2005 Baccalaureate address

The End of Education

I take my title today from a book by Neil Postman called The End of Education.1  The phrase summons up resonant ideas for all of us here today.

Tomorrow is an official “end” of formal education for the Class of 2005. Most of you have been going to school for longer than you can remember — at least 16 or 17 out of your past 21 or 22 years. A few of you will never darken the doors of an educational institution again. The vast majority of you will return to school sooner or later, but it will be different in so many ways when you do. You will be focusing on the particular professional or academic area that you love, rather than on the broad sweep of a liberal arts education; you probably won’t be living in a dorm; national studies even tell us that many of you will drink less; and Mom and Dad are far less likely to be paying your way.

In deciding to pursue an education beyond the B.A. or B.S., you will also be asserting your identity and your will in a new way. This difference has been brought home to me this spring as my older daughter, who graduated from college just a year ago, has been wrestling with her decision to go to law school. At the very same time, I have been attending admitted-student receptions in various metropolitan areas and on campus and talking to students and families about whether they should choose Bates. On the surface the issues are the same — Will I like this school? Will I like this new city and this strange state in which it is located? Will I be able to afford it? Will it challenge me or overwhelm me? — but underneath they are very different kinds of decisions. Almost no student with your talents and privileges can really choose not to attend college; even deferring for a year is a rare thing to do in this country. But now, after tomorrow, the options are radically, absolutely, terrifyingly open. My daughter feels that she is making the first real decision of her life, and I am sure you too have been experiencing all the conflicting emotions that she has been feeling as you think about what to do as you reach this precipice. You are crossing the finish line. A well-worn path stops here. Closure at last. This is the end of education as you have known it.

As you face this terminus, this culmination, however, I want to ask you to think about “the end of education” in a couple of other senses as well.

First, if we have done our job at Bates, if you have learned the one most important lesson we have to teach, if you have been truly, liberally, educated, you know now that education never ends. As Henry Adams put it: “They know enough who know how to learn.” You have heard so many people say it again and again — and really, you didn’t need to hear it said. Your own knowledge of this fact brought you here: college as you experience it at a place like Bates is all about reinforcing and cultivating the innate human love of learning, acquiring the habits and resources that free the mind to pursue lifelong learning. “The end of education” in this sense — its goal, purpose or aim — might be said to begin now, then, because now it’s up to you. A Bates degree means that you know enough to know how to learn. 

When Neil Postman worries about “the end of education,” however, he plays on the multiple meanings of the word “end” in a second way that I would further ask you to entertain for a minute. Postman shares Adams’s sense of what education should be and do for people, arguing that schooling with a purpose should be “the central institution through which the young may find reasons for continuing to educate themselves.” Education achieves its end not when someone adds skill sets, but when someone is transformed by encountering something outside the person’s own self and experience that changes things.  The goal of education is “to become a different person because of something you have learned — to appropriate an insight, a concept, a vision, so that your world is altered….” But Postman is deeply worried that since we don’t have a common, shared, public vision of the end or goal or purpose of education, education is deeply threatened. Without a commonly shared vision and commitment, the literal end of education in this country for many young people is in sight.

A couple of weeks ago on this campus, we concluded our series of speakers who came to help us recognize the anniversary of the most important event in American public education of the 20th century: the Supreme Court decision known today as Brown v. Board of Education that declared racial segregation illegal. Our final speaker, Juan Williams, talked about Thurgood Marshall’s role in this extraordinary event, about the unfinished business of the Brown decision, and about the challenges that face us as a nation that fails to offer so many young Americans access to educational opportunity. For the first time in centuries, Williams reminded us, leaders can attack the fundamental value of public education, and still be elected. Some of you were in the audience, and you asked compelling questions about urgent issues. You asked about charter schools and vouchers, about the consequences of No Child Left Behind, and about how you can prepare yourself to play a part — perhaps as you join Teach for America or become an Americorps worker — in preventing the end of education. Williams identified this as the most intractable and urgent problem of our time.

Jamie Merisotis, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a 1986 graduate of Bates College, and an alumni-nominated member of the Bates College Board of Trustees, puts it thus: 

One of our great truths…is that higher education is a key component of our national well-being…and access to higher education represents one of our most fundamental goals. And yet today, the self-evident nature of this truth is being challenged, rebutted, refuted, and increasingly denied. This is a dangerous time for our country, a time when much is at stake for us, for our children, for our nation.2

The challenges to education represent yet another of those momentous transitions occurring in your lifetime, creating great tumult and uncertainty that you are called upon to face.

Bates was founded 150 years ago at another moment when the nation’s ideas about education were in tumult. This college was designed to open educational doors for more young Americans than could ever before have dreamt of going beyond grammar school. That historic and principled commitment to education as a fundamental opportunity for all is needed today more than ever. 

You are remarkable. You are talented and accomplished. You have achieved the end of education: You know how to learn, you have experienced the joy of learning, you are open to the world, and you will be lifelong learners. You are also socially responsible — many of you have signed the graduate pledge. To the list of social goods you promise to care about, I hope you will remember to add education — perhaps at the top of the list, since it is education that makes every other value and dream and cause far more likely to succeed.

You’ve chosen one of my favorite poets, Longfellow, to give voice to the theme of this Baccalaureate,3and in closing I want to add the voice of another poet who has been on my mind all Short Term: Geoffrey Chaucer. For two seniors who took my course on The Canterbury Tales and for all of you, I’d like to offer the image of one of the Canterbury pilgrims as a guide who may inspire you. Chaucer pokes a little fun at this pilgrim-scholar, a Clerk from Oxford who rides on a skinny horse, wears a threadbare coat and uses the money his friends give him to buy books. He might fit in right here at Bates. But his portrait ends with one of those rare moments when Chaucer says something he probably really means, and we know he means it. In a single line that steps outside the irony that pervades any Chaucerian text, the narrator tells us to value this Clerk, for “gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly teche.” Gladly would he learn, and gladly teach. For you too let there be no end to the joy of learning and teaching, no end to education. 

1. New York: Knopf, 1996.

2. From a speech delivered on May 21, 2005, for Black Issues in Higher Education.

3. “The Tides,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I saw the long line of the vacant shore,
The sea-weed and the shells upon the sand,
And the brown rocks left bare on every hand,
As if the ebbing tide would flow no more.
Then heard I, more distinctly than before,
The ocean breathe and its great breast expand,
And hurrying came on the defenseless land
The insurgent waters with tumultuous roar.
All thought and feeling and desire, I said,
Love, laughter, and the exultant joy of song
Have ebbed from me forever! Suddenly o’er me
They swept again from their deep ocean bed,
And in a tumult of delight, and strong
As youth, and beautiful as youth, upbore me!