Commencement 2013: Social Justice and Liberal Education
Good morning. On this splendid day, let me add my own heartfelt greetings to parents, family members, Trustees, members of the faculty, and honored guests in attendance at this celebratory event: Skidmore College’s 102nd Commencement.
Above all, to the members of the Class of 2013, both undergraduates and those receiving Master’s degrees today, congratulations!
The 22 national flags arrayed on the stage represent the homelands of those graduating seniors who have traveled far to learn with us and who, in turn, have enriched the Skidmore community with their presence and their perspectives.
For most of you graduates, today marks an important way station in your personal journey from adolescence to adulthood. We human beings have learned that such significant moments of transition come deeply invested with meaning born, in part, of their inherent ambiguity: Inevitably there is a sense of loss, as you leave behind the now familiar campus, your friends, professors, coaches, mentors, and others who have shaped this community as you have experienced it. And yet these feelings are offset by an awareness of the broad horizon of possibility that opens now before you.
As a way of highlighting their significance, we cloak important transitions in symbolism: The bagpipers who led the majority of you into the Opening Convocation in September of your Freshman year today reappear to lead you through your final moments as Skidmore students and then, at the end of this ceremony, out toward your new life as Skidmore alumni. Four years ago, at that Opening Convocation, you wore your blue class T-shirt, representing the bonds you would establish with your classmates. Today you have indeed made friendships that will remain with you for the rest of your lives, and your bachelor’s gown and accompanying regalia serve as outward signs of your hard-won academic accomplishments. The same is true for those receiving master’s degrees. I hope that each of you is proud of the accomplishments represented by the regalia you wear today.
Donning the ornate trappings of academia also reminds us that we participate in an activity that has a richly sedimented and abiding history. This form of dress hearkens back to the medieval university and represents a continuity of experience extending across nine centuries. It also reminds us that yours is one of many generations of young people who have come to the academy seeking both wisdom and preparation for a productive and meaningful life. Those of us on stage wear our own academic regalia to signify that we too have traveled this path. This is your moment of transition, but you can take a measure of encouragement in the fact that we and many others have gone this way before you.
Just as you have changed over your time at Skidmore, so too is the College a different institution than it was when you entered. Like the individuals it serves, a College follows its own path of self-discovery and self-realization. Over the past several months, you students have prompted numerous important conversations about our values and how well we do or do not live up to them. We value diversity and inclusion. But are we as inclusive a community as we wish to be? No we are not—not yet. We are working on it. We have invested considerable time and resources to improve our institutional practices and attitudes. We have made progress. But there is more to be done, and you can be assured that this work will continue.
Our recent community conversations have invoked the concept of social justice—certainly an important notion for any college that focuses above all else on liberal education. Sometimes we lose sight of the fact that at the root of the concept of liberal education stands the Latin term liber—free. A liberal education is a course of study appropriate to a free person—someone who is responsible for what he or she thinks and how she or he acts. But at the same time, it is meant to be a freeing education—one that liberates the individual from the bonds of ignorance, ideology, and the undue influence of uninformed social pressure. In helping to create free individuals, liberal education necessarily concerns itself with the question of what constitutes social and political freedom. What does a society require to enable free people to flourish? What kind of political, economic, social, and cultural structures should it cultivate?
The notion of social justice belongs squarely in these conversations. The concept arose out of a religious context. The term ‘social justice’ was first used by the nineteenth-century Jesuit priest Luigi Taparelli, and it remains an important and ongoing concern of the Jesuit order today. Over the next one and one-half centuries, it became the subject of numerous Papal writings, and it finds both antecedents and resonances in the other great religions of the world—for example, in the Jewish notion of Tikkun olam, healing the world, or the Islamic injunction to give alms and care for the poor, to cite just two examples.
The contemporary philosopher Martha Nussbaum approaches the concept of social justice through another notion that also has long been a central theme within liberal education: human dignity. She writes,
Human beings have a dignity that deserves respect from laws and social institutions. This idea has many origins in many traditions; by now it is at the core of modern liberal democratic thought and practice all over the world. The idea of human dignity is usually taken to involve an idea of equal worth: rich and poor, rural and urban, female and male, all are equally deserving of respect, just in virtue of being human, and this respect should not be abridged on account of a characteristic that is distributed by the whims of fortune.1
And here, Nussbaum asks her own questions:
But what does it mean to respect the dignity of a human being? What sort of support do human capacities demand from the world, and how should we think about this support when we encounter differences of gender or sexuality? What types of legal and political treatment are required to treat people as dignified and equal in the modern world…? How, finally, should we think about each other across the divisions that a legacy of injustice has created? How, we might ask—given the ample grounds history gives people for suspicion, anger, and even perhaps, hatred—might we overcome hatred by love?2
These questions are decidedly non-trivial. To the contrary, they are challenging and difficult to answer in the context of a complicated and increasingly interconnected world.
