"EDUCATION: THE GIFT THE PAST GIVES TO THE FUTURE"

 

Commencement Address by Dr. William B. Allen

Convocation Center
James Madison University
Harrisonburg, Virginia

July 31, 1998

        President Carrier, members of the Board of Visitors, faculty, distinguished alumni, parents, friends and soon-to-be graduates:

        Good evening to all of you. I am honored to join you today as you celebrate the completion of this stage in what I hope will be a lifelong adventure in your own intellectual growth and development. You’ve worked hard to achieve the diplomas you are about to receive and it is fitting to mark this occasion with joy as well as relief.

        I am particularly pleased that my first invitation to speak at the commencement of a Virginia university is at this institution that bears the name of James Madison. You may know that I have studied and written about Madison and the Federalist Papers and that I strongly admire Madison’s mind and character. You may know, too, that I have only just left another institution that bears his name -- James Madison College of Michigan State University. I would like to imagine that the spirit of emulation that inspired the College’s founding no less inspired this University and, therefore, that James Madison is more than a historical presence for you. If you could select but one model for effective and consistent public service, I could not nominate a better model than Mr. Madison.

        A commencement ceremony marks both an end and a beginning. It is a time for you to look back with pride and fondness on your studies and friendships, and to reflect upon your growth in knowledge, wisdom, and character during your time at JMU. It is a time of transition -- time to look ahead with courage and optimism to the challenges and opportunities that await you.

        Some of you will extend your immersion in the academy. Others are ready to enter, or return to, the workplace. All of you will, I trust, shape your lives more thoughtfully and better discharge your responsibilities as citizens of this great Commonwealth and Nation as a result of the education you have completed here. The goal of developing an educated citizen body is, after all, the bedrock upon which education stands in the U.S. and an essential component of our democratic society.

        I want to talk with you today about the fundamental purposes of education. In doing so, I will note several transitions that are underway at this moment -- in addition to this major, personal passage that each of you is making.

        First, though, I will say a word about why we care about education in the first place.

        We care about education on account of the young. Although we accustom ourselves to speaking of the contribution education makes to our lives, our economy, and our civic practices, we actually mean to avow an unconditional commitment to posterity to lives, economies, and civic practices that we adults will know only indirectly at best. It is worthwhile to ponder why one generation forms this bond with succeeding generations.

        The most prominent version of the commitment to posterity has been conveyed in the Preamble to the United States Constitution, in which "we the people" pray for the "Blessings of Liberty" not only for "ourselves" but also for "our posterity." Unborn successors always formed part of that larger conception, society, in the minds of the architects of American nationhood.

        Our posterity takes place first as our young, our offspring, and in a moral community all the young are our offspring. When we pray for their future accomplishments we pray not to prescribe them but to ready the young to accomplish them as their own work. That is the reason our prayers take the form of provision for their education. We see in the education of the young the only gift we have that properly expresses our unconditional love. We know that before they can enjoy the "Blessings of Liberty" they must first enjoy liberty. Nor can they enjoy or benefit from liberty unless their souls first grow into able agents. They must grow to govern themselves, to attain such moral command of themselves as to be at liberty to structure their lives in accord with the "Blessings of Liberty."

        If we, the present generation, perform our work well, our posterity will perpetuate the way of life we know not because they will have inherited it from us but because they will see and embrace its virtue. Accordingly, this very abstract account of the reason we care about education is in fact the most concrete way we have to remind ourselves of what we seek in building schools, faculties, education partners, and communities in which the young see themselves as both cared for and directed.

        Try to imagine writing a letter to a young friend or relative, providing guidance for his future educational choices. Then, the particular things you might say to him will manifest the general principles I have developed here. For example, you might say to a youth that education would provide valued skills, extensive knowledge, and enduring discipline to serve throughout life. However, it is still more likely that you would discuss the acquisition of character and judgment that would strengthen the youth’s confidence in his own decisions. The cultivation of good habits of decision on sound moral and religious grounds is the single most important gift that education conveys. Insofar as we are able to offer such a gift, we have a moral duty to do so. The best schools, the best education, provide exactly such a gift.

        Surely, under Dr. Carrier’s committed leadership, James Madison University has offered this gift to many generations of students. Returning to the theme of transitions, the first that I want to acknowledge is Dr. Carrier’s upcoming retirement. That occasion will mark a major passage for him personally, but also a significant transition for the University. Everyone here today knows far better than I the breadth, depth, and excellence of Dr. Carrier’s work during the 27 years in which he has ably presided over the university.

