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Remarks by N. Bruce Duthu at Convocation, Sept. 25, 2007

Posted 09/25/07

N. Bruce Duthu
N. Bruce Duthu

Thank you Provost Scherr, for that kind introduction, and thank you President Jim Wright for inviting me to speak at this year's Convocation.

My address to you is entitled "Reflections on Humility and Liberal Education."  The subject of humility may seem an odd choice for an occasion like this.  It's not often you hear people talking about humility, never mind singing about it, or using it as a campaign slogan, or rallying cry.  Can you imagine the Beatles singing "all you need is humility"? Or Aretha Franklin belting out "h-u-m-i-l-i-t-y"?  Surprisingly, no major presidential candidate has embraced humility in their campaign slogans.  No one is out there trumpeting "humility begins today" or "let the humility begin" to garner your votes.  Go figure.  And yet, in all seriousness, I believe that humility is a necessary and vital element of the liberal education we endeavor to provide here at Dartmouth.  And indeed, I'd go further and say that humility is a necessary and vital quality for engaging with our neighbors, both here in this country and around the world, and in discharging our obligations as stewards of the world's natural resources.  Unfortunately, the active practice of humility seems to be in terribly short supply these days. 

Part of the reason for this is that humility has often gotten a bum rap.  It is often associated with weakness or timidity.  Qualities that seem grossly out of step with our preference for, and even our obsession with, competition, top rankings, power, and dominance.  But if we probe a little more, we find that humility also means the absence of arrogance, a posture of openness, a spirit of deference.  The word itself derives from the Latin "humus" which signifies earth, or ground.  This reminds me of something I learned quite recently about the White Mountain Apache language.  That tribe employs the same word "ni" to signify the concept of "land" and "mind," a powerful expression of the unity between sacred landscapes and one's state of being or identity, and the ethic of living in balance with the natural world.  From the Apache perspective, the newcomer settlers who arrived and endeavored quickly to exploit and deplete the natural bounty of the environment before moving on to other areas, seemed to lack a land ethic and were, as a consequence, both landless and mindless.  In the context of liberal education, the late 19th century Harvard president Charles W. Eliott, expressly embraced the quality of humility in describing the aims of the college's newly revised curriculum that featured a wide array of elective courses in words that are as apt today as they were then.  In words that are as apt today as they were then President Elliott described the essence of a liberal education as follows:

"To produce graduates with an open mind, trained to careful thinking, instructed in the methods of philosophic investigation, acquainted with the accumulated thought of past generations, and penetrated with humility."

Our own former president, James Freedman, offered a similar definition of a liberal education, as quote:

"A process of inquiry, not a fixed body of knowledge, and its goals is the achievement of those intellectual and moral capacities that will enable students to lead lives that are thoughtful, reflective, inquisitive, and satisfying."  And in a postscript, he spoke with his characteristic eloquence about the importance of humility.  Quote: "Professors may teach most effectively about such values as integrity and honesty precisely when they admit to their own doubts or ignorance."  There is no more important event in the moral development of a student than that quiet, suspended moment when a professor responds to an unexpected question by saying, "I don't know."

Let me offer two brief stories that at least, for me, speak to the importance of humility and liberal education.  The first story is about an important speech given in 1944 by federal judge named Learned Hand.  Judge Hand served as a federal judge for over a half century, from 1909 until his death in 1961.  For thirty-seven of those years, he served as a judge on the United States Court of Appeal for the Second Circuit, the level immediately under the U. S. Supreme Court.  Though he was considered for, but never appointed to, the highest court, Judge Hand was widely regarded then and by many now as America's greatest jurist. 

But on May 21st, 1944, Judge Hand was not well known outside the legal profession, that is, before he gave his famous "Spirit of Liberty" speech in New York's Central Park, in front of over one million people.  The crowd included 150,000 newly naturalized citizens who that day pledged allegiance to their new nation.  The nation, of course, was at war, and D-Day was only two weeks away. 

Judge Hand was among the last speakers to address that immense crowd that day, and he challenged his audience to ponder the meaning of liberty.  For Judge Hand, this concept had something to do with freedom, but not the abstracted freedom that resides in the text of laws and constitutions, and forms the business of the courts.  "That kind of liberty", said Judge Hand, "represents false hopes."  "Liberty", he said, "lies in the hearts of men and women."  When it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it.  No constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it.  He knew what liberty was not.  Quote: [It was not] "the ruthless, the unbridled will, the freedom to do as one likes.  That is the denial of liberty, and leads straight to its overthrow."  Again, he asked the question, "What then is the spirit of liberty?"  "I cannot define it", said Judge Hand.  "I can only tell you my own faith.  The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right.  The spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women.  The spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests along its own, without bias."  And he then asked the audience to rise in that same spirit, "the spirit" he said "of that America for which our young men are at this moment fighting and dying."  And they stood to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. 

