Excerpt from essay “On Education and Empowerment” from “Speaking of Duke: Leading a 21st-Century University”
By Richard Brodhead (Duke University Press). Used by permission.
May 13–14, 2005, Duke Chapel
Men and women of the Class of 2005, the end is near. If this were a basketball game and you were the opposition, we would have reached the point when rude Duke fans would chant “start the bus.” If I were not your best friend and well-wisher, I might even stretch forth my hand, waggle my fingers, and launch a cry of “see ya!” Before we get serious, I just want to say that I take it amiss that you should be leaving so soon. That’s not very nice! I just got here, and already you are planning to take off . If, upon fuller consideration, you decide that you’d rather stick around, do let me know. It may not be too late: your diplomas are not yet signed.
Class of 2005, I have been thinking of you these last weeks as you finished your final papers, climbed the chapel tower, attended endless barbecues, and began your farewells. I have been thinking about what you are going on to, and how your time here will serve you when you get there. Since my field is American literature, this naturally led me to a classic work of American autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, published posthumously in 1917 but written one hundred years ago this year. The grandson of President John Quincy Adams and great- grandson of President John Adams, Henry Adams was marked by birth for high success. But then, as he tells it, something happened: the world changed. Born in the shadow of the Boston state house in 1838, Adams came to consciousness in a nineteenth-century world still strongly linked to the eighteenth and seventeenth centuries, the world of the American Revolution and the Pilgrim fathers. But born together with him were technological developments that, though the scope of their effects was not at first apparent, would rupture the continuity of history and produce a different, modern world: the railroad lines new in his childhood; the new transatlantic steamships that would replace sailing ships and cut the length of ocean travel; and the new telecom system of the 1840s, the telegraph, the world’s first source of instant messages.
In early life, Adams received the premier schooling his world had on offer. But by his later reckoning, this education perfectly failed to grasp the new world of collapsed distances and national and global connections where his lot would be cast. In consequence, the aging Adams wearily laments, the education he received was exactly not the education he needed, leaving him “condemned to failure more or less complete in the life awaiting him.”
For all its intelligence, this book makes gloomy reading, and seeing you in its light could induce the question whether, fifty years from now, you might not have a similar tale to tell. When were you born: 1983? 1984? When did you come here: 2001? Then it would be easy to compose your biography as a story of rupturing historical transformations. Two or three weeks after you got here, an event occurred after which (we were quickly assured) nothing would ever be the same: 9/11, and our fall from innocence to experience of the fact of global insecurity. One message of Tom Friedman’s new book The World Is Flat is that the post-9/11 fixation on terror and the Middle East may have obscured a far more fundamental historical change: the contemporary creation of the linked world where any point on the globe can be reached instantaneously from any other via fiber-optic cable, and where any job can be broken into component arts and distributed to any site, however remote.
Add to this the hundreds of millions in once-backward countries who will soon be joining this new global order through education and Internet connection, and it would be easy to generate an almost apocalyptic case of heebie-jeebies about this weekend’s proud event. For as we acclaim your success in college, might it not be that you too have learned what worked in the recent past, not what will be needed in the quickly arriving future? In that case (I now switch on Adams’s sepulchral tones), what will become of you, poor children of the twentieth century, when you wake up to find yourselves required to play the game of the twenty-first? I pause for effect.
But though it’s not hard to conjure up a vision of your pending anachronism and future ineptitude, there’s something a little unimaginative about this gloomy account. Is the world changing more rapidly than ever? I’d be a fool to deny it. But the world has always been changing, and the notion that things were relatively stable until just now has always proved an ahistorical illusion. If we project you forward twenty, thirty, or forty years, it’s certain that you will be playing on a field that has been reconstituted not once but many times, in ways no one now is gifted to see. That’s just a given, not necessarily either a tragedy or an opportunity. As for that, time will tell.
In any case, it’s an even greater error to think that anyone’s formal education could possess lasting adequacy for the life of their times. There are childhood vaccines that give permanent immunity, and James Bond is always equipped at the start with just the set of magical tools or toys needed to face that film’s preposterous predicaments, but neither of these is a very good model for education. Your Duke days could never teach you how to cope with every challenge the future will throw at you—if that’s what you think you got here, you are in for a big surprise. But it could give something far more valuable: it could lay the foundations for deep habits of character and mind that will keep developing as you engage your world, such that when you face new circumstances, a growingly capable you will be there to meet them.
It’s my great hope that your Duke years have confirmed in you an unbreakable habit of curiosity. In your classes you’ve learned habits of high performance, of doing what is expected of you and doing it well, and these will certainly take you far. But I’m trusting that your schoolwork also occasionally triggered something deeper and fi ner, a sheer will to understand, that pressed you on past the point of the passing grade: kept you noticing relevant facts, drawing out their implications, testing your theories against available evidence, and revising them when they proved inadequate. If that power has been born and strengthened in you, then as you leave the artificial world of schoolwork, you’ll possess the real source of education: the linked habits of attention, mental integration, articulation, and imagination that will help you keep taking in what emerges around you, deciphering its meanings and challenges and opportunities as it evolves.