“The End of Education:

Increased Knowledge and Confident Judgment”

ECPI College of Technology

Commencement Address


William B. Allen

Director, State Council of Higher Education for Virginia

Chrysler Hall
Virginia Beach, Virginia

May 22, 1999

Greetings ECPI Graduates! You have arrived in the economic fast lane. Now, fasten your seat belts and get ready for the ride of your life. I bring you news of change swirling swiftly about us, as we navigate our way through daily headlines heralding opportunities and pitfalls in the moving landscape of education and career.

You are uniquely situated to appreciate this picture, benefiting as you do from one of Virginia’s most unique educational institutions. ECPI brings a special curriculum to a unique constituency, helping Virginia advance its goal of attaining a highly trained workforce and a well-educated citizen body. I like the fact that its name reflects an evolutionary path of increasing importance. What was the name as the school was incorporated in Virginia 30 years ago (Electronic Computer Programming Institute) became an acronym (ECPI) and then became a first name in the enlarged conception of its mission, ECPI College of Technology. ECPI’s capacity for growth was never more important than it is today, when it plays the role of advance scout pointing out paths to future success. You are the beneficiaries of ECPI’s success in contributing to Virginia’s economic boom, and you can measure that success by a reputation that has spawned increasing competition for ECPI and like institutes from more traditionally organized colleges.

An economic boom adds special punctuation to education’s claims to improve human life, and we see this illustrated every day in the form of the headlines which portray this era.  Consider some of the headlines from just the past several months:

A few days ago we read, “Technology, Tourism Power Job Growth.” (Richmond TimesDispatch, 4/25/99). What a picture—a society that thinks and plays hard, with rich rewards for those who can do both!

On April 11 we read, “Night Moves: More adults are returning to school to upgrade their skills.” (Washington Post) The picture is that everyone wants to get in on the good times (as I hope they do), and that education holds the passwords.

May 2 we read “Demand for Construction Workers Building,” (Roanoke Times) which shows the prosperity creating new opportunities in the form of demands for life’s comforts.

But no one is surprised by these headlines, for we have already seen, “German Tech Firm Plans Area Branch” (Virginian Pilot, 3/18/99), “Regional Outlook Focuses on Technology” (Richmond Times Dispatch, 1/21/99), and “High Tech Business Sets Up in City Promising Semiconductor Growth” (RTD, 12/19/98).

These are the reasons for the headlines that say, “Job Opportunities Virtually Unlimited” (RTD, 5/16/99), “Investments to Create 800 Jobs” (RTD, 5/18.99), and “Technology Tops Job Gains in 1998” (WP, 12/14/98).

The push is on as “the Geeks take flight” (WP, 2/15/99), and we are well advised to look out for recruitment ads that read, “Wanted, a few good nerds,” because of a “New High Tech Navy Shortage of Wonks” (Virginian Pilot, 7/12/98). It is now “Goodbye, Grease Monkey. . . Hello, Auto Technician (WP, 8/16/98).

And this all results from the effect of “Technology Touted as Equal Opportunity Equalizer” (Virginian Pilot, 5/3/98). “High Tech Degrees Open Doors for Students” (RTD, 10/4/98); in fact our headlines scream: “Help Wanted High-Tech Jobs Going Begging” (Virginian Pilot, 9/9/98).

Because education bars the door to the job waiting to be filled, “Area Tech Education Heats Up by a Few Degrees” (WP, 4/29/99). In fact, the jobs can hardly wait for students to graduate: “Students entering the School of Information Technology and Engineering at George Mason University might take five to six years to complete requirements for their four-year undergraduate degree.” (RTD, 10/4/98). As soon as these students learn even a little bit they are snatched up by booming firms and put to work, leaving school a part-time affair.

We see the booming firms all around us: “Nextel Communications, Inc., with headquarters in Reston, plans to hire 700 employees at its new technical and customer support operations center in Hampton.” (RTD, 5/18/99) “AOL Profit Up Sharply in Quarter; Results Top Analysts Forecasts” (WP, 4/28/99). “AOL Plans More Jobs, Buildings; $600 Million Expansion Announced for N. VA.” (WP, 3/11/99). “MCI Worldcom Posts Rise in Profit” (Post, 4/30/99). “IBM Profit Rose 50% in 1st Quarter” (WP, 4/22/99).

