Character as a Living Defense of Liberal Education | St. Lawrence University University Communications

Character as a Living Defense of Liberal Education

Associate Professor of Education Jeffery Frank
2019 Owen D. Young Faculty Award Recipient

It is an honor to be with you today. Thank you for the invitation, and thank you for taking the time out of Senior Week so we can be together this afternoon.

To start, my heartfelt congratulations. Though you may not know what your next step will be just yet, and though you may not have a strong sense for what the next years of your life will bring you, you should feel proud to join the community of Laurentians who’ve sat in your very seats, and I hope you also feel a sense of wonder at the fact that you are now a member of that select few who can call themselves liberally educated.

As we know, in a few short days you will leave here and join new communities: you will become active members of different political parties and social groups, you will join (or not join) religious communities, you will begin careers, you will create your own families, and you will earn advanced degrees. Because we live in highly polarized times, it will be easy to focus on the ways you will grow apart and forget what you will always hold in common.

After graduation, I hope you become the best version of your Republican or Democrat or unaffiliated self, but I don’t want you to forget that from this day forward you are also always a Laurentian and a citizen in the realm of the liberally educated.

What on earth do I mean by this: what do I mean by calling you a citizen in the realm of the liberally educated? Though our short time together this afternoon won’t allow us to answer the question: What does it mean to be liberally educated? I will suggest that you hold the answer to this question, because from this day forward your life will be a lived defense of the liberal education you received here.

In the coming years you will likely read, hear and listen to countless arguments for and against the liberal arts, but what good is an argument compared to a life marked forever by this form of education? 

I don’t mean to burden you with feelings you may not have yet, so let me speak autobiographically for a moment. When I was sitting in seats like you were—17 years ago at a small liberal arts college not too far from here—I didn’t know what life would throw at me or just how much strength I would draw from the time I spent in college.

I more fully appreciated what it means to be liberally educated as I more fully understood that there were no grownups waiting in the wings to solve my problems. I looked around and realized: I am the adult in the room. If I saw something that bothered me, there wasn’t someone I could tell who would fix it for me: that was on me. If I experienced something so beautiful it arrested me and caused me to see the world in a different light, no one would hand me the words or the images to express my experience: I needed to seek or create a way to make my feelings manifest.

Far from being overwhelmed by this, I was somehow empowered. I still don’t always find the right words for the beauty of our world or the wealth of human potential sitting in this very chapel. I still don’t know the right response to the injustices that continue to trouble me, but I will never stop trying. I was not given a clear directive upon graduation—this is what you must do and who you must become to be one of us—but I felt the faith of the community of liberally educated people who came before me and who will come after me urging me on.

This community believes that we can do better; that we don’t need to be perfect in order to do something good. Though imperfect, we can remain alive to the world’s beauty, responsive to its cruelty and deep potential, committed to being humble in the face of all we don’t know, and confident in our ever-growing powers to do our share of the good, whatever that may be.

If we do this, remaining awake and humble, willing to undertake the good we are called to do, I am confident that we will come to more fully appreciate the values of liberal education in our life.

These values are many, but in what is left of my remarks I will highlight three that I’ve come to especially appreciate. Not because I think they are necessarily the most important, but because I think they are values that you can begin living even more fully right now. More, they aren’t dependent on you having the highest GPA, the best job lined up or anything like that: they are the common calling of beneficiaries of a liberal education.

We tend to extol critical thinking as a main good that results from liberal education, but I’ve come to see loyalty expressed in stewardship as an equally important value. By stewardship, I mean a willingness to conserve, cultivate and love something that matters. Though critical thinking can help us determine what is worthy of our love, the end result of critical thinking should not be the destruction of all that is unworthy of our commitment and attention. Rather, it should aid our quest to find something we care enough about that it inspires, and calls forth, our deep devotion.

Devotion may sound old-fashioned, but that shouldn’t scare us away from appreciating its significance. While at SLU I hope you found something to devote yourself to. For some of you, it may have been the work of an author or scientist, an idea or a problem; for others, it is a friendship or a love that you were lucky enough to find early in your time here at St. Lawrence; for others it may be a landscape, a locale, a history.

Leading, or contributing to, a club, a team, a house: these are also lessons in the type of stewardship I have in mind. Without your loving attention and your best thinking, these would all go into decline. If you didn’t wake up and go to the barn to tend the horses, if you didn’t do your work as an Advocate, if you didn’t mentor first year athletes or new housemates, our community would’ve felt the loss.

Much is like this. Our culture often likes to think in terms of innovating and building new things, but we cannot forget the humble work of tending and repair. When you are having a bad day, it is good when someone is there to listen. When something needs to get done in a community, it is good when people continue to show up to do their work. When we feel threatened by despair, it is good that people create art and work for justice. Their work gives us heart.