As Judge Hand's biographer Gerald Gunther notes, "this was quite a stunning moment, to have a federal judge, on a day dripping with patriotism, invoke the spirit of skepticism and humility at a time of war when", as Gunther says "unquestioning loyalty to the cause was considered every American's duty." 

It took great courage, I believe, for Judge Hand to speak these words, to remind the audience and all Americans about the important links between liberty and humility.  These words have a particular relevance in our world today, when our nation is again at war, this time, a war that lacks the popular support of most Americans and the world community.  As free people, we owe it to ourselves and to the world community to reaffirm our belief in a liberty that is not the ruthless, unbridled will or the freedom to do as one likes, but a liberty that is not too sure that it is right, one that seeks to understand the minds of other men and women, and weighs their interest alongside our own, without bias.  Otherwise, to paraphrase a late 19th century New York Times editorial that was highly critical of U.S. American Indian policy, "the public will can have no more restraint on the impulses of bad government than a spider's web has on the plodding ox that pursues his tranquil way through a thicket."

And now, on a slighter lighter note, is the second story, one that may be familiar to some of you.  The setting is again New York City, just a few years before Judge Hand's famous liberty speech.  A mother, hoping to advance her five-year-old son's interest in music, took him to a concert featuring the great Polish pianist, Ignace Paderewski.  They were fortunate to have seats very close to the stage.  After taking their seats, the mother saw a friend close by, and soon became so engrossed in discussion with the friend that she didn't notice her son leaving his seat to go wandering back stage.  As the lights dimmed and the curtains opened, the mother finally noticed that her son was not in his seat.  Before she could get up to go search for him, her eyes turned to the grand Steinway piano on the stage and to the little boy, her son, sitting at the piano, picking away to the tune of "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star."  She was horrified, because at just that moment, the grand master himself walked out onto the stage and stood right behind her son.  Paderewski leaned over to the boy and whispered into his ear "don't quit, keep playing."  And then, from behind the young pianist, the master reached out his left hand and began filling the bass part, and with his right hand, he improvised a beautiful harmony.  The crowd was absolutely mesmerized, and at the conclusion of this spontaneous duet, they broke out into thunderous applause.  Years later, no one could recall the other songs Paderewski played that evening, but no one forgot the performance of "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star." 

Now you can find this story on multiple Web sites, sometimes with slightly altered facts, with different lessons drawn from it, depending upon the writer or the audience.  For me, this story beautifully combines elements of the themes of humility and liberal education, to evoke the quintessential moment of discovery, of illumination and sublime magic that represents every educators dream.  The young boy's imaginative impulse to create music was all that the maestro needed to adorn a child's tune with beauty and grace and spontaneously produce something new, original and memorable.  In that moment, the lines between teacher and student were blurred as each served as a source on inspiration, passion and creativity for the other.  Far from imposing his will upon the situation, the maestro reacted with humility, to reward the boy's curiosity and grant him entrance, if only for one transcendent moment, into the master's world of inspired music making. 

If one approaches liberal education with the spirit of humility that I've described here, it should be readily apparent that what we're describing here, at its best, is preparation for a lifetime of learning and a mindfulness about one's place in the world.  This is not easy work.  It is often lonely, frustrating, and tedious.  I know this from personal experience.  But it can also be magical and transcendent, especially in moments where a maestro can guide the learner to an entirely new world of experience and understanding.  I also know this from personal experience.  The reason this place is special, notice I say "special," not "perfect," is that it is filled with scholars who love to teach, who actively and relentlessly seek opportunities to share or create those moments of transcendence with their students.  And I also know this from personal experience, as a student here in the 1970s, as a college administrator in the 1980s, and as a visiting academic since the 1990s.  We don't always get this liberal education thing right though, do we, even when we approach it in the spirit of humility, as I've described it here.  It costs a lot of money, it doesn't reach all members of our society, it makes parents awfully nervous about what their sons or daughters can actually do when they graduate and it doesn't ensure that its beneficiaries will use that knowledge for the betterment of society, even if we agree that was one of our goals.  But I think we can be sure that approaching liberal education without the spirit of humility would be far more problematic.  Liberal education is a crucible for life-long learning and public citizenship, and as such, is worthy of our efforts to improve and strengthen it.  We look with anticipation for opportunities to create and nurture those moments of transcendence in our students and in each other.  And when we stumble, we ought to take inspiration from the words of the maestro, "don't stop, keep playing."  We have important work to do here together, let's get to it!

Thank you very much for your patience and attention, and I wish you the very best for the year ahead.

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