For all of this we do not lack for portents of concern. On April 25, 1999, Jim Hoagland wrote in the Washington Post that “the global economy created in the 1990s by the spread of markets, information technology and more open trade has yet to prove that it distributes its fruits more evenly than did the system of the Cold War era. The Internet may connect a world in which the rich still get richer and the poor get poorer—only faster.” (page B07)

Such reflections lead us to note the headlines that read, “In Fairfax, A Promise of Jobs Falls Short” (WP, 4/23/99); “US Airways Group Posts 50% Drop in Profit” (WP, 4/22/99); “Retailers Cope with Worker Shortage” (Roanoke Times, 1/20/99); “When Programmers, Managers Have Trouble Staying on the Same Track” (WP, 10/4/98); and, finally, “A Block on the Old Chip; Downturn in the Semiconductor Industry” (WP, 9/28/98).

Perhaps it is concern about pitfalls as much as enthusiasm about opportunities that lead to headlines such as the following: “Warner Stumps for High-Tech Partnership Program To Solve” the problem that “computer science students at Norfolk State University aren’t bombarded with obscene salary offers, laundry service, helicopter rides, or the other tricks corporate recruiters use on techies. . .” (Virginian Pilot, 11/14/98). By all means though, concern about the future must inform the headline, “Testing Liberal Arts Waters,” which is explained by the note: “Attention, geeks who have read Goethe: Mark Warner is hoping to draw more liberal arts majors into the ranks of the tech work force” (WP, 1/14/99).

It is safe to say that we, educators and consumers, have hitched our wagons to the star of technology in a big way. We know that our economic relations are changing in dramatic ways, and we would like to imagine that we can prepare to survive the changes with our humanity, or at least our creature comforts, intact.

Let us pause, then, to ask the question beyond the next question. For you graduates the next question is “what job, what city?” Most of you, I assume, already know the answers, and even if you don’t I am confident that you soon will.

So I all the more readily ask you the question next up, namely, What will become of you?

This is not a religious question, and it is not a philosophical question. The question arises from the trite observation that you are surely going to live and work beyond the job you take next. It will not even be unlikely for you to live and work beyond the career you have now chosen. Are you prepared for your job after the next job, your career after the career you are entering?

Yes, I am raising the ante on the education you have received. I do that without much hesitation because I know that it is above all necessary today for everyone to think in this manner. The education that will help you is the education that prepares you to grow in learning and to survive the changes that will come no less surely in the future than they have come now. I am quite sure that this reality is a source of the inspiration that led ECPI to ask you to study, beyond technical courses, courses in critical thinking, mathematics, social science, writing, and library research.

This beginning on a general education curriculum may well be the most important part of the education you celebrate this evening. For it will remain with you the longest. Its half-life is several generations longer than the half-lives of the programming languages you have learned. It is by virtue of strong, general education programs that our schools avert the fate against which Daniel LeBlanc (President, Virginia AFL-CIO) warned, when he said that schools should not be converted into apprentice shops for industry.

Your journey parallels that of ECPI itself. It did not several years ago provide a curriculum that could remotely be called the beginning of a liberal education. As it has grown, it has observed the need for liberal foundations as the intellectual chassis on which to build the frame of technical competence. I fully expect that its journey will continue, and that it will one day offer full-fledged liberal education.

You, too, may continue. The learning you have begun may grow into a life of learning, where you acquire still more skills but—unlike skills that are worn like suits of clothing—weave them into the flesh and bone of living. For it is only when our skills become like flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone that we know they will grow as we grow. Liberal learning is the fertilizer that forces skills to flower as our own personalities.

The heart of all education is liberal education. That is the great multiplier that extends skills beyond occupations, raises hopes beyond class and status, and informs opinions beyond prejudices. Our most successful institutions offer students increasing knowledge and confidence in their judgments of their own needs and what is good for them. We praise the doing so. But we ask yet more: that our institutions assure that every graduate will attain not only a clear, critical understanding of their own needs and skills but also a sensitive and well-informed understanding of the needs of others. That is the value added that multiplies talents not only at the individual level but at the institutional level as well. That is the heart of quality in higher education.

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