They also point toward the deep connection more and more of us see between a commitment to social justice and the urgency of developing ways to achieve a more sustainable relationship between human beings and the planetary ecosystem that makes all life on earth possible. Understanding and acting on this connection is given even greater urgency by recent scientific findings that the level of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere has reached 400 parts per million—a level not seen for millions of years, at a much earlier time when the climate was warmer and ocean levels were dramatically higher than today. If we are unable to take concerted, worldwide action to limit—and ultimately reduce—the levels of CO2 in our atmosphere, we likely will face a global catastrophe of unprecedented scale. Such issues of responsibility, foresight, and the capacity for collective action also stand at the heart of liberal education, and I sincerely hope that during your time at Skidmore you have encountered and wrestled with them.
It is not the job of a liberal arts college—or, more specifically, the faculty of a liberal arts college—to provide easy answers to such questions. Rather, it is our responsibility, first, to teach our students that such questions are important to a free and responsible human being; second, to demonstrate that such issues need to be approached with respect and interrogated with intelligence and rigor; and third, to help students develop the capacities to undertake this work on their own. To treat such important issues in any other way would be to trivialize them and risk substituting ideology for genuine inquiry.
Liberal education cannot shy away from asking difficult questions. In fact, as one educational theorist has urged for more than twenty years, we need to “teach the controversies.”3 Some may find it ironic that one such controversy relates to the legitimacy of the concept of social justice itself. That is to say, social justice is itself a contested notion today, and as we explore this concept with our students, they need to understand that there are responsible theorists who consider this concept to be at best redundant and at worst fundamentally incoherent. To understand and evaluate these critiques is part and parcel of interrogating the meaning and application of social justice. If we truly care about it, then it is important to understand it in this kind of depth. If we do not do so, we risk turning a rich and evocative concept into a useless catch phrase.
Our faculty is certainly up to this challenge. Indeed, those of you graduates who have been most active in our recent discussions have benefited from the work you have done with your professors on the topics I have been referencing. Moreover, you have reminded us that, at a school such as Skidmore, teaching is not just a one-way transaction through which faculty members simply pour information into the empty vessels that are their students. Here teaching and learning occur in the context of rich relationships, based on mutual respect, in which we expect students to be active participants in claiming their own education and in which professors ultimately expect to learn from their students. Indeed, our goal is to create an educational environment that fosters the freedom and capacity of students to expect that their ideas, questions, and reflections—including those that break against the tide of convention—will be respected and interrogated with as much force, passion, and excitement as the ideas that come from a book or the mind of a faculty member.
At this moment, therefore, we are proud of you graduates, not just because of your accomplishments in the classroom, the laboratory, the studio, or in your cocurricular activities but also because you have pushed us to consider where the College stands as an institution. In doing so, you have demonstrated the independent intellectual spirit that, above all, we aim to cultivate in a liberal education. And as a result, Skidmore College is a better place because when you graduates entered this community you were not satisfied with how it felt, and you have pushed us to make change.
My intention in addressing these themes on this celebratory day is not just to praise you. I also want to assure you that the conversations you have prompted will continue long after you graduates have departed—that they will continue to engage those of us who work at the College, as well as successive generations of our students. Moreover, this engagement is not just theoretical. Keeping faith with our founder’s injunction that Skidmore educate both “mind and hand,” we will continue to provide students opportunities to affect change in the world as part of their own Skidmore journeys. Furthermore, we will continue to grapple with these issues as they apply to the College, as we strive to bring our own social reality into closer harmony with our core values. We want Skidmore College to be a place where, in Nussbaum’s words, “given the ample grounds history gives people for suspicion, anger, and even perhaps, hatred,” we create ever more effective ways to “overcome hatred by love”—not just on our own campus but in the world at large.
In your time at Skidmore, we have challenged you to discover your personal cause, your personal “victory for humanity”4—the way in which you want to make the world a better place than you found it. Such a responsibility accompanies the privilege of experiencing one of the highest quality liberal educations available to anyone, anywhere. In return, you have challenged the College to improve, and we fully accept that challenge.
So as we celebrate this day with you, we honor you not only for your achievements and your promise but also for the myriad ways in which you leave Skidmore a better college today than you found it. As you go forward into the broader world beyond our borders, we will follow with interest your undertakings and your triumphs, and we will continue to ask how you are bringing your passion to bear in your life. I hope that you will likewise continue to follow the progress we make here—and continue to push us, as well. And just as we expect to be proud of your future accomplishments, I hope—and expect—that you can and will take pride not only in the Skidmore of today but in the Skidmore that is yet to be.
Thank you for your many contributions.
And thank you for your attention.
1 Martha Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice (Oxford, Oxford University Press: 1999), p. 5.
2 Nussbaum, p 5.
3 Gerald Graff, Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1993).
4 From the 19th Century American educator Horace Mann.