        Dr. Carrier led the institution into a period of tremendous growth, which is not yet over. During his administration, student enrollment tripled and the number of faculty doubled, more than 20 major campus buildings have been constructed, and the university’s quality has been recognized in numerous national rankings and publications.

        Among Dr. Carrier’s greatest accomplishments at JMU are creation of the College of Integrated Science and Technology (or CISAT) and the recent, comprehensive redesign of the general education program. These two accomplishments, combined, exemplify the best of what higher education can offer to Virginia. Dr. Carrier’s contributions to society extend beyond his leadership here to include service on numerous boards and commissions in the business, government, and volunteer sectors.

        During his speech at the May commencement ceremony, Dr. Carrier expressed the hope that he and all of those in attendance would be "judged as people who transformed everything we touched into something finer, worthier, more useful." Judging from the evidence, I feel safe in concluding that Dr. Carrier -- with the support and hard work of the entire JMU community -- has transformed this institution. In doing so, he can rest confident that he has touched the lives of thousands of individuals as well. Dr. Carrier, I congratulate you on a job well done.

        I am making a transition in my own life. As you know, I have just come to Virginia as director of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) -- a huge change for me, as it marks the first time that I have left the academy since I began my undergraduate studies at Pepperdine College more years ago than seem imaginable. In moving to SCHEV, I do not plan to stray far from the academic venues that have been my home and community for so long. But I will have a new and different relationship with the academy.

        This is a time of both reflection and planning for me, as I seek to learn where higher education in Virginia has been and is now, contemplate anew the fundamental purposes of education, and consider how the Council of Higher Education can best support Virginia’s institutions of higher learning in our shared goal. That goal is to ensure that every citizen of Virginia may have access to a college education and that the education provided is the best possible. I will share with you my thoughts so far, even if I have only been on the job for a total of 31 days.

        This is a time, also, of transition for higher education in Virginia. It is a time of transition less because of a change in who is serving as the director of SCHEV and more because higher education throughout the U.S. faces a cross-roads as we stand on the brink of the 21st century. Many different forces have brought us to this cross-roads -- some internal to the academy and many external. The turbulent pace of technological change thrusts challenges and "dangerous opportunities" into our path. Employers urgently call for colleges and universities to crank out graduates with the high-tech skills they need to fuel the engine of economic growth. Students, parents, and taxpayers question the cost of a college education and want renewed assurance that tuition and tax dollars going into higher education are well spent. Meanwhile, the contours of knowledge, which sustain the academy and through it shape the world, expand and shift with perceived needs. What to teach and how to teach it remain crucial questions that the academy must re-ask and re-answer regularly. Beyond completing the formation of youths, we aim now to provide lyceums of life-long learning.

        During the next twelve months, there will be several forums in which Virginia’s citizens, educators, policy-makers, and legislators can debate how best our colleges and universities rather lead, than simply respond to, a process of renewal and engagement, as they strive for continuous quality. These forums will include the work of the Governor's Blue Ribbon Commission on Higher Education and the joint legislative commission on higher education finance. In addition, the Council of Higher Education, by statute, engages all of Virginia’s colleges and universities, both public and private, in developing a strategic plan for higher education statewide. Further, the Council has undertaken a study of general education in the Commonwealth, to assure that we preserve a healthy educational core even as we expand to meet expanding demands. If undergraduate education is the capstone of juvenile education, further training and education is the ornament of adult citizenship.

        In each of these endeavors, my personal goal will be to promote the open, vigorous exchange of ideas and opinions which is the hallmark both of academic inquiry and our democratic form of government. We surely will find areas of disagreement and even controversy as these conversations ensue; however, it is only through such debate that sound policy and decisions can emerge. I invite and encourage each of you to join in the conversation.

        Let me return now to my earlier comment that I believe two recent accomplishments of James Madison University -- CISAT, and the redesign of general education -- exemplify the best of what higher education can offer to society and the individual. These endeavors blend two basic purposes of education, which were recently described by Billy Wireman, the President of Queens College, as follows:

"Two concepts are keys to the future of the human race: productive careers and noble lives. We must design academic programs and institutions, which unite the two powerful ideas and use them to transform our students’ lives. Either concept, alone, is an orphan. Together, they two can become a forceful theme for liberal education in the 21st century."

