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The Gift of New Learning

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

DePaul University School for New Learning
Chicago, Illinois

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Reverend President Holtschneider, Dean Alicea, graduates, faculty, honored guests, family, and friends – good afternoon. Thank you for this extraordinary honor.

As I have been sitting here, observing the groups of individuals present today – the faculty and leadership of DePaul University, and the School of New Learning, the parents and spouses and children and friends who, in a multitude of ways, have contributed to and supported your educational process, and most of all, as I look across the faces of those of you about to graduate – the thought uppermost in my mind has been: what a gift it is to learn.

So, it is a privilege to offer words of recognition for work well done, challenges met, and goals accomplished. But, it is a particular privilege to speak to women and men who have stepped outside of their already-established lives to reach for something higher, something beyond.

Let me begin with a story. In 1916 in New York City, a young man named Mortimer Adler dropped out of school at the age of 14, and went to work as a copy boy at the New York Sun, hoping to become a journalist. After a year, he decided he needed to improve his writing, began taking night classes at Columbia University, and, by chance, was given an autobiography of the philosopher John Stuart Mill. When he learned that Mill had read Plato at the age of five, he borrowed a book of Plato from a neighbor – to see what he had been missing. Soon young Mortimer Adler had found the reading of philosophy to be an addictive habit, and had enrolled as a full-time student with a scholarship to Columbia.

The quirks in the story do not end there. Young Mr. Adler was denied his Bachelor of Arts degree because he was not very athletic, and therefore was unable to complete the graduation requirement of swimming laps in the College pool! (I should point out that Columbia has since dropped this requirement.) In fact, Mr. Adler did not let this stop him; he enrolled in the graduate program, eventually earned his Ph.D., and went on to become known as an Aristotelian philosopher, and an author in his own right.

And now for another twist: in 1984, when Dr. Adler was more than 80 years old, Columbia University finally awarded him an honorary B.A. degree.

Certainly, Mortimer Adler took the less traveled (perhaps the untraveled) road. But what I have told you is only one part of one story about a life of yearning and learning. This afternoon, when I consider you – the graduates – 340 strong, I know that, right here, there are 340 additional stories waiting to be told: complex stories about growing up, about studying, about entering the workforce, and about choosing to study again.

I do not know your stories, but I can imagine that many of you would agree with Dr. Adler when he said, “No one can be fully educated in school, no matter how long the schooling or how good it is." This is because – he went on to say, "The purpose of learning is growth, and our minds, unlike our bodies, can continue growing as we continue to live."

All of you, then, have been growing – all the time – as you have been living your lives. The question is, why did you choose to challenge yourselves in this way, to return to school, to earn a degree at this point in your lives? Is life not busy enough? Ultimately, what is in it for you? What motivated you? Was it a great book?  A role model? A parent or mentor? Was it the sense that, with more formal learning, your life would change? That you would be able to contribute to society in additional ways?

Your achievements demonstrate your yearning for, and your capacity to choose, like Dr. Adler, a less traveled road, and to follow that road to the future.

But futures, by definition, are uncertain.

You are commencing to a future when great societal shifts are playing out in the national theater, and upon a global stage. In less than five months, we will have elected a new President of the United States – with one candidate of biracial background, which shows how far we, as a nation, have come.  His background, as well, is at once, both national and international – being the child of a white American mother and a Kenyan immigrant father.  This illustrates that ours is a flattening world — interlinked and interconnected. This mounting interdependence means that contemporary opportunities — markets, trade, industry, research, information flow, partnerships, people connections — have no borders.

Although our world is more flat and more interconnected, it is, also, asymmetrical and imbalanced. Contemporary threats — terrorism, energy shortages, climate change, disease, poverty — have no borders, either.

So, yes, interconnectedness can bring threats and competition closer. But interconnectedness can bring opportunity – collaborative opportunity – closer, as well. One illustration of this is Jody Williams, of Vermont.  She had been working for several years on issues related to the wars in Central America, when she became aware of how landmines differ from conventional weapons — remaining in the ground for decades, continuing to maim and to kill, indiscriminately.

