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The Aims of Education: To Enable, To Serve

Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Masters Convocation and Acceptance of Medal for Distinguished Service
Teachers College, Columbia University
Riverside Church
New York, New York

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

>Good evening, graduates, faculty, honored guests, family, and friends.

Thank you for this tremendous honor.

This award is very meaningful to me. If I have, indeed, rendered “distinguished service” in education, I hope that it has been in opening doors of opportunity for others, the same doors that were opened for me.

I extend my heartfelt congratulations to you — the graduates of Teachers College, Columbia University. You are among the best minds in education this country has to offer. As educators, you usher young people into the future, and give them the tools, the knowledge, the courage, and the inspiration to succeed. We need your leadership — and your service — more than ever before, as we must prepare the next generations to meet the increasingly complex and multifaceted challenges of the 21st century.

My first, and most important teachers, were my parents: George and Beatrice Jackson. My mother taught me and my siblings to read before we went to kindergarten. She gave us the courage to face adversity — through her own example. She had been orphaned at age 14, and was raised by her older siblings in Virginia, at a time when the overall environment was inhospitable to African-Americans, and was sometimes violent. Nevertheless, she went on to college, and taught for a time, before becoming a social worker. My father, who lost his father when he was a teenager, worked two jobs — always — in order to see that his children could have opportunities that he did not. He was gifted mathematically and mechanically. He encouraged me in science and mathematics, and helped me with science projects.

Mrs. Marie Moss Smith, my high school mathematics teacher at Theodore Roosevelt High School, in Washington, D.C., also opened a door for me. In our small class of seven math students, she fostered a community of learning, where we achieved, individually and together. She was a world-class teacher who taught us never to be afraid to plunge into a complex problem, nor to be afraid to make a mistake. And, she taught us never to give up. She would not let us give up. She taught us, rather, to work through difficult issues to resolution. It was an approach to complex challenges — an approach without fear, an approach which bred, in each of us, confidence in ourselves — and confidence in her, as our teacher. It was an approach which encompassed the immediate subject matter, of course, but which, at the same time, reached beyond it. It was preparation for challenge. It was preparation for living. It was preparation for success.

Today, all seven of my math classmates are successes in professions ranging from business to medicine to education.

I am privileged to lead an institution of higher education. With this privilege comes great responsibility — to offer a world-class undergraduate and graduate experience to our students, to enable our faculty researchers to push the frontiers of discovery and innovation, and to connect our university to the world outside our campuses.

The aims of education are to enable and to serve. Education enables the individual to focus, and to work with the mind, to have a broader view, to expand life possibilities. Education habituates a community to the rule of law. It facilitates good governance and a stable political system. It enables commercial enterprise and wealth creation.

Education prepares individuals to serve others, to work for the common good, to educate the next generations, to cure disease and relieve suffering, to elevate living standards, and to create opportunity.

You are the educators who will enable all of this in the coming years — with your talents, your knowledge, and your dedication to educational excellence. As your career pathways take you on to new challenges, I urge you to think about and to appreciate the personal resources you have — your roots and heritage, your unique experiences and perspectives. They make you exceptional, inimitable, and, above all, uniquely valuable.

Diversity has become a much-used word. Possibly over-used. But, we would do well to re-connect with that word, and renew its meaning for our young century.

But, first, a brief look back.

I am the beneficiary of the convergence of two historic events:

  • One was the 1954 Brown vs. the Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court decision, which outlawed legal racial segregation of public schools. My own life reflects its impact, and the movement toward social justice and civil rights which followed.

  • The other was the launch of the Sputnik satellite by the former Soviet Union in 1957, and the subsequent “space race” between the U.S. and the Soviets for dominance in arms and in space technology.

When I was in early elementary school in Washington, D.C., the public schools were segregated, and I went to school miles from home. After Brown and desegregation, I was able to attend the local public school. There, I was tested and placed in accelerated classes, and my education began to unfold accordingly. Interestingly, perhaps ironically, racial integration exposed me to increased diversity of thought.

