Monday, January 11, 2010

Theories on Commencement

A day after our December commencement exercises and two days after a 24” snowstorm, I am on an airplane flying to Hawaii.  At this and every other commencement, I always watch the parade of graduates – from the bachelor’s level to the doctorate- march across the stage.  And as they march, I wonder whether we have done all that we can do to provide an education that will serve their needs and society’s needs.

I also sometimes draw “dress for success” conclusions that may have no basis in fact.  A well dressed graduate is more conscientious than a sloppy graduate.  A tie on a graduate is a better indicator of future success than a visible tattoo.  Earrings look professional; other facial piercings look painful and pathetic.  And of course there is the shoe theory.  Polished dress shoes demonstrate a person who puts his or her best foot forward (pardon the pun); flip flops and sneakers at occasions like this demonstrate character flaws (perhaps a person who flip flops or a sneaky person).

The more graduates at the ceremony, the more theories I develop.  And having now gone, over the years, to over 200 commencement ceremonies, I clearly have had the opportunity to develop and refine numerous theories.  However, at the end of the commencement day, two facts always stand out.  Looks and generalizations can be deceiving and we just can’t be certain that the education we provide instills the knowledge and the values we cherish the most.

Now, how does this relate to my flying to Hawaii?  A ten hour flight provides great uninterrupted time to read and reflect and what I chose to read was Stones into Schools, Greg Mortenson’s new book.  The flight was, in fact, long enough and my two kids (ages 11 and 8) were well behaved enough that I was able to read the book cover to cover.

What a great sequel to Three Cups of Tea and what a great story about how one person (and subsequently a few people) can make a huge difference.  As the subtitle states, the book focuses on “promoting peace with books, not bombs in Afghanistan and Pakistan” and this is the kind of peace that clearly stands the test of time.  In reality, Greg’s Central Asia Institute staff might never pass my commencement dress test theories, but their work has earned my enduring admiration and made what could be a huge and permanent difference for these countries.  

What I want an education to provide, in addition to the liberal arts foundation plus the area of concentration, is a graduate, who like Greg, when the opportunity arises, will make a difference for his or her family and for society.  Have we done all that we can to provide such an education?  I am not sure we have.  Is there an outcomes measure for this education?   I am not sure we know how to measure it.  But without such an outcome, we may never achieve the better world we all desire, and education can never realize its maximum potential.

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