September 3, 2003
Education provides the foundation of the values of equality, liberty, and community that we most cherish. We enhance our freedoms and we deepenour moral equality by providing an effective and challenging education toall our citizens. The university is thus the place within our society where weare most fully engaged in building a more just and flourishing world for the future.
Welcome to you, the class of 2007. On behalf of the faculty and staff of theUniversity of Michigan-Dearborn, I extend the warmest welcome to you and yourfamilies. We welcome you to this academic community. And we look forward tocoming to know you better in the coming weeks, months, and years. We willcontribute to your growth. And you will contribute to the campus, to your fellowstudents, and to the academic life of the university.
This convocation represents a new tradition for the University. It is our way of marking the significance and intellectual importance of your beginnings at the University, and to express some of the values that we hope you will come to shareas you begin to make your way, with your classmates and your teachers, furtherinto college life. It is a new tradition; but it is also one of the most venerable academic ceremonies to be found in universities throughout the world, along withthe commencement ceremony we expect to share with you in a few short years.
A university is a place for learning and individual development. But it is morethan that. It is a community of learners, teachers, and scholars. It is a place for intense intellectual relationships; for friendships with people whose initial assumptions and frame works are very different from your own; and a place forgaining commitment to and confidence in the many ways in which we can live together in the most progressive and supportive ways possible within ourcommunities, present and future.
The university is a place of engagement. We expect you to develop your ownintellectual passions and to share these exciting ideas with others. We expect youto dive into the classroom, into the ideas to which you will be exposed, into animated discussions with your peers about these ideas, and into discussion and debate with your teachers. It is highly meaningful that such a large number of the faculty have come together today to celebrate this beginning. We want your engagement; we welcome your challenge and your debate; and we will ask muchof you.
Because the university is also a place of challenge. It is important to know from the start that your experience in the classrooms and laboratories that make up UMDearbornwill not be easy. You will be expected to study hard, to reflect andconsider, to master new modes of analysis and deliberation, and to draw out theconnections that you find between the various disciplines that you will study. Wehave high expectations of you, because you have high expectations of yourselves.
The university is a place where the values of integrity and honesty areparticularly central. It is all too easy to cut corners in life, and this is true in theuniversity no less than in business or government. So it is possible to find termpapers on the Internet; to cheat on an examination; or to turn in someone else’sproblem set in place of your own work. But I pose this question to you: is this themoral example you wish to set to yourself? And is this an effective avenue towardreal education and sustained personal development? These are questions you willbe faced with throughout your lives. Now is the right time to make the personaldecision to live by principles you can respect throughout your life.
These are some of the most general values that make up a university. But what dowe think a good education should involve? Is it an accomplished set of facts, abody of knowledge that you construct over the course of four years in theclassroom? Or is it something more general and more permanently valuable? Webelieve the latter. We believe in the value of a liberal education: an educationthat exposes you to some of the great ideas and questions in literature, in science,in history, and in the many cultures of the world; an education that provides acontext for the more specific modes of knowledge you will encounter in the manydisciplines and schools that make up the university. And we believe that this broad general education is important because it gives you a wealth of ideas andapproaches in terms of which to attempt to make sense of the novel challenges you will face throughout your lives--in the professions, in business, or in academic life. We believe that the liberally educated person is enabled to ask new questions; to reason rigorously; and to approach the world with imagination. One of the most difficult challenges in becoming a well-educated person is that of learning to think broadly, open-mindedly, and creatively; and to have the tools of reasoning and analysis that will permit you to solve the problems you confront. And we believe that the value of a liberal education--whether for an English major, a business major, or a mechanical engineering major--is proven by the flexibility of mind andthe imaginative capacities that are so much the mark of a liberally educated person.
Two examples of what I mean may be helpful. Think first of the challenges ofethical behavior that we all face in our working lives--as an architect, a physician,or a high school principal. Reasoning clearly and rigorously about moral dilemmasrequires that we have some of the tools that philosophers and other humanists havediscovered—the principle of utility, the principle of universalizability--and itrequires that we have practice in thinking through complex situations of fact,principle, and consequence. A liberal education should give you a rich exposure tosome of the tools and modes of inquiry that are most helpful in thinking through adifficult moral dilemma.
Think second of the role that history and the social sciences play in technicaldisciplines such as engineering. It is sometimes thought that engineering problemsare self-contained within the physics of a system, the equations that govern themechanics of the system, and the properties of the materials that make up thesystem. But nothing could be further from the truth. It is profoundly important forthe engineer to have a good grasp of the social and behavioral context into whichhis/her solutions will be placed, and the ways in which human beings will relate tothese technologies. It is now well understood that designing safety into complextechnology systems--the space shuttle, nuclear power plants, or medicaltechnologies--requires a sophisticated understanding of the behavioral andinstitutional context in which these systems function—or else failures will emergethat have little to do with the nuts and bolts of the machine. So the liberallyeducated engineer who has learned from history and the social sciences will be amore effective designer of new technologies.
Let me turn finally to the conjunction of ideas to which I made reference in thethree sentences contained in your Convocation program. (Thanks, by the way, to the organizers of this event for giving me the privilege of summing up my thinking in this highly visible place!) Here I draw a connection between education and the social values of liberty, equality, and community. Is this just pious talk? Or is there an important thread that connects these ideas? Liberty and equality are often thought to be at odds with each other: if people are given extensive liberties, then extensive inequalities often emerge. And the idea of liberty is sometimes thought to be in tension with the values of community: if an individual is constrained by the values of his/her community, then how can she be truly free? These are allcomplicated problems in political philosophy, and I won’t turn to them in detail today. (Feel free to take a course in political philosophy in our very fine philosophy discipline!) But how does education play into these three important ideas?
First, from education to liberty. The exercise of liberty is dependent on our ability to exercise our human capabilities and talents in pursuit of our goals. Education directly amplifies the development of those capabilities--and thus deepens andextends our liberties. By actively seizing the most effective education possible for ourselves, and by making such an education available to others, we will have made ourselves more free.
Second, from education to equality. What are the most intransigent obstacles to equality in our society? There are many sources of inequality; but one important source is the inequality of access to education that results in some people being significantly less prepared to exercise their human talents than others. So effective, broadly available education is a powerful engine of social equality.
And finally, from education to community. A community is more than simply a group of individuals. It is a social nexus in which people have learned to negotiate and cooperate in pursuit of goals, both individual and collective. It is an environment in which people have articulated for themselves some of the values that they believe should govern their social and political interactions. And it is an environment in which the value of mutual respect is paramount. A university at its best is a place where we can model and practice our social relationships in ways that reinforce our best aspirations for community.
So the work we are doing here--the work that you are beginning to engage in your studies at UM-Dearborn--is profoundly important. It is of course important to your own personal futures. But it is also important for the future of our society, and for the democratic values that we would wish to embody in the social order inwhich we live.
Congratulations to you and your families on this beginning. You have accomplished much, and we are proud to have you join the university community.
Please join me and the faculty at the ice cream social that will be hosted in the CASL courtyard immediately following this ceremony.