Carol Geary Schneider, Commencement Remarks

May 17, 2009

 

President Sullivan, students, families, faculty, members of the Board and of the entire St. Lawrence community:

Thank you all, so very much.  I am honored by this award, and I am delighted, truly, to become a full member of the extended St. Lawrence family.

This is a wonderfully happy day for everyone here – most especially, of course, for the students and families.  Congratulations to every one of you!  My own youngest son completed his college studies just a couple of years ago and I remember very well the extraordinary sense of accomplishment that our entire family felt on that day.  This is a very special moment. 

Since I mention my son, you may be wondering what he did next, and yes, parents, he did become …self-supporting.   Not the month he left college, exactly, but within a very few months.    And that, of course, is another marvelous milestone.

And graduates – what you need to know is that my son really is making good use of all that writing, research and big picture thinking that he did in college and that I know you have been doing at St. Lawrence yourselves.   In fact, the economy notwithstanding, his company gave him a major promotion just this year, largely on the strength of those liberal arts skills he brought with him from college. 

So this is a major turning point in all your lives – a moment when a major life task has been completed and when all the other possibilities open up so richly before you. 

And, at the same time, this is also a moment of wistfulness as the graduates say goodbye to a place and people who have come to mean so much to you.

And THIS year, commencement also is a time of major transition for St. Lawrence itself, as the entire community says also goodbye to Dan Sullivan – who has been such an extraordinary president for this college - and as you all open your hearts and hopes to Bill Fox and the new era of change and educational creativity that your new president will surely lead.

Everyone here is looking to the future—with high hopes – and everyone here also is feeling, at the same time, the sense of dislocation  that comes with the passing of an era.

So for me, the real joy of this occasion is the opportunity to pay tribute to St. Lawrence itself – to think with you about what has made this a truly remarkable educational community and about the strengths this college brings to the new era that is now beginning.

I especially want to pay tribute to the people who have made this such an extraordinary community for learning – to President Sullivan, the faculty, the staff and of course,  to you, the students.  In any community, the people make the place – and St. Lawrence is blessed in the quality of the people who have invested their talents in this college.  Your new president is very much a part of this tradition.

Liberal arts colleges, as a group, are, of course, the jewels in the crown of American higher education.  
They have been intellectual catalysts for American democracy and for the economy from the very beginning of this nation.  With an influence far beyond their actual size, colleges committed to the liberal arts and sciences have helped this nation build its intellectual leadership, it economic leadership, its civic leadership, and its moral leadership.  And the liberal arts tradition continues to exercise influence at the very highest levels of our society even today.  Our new president went to three liberal arts colleges and universities and taught at yet another one.  But, notably, almost his entire cabinet also benefited from college studies at institutions where the liberal arts and sciences are central educational commitments.   The president knows what our society needs to know:  that liberally or broadly educated college graduates are, in a very literal sense, this nation’s most important resource. 

But even within the broad and distinguished company of liberal arts colleges and universities – THIS College – St. Lawrence – really does stand out.

What makes St. Lawrence truly remarkable, is that you have a long tradition of working together as acommunity to connect liberal education with the world’s big questions – both contemporary questions and enduring questions--and to put serious societal challenges centrally at the core of your curriculum.  

For as long as I have known St. Lawrence – and that is now over twenty years-- thisfaculty has understood with a strong sense of shared and communal clarity that the liberal arts are, in the end, studies in the service of a larger purpose.  Your entire community understands that St. Lawrence graduates have major work to do in helping our society live up to the long-term promise of a just and inclusive democracy.  A St. Lawrence education, in other words, prepares graduates, not just for work in the world, but for the work of the world – and for the work required to make a better world.  

Twenty years ago, when I first came to AAC&U, St. Lawrence was already way ahead of the national curve in working to make global encounters and cross-cultural challenges a defining feature of a St. Lawrence education.  You had already put in place your First Year Program, a truly visionary design for linking both living and learning with questions about what it takes to make a good community.

