Speaking to the students in the prison education program

I’m very proud to be able to support the Prison Education Program at WashU.  The program is conducted at the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center and provides liberal arts education to the inmates.  These programs have been shown to have a very positive effect on recidivism.

The program leaders asked me to speak at the convocation, which recognized continuing students and new students who had joined the program.  In talking to the students, I met someone who wants to be a teacher when he is released.  When we checked in, the guard thanked us for coming and said it lifted the spirits of the inmates whenever we were there.

All of this is such a great emblem of the public commitment of Washington University that has lasted through the ages from William Greenleaf Eliot to today.

Here are my remarks:

Congratulations to you all!!  Those of you just joining the program may wonder why I’m congratulating you, but you have made a bold and courageous choice to get a liberal arts education that I will be talking about today.  And those of you who have completed coursework have much to be proud of.  It is an honor to be with you today to celebrate your achievements.  Washington University is very proud to be part of this program, and I want to thank Rob Henke, Maggie Garb, and Bob Wiltenburg for all they are doing to make this possible.

I have given and heard a lot of these kinds of academic speeches.  Most of them have three sections and say things like find your passion, keep learning for the rest of your lives, and dare greatly.  The ‘dare greatly’ bit comes from a famous speech by Teddy Roosevelt called The Man in the Arena.  The point of daring greatly is to do something hard, recognizing that you might not succeed and how that is better than not doing anything at all.  Those who do not dare greatly, he said, are “the cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

Roosevelt’s speech was later paraphrased by Yoda in the Empire Strikes Back when he said, “Do or do not, there is no try.”

So, I’ve already given you the normal academic speech with its three parts and idealistic themes.  And with that out of the way, what I’d like to do is talk to you about the history of knowledge and your role in it, because you have made a bold decision to be part of it all.

Knowledge = happiness

Higher education in America began in the earliest days of the country.  In the thirteen colonies.  Harvard and Yale were founded well before the Declaration of Independence was signed.  This is important, because the quest for knowledge, truth, and enlightenment through education was simultaneous (college professors would say concomitant) with the birth of America.  And famously, Thomas Jefferson went on to found a university after he left politics.

In North Carolina, the first public university in America was founded in 1789.  In the charter that led to its founding, the North Carolina legislature said that it was done because of their duty to ‘consult the happiness of the rising generation.’  This was a bold statement and similar to other public rhetoric about higher education at the time – that the goal of education was so sublime as to attend not just to well-being but to happiness.  It was a big era for happiness, of course, because the Declaration of Independence made the pursuit of happiness an inalienable right.

These early universities were what we would today call liberal arts colleges.  They taught undergraduates in literature and the sciences – the same subjects you have learned.  Many of these colleges were founded in the church and so they also taught theology.

By getting a liberal arts education, you are part of the great American tradition that says knowledge = happiness.

Knowledge = justice

It was not long after these events that Washington University was born under the leadership of a great visionary chancellor, William Greenleaf Eliot.  I have learned a lot about Eliot from many people, including another visionary chancellor of our era, William Danforth, for whom our campus was named.  I learned from Chancellor Danforth that when Eliot founded the university in 1854, there was great political, religious, and ideological strife; the American civil war was waiting to erupt.

Eliot had three goals not unlike those from the colonial universities:  to educate our children, to educate the children of others, and – his greatest motive – public benefit.  But Eliot had an innovation we had not yet seen in America:  he believed strongly that education itself – and not politics or religion — was the long-term answer to the problems facing the country and so he had the charter amended to ensure that Washington University would be free of political and religious influence.

“No instruction either sectarian in religion or party shall be allowed in any department,” said the new charter, “and no party or sectarian test shall be allowed in the election of professors, teachers or other officers, or in the admission of scholars, or for any purpose whatever.”

This was his public benefit, and it was a change, because the earlier American universities required theology and were led by Protestant clergy.  Eliot ushered in a new, secular idealism about education that served Washington University well as it survived the turmoil that would occur in America in the decades to follow — and flourished in the years to come.

By getting a liberal arts education at Washington University, you are part of the tradition that says knowledge = justice.

Knowledge = prosperity

World War II brought another period of turmoil – this time around the world.  As it became clear that the war would end and that the US would need to transition from a war time economy to a peace time economy, President Franklin Roosevelt asked another visionary named Vannevar Bush to write a paper about how the federal government should respond.

Once again, Bush turned to America’s universities as the answer.  In 1945, Bush wrote a paper called Science:  The Endless Frontier that changed the course of American history.  It is a brilliant document both for the visionary recommendations but also as a magnificent work of political persuasion.

Bush argued that America should create a federally funded scientific research enterprise (and by extension, parallel efforts in the arts and humanities).  The political argument he made for this effort was that scientific advances were needed to fight the war on disease, build technologies for national security, and develop technologies that would strengthen the US economy.  These arguments are still the same ones we use when we ask Congress to increase the federal research budget.

And although Bush used these practical arguments for his masterful political persuasion, he also had idealistic motives.  He resisted the idea of a federal policy arm that would manage the research effort and instead insisted that professors be given the freedom to pursue research driven by their own curiosity.  And so – just like William Greenleaf Eliot, he believed that the unfettered pursuit of ideas was the only useful route both to knowledge that provides happiness and justice, but also to knowledge that would produce the more pragmatic goals of the nation.

This marked the birth of the research university that we know today.  The idea of the American research university – where research and teaching are done by the same people – is the idea that has made American research universities the best in the world.  It is where both knowledge creation and knowledge transfer are at their best.  By learning from professors who are creating the very knowledge they are teaching, students are transported into the research process and learn how to learn for themselves through the inspiration of faculty who are doing the very same thing.

You have learned from professors who are part of the history of knowledge.  And so you are part of the history of knowledge.

By getting a liberal arts education from a great American research university, you are part of the tradition that says knowledge = prosperity.

You are daring greatly

So in the end, I just couldn’t help myself.  I still gave a standard speech with three parts:  knowledge = happiness, knowledge = justice, and knowledge = prosperity.

And I may even have hit the three usual themes.  Because I’m guessing that by learning from professors who are part of the history of knowledge, that some of you are finding your passion.  And you stayed with us, so most of you also learned how to learn and will keep learning the rest of your lives.  And you took many chances:  you took a chance on a new program, and every time you wrote a paper or took a test, you put yourself out there to be evaluated.

You are daring greatly.  You inspire us with your courage.  And you are absolutely not the cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.

This is the part of the speech where the speaker talks about all the world’s problems and how you can fix them.  The first part is easy – politics, the earth’s temperature, inequality, addiction – they’re all going in the wrong direction.  We need new people with new ideas to solve these.

The second part may seem tricky.  You are not preparing to sit in a quad in a green robe waiting to go out into the world.  At least not yet.  But you have something those folks don’t have.  You have overcome so much more to be here today.  You have gifts and experiences that most college graduates don’t have.

In Professor Wiltenburg’s class, you probably covered the fact that in Twelfth Night, it is said repeatedly that one can be born great, achieve greatness, or have greatness thrust upon them.  Well, let me tell you something.  Achieving greatness is the only one of these that’s any damn good.

And that’s what you have done.  By choosing to be part of the history of knowledge, you have dared greatly.

You have achieved greatness.

And you are going to achieve a lot more.  We can’t wait to see all that you can do with the liberal arts education you get here.

Congratulations to you all.








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