September 6, 2005
"The worker must work for the glory of his handiwork, not simply for pay; the thinker must think for truth, not for fame. And all this is gained only by human strife and longing; by ceaseless training and education; by founding Right on righteousness and Truth on the unhampered search for Truth." -- W. E. B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903)
* * *
Welcome to you, the class of 2009. On behalf of the faculty and staff of the University of Michigan-Dearborn, I extend the warmest welcome to you and your families. You are a very accomplished group of young people, and we are proud to have you join us on the campus. You have excelled in your academic work, and many of you have shown great potential as leaders. I know that you will develop your talents enormously in the coming years at UM-Dearborn, and I know as well that our region and ourcountry needs your best efforts. You are lucky to be here, and we are lucky to have you!
I’d like to share a few thoughts with you about the university and the experience we hope you will have here.
The university is a place of engagement. We expect you to develop your own intellectual passions and to share these exciting ideas with others. We expect you to dive into the classroom, into the ideas to which you will be exposed, into animated discussions with your peers about these ideas, and into discussion and debate with your teachers. It is highly meaningful that such a large number of the faculty have come together today to celebrate this beginning. We want your engagement; we welcome your challenge and your debate; and we will ask much of you.
Because the university is also a place of challenge. It is important to know from the start that your experience in the classrooms and laboratories that make up UM-Dearborn will not be easy. You will be expected to study hard, to reflect and consider, to master new modes of analysis and deliberation, and to draw out the connections that you find between the variousdisciplines that you will study. We have high expectations of you, because you have high expectations of yourselves.
A university is a place for learning and individual development. But it is more than that. It is a community of learners, teachers, and scholars. It is a place for intense intellectual relationships; for friendships with people whose initial assumptions and frameworks are very different from your own; and a place for gaining commitment to and confidence in the many ways in which we can live together in the most progressive and supportive ways possible within our communities, present and future.
The university is a place where the values of integrity and honesty are particularly central. It is all too easy to cut corners in life, and this is true in the university no less than in business or government. So it is possible to find term papers on the Internet; to cheat on an examination; or to turn in someone else’s problem set in place of your own work. But I pose this question to you: is this the moral example you wish to set to yourself? Now is the right time to make the personal decision to live by principles you can respect throughout your life.
You are a cohort that has already been marked by history. When you were freshmen in high school, you and we were turned upside down by the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the unforgettable days and weeks that followed. Now, in the first days of your experience as freshmen in college, you have lived through the experience of Hurricane Katrina and the shocking hardships of a million fellow Americans. Together in the past week we have witnessed scenes of tragedy, suffering, and death—and there are faces for these moments of pain, thanks to omnipresent media coverage. You have felt empathy, compassion, and sadness. You have asked yourselves, what can I do to help these other human beings in need? And, probably, you have offered your help—through community organizations, places of worship, charitable donations, and, I hope, the student organizations you will soon be joining. What is most important about the experience of the past week is plainly, the practical challenge of putting people’s lives back together. But perhaps there is also an important opportunity for learning and reflection in this experience as well. So I would like to take this moment as an occasion for reflecting more deeply on the values of personal engagement with others.
At UM-Dearborn we talk a great deal about student engagement. I would like to spend a few minutes today talkingwith you about what this means, because I am convinced that it is an essential aspect of effective learning and personal development. Learning is more than the mastery of facts and skills, methods of thinking and inquiry, or skills of reasoning and communication. It is the development of personal capacities of imagination and compassion, curiosity and solidarity, knowledge and conviction. And these important qualities of mind and heart are best developed – perhaps only developed – in sustained interaction and engagement with others. This is the reason for the quote included on the bookmark you have received this afternoon from the African-American sociologist, W.E.B. DuBois: DuBois emphasized with singular clarity the connection between advanced education and engagement in the social needs of our time.
