Mary Hale Tolar's remarks
It is an honor to address you all this afternoon and to recognize and celebrate you for this remarkable accomplishment.
Shortly, you will be inducted into Phi Kappa Phi. Consider this a welcome. Consider it also a charge, of sorts. All of us gathered - as well friends and family who aren’t able to join us today - we honor all you have accomplished, your hard work, commitment and service - and we pause collectively to celebrate you. You must know we are proud. We also continue to have high expectations for you. In the words of the great philosopher, Theodor S. Geisel: Oh, the Places You’ll Go!
But let’s take a moment to explore the place you are in, and the company you now keep.
Phi Kappa Phi has as its mission "to recognize and promote academic excellence in all fields of higher education and to engage the community of scholars in service to others." I have to admit, I like this a lot.
The first part – to recognize and promote academic excellence in ALL FIELDS of higher education – so inclusive. A testament to the places you have spent your time while at K-State – the lecture hall, the lab, the library, the stage, the field, the community. An acknowledgement, too, that collective knowledge and the progress humanity makes as a result depends on diversity of academic theories, research, concepts and application. It seems to celebrate connections – the connections that explain how things work, how things can change. And because the honorary brings together a diverse community of scholars, it promotes essential relationships. Our deepest human struggles involve relationships - with other humans, with ideas, knowledge, our environments, and quite often with the unknown. Entering this community of scholars provides opportunity to continue to learn and contribute, to build and sustain relationships, to advance knowledge…and with any luck, some wisdom.
And the second part? “to engage the community of scholars in service to others.” That grabs me. Scholarship and civic responsibility.
A critical connection. Simply put - What we know, care about, and do are interconnected. As we learn – alter what we know - that influences what we care about and how we behave.
It wasn’t long ago that higher education was commonly understood to have a public purpose. It was popularly understood that the role of the university was “to equip students with not only the skills and knowledge to do good work, but also the sensibilities and sensitivities to do work that is for some good…for self, others and society. We now find ourselves making the case that higher education, along with other social institutions (family, church, industry, etc.), has a responsibility to influence the life of the mind (knowledge and skills), the habits of the heart (values, ethics and morals), and a sense of civic commitment to improve communities and society.”
“to engage the community of scholars in service to others.” A powerful mission – and one that higher education itself is grappling with.
Dr. Tony Chambers, a noted scholar on higher education and the public good, shares this assessment:
“If I had been told 30 years ago when I entered college, that 30 years later, when such a high percentage of Americans received some form of postsecondary education, and a record number of high school graduates aspired to postsecondary education, we would have such chronic poverty, ethical misbehavior among business leaders, persistent racial injustice, wide spread mass media distortion and manipulation, more, not less segregation of schools, and pervasive governmental abuse of civil liberties and human rights, I would not have believed it. I would have thought the more education people receive, the fewer social problems we will have. What I didn’t count on was a gradual shift away from connecting education with social improvement and more toward education for individual benefit.”
Phi Kappa Phi stands in the path of this trend. I’d like to think K-State does as well. But a trend doesn’t change because we wish it. And your charge is to “engage.”
We’ve got challenges today – real and present. I studied history. I know the challenges are not particularly “new,” but they are ours. Why do we need you to engage?
Decline in political participation
Increase in sense of personal entitlement
Increase in the politics of polarization
Decline in civics education in K-12 grades
Increasing interest in democracy abroad
What’s at stake? Why bother?
After the Constitutional Convention, Ben Franklin was asked what kind of government the framers had produced. He replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” Keeping it requires the skills, interest, and participation of citizens. A healthy civil society is at stake. We bother because we must.
John Gardner, longtime activist instrumental in creating Medicare, establishing a public television network, and – as President Johnson’s Secretary of Health Education and Welfare – key architect of the Great Society social reforms of the 60s, described democracy in 9 short, but powerful words:
Freedom and Equality,
Liberty and Duty,
that’s the deal.
“The trouble (according to John Dewey, philosopher, activist, and educational theorist, and I quote) …is that we have taken our democracy for granted; we have thought and acted as if our forefathers had founded it once and for all. We have forgotten that it has to be enacted anew in every generation.”
… That would be you.
We must engage the community of scholars in service to others. It is critical that we do so, because all the serious problems we as a society face are complex, systemic, and dynamic. And to address these problems, we need to approach them from the same complex, systemic and dynamic perspective that inspired the problems in the first place. It takes a community of scholars who are engaged in civic discourse, in citizen deliberation, in public service. Engaged in service to others.
Scholarship and civic responsibility. John Milton in 1644 said:
“Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”
Tony Chambers has said, “this LIBERTY TO KNOW, as in liberal education, includes ways that seek to shape the habits of the heart and mind, those that refine civic sensibilities and sensitivities and those that promote students’ and educators’ moral and ethical responsibilities to the public good.”
A great mission, yeah.
But how about that motto!
“Let the love of learning rule humanity” In Greek, represented by three words.
The first, chosen over an almost synonymous term, was selected to put emphasis not only on the process of learning, but what is gained by that process. John Dewey, I think, would see in this the civic purpose of education – he might say what is gained is a healthy democracy. The process of learning brings us educated citizens, without whom our participatory democracy …fails.
The second - and I’m not going to torture you or embarrass myself by trying to actually pronounce any of these words, beautiful as they look – but the second is an exhortation to action, and I’m quoting from the national Phi Kappa Phi historians here – not merely a hope or wish, but an exhortation to act.
And the third gives us our stage – humanity.
“Let the love of learning rule humanity”
I like that. I’m not a particular fan of the standard, noblesse oblige statement – to whom much is given, much is expected. It’s a favorite, I know. That and “giving back.” There’s something about it that assumes one with great privilege would know and is capable somehow of providing what others need. I think it is an unintended arrogance. I much prefer the sentiment that we’re all in this together – we are interconnected and if we are to move forward, it will happen together. With the academic excellence recognized and cultivated in ALL DISCIPLINES, ALL FIELDS of higher education. It will happen if we engage the community of scholars in service to others. If we let the love of learning rule humanity. If we continue to learn, to serve, to act. And of course, to celebrate. Which we so happily do with all of you this afternoon.
I’ll leave you with the words of poet William Stafford:
Starting here, what do you want to remember?
How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?
What scent of old wood hovers, what softened
sound from outside fills the air?
Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect that you carry
wherever you go right now? Are you waiting
for time to show you some better thoughts?
When you turn around, starting here, lift this
new glimpse that you found; carry into evening
all that you want from this day. This interval you spent
reading or hearing this, keep it for life—
What can anyone give you greater than now,
starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?
Congratulations. Enjoy the day. Enjoy the honor. Take a breath. And keep going. Know that you are appreciated and respected. And know that you are most certainly needed.
Remarks by Dr. Tony Chambers, Opening Night Forum: Civic and Moral Responsibilities of Higher Education, Association of American Colleges and Universities, Annual Conference, Washington, DC, January 21, 2004.
Paraphrased from Tony Chambers remarks
Dr. Tony Chambers, Opening Night Forum: Civic and Moral Responsibilities of Higher Education, Association of American Colleges and Universities, Annual Conference, Washington, DC, January 21, 2004.
William Stafford, “You Reading This, Be Ready” copyright 1998 by the Estate of William Stafford.