Full Transcript of Speech
Members of the Board, faculty, family, friends, students and staff, thank you for that kind welcome. I stand before you heartened by your warmth and kindness. I’m especially grateful to friends and family who have traveled from afar to be here. Your presence today means more to me than you can know.
Chairman of the Board Ed Haldeman, your integrity, decency and warmth are a large part of why I came to Dartmouth. How proud you’ve made us all by answering the call of service and taking the helm of mortgage giant Freddie Mac as it wrestles with the challenge of helping tens of millions of Americans realize the dream of home ownership.
Two hundred and forty years ago, the Reverends Eleazar Wheelock and Samson Occom, a member of the Mohegan nation, worked to establish an institution that would not only train the intellect but enlarge the soul, preparing its graduates for lives of service to the truth as they understood it. Since President Wheelock, fifteen other presidents have carried forward, reimagined and reinvigorated that mission – each assuming the responsibility to “take care of this house” that is Dartmouth.
President William Jewett Tucker did as much as anyone to transform this school from a small New Hampshire college to a leading national institution. He believed that higher education must include not just an intellectual dimension, but a moral one as well. President John Sloan Dickey more than a half-century later argued that a Dartmouth education must embrace what he described as “the dual pursuit of competence and conscience.”
Jim Wright pursued the same mission during his forty years at Dartmouth. Indeed as professor of history, Dean of the Faculty, Provost and then President, Jim Wright has devoted a lifetime of extraordinary work to caring for this house and strengthening its physical, intellectual and moral foundations. His presidency made my presidency possible.
President Wright’s tireless service to the College built on that of his predecessors: President Jim Freedman, who wrote so beautifully about the importance of a liberal arts education; and President David McLaughlin, whose vision made possible the expansion of the campus and gave birth to the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.
All of these leaders served Dartmouth with diligence and skill. To follow in their footsteps is deeply humbling for me – the child of Korean immigrants from a small town in Iowa.
Through nearly two-and-a-half centuries, Dartmouth has flourished, adapting itself to the changing educational needs of the country and the world. Yet there has always been constancy at its core – a clear sense of purpose that sets this College apart.
What does that mean for us here today, as we mark the start of a new academic year . . . and as we approach Dartmouth’s 250th anniversary just ten years from now? What is the purpose of a Dartmouth education?
If we did nothing else in this College but contribute to humankind’s understanding of itself and of the world – if we sought only to learn for the pure love of learning – our work would be amply justified.
But like many of my predecessors, I believe that Dartmouth’s liberal arts education can also uniquely prepare its graduates to impact the world.
And, the historical moment in which we live demands that your generation unite, as never before, learning with action, passion with practicality.
Consider the challenges before us: the stresses on our natural environment — nearly 7 billion people living amidst growing inadequacies of food and water; the deepening chasm between rich and poor; the ravages of epidemic disease; the denial of human rights and basic freedoms to so many who thirst for them; and the need to inspire, provoke and energize humanity with art, literature and critical thought that resonate in a changing world.
Your generation must dream, dream more ambitiously than any who have preceded you. But just to dream is not enough. You must deliver on the dream where previous generations have fallen short.
In his inaugural address, President John Kemeny focused on the distance that can separate dreams from delivery—and the role of the College in bridging that divide.
Kemeny argued that Dartmouth must train leaders who “will enlarge human knowledge . . . work in high office . . . guide great corporations to new service to society . . . [and] work to wipe out poverty and disease.” To the moral motivation to solve the problems of society, Kemeny explained that a Dartmouth education must also add the know-how to devise and implement practical solutions.
Some might interpret this vision as emphasizing practical disciplines such as engineering or economics over the arts and humanities. But that view rests on an artificial division that Dartmouth has always rejected. There’s nothing more practical than the philosophical work of learning to be clear and coherent about our deepest values; nothing more practical than the artistic work of bringing shared values to compelling expression. Reading The Tempest, debating Aristotle’s ethics or choreographing a dance are supremely practical activities. They deepen our understanding of what has been and open our imagination to what yet could be. They provide the experiences of beauty and shared meaning which are central to building a more just world. Understanding what ennobles human life, and intensifying our capacity to experience it is the very purpose of a Dartmouth education.
My own experience has instilled in me a belief in the transformative power of education, as it now falls to me to “take care of this house”. My path initially wound far from the place we stand today, but from the start it was influenced by the American Pragmatist philosopher John Dewey – born and raised here in Northern New England. Dewey’s thought reflects the practical and deeply generous character of this region.
He argued that the best learning comes through active experience, and not through passive absorption of established doctrine…he believed that education works best when theory is united with action.
In my own life, I’ve seen how adaptations of Dewey’s work can fuel transformations in surprising settings.
I’ve worked in villages where less than 1-in-10 adults can read and write. But these communities had a deep appreciation for the importance of education in driving social change.