We think of several kinds of engagement when we discuss this topic on the campus. There is the engagement that one can achieve with the lives of other people in our own country and in the world. We might call this the “compassionate strands of humanity” or the strands of civility. It is the concrete recognition of the reality of the lives and worth of other human beings; an active imagination of the importance of suffering in other people, even very distant and disconnected from ourselves; the recognition that we have much in common with the other citizens of the world. And there is a cultural andpsychological tension between this compassionate identification with others, and the self-interested individualism that is often the hallmark of modern American civilization. This capacity for compassion and understanding is one that needs cultivation; myopia and narrowness of vision are all-too-easy positions for us to take.
We care a great deal on this campus about creating a climate of receptive cultural diversity across the campus, in the classrooms, in our organizations, and in our collective life together. Why is this so important? For several reasons. But one particularly relevant reason has to do with the issue of compassion and mutual recognition that I am discussing now. By gaining an ability to communicate easily with people different from yourself—to see the circumstances, perspectives, common beliefs and fears, of the person from another material circumstance, race, or religion—you can directly sharpen your ability to put yourself into the other person’s perspective. And I suggest to you: this is an essential and valuable part of the education that you will gain in the next several years. I would hope you will gain a thirst and an impatience for the opportunity to interact with a broader and broader range of people through your later experiences at the university and in life. And may I say: few of us think we’re doing a good enough job in creating that positive and flourishing multiculturalenvironment. We want your help in extending and deepening the quality of interaction and campus culture we have on this campus!
Let’s turn for a moment to a complementary form of engagement: the engagement that stems from concrete involvement in organizations and associations in the pursuit of common purposes. The word “solidarity” probably has only a hazy association for you. But for people of my age, we think to the Solidarity Movement in Poland in the 1970s; the courageous and nonviolent efforts of a massive citizen-based movement to establish political freedom in Poland. And we think of the remarkable fact—that this movement succeeded against the military might of the Soviet Union. The collective strength of hundreds of thousands of non-violent Poles overcame the power of one of the world's great armies. And we can witness the same power of peaceful solidarity in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa or the “People Power” movement that overthrew dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines in 1986. These are dramatic examples; but collective purpose can be exercised in much more mundane ways. For example, a national student movement in the United States took up the cause of sweatshops in the Third World in the apparel industry—with the ultimate result of creating a couple of effective monitoring organizations to which many universities subscribe and which successfully giveincentives to producers to conform to a set of labor standards. And nearer to home—the highly effective organization ACCESS emerged from student organizations and efforts on this campus in the 1970s.
What is involved in establishing solidarity with others? It is to come to regard oneself as having interests and concerns in common with others, and to gain the motivations necessary to support common efforts at some personal cost. And, equally, it is to form organizations and associations through which these common purposes can be pursued. It is a remarkable fact that grassroots organizations—student organizations, community associations, or internet-based affinity groups—can have a great amplifying effect on the influence that individuals within these groups can exercise on their own.
Finally, but not least—and not irrelevant to these first forms of engagement—is intellectual engagement. Your minds are capable of asking the most profound questions; pursuing ideas where they take you, challenging your fellow learners and your teachers; arriving at new solutions and questioning old truisms. The university is not the only place where intellectual engagement is valued; but it is one place where it is especially prized and welcomed. And, I regret to say, intellectual engagement depends on you, and there is not enough of it. Not enough of us are passionate about the quest for understanding,for new questions and new solutions, and for leveraging our current theories into better ones. I make this promise to you: the more passion you allow yourselves to have for ideas and areas of knowledge, the more capacity you will grow and the more strongly your faculty will respond to you.
So for us, engagement means these ideas: compassion and empathy; solidarity and cooperation; and intellectual engagement. The work we are doing here—the work that you are beginning to engage in your studies at UM-Dearborn—is profoundly important. It is of course important to your own personal futures. But it is also important for the future of our society, and for the democratic values that we would wish to embody in the social order in which we live.
Congratulations to you and your families on this beginning. You have accomplished much, and we are proud to have you join the university community.