Convocation Remarks by President Lewis E. Thayne,
August 23, 2013
Welcome. How nice to be together today and to see all of you: students, mothers, fathers, grandparents, sisters, brothers, and cousins, members of the faculty, staff of the College, our dedicated trustees. This is a big day. It is a happy day and, for new students and families especially, an emotional day.
I walked through the residence halls this morning. In the stairways, I angled past the student volunteers carrying large plastic containers, massive refrigerators, and bags of clothing and bedding.
What a nice experience to see roommates talking to each other, making decisions together, families consulting over details and placement of furniture. Often there were three generations invested in this experience and crowded together in one room. Above all, what I see is that there is so much consideration, so much kindness on this day, and so much strength in this community. Last year, I introduced myself to the mother of one student whose room was totally put together and her mother said, “Well, my husband isn’t here right now, he’s down the hall helping another student get his room set up.” This is a community that is known for its kindness, its acceptance of others, its respect, consideration, and trust.
Last year, our Concert Choir dedicated their spring concert to a classmate, Nick Pantalone. One of their songs went, quoting James Agee, “ Kindness must watch for me, This side the ground.” I hope you have experienced the kindness and the sureness of the Lebanon Valley community on your arrival.
Just for today, do not think of this as a gymnasium. Actually, you are in a revolutionary space. Your fellow students around the world in a global generation attending university do not test their abilities in athletic contests, as many of you will. They have no gym and there are no teams. They do not “move in” because there are no dormitories or residence halls. They do not expect to collaborate with their professors, as you will, or even with one another.
The liberal education that you have chosen and that you will receive here at Lebanon Valley College is distinctive in its character and revolutionary in its conception. It is an education delivered in close collaboration between a faculty member and a student, where students learn from each other as well as from our distinguished faculty, where you live as residents of an intentional community of learning, a collegium.
Here we honor the concept of the individual as primary, not the state or even the church. Here we believe that to achieve a thorough education every dimension of your humanity must be involved: mind, character, and body. Here we hold as primary the idea that education can change lives, that the education of the individual can have a profound and transforming effect on a family, a community, a society and even on the world.
The first catalogue of the College states confidently, “All human knowledge begins in experiences.” Learning experiences, not books or theories or ideologies, but experiences. The education goals for the College in 1866 were simple: speech, reason, taste, imagination, and conscience. These are higher order skills and capabilities; and they describe an education that will last a lifetime. This is a radical American notion, tested for 147 years here in Annville and still evolving in the liberal education you have chosen to pursue.
Such is the confidence we have in you, each of you, and such is the confidence your families have. We believe there is greatness in each one of you and that it is through education that your greatness will be realized in the world.
Some of you have been to my office in the Humanities Building. The admissions tour stops nearby and so I am often able to say hello as part of my daily routine. What you do not know is that my office was once incorporated into the college’s first gymnasium, circa 1916. On the floor below my desk was the basketball court, and a pretty small court it must have been. Around the walls of my office itself was the running track that surrounded the basketball court. Apparently, to make a basket one had to shoot directly at the rim since any arc in the shot would hit the ceiling or the track. Dances were held in this space that was then called Alumni Gymnasium.
I can assure you this gymnasium was not the idea of the administration or of the trustees. It was the idea of responsible students who over time won the admiration of the administration and approval of the trustees for space where athletic endeavor, teams, contests, and, even dances could take place. It is a fitting reminder to me that I owe my office to our alumni and students. It is also a reminder that responsible students have always shaped their own experience at Lebanon Valley College and shaped our history as they have done so. This cannot and should not change. This is your college for the time you are here. We count on you to make it better during your undergraduate years and, eventually, as alumni. In a sense, when you graduate, you inherit a world that is also yours; and we know and trust that you will work to make it better.
We all have high expectations for the next four years. You should each expect an individual experience. You should expect to be treated as an individual and to have an experience different than anyone else. You should expect a collegial experience where you will make friendships for life, play on teams and in bands and ensembles, participate in service and share living spaces. You should expect a collaborative experience where you work in concert with a faculty member on learning but also in research, in the creation of new knowledge. And you should expect a high impact experience that includes a deeper, more immersive learning experience such as a faculty-led study abroad or service learning program, a summer research project, a substantive internship, an athletic team experience in leadership, or even a significant work-study.
Research tells us that 75% of students go to college and 90% of parents send their children to college so that they will get—not a job, but a better job—when they graduate. We want you to know we recognize this goal and we will work with you to achieve it. Employers tell us they want employees with training in three areas, what I call tools in your tool kit.
Surprisingly perhaps, the most important tool in the kit is critical thinking which is variously defined as the mind thinking about the mind; or, more practically, the ability to identify a problem, argue your way to a solution—and then to understand how you got there. My own view is that, increasingly, employers want—and graduates will also need—creative thinking skills, another dimension of a liberal education. Employers want smart, creative, ethical problem solvers.
The second tool in the kit is writing exceptionally well and communicating effectively. You must develop your voice in speaking and in writing. Here you will be asked to do both; we will insist on it in order for you to graduate.
Not surprisingly, the third tool in the kit is experience of diversity, that is, a developed capacity to discern, understand, and respect a cultural pattern that is not your own. We are a diverse community of inclusive excellence where you will develop those capacities.
My charge to all of you in the Class of 2017 and to all our new students is to find common ground among your peers, especially with those who are in some way different. Having found that common ground, I charge you and all of us here at the College—students and faculty and staff and trustees—to find a common ceiling. I charge all of us to make sure our common ceiling is high enough to contain our personal aspirations and our shared hopes for the work we are engaged in—educating a new generation and making a better world.
I conclude with a message directly to our students that I believe expresses what staff, faculty, and parents feel today and that guides our work: “We believe in you. We know you can do it. And we will help you in every way we can.”