Over time, the faculty has worked hard to keep modifying that First Year Program program so that it stays fresh in its vision, draws on the best talents of individual faculty, helps students develop the strongest possible analytical and research skills, and challenges everyone involved  to rigorously examine  the bases for choices, judgments and ethical commitments.  I treated myself to a review of the current FYP curriculum in preparation for these remarks, and I have to say that it made me want to come here as a real student  - not just an honorary one - myself. 

Fueled by the strength of the First Year Program, St. Lawrence has now become a recognized national leader – among all institutions but certainly among liberal arts colleges  – in linking experiential learning with a serious, rigorous and morally challenging academic curriculum.  In effect, with St. Lawrence way ahead of most other colleges and universities, liberal education across the country now is going through its own period of transition, , as many institutions begin to recognize the need to connect knowledge with choices and action, and intellect with real-world experience.  Higher education in general is starting to realize the firepower that emerges when we take learning beyond the classroom – into the far corners of the world and the neighborhoods of our own communities. 

Your faculty have been at the head of this academic revolution, linking learning with living from the time students enter this college and asking everyone to take seriously how we connect our knowledge with big problems and challenges in the wider world. 

And even this year, the work continues.  This faculty does not rest on its laurels!   St. Lawrence is rethinking its educational goals, taking a fresh look at how it teaches diversity and cross-cultural competence and the sciences, moving deeper into issues of sustainability and continuing its efforts to create a more purposeful and powerful set of connections between college learning and the global community. 

Now, many of the families and students here may all assume that this kind of restless commitment to continuing educational renewal is what every college or university does.  But, in fact, the kind of ongoing, all-absorbing faculty educational collaboration that St. Lawrence takes for granted is, unfortunately,  decidedly unusual. 

Every collegiate institution, does, of course, strive to have talented, well-qualified faculty who teach their own courses with integrity.  But very few colleges and universities ever ask faculty to think and worktogether to create connections across the courses, or between the residential experience and the academic experience.    Even today, far too few institutions seriously challenge their students to connect liberal education with the perilous and urgent problems that confront our world.

In fact, when I think about the small group of truly creative liberal arts colleges and universities in American higher education, there is no question that St. Lawrence is right up there at the top.

How do we account for this continuing tradition of educational focus and collective creativity? 
One crucial key, it seems to me, is the tradition you have established of a productive relationship between your president and his administration and the faculty as a whole.  Dan Sullivan—himself a St. Lawrence graduate, of course – is passionately committed to making liberal education a dynamic force in American society – a catalyst for students’ own futures, but equally important, a resource for the nation.  And, in the best traditions of American pragmatism, he models himself that combination of big-picture vision and thinking with real-world strategic and practical skills that are the most useful outcome of a liberal education.

What Dan has done – to the lasting benefit of St. Lawrence - is to create an environment in which faculty are encouraged and supported in working together for the good  the work of the whole.  There’s a real partnership between administration and faculty at this college and that, I want you to know, creates intellectual wealth that goes way beyond the size of the endowment.

So, as this is a moment of transition and change for the students and for the College, I want to  acknowledge and celebrate the importance of St. Lawrence’s rich tradition, both of collaborative community, and of a commitment to connect liberal education with the needs of a troubled world.
Liberal education has its roots in the word “liber” or “free person,” and liberal education at its best takes seriously its responsibility to prepare graduates to use their freedom wisely.  But there is another traditional meaning for the term liberal: that a liberal mind is  generous or open-hearted. 

When I think of liberal education as St. Lawrence has created it – and as Dan Sullivan has led it – it is, in fact, that second meaning which comes centrally to mind.  A St. Lawrence education is generous in its spirit and in its sense of obligations far beyond self.  And, as your new president knows very well, it is a generative education for those who are lucky enough to become part of this community.

So, for all those reasons – I thank the college for the generosity it has extended to me – and I salute the class of 2009 as you complete your course of study.  You have been educated at an extraordinary institution.  And I know you will do extraordinary things with your lives.