Seeing Dewey’s ideas adapted to the lived experience of the poor, I witnessed the potential for education to be liberating in a way that calls to mind John Sloan Dickey’s notion of a Dartmouth education as an experience in the “liberating arts”: those forms of knowledge which, in Dickey’s words, “bring the best of the past to the service of the present,” while they “liberate the best in [us] into an expanding future.”
Through 25 years of working to help improve health in some of the poorest communities in the world, what has become clear to me is that delivering on ambitious social goals requires more than principled individual action, more even than courageous social justice movements. It requires building and implementing systems that can deliver sustainable solutions.
Over the years, I’ve studied the work of W. Edwards Deming, who took Dewey’s insights into new territory and enabled some of the greatest economic successes in modern history.
Deming emphasized constant measurement of results and continuous improvement. But he believed that learning and innovation must be understood at their roots as a collective mission – one that requires trust among many members of an organization, the type of trust and mutual respect that I’ve found very much alive here at Dartmouth. Crucially, Deming then argued that this indispensable foundation of trust and shared commitment must be allied to a rigorous understanding of how complex systems work to produce desired results.
Educators helping peasants in Latin America break the chains of poverty seem worlds apart from systems engineers in cutting-edge production facilities. Yet, I believe that they embody two sides of the educational mission set forth by my predecessors, a mission that in this historical moment is more vital than ever: on the one hand, the passionate commitment to making the world a better place; on the other, the practical understanding of complex systems required to deliver solutions on a global scale. Passion and practicality: Either without the other will be inadequate to tackle the challenges we face today.
The need for both brings to mind lessons I learned about education as a boy growing up back in Iowa. My father was a dentist, and dentists are among the most practical people on earth. My mother is a theologian and philosopher. She was always trying to lift my sights to the higher things. This is what my dentist father and philosopher mother taught me: Keep your feet on the ground—but shoot for the stars.
This historical moment requires a generation that unites the passion to transform the world with the intellectual capacity to tackle the most difficult scientific challenges; to apply sophisticated management strategies in new ways; to create art that resonates in a changing world; and to lead teams of people toward common goals. That is the generation that will deliver on our long-cherished dreams. That is your generation.
The mission of Dartmouth College is precisely to prepare you for that task.
But what does such an education look like in practice?
The heart of this College has always been inspired teaching. This is the bedrock of our excellence.
Plato in the academy, Maimonides in the synagogue, Thomas Aquinas in the cloister – all committed themselves to the same vital human endeavor to which this institution is devoted: teaching.
Our faculty today are expanding interdisciplinary collaboration and supporting students’ learning in innovative ways. Great colleagues work together to produce great results, and they are supported by our generous alumni. Dartmouth is a community that never lets go of its graduates . . . and its graduates never let go of Dartmouth.
Our legacy also shows that innovation and independence can thrive most richly when they build on a common intellectual foundation. One Dartmouth experience that I hear about again and again from alumni is the “Great Issues” course taught by President Dickey. Students explored critical questions as an entire class, creating a common vocabulary through which differences in views and values could be examined and understood - making possible far deeper dialogue among classmates.
Let’s revive the “Great Issues” course to give today’s students a shared intellectual foundation for taking on the most challenging problems of our time.
Dartmouth has maintained teaching as a paramount priority and that commitment must always be preserved. But teaching is not a one-way transmission of established knowledge. At its best, it’s a collaboration – transforming both student and teacher and advancing the boundaries of human knowledge. At Dartmouth, faculty have brought the complexity of their research to the classroom to strengthen students’ learning. In turn, professors have reformulated their research questions after being challenged by gifted students.
We must support faculty research both for its intrinsic value and because without it teaching at Dartmouth College will suffer. Let me be clear: not only will we support research by our faculty, we also expect every Dartmouth student to engage in significant original scholarship during their time at the College. The discovery of new knowledge must be at the core of our collective mission.
Dartmouth’s world-class professional schools – Tuck, Thayer and Dartmouth Medical School – provide the College with decisive strengths for that mission.
Now let me speak for a moment directly to the great class of 2013. I hope you understand that I have very high expectations for you. And each of you is capable of exceeding even my highest expectations. You and I are starting our Dartmouth careers together. So, let me tell you very clearly four things I want each of you to do during your time here.
Despite Frances Vernon's warnings about people who say this at your convocation, say it I must.
Find your passion. Lots of people will glibly say this to you. Here’s what I mean. I’m not referring to passing fancies. The passion I want you to find takes work. It represents less an emotional sensation than an intellectual achievement. You won’t find it by sitting passively in the classroom or surfing the web. You have to work hard at finding something you can tackle with passion for a big chunk of your life and find meaning in it. That’s an active and an urgent task. You need to start it now.
