Commencement Address at the Birch Wathen Lenox School: June 2010
Headmaster Carnabuci, executive board members, distinguished guests, faculty and staff, families and friends, and members of the graduating class and parents...
Before beginning my remarks to you, graduates, I hope you won’t mind if I have a few brief words with your parents. Having two sons of my own, I know how especially proud of you they are today. But as I recall from similar occasions, there may be some mixed feelings, too—joy at your having reached this pinnacle; hope that there may be a similar achievement to celebrate in four or five years; concerns about your finding the right path educationally, socially, professionally, ethically, and spiritually; and the consuming wish that you remain healthy and happy and, above all, yourself.
That’s a lot of baggage, to be sure, but parents are used to hauling it around. Your baggage may be a bit lighter today. Assuming you survive this ceremony—which I think depends in part on me—the most immediate question may be “where’s the party?”
The humorist Robert Orben defines graduation as an event where the commencement speaker tells numbers of students dressed in identical caps and gowns that 'individuality' is the key to success.
That’s funny but also not funny, because today, while individuality and personal uniqueness is so powerfully ingrained in our culture—from our own Facebook pages to our own tattoos to our own iPod playlists—much of what we do and much of what we consume marks us instead as surprisingly homogeneous. Including having near-identical Facebook pages, tattoos, and iPod playlists.
But by no means am I singling out your millennial cohort. Heaven knows it was even worse in my day—when tens of thousands of young adults banded together to change the world and seek freedom and individuality and liberate ourselves from the establishment. And while we did that, the girls all wore tied-dyed skirts and the guys all wore army surplus jackets. We may as well all been wearing school or military uniforms.
The more things change … right?
But if we do take Orben’s quip seriously, the question underneath is a huge one. How do we—especially how do you young people—develop and retain true individuality in a world that pays it lip service but pressures us in the opposite direction?
One approach to an answer, I suggest, may involve the fact that we’re related.
Now as far as I know, none of you and I are blood relatives … nor am I referring to our relationship in the anthropological sense, through a common ancestor such as the mitochondrial Eve, said to live 140,000 years ago.
And it’s not through Barbara Walters, either, although she’s an alumna both of BWL and Sarah Lawrence.
No, I refer instead to a relationship that unites Birch Wathen Lenox and Sarah Lawrence College through a common ancestor, more recent than Eve but of the male gender. That common relative is none other than John Dewey.
At which point, you’re supposed to say “John Who?” and that’s understandable, because while a lot of people have heard of John Dewey, relatively few know what he accomplished.
Simply or perhaps simplistically put, before Dewey and the education theorists and reformers influenced by him, the main job of schools was to deliver knowledge. In that kind of model, what’s important is the knowledge itself rather than the intended recipient, the student—whose major job was to memorize, by rote if necessary, whatever schools decided should be learned. Now that may sound foreign to you, but I assure you it may not be to some of your grandparents; nor is it ridiculous in and of itself. Because throughout the 19th century, most jobs required very basic and standard knowledge—of reading, arithmetic, geometry, penmanship—but didn’t typically demand true understanding, or the ability to think (in today’s terms) beyond the box, or the skill to synthesize new knowledge from seemingly disparate fields. In other words, before Dewey, education was very different than today.
John Dewey grew up in Vermont and perhaps that was both formative and fortunate. Why? Because in an era still dominated by the industrial revolution—which required workers who had a very basic education but only enough of it to fill tightly defined and regimented jobs, much like cogs in a machine—Dewey never experienced that model as a youth for the simple reason that the industrial revolution skipped Vermont. It was then, and remains in many ways, a very rural state—with more cows than people right into the mid-1980s and still today remarkably little major industry.
So John Dewey never quite bought into the cog-in-a-machine delivery model of knowledge. Instead he thought education should be experiential, that the learner should take an active and involved role in his or her education, that the instructor should be a guide and facilitator as much as the source of knowledge, that we learn as much or more by doing than by passively sitting and listening.
For someone who did most of his writing in the late 1800s and early 1900s, he sounds amazingly contemporary, doesn’t he? Imagine how frighteningly modern he must have sounded in 1926, when Sarah Lawrence College was founded based on those Deweyesque principles.
Specifically, Dewey’s belief that making knowledge one's own was the central goal of education became the vision that guided Sarah Lawrence, and that has remained a constant throughout the past 84 years. Many changes have been incorporated since then, of course, but our principles are very much steeped in the Dewey philosophy—with a focus on individuals finding and defining roles and values that are appropriate to themselves—and often bucking convention in the process. In developing a full-blooded, imaginative and powerful vision. In taking risks and being willing to go against the grain.
And what those admittedly high-flown values translate into on campus and in the classroom is first, individual education. This comes from the understanding that people learn in different ways and tempos and that there is no one path to an educated person. Thus, Sarah Lawrence’s investment in individually designed programs rather than a series of arbitrary requirements.
Second, the belief that education must engage a student's full capacities, and not just his/her intellect. Thus, the recognition of the role of the arts in a liberal arts education—which Sarah Lawrence was one of the first colleges to put into practice.
Third, the emphasis on real work rather than assignments made up just to test students. Thus, our belief in work that focuses on questions that matter to students, on depth rather than breadth—and both of these are underpinnings of SLC’s unique conference system.
Fourth, getting rid of unnecessary, arbitrary rules and practices. Because we believe there can be no easy reliance on simplistic grades and no easy identity from a conventional major, we have extensive written evaluations in addition to grades. And no majors. And no requirements other than that each student take classes in at least three of the four areas of the curriculum.
And finally, the primacy of teaching. The College has always understood that its heart is its faculty, that the College is nothing without a superb faculty that has the freedom to teach to their passions and to design their own courses. Thus, our rejection of faculty rank—no full professors and associate professors and assistant professors, just teachers—and a related rejection of a rigid publish-or-perish system.
Now I’m not here to deliver a commercial for Sarah Lawrence—although college presidents routinely do so unless physically restrained—but to celebrate our philosophical heritage, our relationship through John Dewey. And related we definitely are, because BWL’s essence is distinctly Deweyesque:
The Birch Wathen Lenox School is built upon a tradition of academic excellence. We believe, above all, that our students must know how to think, how to analyze, how to synthesize, and how to communicate their ideas. To that end, we emphasize the development of writing and critical skills across the curriculum—in Science, Mathematics, History, English, Foreign Language and Art. Students study a wide range of subjects, and explore each subject in depth, through lectures, experiments, fieldwork, research and discussions.
That presumably sounds familiar to many of you and quite likely would have sounded familiar to John Dewey, as well—with phrases such as how to think, how to analyze, how to synthesize, how to communicate, plus the notion of exploring subjects through not only lectures, but experiments, fieldwork, research, and discussion.
In many ways, Sarah Lawrence and Birch Wathen Lenox are two of a kind, and I suspect there aren’t hundreds and hundreds of other schools and colleges like us.
So even though you may all be dressed in identical caps and gowns, I have not the slightest suspicion that you’re in any way identical. Notwithstanding some playlist similarities and maybe a predilection to shop at some of the same clothing stores, your education has encouraged a unique expression of your individuality—one that will continue to grow distinctively over time.
So I congratulate you and your parents on the wisdom to attend BWL. I hope your next institution, or your next job, or your next experience will nourish and foster that individuality. And I wish all of you the very best of success.