Office of the President
4200 54th Avenue South
St. Petersburg, FL 33711
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Address to the Class
Donald R. Eastman III, President
Ladies and gentlemen, members of the Class of 2015, and transfer students, welcome to Eckerd College. Welcome also to your parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters, friends, and other guests. This ceremony marks your rite of passage into this unique community.
Our College was designed by its founders to be, in their words, "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 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 to alumni and others who believe in the transformational character of an Eckerd College education.
You chose to come to Eckerd College from 14 countries, 42 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico 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 cannot 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 in your life in the very near future, and some for the rest of your lives.
So, let us begin tonight's rite of passage by meeting a few of your fellow students. Right now, introduce yourself to two people you don't already know – and memorize their names. Parents are also invited to meet some parents – you may find these folks very helpful in the times to come. Later, of course, there will be a quiz! Go to it!
I was not completely kidding about the quiz, but just as your whole education here is primarily about helping you learn to take responsibility for yourself, the quiz will be self-administered: Do you remember the names of those classmates you just met?
The Eckerd experience is characterized by five key values: That experience is residential. Living and learning together are an essential part of the educational program here, and 95% of our entering students plan to live on campus.
That experience is global. Many 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 and we expect and hope each of you to have a study abroad experience some time over the next four years.
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 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 location here on the Gulf of Mexico, dramatically deepens this dimension of the College.
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, 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.
This is our commitment to you: 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 this College 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 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 five 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 will 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, the late 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 and, or, for worse.
You will have at Eckerd College an extraordinary opportunity to learn and to practice the values and 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, know 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 about an idealized America in which "alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears." You know that is not yet the America, or the world, in which you live. 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.
Our aim as a College is 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, Eckerd College seeks to engender and nurture in each of you 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 writer, 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" to describe the complexities of the universe and to discover new truths about man and the natural world. Great scientists rely on the educated imagination at least as much as great writers and artists: From black holes and quarks to quantum theory and the uncertainty principle, modern science continues to provide the most vivid images of the contemporary intellectual world.
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 Irish 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 architecture of its classrooms, library and residence halls, the student-run activities program, the Honor Code, 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 price for all the new freedom you will have.
You know that vulgarity and rudeness are epidemic in American culture. Bad behavior is celebrated in an endless parade of "reality" television shows and in popular video games. You begin tonight a journey than can lead to another world. As the political 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.
In my view, a key to self exploration and personal growth is this: No difficult thing is achieved 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 accomplishments.
If you go through college and the life that follows, without failure – it simply means you haven't reached high enough, haven't been ambitious enough. 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."
A terrific writer I learned about this summer is Edward Hoagland, who, as a young man – before he became a well-known essayist and environmentalist – wrote about and became a great admirer of the sport of boxing and the tough and grungy world of those who inhabit it. He says this about what he learned there:
"I'd learned on the highway and in the circus, in the army, and at boxing gyms that even if you have a cutman in your corner to stanch the blood, it doesn't obviate the need for stamina, self-reliance, and keeping oriented to what I think of as the earth's magnetic field. You can have allies, mentors, be married, but still you're going to be alone most of your life and, if you run off the rails, you had better be good company for yourself. You've got to be able to take a punch and get up after you're knocked down – the cutman doesn't do that for you – not feel sorry to be alive and mark time, nor accept the idea that only the rich can be mobile."
Getting up after you've been knocked down is what courage is about, not driving or drinking or risking too much or too fast.
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 resistant to change – and those forces include our own fears of failure. Winston Churchill said, "Courage is rightly esteemed the first of all human qualities – because it is the quality which guarantees all others."
So work hard and try hard – but learn to laugh at failure. And take care – of yourselves, your classmates, your campus and all that is in it. These are the first steps toward becoming the men and women you want to be.
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.