities to manage change. You've learned to
transform perception and information into knowledge, and then
knowledge into insight, judgment, and action.
Being resilient is empowering! It's about habits of mind
that foster integrative thinking and the ability to transfer
knowledge and skills from one setting to another. You've learned
to think critically and debate rigorously-skills to hone with
more practice. In your research and artistic projects, you've
framed important questions, analyzed complex information,
examined great ideas expressed on the page or canvas or score,
and produced work of quality and originality. You've learned
to create and to be creative!
Being empowered requires the courage to take thoughtful risks
for good purpose. It requires insight into the rhythms of
life and nature, and good habits of the heart. It requires
humility about your limitations. It is most brilliantly revealed
when sharing power and privilege with others, and working
in teams and with communities.
So, I say to you:
Live to Create and to Share your Power and Privilege!
Second, we believe that you are Informed, indeed Enlightened
by your education here!
You are well INFORMED about the natural and social worlds
and about forms of inquiry basic to these studies - the arts,
sciences, humanities, and professions. You have mastered substantial
content in one or more fields, and have engaged it with societal,
ethical and practical implications.
You have the capacity to understand ideas and issues in context.
You have deepened your knowledge of the values and histories
underlying U.S. democracy. You know that human imagination
and expression are the products of many cultures. You've found
new relationships in cross-cultural communities.
Don't stop learning now! We believe that you are disposed
to lifelong learning! Continue to explore connections among
formal learning, career practices, citizenship and service
to communities. Keep yearning for truth about the fundamentals
of our humanity!
So, I say to you:
Live to Learn and to Teach, to Serve and to Lead!
Third, you are prepared to live Responsibly - for individual,
civic, and social choices!
Your education at Southern has prepared you to do so! Keep
your values and principles in view, and your beliefs open
to critique. Be sure they are well-informed. Have the courage
to act upon them. Be bold, and gentle too. Celebrate achievements,
and pass along the praise. Accept consequences, and apologize
freely. Experiment, but do so with integrity.
We have seen you be RESPONSIBLE for your personal actions
and for civic purpose. We have witnessed your intellectual
honesty. You've shown discernment of ethical consequences
of decisions and actions.
You've deepened your understanding of yourself and your respect
for the complex identities of others-their histories and cultures.
This university has a strong sense of responsibility for
society's moral health and for social justice, and it is poignantly
expressed in our community. The university tries not only
to engage difference and dissent but to model and teach such
engagement as one of the arts of democracy and one of the
arts of a thriving business or organization.
In the course of your education here, you have contributed
to our university's ideals and progress. Your intercultural
knowledge and collaborative problem solving abilities position
you for both successful careers and democratic citizenship.
Your work environments will depend on engaged difference in
order to be productive and innovative. Your efforts to build
communities of respectful difference will be both intellectually
exciting and socially responsible.
We believe that you graduate with a strong commitment to
live in society and to help shape it for future generations!
And that means living to differ, not begging to differ. Differing
skillfully uncovers some startling surprises on the path to
genuine understanding. It sometimes leads to profound change
that turns our society to a more hopeful future.
Find the power of positive change in the juxtaposition and
perhaps the synthesis of differences. Use your knowledge and
influence in responsible ways! Expect resistance from those
who feel powerless, and show them respect as you seek common
Keep asking the deep questions that help us discover and
overcome the fears and angers that underlie prejudice and
undermine learning. Be courageous and kind, forgiving and
path-breaking. And, understand that there are many ways to
be patriotic as an American-to love our country-and to care
for humanity as a whole.
You might as well enjoy the zig-zag journey! We live in an
era when the world is our community and the globe is our home.
Most modern problems are of a scale so large and complex that
they require organized, cooperative effort to solve.
So it is our collective necessity that the boundaries separating
people of different cultures, races, gender identities, religions,
and nations be transformed from impenetrable barriers to inviting
passages. Adventures across these passages are not easy, but
they enlighten our minds, invigorate our spirits, and engage
us in the world.
Consider the unexpected as our individual and socio-cultural
world views come in contact, sometimes in conflict. Do you
delight or despair when facing surprise? Delight teaches us
to differ wisely and to use surprise as an instrument of positive
change. After all, surprise is the sine qua non of learning!
The most creative ideas and enduring solutions come from
the truth we discover in the middle between our understanding
and that of people different from ourselves.
Opposing thoughts, ideas, theories and beliefs are erected
on the landscape of our time - built upon those of ages past.
In philosophy, the pillar of reason stands near the pillar
of intuition. In literature, the classical beside the romantic.
In ways of knowing, the pillar of science juxtaposed with
the pillar of art. In religion, the Judeo-Christian and the
Muslim. In linguistic culture, Spanish speakers and English
speakers. In world politics, the East and the West.
Do you assume never the twain shall meet, or will you help
mold them to reach creative alliances for the greater good?
History shows us that, over time, commonalities are found
and some builders have the vision to fashion stones of a new
shape, positioning them to approach the opposite pillar.
Tension mounts as the hope of resolution comes into view.
The completion of the arch forms a bridge and marks that dramatic
moment when unity occurs between conflicting forces for a
wholly new understanding - a loftier way of living and knowing.
[Many of you will see that I'm drawing upon the teaching and
metaphor of the great philosopher Hegel].
Leaders are those with insight to see the compelling needs
of the times and what is ripe for development. What will be
the lofty achievements of your generation - especially those
of you young enough to live and work into the mid-21st Century?
Will you see and capture the spirit of the age when the imperative
for change is felt overdue? Will you be among the leaders
who step forward at the propitious moment to put the last
stone in place, forming a new arch that stands self-supported?
Only you can decide, but we think you can!
So, I say to you:
Learn to Differ; Live for Change; Delight in Surprise! And,
Place the Stones that lift us up!
In closing, I ask you to remember that you are empowered,
informed, and responsible, in no small measure by your education.
Live these qualities well.
While we bring you words of wisdom from the stage today,
what matters most is that you, each one, will walk across
this stage to receive your degree. As you walk, reflect on
what you have learned and the "unfinished" business
of learning for the rest of your lives. At its core, the meaning
of this day is very personal. It is what you take away from
your SOU experience and how you think about your future.
Thank you for choosing Southern and leaving it a better place
for your having been here! Welcome to a lifetime friendship
with your alma mater! Keep in touch!
We extend our hands with heartfelt hope that you will be
a part of our society's best future for the generation in
which you live and for those following your footprints.
Congratulations and Best wishes!
This is YOUR Day! So, give yourselves a huge round of applause!
Elisabeth Zinser is President of Southern Oregon University
The Presidents' Campaign for the Advancement of Liberal
Learning is supported by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation
of New York. For more information contact Bethany Zecher Sutton