I graduated valedictorian of my high school class, and attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.), where I studied physics, and eventually received my doctorate in theoretical elementary particle physics. While at MIT, I worked with other students to form the Black Students Union, and to increase the overall number of minority students at MIT.

All of my experiences have informed my thinking about what diversity in education really means — in a new century, with new realities, with possibilities never dreamed of in my school years, and with unforeseen challenges. So I speak, today, of what I call diversity-enhanced education, which has four basic elements.

  • Diversity of Approach — where students acquire grounding in disciplinary fundamentals, combined with the ability to work across multiple disciplines and sectors. As education has evolved — and, indeed, as there is considerably more knowledge to acquire to achieve mastery — we have moved away from a basic integration of knowledge into distinct and isolated specialties. But, this may be to the detriment of vision, and the understanding of the complexities of the whole. For example, basic science is the springboard for many of the advances and technologies which enhance our lives. But, we too quickly separate the study of science, in all of its richness and multiplicity, from the study of the humanities, arts, and social sciences. Our young people must be prepared to operate in a world which will require them to think, and to work, across a multiplicity of disciplines and sectors in order to solve complex problems.

  • Diversity of Pedagogy — where education is enhanced and expanded through the utilization of a variety of new media and tools. You know from your own education and work experiences that students learn in different ways. This is not a problem, but an opportunity. Student cognition patterns differ from that of their teachers, who must devise ways of organizing pedagogy to reach students, and to develop their skills and perspectives — in yet more creative ways. New technologies — such as simulation of physical phenomena, gaming technology, tele-presence, and tele-immersion (which allow collaboration in real time across geographies) — are all tools that can help us to teach today’s students and extend their reach. But, of course, we must not lose sight of those long-held virtues of understanding, patience, and expectation of excellence.

  • Diversity of Outlook — where students are exposed to diverse cultures and lifestyles — with associated differences in thought, approach, and practice. In higher education, we want our students to acquire a grounding in fundamentals, but, in addition, multicultural sophistication, a global perspective, and intellectual agility, which will enable them to take what they know and apply it in multiple arenas, and to evolve with the times. Students in grades K-12, also, must be given the tools be critical analyzers and consumers of information, and the preparation to begin to think in broader terms. They will be faced with the flattening world — the globally interlinked marketplace of ideas and forces, for which they must be prepared, in order to thrive, to contribute, and to lead.

  • Diversity in Fact — where all of our young people of diverse ethnicities and backgrounds, are encouraged and inspired to achieve at the highest levels. Education always has been the pathway in this country, and increasingly abroad, to a better future for those who otherwise may lack opportunity. I often speak of the “Quiet Crisis” — the looming shortage in our science and engineering workforce resulting from a record number of retirements close at hand, an insufficient number of American students preparing and choosing to study science, mathematics, and engineering to replace them, and a diminished flow of talent from abroad. We must enhance and increase programs supporting the study of these disciplines — by students from all backgrounds. Our national and global well-being necessitates scientific and technological innovation, and such innovation rests upon the human intellectual capital which we must cultivate. Our young people possess so much untapped talent, passion for learning, and creativity — they truly are our hope for a better future.

You have a unique opportunity, in your educational practice, in your research, and in the development and implementation of policy to make diversity-enhanced education a reality for all children.

My challenge to you — and it is quite urgent — is to keep open the window of opportunity, to lift up the next generation, and to urge them on to greatness — through your work in the classroom, through mentoring, through advancing public policy and research, leading schools, serving your communities — wherever your roles as educators can make a difference. Your talents — and your commitment — are essential to the success of all young people in this country, of our nation itself, and the world.

When the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke in this magnificent church on April 4, 1967, in his landmark speech about the Vietnam War, he challenged those in attendance — and all Americans — to think beyond their ideas about war and peace. Dr. King said: “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.”

Congratulations on receiving your degrees from this exceptional institution. I wish you much success and fulfillment, as you continue to touch the future.

Thank you, again, for this honor.

Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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