Ceremony of Lights 2008
Ceremony of Lights 2008

Dr. Donald R. Eastman III's Remarks
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Dr. Donald R. Eastman III
August 8, 2008

Ladies and gentlemen, members of the class of 2012, welcome to the Eckerd College community. Welcome also to your parents, brothers and sisters, grandparents, friends and other guests. This ceremony marks your rite of passage into membership in this unique community.

You already know that Eckerd College is unique - because you are here. You had lots of options - and you chose this special place. You didn't choose Eckerd because it was easy, or easy to get to, or because half your high school class was already coming here, or because of our football team (although we are still undefeated after 49 years!) You chose to come to Eckerd College from some nine countries and 39 states because you figured out, one way or another, by web, or word of mouth, or campus visit, or intuition, that the Eckerd experience is one of the most compelling educational adventures in the world today.

That experience is residential. We consider living and learning together to be an essential part of the educational program here, and nearly 80% of Eckerd students live on campus.

That experience is global. A large number of your classmates are from other countries, and Eckerd leads the nation in the percentage of students who study abroad. The international dimension and perspective are vital to all of our academic and extracurricular programs.

The Eckerd experience is spiritual. We believe that the mind and the body and the spirit all benefit from higher education. Our job is not to provide or confirm the easy answers, the pat formulas you learned in Sunday school at age nine, any more than it is to review what you learned in third grade arithmetic. A mature, educated spiritual life is much more complex than that. Our job is to ask the important questions, to begin the nuanced arguments, about what is true, what is valuable, what is to be done in order to lead a meaningful life. Your job is to learn how to develop and test and confirm your own answers.

The Eckerd experience is environmental. Many in the Eckerd community believe that the most pressing social, economic, political, and moral issues of this new century have to do with the environment, and our particular location here on the Gulf of Mexico especially enriches that dimension of the College.

And the Eckerd experience is personal. The personal relationship between teachers and students is the signature of Eckerd College, and most of you will come to treasure it increasingly every day of your life as a student, and for long afterward.

Residential, global, spiritual, environmental, personal: These are the key notes of the Eckerd experience.

When you light your candles in a few minutes, you are symbolically lighting your way into a new way of living. You are beginning a journey to become an educated man or woman. As you embark on this journey, most of you will find a whole new world of freedom and independence as college students, and you will be asked by your college to display a whole new level of personal responsibility. If you have the resolve, the commitment to excellence, and the ambition to grow into the full experience of the life of the mind and the spirit, you will leave here not simply with a diploma of which you will always be proud, but changed: Not changed because you are a stronger Presbyterian or Baptist or Catholic or Jew or Buddhist or Muslim, though that may happen; not changed because you have so richly reveled in life and love in this magical world by the sea - though that is very likely to happen. Changed because from the experience of these collegiate values - residential, global, spiritual, environmental, and personal - you will develop a new degree not only of education, but of character.

In a very real sense, while you have put yourself in our hands for the next four years, we are much more in your hands than you are in ours. We will work to be worthy of your trust; we will try to clarify your questions and respond honestly. We will share with you what we have learned about things that endure and things that pass away.

A few years back, Stanford Professor John Gardner wrote:

"Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your own past, out of your affections and loyalties . . . out of your own talent and understanding, out of the things you believe in . . . . The ingredients are there. You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life."

There is much wisdom in Gardner's words. College is the time when most of us build the lives we will live as adults - for better or worse.

You will have at Eckerd College an extraordinary opportunity to learn and to practice the values and the skills necessary for living a meaningful life in the 21st Century. The year-long freshman course, Western Heritage in a Global Context, will initiate you into the ultimate questions of life, and the senior capstone service-learning course, Quest for Meaning, will challenge you to seek answers to questions of meaning and purpose in your own life. In between, an Eckerd education, in class and out, will prepare you for the jobs and graduate schools you will go on to from here.

