Commencement Thoughts for Class of 2014

You should beware of those pundits today who disparage creating greater access to a college education. Under the guise of practicality, this is old-fashioned, elitist condescension combined with a desire to protect the status quo of inequality.
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You, the class of 2014, have spent your college years exploring new fields, creating work that pushes boundaries, even setting new records. While you have been creating your own legacy, you've also joined your school's tradition (which means that you can officially start complaining that the new entering class isn't as cool as you were).

You are part of a tradition that many consider fragile indeed. This is the tradition of American liberal learning that prizes skills of inquiry and criticism while also cultivating the ability to make meaning. Liberal learning doesn't only steep us in a tradition supposedly our own because of our national, ethnic or racial identity. Liberal learning challenges us to find ways to acknowledge practices that we otherwise would have ignored -- cultures that were at first opaque to us, or invisible. This capacity for seeing possibilities, of overcoming our own blindness, as philosopher William James put it, has been at the core of your education and is why diversity has been key to it. The work of expanding your intellectual and cultural horizons is never done, and we trust that the education you take with you today will help you continue to animate a diverse and expansive world for decades to come.

Enhancing the capacity to acknowledge meanings to which one had previously been blind is one of the great gifts of your education. Long ago, my own professors enriched my life by showing me aspects of the world I didn't even know existed. They helped me to go beyond my comfort zone, and this has allowed me to have a much greater variety and depth of experience than I'd ever anticipated. Your teachers have been your guides, engaging you in the exploration of the world's facts and its values. You will find, if you haven't already, that through this engagement, you have greatly enhanced your capacity to share with others what's important about the facts and values bearing upon your lives and theirs.

This capacity will stand you in good stead as you make your way in the world. You haven't only been prepared for your first job (with any luck, the worst job you'll ever have); you have been prepared to support yourself through work on which you can build because you have learned how to learn.

You have developed the ability not merely to criticize values but to add value to the organizations in which you will participate. Guided by your education you will seek out ways of living that have meaning and direction. This is why your education, a liberal education, matters far beyond the borders of any campus.

Not far beyond these borders, education of the most basic kind is still denied to our citizens. In our country, education is less and less a vehicle for social mobility and more and more a vehicle for cementing social privilege. The founders of this country and many of its most important thinkers have seen education as the great weapon in the struggle against economic injustice and political tyranny. You should beware of those pundits today who disparage creating greater access to a college education. They argue that most folks won't be required to have learned much beyond their technical training for their jobs -- so why should they have access to a high-quality education? Under the guise of practicality, this is old-fashioned, elitist condescension combined with a desire to protect the status quo of inequality.

But the most dramatic example of denying education is, of course, the girls of Chibok, kidnapped because they were in school. Providing a safe place for girls and women to pursue their education is the best vehicle we know for combatting poverty, disease and economic injustice. The demand that girls and women have a right to a full and equal education is not a parochial Western value -- it is a fundamental human right that needs defending from Nairobi to Santa Barbara. The rights of girls and women to have a safe, equitable and inclusive education is worth struggling for wherever that right is compromised by the dogmatic assertion of male privilege or the violent explosion of male resentment and misogyny.

Diversity, equality, and education... these are ideals shared by your university for generations. We are counting on you, class of 2014, to help shape our culture, so that it will not be shaped by forces of violence, conformity and elitism.

We are counting on you because we have already seen what you are capable of when you have the freedom and the tools, the mentors and the friendship, the insight and the affection to go beyond what others have defined as your limits. We know that in the years ahead you will explore unfamiliar realms and see possibilities that others might not. We know that you will find new ways to overcome blindness in yourselves and others -- new ways to build community. When this happens, you will feel the power and promise of your education. And we will be proud of how you keep your education alive by making it effective in the world.

Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University and the author of Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters

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