Number two, be persistent. Each one of you has the ability to achieve great things. But beyond a certain level of talent, the difference between those who achieve great things and those who don’t is usually not talent, it’s persistence.
Malcolm Gladwell argues in his latest book that it takes at least 10,000 hours of practice to develop mastery of a skill – whether programming a computer, playing hockey or performing music.
My mentor in clinical medicine used to tell me, quoting a 17th century philosopher, that all things excellent are difficult and rare.
Understand that when you find your passion, the beginning will be frustrating precisely because all things great are difficult and rare. Optimism and persistence come from understanding that the hard work of mastery holds true for everyone.
Number three, pursue knowledge seriously. I don’t mean take yourself seriously. I mean take seriously the importance of figuring out how you learn best.
Some people learn best through direct dialogue with a faculty mentor; for others, collaborative work with a group of peers works best. Visual representations or mathematical formulas help some people master key concepts; for others, the flow of descriptive language brings clarity. Figure out what works best for you. And, be forewarned: If I meet you crossing the Green later this fall and ask you, ‘What works best for you when you’re trying to learn something?’ I expect a clear answer.
FOURTH AND FINALLY, think big, in fact think about the whole planet. As John Sloan Dickey said so powerfully, embrace the world’s troubles as your own. You are exceptional people. You were admitted to the most selective class in Dartmouth’s history. You have a superb faculty here committed to teaching you. We are all here for you.
Do something great with all you’ve got. Be ambitious. Aspire to change the world. If you’re an engineer – take on climate change and move us toward a more sustainable future. If you’re a musician – play or write something that truly moves people. And if you play football – beat Harvard! Please! This year!
As an old teacher, I like to make things simple to remember. During your four years here, remember these four P’s. Find your passion, be persistent in achieving mastery, pursue knowledge in the way that works best for you, and embrace the planet’s problems, because no one will be more prepared to fix them than you.
I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to tackle social problems around the world – but I came to Dartmouth because I’m convinced that those of you gathered here today will achieve far more than I ever could. Helping you do that is now my mission in life.
And while the current economic environment creates challenges for institutions of higher learning, we should not – and will not – let it limit our aspirations.
Since I joined the College, I’ve learned a lot about what makes this place so special. Certainly the setting is uniquely beautiful. The faculty and academic programs – both undergraduate and graduate – are superb. The history and tradition of the College animate every aspect of life here. But I don’t think any of those alone captures what truly makes Dartmouth what it is.
The writer Jack Beatty, who taught in the English Department last fall, was one of many who shared with me their insights on Dartmouth. In an email to me this summer, he wrote:
“I taught a senior writing class here last fall. I stress ‘senior’ because all the students had had four years of Dartmouth socialization. The class was built around collective critiques of student short stories. The students all wrote well, a few wonderfully. But what impressed me more than their talent was their decency. I feared hurt feelings, bruised egos, too-critical critiques. Instead, they managed the social miracle of being at once honest and empathic in their comments. They cushioned criticism in respect, even affection. I told them how humanly rare that kind of communication was. I checked my experience against that of a friend who teaches political science here. In over forty years of teaching in a half dozen universities both here and abroad, he told me, he had never had students who treated each other so well. That speaks volumes of good about the Dartmouth experience.”
Jack Beatty’s fine observation recalls how President Ernest Martin Hopkins, more than a half-century before, expressed his own understanding of what makes Dartmouth unique. At the inauguration of President Dickey, President Hopkins, then stepping down after 29 years at the helm of the College, said “I have become impressed more and more with the sweetness that attached to the relationship between one and another which constituted this great family which we call Dartmouth.”
I have witnessed myself what President Hopkins called the “sweetness” of our relationships – in so many settings. Just last week, up at the Ravine Lodge, on Mount Moosilauke, I watched with enormous pride as our upperclass women and men went to truly extraordinary lengths to welcome the class of 2013 into the loving embrace of the Dartmouth community.
The sweetness of Dartmouth.
The sense of color and proportion as you stand in the center of the Green, taking in Dartmouth Row, Webster Hall, Baker Library. The men and women who for almost two-and-a-half centuries have loved this place. The collegiality among the faculty, and the friendships—the lifelong friendships—that you in the Class of 2013 have already begun to form. And the sound that you will hear if one morning you walk down the hallways of Silsby or past the studios in the Hop—to me, the most beautiful sound of all: the sound of students asking questions.
By inviting me to serve you as the seventeenth president of Dartmouth College, you’ve given me the highest honor of my life. In return, I offer you this promise, backed by both passion and practicality to the fullest measure of which I am capable: I will do all I can to enable Dartmouth to continue delivering the treasury of its centuries-old dream safely into the hands of those who will shape the future. To send a legion of young people out into the world so inspired by this place that there is no challenge from which they will shrink—all the while remaining true to the abiding sweetness of the College on the Hill.
Thank you very much.
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