As you light your candles tonight, consider that you have come here at great effort and expense: your own, your parents', and in the case of the many of you who have received scholarships, at great sacrifice and expense of alumni and others who believe in the transformational character of an Eckerd College education. As you light your candles tonight, consider that you have two purposes here: First, you have the gift of time in this special place to learn how to read, and write, and think with precision and subtlety so that you can earn and enjoy your daily bread. Secondly, you will pursue an Eckerd College education that will provide you with the tools and the opportunity to improve the world in which we live - a world, you may well have noticed, that is in desperate need of improving.

A few minutes ago you stood and sang, "America the Beautiful." You sang, even though you know it is only a dream, of an America in which "alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears." You know that is not the America, or the world, in which you live. You need to know that part of your calling here is to become the kind of man or woman who can help America achieve the dream of which we sang.

The second hymn we will sing tonight asks that we be granted courage: Building a better world which requires great courage to take on the many forces of resistance to change. Winston Churchill famously said that, "Courage is rightly esteemed the first of all human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees all others." John F. Kennedy called courage "the most admirable of human virtues."

Our aim as a College is nothing less than to offer you an educational experience that will inform your knowledge and imagination about how to build a better world, and to give you the confidence and courage to take on those challenges.

Recognize, as you light your candles, that you are now an adult. The responsibility for your successes and your failures now lies with you. While we will do everything we can to support you and your ambitions over the next four years, the fact is that your intellectual and personal development and academic success depend less on us than on you. There is a banquet here, a feast - but you must demonstrate the discipline and the determination to enjoy it, to make it your own, and to prepare yourselves to lead lives of high achievement and noble purpose.

As the great twentieth century poet William Butler Yeats, wrote: "In dreams begin responsibilities." Tonight you join the community of Eckerd College, for fifty years a dream in the process of becoming a reality - a dream of an ideal society, with student learning and student self-governance at its very core. Everything about this College - the way it is organized, the architecture of the residence halls, the student-run activities program, the focus on mentoring and creating an academic program to fit the interests of each student - everything about this College seeks to provide you with the best possible environment for learning.

But that dream is only realized when students - individually and collectively - take up their responsibilities for self-governance on campus and off. I urge you - in your own self-interest, because you now are Eckerd College - I urge you to take up these new responsibilities, which is the exact price for all the new freedom you will have.

Your exhibition of good manners in class and out, and your intolerance for bad manners by yourself and by others, will not only enrich every day you spend here, but will be an essential part of your development as an educated man or woman.

Let me give you just one example: The yellow bicycles you see everywhere on campus have become a symbol of Eckerd College's respect for the environment and its dream of the good society in which all care about the good of all. To the extent that those yellow bicycles are used thoughtfully, and left parked availably for the next user, the dream of this community for a sustainable, harmonious world is enriched.

When those yellow symbols are thrown on the grass or in ponds, abused, or permanently "borrowed," that dream begins to die.

You all know that we live in a culture in which vulgarity and rudeness are epidemic, an age in which "Grand Theft Auto" is a popular video game. You begin tonight a journey that can lead, if you are committed to it, to another world. As the philosopher Leo Strauss put it, "liberal education is the counter-poison to mass culture." The world of high purpose, of true learning and the responsible self-governance on which democracies absolutely depend, swings its doors wide open for you this night.

I have one piece of advice for you: No difficult thing is done without occasional failure. No one moves only from success to success. How you, and I, recover from setbacks and regain the path forward is the key to all personal and professional successes.

If you go through college, and the life which follows, without failure - it means you simply haven't reached high enough, haven't been ambitious enough. It may help you to recall that George Washington lost almost all of his early battles, that Abraham Lincoln lost nearly every election in which he was a candidate, or that Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team as a sophomore. Without failure, there can be no great successes.

Four years from now, you may recall Dr. Johnson's famous line from James Boswell's Tour of the Hebrides: "Every season of life has its proper duties." As freshmen, you now begin a new season of your lives. You enter the educated world, to take up your "proper duties" - and you do so not simply to learn, but to construct a meaningful life, to prepare yourselves for the service your talents make possible - for the service and leadership your country and your world impatiently await.

Welcome to Eckerd College.

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