These are the stewards of our shared world; being liberally educated means valuing the work of stewardship and coming to feel called to do the work of being a steward. This place was kept for you; the fields of study are cultivated for you; clubs, sports, ideas, opportunities: they’ve been lovingly sustained so that we can be here now. I, for one, am tremendously grateful for the stewardship that has made this all possible. And I feel tremendously lucky to join in this work of stewardship and thankful for all you did over these past four years to care for our community.

Much like stewardship, I am grateful for the deep generosity that lives at SLU and places committed to liberal education. By generosity I mean what arises when we move away from thinking solely in terms of obligation and accounting, and when we do things in accordance with a different sense of how the world can work.

Take the beautiful buildings and grounds of SLU. Take this very space we are in right now. Thinking only in terms of expense and efficiency, places like this are hard to justify. But when you study in a space like Herring-Cole or when you walk down the avenue of elms, you are lifted up by a spirit of generosity and freed to think and act more generously.

Looking back over these last four years, how many times has someone done something good or kind for you, just because; when someone listened with care and generosity, and you felt as if you were treated with the deep respect worthy of the mystery that is your immense potential? Instead of turning to your long list of things to do, think of the times you spent talking with a friend or visiting your favorite place on this campus. What about the times you spent contemplating why you were put here and what your higher purpose might be?

Was this time lost or wasted? I would venture to say that is was in those moments, the moments when you stepped away from ordinary time and into generous time, that you gained a new vision of life and its possibilities; that you developed a new understanding of who you might become.

Liberal education invites us into this generous time so that we might learn what it means to stop seeing the purpose of our life as winning or mastery and begin seeing our life as an invitation to experience all that we don’t know with a spirit of wonder, not of fear. Though the world may tell us it is a waste of time to create beauty or that everything we do must result in an immediate reward, we know better. Being in the beautiful and generous space that is St. Lawrence has taught us the many ways that learning can be transformative and life-giving.

Having spent the last four years here, you are positioned to live more generously as a result. Don’t allow the world to narrow your vision or commodify your immense value to a mere price. Let your generosity serve as a reminder that being generous is not foolish or irresponsible: generosity frees us to live a life worthy of our immense human potential.

This immense potential we each harbor speaks to the third value of liberal education: dignity. The education you received at St. Lawrence is premised on the belief that you are each worthy of our deepest respect, care and attention. Instead of telling you what to think, instead of providing you with a narrow path to a pre-determined outcome, we trust in your dignity. We let you think. We let you explore. We treated you with the moral seriousness you deserve.

And what results when you are treated like this? You came into your own. You found your way and your voice. You faced difficulties and responded with poise and growing confidence that may have even surprised yourself.

It is easy to discount this as sentimental; but there is nothing sentimental about your dignity. It exists, and it is needed in our world today. There is so much anger and willful ignorance in the air, it can choke out goodness, causing us to forget that we have value and we have agency.

We have agency, and so when we meet another person, we can choose to see their dignity. We can treat them with the moral seriousness they deserve.

And what will result? That is for you to discover. That is for you to create. You are now a trustee of liberal education, and I hope you feel a sense of awe and self-respect at that responsibility to act with dignity and to free others to feel that they, too, have dignity.

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Stewardship, generosity, dignity. These are just some of the ways I’ve come to think about liberal education. At heart, though, it may be even more simple than this. The liberal education I received was a lifechanging, and liberal education continues to be a transformative and life-giving force for me each day, especially as I have the great good fortune to spend time with St. Lawrence students undergoing their own transformations. Being here is a constant reminder that life is an invitation to growth. You are a constant reminder that we can become better.

As grim as the world can feel, and as frustrating as life becomes, you were educated here, and that matters. I hope you continue to grow as living representatives, and the best argument we have, for the goodness of liberal education. It is not an understatement to say that we need you: we need you to care for our world and to help us make sure that the values you experienced here will be available to the next generation.

Draw strength from what you’ve experienced at St. Lawrence, draw hope from the transformative potential and life-giving force of your liberal education, remember the vision of your better self that was disclosed to you when you freed yourself from the narrow and ungenerous path. Though that self may not fully exist just yet, don’t doubt that better self: it is as real as the demands that will confront you when you walk across the stage and into your future. Don’t trade a knowing and narrow realism for the opportunity to realize a world worthy of your deep potential and radiant dignity.

I’ve seen that dignity shine in those of you I’ve been very grateful to work with. Thank you for letting me take part in this stage of your life’s journey. And thank you all for making this community better because of your presence. Enjoy your last days at St. Lawrence, and congratulations.

This speech was given on May 16, 2019, as the Class of 2019's "Last Lecture", an annual St. Lawrence tradition for the graduating class.