        Ideally, these two purposes are not at odds with each other but rather operate synergistically. The fact that James Madison University advanced these goals simultaneously embodies the balance that a comprehensive university should seek between equipping students with marketable skills for today’s workplace and with enduring knowledge and habits of mind that will serve them a lifetime as workers, citizens, parents, and thoughtful individuals.

        Virginia businesses and industries, as well as a number of legislators, have called upon our institutions of higher learning to increase the number of graduates with the scientific and technological expertise needed in today’s high-tech marketplace. And our colleges and universities are responding to that call.

        But, we must never mistake work-force development for our core mission. Dr. Carrier put it well when he recently told the Virginia Business Higher Education Council that " Colleges and universities have doggedly sustained the notion that men and women should be prepared to live -- not just to work." I would add, not just to live, but specifically to live a good or even a noble life. The highest calling of education rests in this realm. Liberal education aims at developing individuals who are both skeptical and humane thinkers, who can draw upon the wisdom of those who have gone before them to act with diligence and care as members of their contemporary communities and as stewards of the future. Education must last a lifetime, and today that means through several careers.

        James Madison University’s success in combining a strong liberal arts education with a solid focus on preparing students for careers provides a model for success in higher education throughout Virginia.

        Virginia’s system of higher education has been extolled as one of the best in the country. We would do well, though, to name specifically some of the indicators of that success and some of the reasons for it.

        One way to measure success is by national rankings. Five of Virginia’s public colleges and universities -- including James Madison, as well as another five private institutions, are highly placed in U.S. News & World Report’s 1998 rankings of undergraduate education. Another measure of success is the fact that more people come to study with us than leave to study elsewhere.

        Yet another way to gauge the success of higher education in Virginia is to ask where the Council of Higher Education and Virginia’s colleges and universities, acting in concert, have been national leaders. Virginia was in the vanguard when, in 1986, SCHEV began promoting assessment as a tool for improving academic programs. That is why we will seek now to produce balanced, integrated assessment activities with SCHEV collaborating with our campuses rather than second guessing them. I might pause here to acknowledge the outstanding contributions of James Madison University to assessment practices within Virginia and nationally, which will continue to grow in stature and impact with the introduction of your new doctoral program in Assessment -- the first of its type in the nation.

        Virginia took the lead again in 1994 when the public colleges and universities successfully met the call from a Governor to restructure. And that process must continue.

        Virginia also leads in using technology to enhance teaching and learning, as is evidenced by Net.Work.Virginia, the Virtual Library of Virginia (or VIVA), and the many initiatives underway at the individual colleges and universities.

        Finally, Virginia’s commitment to the land-grant vision -- now only incompletely realized -- points us solidly toward fulfillment of the goal of assuring that the sons and daughters of ordinary families will benefit from higher education.

        A vital cause of the success of higher education in Virginia is its strong system of independent colleges and universities-both public and private. Other major contributing factors were the leadership of my predecessor at SCHEV, Dr. Gordon Davies and the vision and hard work of the dedicated volunteers who serve on the Council itself.

        I came to Virginia partly because of the strong historical commitment to education that was a key component of its founding as a Commonwealth. I come here with the charge to take a strong system and to make it even stronger. I pledge my hand to this work, that Thomas Jefferson began, and ask you to join with me. I pledge to approach this work ever mindful that, as Dr. Davies said in his report on Twenty Years of Higher Education in Virginia: "Education is not a trivial business, a private good, or a discretionary expenditure. It is a deeply ethical undertaking at which we must succeed if we are to survive as a free people." It has been sometimes said of Jefferson that he regarded higher education as the reward for the industrious few, who benefit us all through their service to the life of freedom. We now are able to say that higher education is the reward for the industrious-and a goal we seek for all Virginians.

        James Madison clearly understood that education and democracy are inextricably bound together when he wrote these words that are inscribed on the walls of the Library of Congress: "Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own governours, must arm themselves with the power that knowledge gives."

        As graduates of James Madison University, you have been blessed with the gift of education and have armed yourselves with knowledge and with power.

        I urge you to enter this next passage of your life with pride and confidence in your ability to put that knowledge and power to wise use. Put them to use not only for your own benefit but also in fulfillment of your own unconditional commitment to posterity.

        Let us emulate Dr. Carrier so that we too may be "judged as people who transformed everything we touched into something finer, worthier, more useful." In that way you too can give the gift the past gives to the future, education, a gift that the future receives best when it grasps it most avidly.

        Congratulations and best wishes for success.

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