Working with a handful of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), she launched the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) in 1992, and began to build its membership by faxing letters to organizations, and people, around the world. She instinctively understood that a fax — which arrived immediately — would be regarded as important, and treated accordingly.

Then, in 1995, she realized that the speed, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness of email could reduce her monthly bills — from 400 to 500 dollars for faxes, to about 20 dollars for email.

Less than two years later, she and the ICBL were awarded the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize – for the 1997 Landmine Ban Treaty.

Jody Williams’ use of technology created a new organizational model — which was recognized by the Nobel Committee — based on the ability to spread knowledge through immediate communication, and to use it to empower individuals all over the world, who, previously, never had a voice in democratic change.

Jody Williams stretched beyond the limitations of where she was – through the use of emerging technology. You are here today, receiving your degrees, because you chose to stretch your limits, and to do things even though they were hard. Why? What was in it for you? I would say that stretching yourselves brought out the best of your energies and skills—the best in you.

The achievement and recognition of Jody Williams illustrate the power of one — the power of one, with high intent, resolve, a global outlook, and an innovative approach, to achieve something great.

And, when you leave here today, departing to your own unique futures, your powers are equally great and equally vast.

Now, the practical applications of your new degrees will unfold with time. I am speaking of things like reaching your career goals, and creating more enriched lives for your loved ones. I am speaking of your unique ability to contribute to your organizations and professions, to the environments in which you live, to the world.

But, no one does things completely alone. I learned courage and resolve from my mother. She was orphaned by age 14. Her older siblings pooled their resources to send her to a boarding school for “colored girls” in Virginia, since there were no high schools for African Americans, at that time, in the part of rural Virginia where she grew up. She was lonely, but she persevered. She went on to college and taught for a while, before becoming a caseworker in the Department of Human Resources in Washington, D.C.

My father strengthened my curiosity. My father, whose own father died while he was a teenager, never finished high school — never went to college. He always worked two jobs to support his family. He was gifted mechanically and mathematically, and he always helped me with my science projects. In World War II, at Normandy, while in a segregated Army unit, my father fashioned a new steering device for amphibious landing vehicles that had lost their rudders — thereby saving many lives. He received a special commendation for this.

This brings us back to Mortimer Adler. He is best known to some as the co-founder of a series known as Great Books of Western Culture, associated with the Encyclopedia Britannica. But there are others who have accused Dr. Adler of being flawed by prejudice – pointing out that it was only after he left the leadership of the Great Books Foundation, that a new edition of the Great Books series first included writing by blacks, Hispanics, and women. Dr. Adler clearly never knew people like my parents, or like the many other people of color, and women, who had so much to offer to his Great Books, or like many of the people at this ceremony today, who have the potential to be the authors, and the subjects, of the Great Books of the future.

Without passing judgment on Dr. Adler, my point is that, however impressive the intellect or accumulation of knowledge attributed to a given individual, in order to be open to new learning, he or she must be willing to reject repressive traditions, and move beyond the limitations of stereotype.

As a learning society, we must be open to association and collaboration with those who seem, at least at first glance, to be unlike ourselves: for this is where the soil is most fertile, if true learning is to take root. This means transcending disciplinary boundaries, geographical boundaries, and boundaries of race and ethnicity and gender, to access the richness of new learning that comes with this level of collaboration.

Jody Williams certainly understood this in her quest to ban landmines. The lesson we learn from Jody Williams is that – as a global society – we are all in this together, as we seek, through learning, solutions to the challenges of the world, and, in fact, the universe.

Speaking of the universe, as you may know, the Phoenix Mars Lander (which touched down on Mars on May 25th) uses a robotic arm to explore the Martian soil. Now, I am willing to bet that on many occasions, while in pursuit of your degrees, you have relied upon an extra arm or hand or two — human, not robotic! — to help you juggle the conflicting demands of your busy days.

So, look around. All those helping hands—so many of them!—are here with you this afternoon. They are your families and friends, your teachers, the important people in your lives who helped you, and guided you, as you pursued your academic goals. They provided the balance and support you needed. Without their assistance, earning this degree would have meant a far more complicated juggling act.

Let us take a moment, then, to thank them, and to applaud them for helping you to arrive at this wonderful milestone.

Congratulations, and Godspeed!

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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