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Ceremony of Lights 2010

Dr. Donald R. Eastman III's Remarks
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Dr. Donald R. Eastman III
August 13, 2010

Ladies and gentlemen, members of the Class of 2014 and transfer students, welcome to Eckerd College. Welcome also to your parents, brothers and sisters, grandparents, friends, and other guests. This ceremony marks your rite of passage into this unique community.

You already know that Eckerd College is "a college like no other," and it is even more so now that you are here. You had lots of options – and you chose this very special place. You didn't choose Eckerd College because it was easy to get into, or because it was nearby, or because half your high school class was already coming here, or because of our football team (although we are still undefeated since our founding in 1958!). You chose to come to Eckerd College from a dozen countries and 40 states because you figured out, one way or another, by web, word of mouth, campus visit, or intuition, that the Eckerd experience is one of the most compelling educational adventures in the world today.

By coming to Eckerd College, you have recognized that there is a great deal of difference between "going to college" and getting an education. Perhaps you remember that the Wizard of Oz says to the Scarecrow, "I can't give you a brain, but I can give you a diploma." At Eckerd College, we won't make that mistake. Your parents know – and we expect you to know – the difference.

Among the most essential subjects of your study while you are at Eckerd will be your classmates. Each has remarkable potential, extraordinary stories, and special talents, and some of them, and their families, will become significant parts of your lives in the very near future and perhaps for the rest of your lives.

So, let us begin tonight's rite of passage by meeting a few of your new colleagues. Take 60 seconds and go introduce yourself to two people you don't already know – and memorize their names! Later, there will be a quiz! Go to it!

Thank you!

I was not completely kidding about the quiz, but just as your whole education here is primarily about helping you learn and take responsibility for yourself, the quiz will be self-administered: Do you remember those names?

The Eckerd experience is characterized by five key values:

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

That experience is global. A large number of your classmates are from other countries, and Eckerd ranks among the top colleges in 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 and that the educated imagination is a way of knowing things that are not otherwise knowable. Our job is not to provide or confirm the easy answers, the pat formulas you learned in Saturday or 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 of 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, particularly now, after the tragedy of the BP oil spill, dramatically deepens this 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 lives as students, and for long afterward, many of you for the rest of your lives.

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 to display a whole new level of personal responsibility. As far as we are concerned, you and you alone, are responsible for what you do and who you are. The statute of limitations on blaming your parents for anything you do runs out tonight. 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 strong Presbyterian or Baptist or Catholic or Jew or Buddhist or Muslim, though that may happen. Not changed because you have 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 those 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 during your years at Eckerd College, 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 here. College is the time when most of us build the lives – not just the intellectual equipment, but the lives – we will live as adults – for better or for worse.

You will have at Eckerd College an extraordinary opportunity to learn and to practice the values of and the skills necessary for living a meaningful life in the 21st Century. Our year-long course for first-year students, Western Heritage in a Global Context, will introduce you to 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 also 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 great 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 already know that is not yet 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, and the world, achieve the dream of which we sang.

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

Both inside and outside the classroom, the Eckerd College experience seeks to engender and nurture in each of you the development of an educated imagination. As I mentioned earlier, the educated imagination is a way of knowing things not otherwise knowable. One of the capacities of the educated imagination is what the great American poet, Wendell Berry, calls "the power by which we sympathize. By its means we may see what it was to be Odysseus or Penelope, or David or Ruth, or what it is to be one's neighbor or one's enemy. By it we may ‘see ourselves as others see us.' It is also the power by which we see the place, the predicament, or the story we are in."

Science, as well as the arts, also depends on "the educated imagination" for the capacity to discover new truths about both man and the natural world. Great scientists rely on the educated imagination at least as much as great writers and artists.

Finally, as you light your candles, recognize that you are now an adult. The responsibility for your successes and your failures now lies with you. Although we will do everything we can to support you and your ambitions while you are at Eckerd, the fact is that your intellectual and personal development and academic success depend less on us than on you. We offer you 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.

The great 20th Century poet William Butler Yeats wrote: "In dreams begin responsibilities." Tonight you join the community of Eckerd College, for 50 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 interest 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.

These new responsibilities have, first of all, an academic dimension. Let me illustrate this point by reading you a poem by Tom Wayman entitled, "Did I Miss Anything?"

"Question frequently asked by
students after missing a class

Nothing. When we realized you weren't here
we sat with our hands folded on our desks
in silence, for the full two hours

Everything. I gave an exam worth
40 per cent of the grade for this term
and assigned some reading due today
on which I'm about to hand out a quiz
worth 50 per cent

Nothing. None of the content of this course
has value or meaning
Take as many days off as you like:
any activities we undertake as a class
I assure you will not matter either to you or me
and are without purpose

Everything. A few minutes after we began last time
a shaft of light descended and an angel
or other heavenly being appeared
and revealed to us what each woman or man must do
to attain divine wisdom in this life and
the hereafter
This is the last time the class will meet
before we disperse to bring this good news to all people
on earth

Nothing. When you are not present
how could something significant occur?

Everything. Contained in this classroom
is a microcosm of human existence
assembled for you to query and examine and ponder
This is not the only place such an opportunity has been

but it was one place

And you weren't here"

Your new responsibilities also have a significant out-of-class dimension.

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 bad behavior is celebrated on reality t.v. shows and in popular video games. 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 open wide 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 success.

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, and that Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team as a sophomore. Without failure, there can be no great successes. As the poet Wendell Berry says, "The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings."

I have grown to love Dr. Johnson's famous line from Boswell's Tour of the Hebrides: "Every season of life has its proper duties." In your first year at Eckerd College, 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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