September 4, 2007
Greetings, new students, and welcome to all the friends and family who are with us as well. Let me begin by acknowledging and recognizing the people who will be the most important in your education at UM-Dearborn, the faculty. This is an exceptionally strong faculty. They are committed to their work in the classroom, they are dedicated to their students, and they are strongly involved in the research communities to which they belong. They are here because they believe in UM-Dearborn. Will the faculty please stand for our recognition?
We are glad to have all of you new students joining the University of Michigan-Dearborn. This is an exciting transition for you – and it is an exciting moment for us as well. Every year we greet another group of talented, curious and imaginative new students; each year our courses are "road tested" by new perspectives from fresh minds; and each year our student organizations have a new infusion of talent and energy. Your arrival is part of the mix of things that keeps the university a lively and dynamic place. The faculty and staff of UM-Dearborn extend our sincere welcome to you!
I would like to take the few minutes allotted to me to wonder aloud what a good college education ought to be, in these early days of the twenty-first century. It is important for us as faculty to think quite a bit about that question, because we want your education to be as valuable for you as it possibly can be. But equally, it is worth your time to give this question some thought as well.
You might ask why my question about a good college education arises at all. Surely college ought to "educate" young people; it ought to give them a broad body of knowledge about science, history, literature, art, and human behavior that will serve as a context for other learning they will do; it should develop their skills of reasoning, inquiry, and communication; it should prepare them with the skills and disciplines that will permit them to have successful and productive careers; and it ought to stimulate their development as morally and socially engaged citizens.
Probably all of this is true. But think how difficult almost every part of this task is for the university and for you. Think first of the exploding volume of knowledge that exists about almost any subject you might be interested in. That is wonderful; but it is hugely challenging for you as you attempt to find your way into the thickets of knowledge. And it is a big challenge for the faculty, as they attempt to provide a curriculum that does justice to the breadth and depth of a subject. Is it even possible to "do justice to the breadth and depth of a subject"?
Think of the very deep ethical and religious differences that divide human beings in the world today. Is there such a thing as "universal human values", or are all values culturally determined? Are some ways of behaving better than others? How can we make sense of some of the barbarities we have witnessed in the world in the past ten years (Rwanda, Iraq, civil wars in Africa)?
Think also of the unbelievable complexity of the world we inhabit. The physical sciences themselves leave us with so many open questions. And when we turn to history and human behavior, the complexity and unpredictability of events is staggering; how can we make sense of even the past 20 years—think of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Tiananmen Square massacre, September 11th, and the war in Iraq, let alone the whole of human history and civilization? And yet it is critically important to have some basis for understanding these complex social processes, if we are to be able to change the course of our history towards greater justice, prosperity, peace, and sustainability.
Think next of the almost universal availability of knowledge through the network of digital resources that all of us have access to, and the tools that exist for exploring this knowledge. This ocean of digital knowledge itself presents a challenge to a 21st century education. I think of the Google Books project, aiming to place digital copies of tens of millions of books into digital access. Already there are many tens of thousands of books that are available online—from Aristophane's The Birds to Tolstoy's War and Peace to Darwin's Origin of Species to William Gibson's Neuromancer. I think of Google Earth, a powerful and dynamic technology that permits rapid exploration of almost every kilometer of the planet. I think of the search engines that permit you to quickly scan all the resources in hyperspace for subjects of interest to you—from news about your favorite music star, to scholarship about the fall of Rome, to differing theories of global warming.
The New York Times columnist Tom Friedman has become famous, almost too famous, for observing that the world is flat. Friedman is referring to the world of business and manufacturing. But more than the world of work, the world of global knowledge is flat. It is entirely available to all of us. This means that you can dive into any subject and gain some insight—in literature, in business, in history, in technology. You can jump from Aristophanes to Hegel to Gibbons to Bono. And the largest problem is–exploring this vast network of knowledge; evaluating it; making sense of it; and organizing the knowledge that you've taken away so it makes sense to you. And there are tough questions about critical evaluation that you have to consider: Is Wikipedia a valuable source of knowledge? Do the political blogs provide a good perspective on social and moral issues?
So a major question for you, and one that is fundamental to education in the twenty-first century, is this: How can you use the resources of the World Wide Web to extend your own learning? How can you organize your thoughts and your questions? How can you push your own education using these resources?
There never has been a time when the idea that "learning is active" has been more immediate and practical. The reality is, that you and your friends can learn more about the world, about history, about social change, through your own efforts at inquiry and exploration than you will learn in any single curriculum in any university.
So what is the faculty's contribution to your education? What we can do as faculty is to help you frame your questions; to develop your skills of inquiry; to challenge your initial assumptions; and to help you to develop your critical faculties of analysis and reasoning. We also believe that you need to know something in order to learn much – you need to have at least a rough framework of knowledge about history, about physics, about human behavior, and about business and society, if you are to be able to place the other things you learn into context. Knowledge requires context!
What, then, is your contribution to your education? In the end, you will learn what you want to learn; what you are motivated to learn. So your job is to bring curiosity to your studies. Notice some of the many things you don't understand, and have the confidence to know that you can find some answers. Ask yourself, how could I answer that question? Explore the world of ideas, history, and nature. And make use of the ready tools of inquiry that the internet makes available.
A different kind of learning that requires your personal motivation has to do with what we refer to as "intercultural" experience: learning to see the perspectives and experiences of people with very different cultural backgrounds. To come to understand another person's perspective and situation is to take a long step towards sympathizing with the other person; which in turn takes you towards a greater concern for social welfare and justice. Here too there is an urgent need for personal involvement. You will need to exert the energy and courage that are sometimes required to get past your own cultural stereotypes. To make the first steps into this kind of intercultural learning, you need to get past your own assumptions. You need to cultivate your compassion and interest in the lives of others. You will have some great opportunities here for this aspect of learning, because UM-Dearborn is a campus that reflects much of the cultural diversity of our region. An especially valuable opportunity that you will have is to participate in the program we call "A Conversation on Race."
Finally, you need to understand always that some of the most valuable learning you can do concerns the tools of discovery and analysis that you gain. Look at your college education as a period in which you gain some very high-performance intellectual skills for discovering, evaluating, organizing, and analyzing knowledge. Learn how to be an innovative thinker, seeing relationships that others have overlooked. Be an active inquirer!
So your part in gaining a great college education, at bottom, comes down to three ideas, and each is a feature of you as a person that is worth cultivating. Exercise your curiosity; develop compassion; and broaden your strategies for discovery.
Your education is tremendously important. You have an opportunity in the next several years at UM-Dearborn, to build the basis for developing a framework of personal understanding of the world you live in; and more importantly, a way of extending and testing your understandings. So my advice to you is -- develop your own passions. Are there books, ideas, issues, trends that are particularly exciting to you? Follow those passions. You have your own intelligence; you can try to make sense of the way the world of this century works; you can try to think your way through the difficult issues we face (moral, religious, social, political). But to do these things, you need to extend yourself; exercise your curiosity; test ideas; search out other insights that perhaps contradict your own thinking.
Congratulations to you on this beginning, and let your curiosity loose!