Office of the President
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St. Petersburg, FL 33711
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Address to the Class
Donald R. Eastman III, President
Ladies and gentlemen, good evening. I am Don Eastman, President of Eckerd College. Welcome students and also parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters, friends, and other guests. The Ceremony of Lights marks your rite of passage into the unique community of Eckerd College.
Our College was designed by its founders 50 years ago to be, in their words,“a college like no other,” and it is even more so now that you are here.
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 to alumni and others who believe in the transformational character of an Eckerd College education.
You have come here from all over the country and the world 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 this institution, you have recognized something that so many people seem to have forgotten—that there is a great deal of difference between “going to college” and getting an education. Perhaps you remembered 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. In fact, we won’t give you either one: Here, you will earn your diploma.
Among the most essential subjects of your study while you are at Eckerd will be your classmates, who come from every state and territory in the Union, and 24 foreign countries. 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 life.
So, let us begin tonight’s rite of passage by meeting a few of your fellow students. Right now, take 60 seconds and 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?
At Eckerd, you will be encouraged to think outside traditional academic boundaries; think outside the classroom; think outside the country; and, you won’t need any encouragement for this one—think outside, literally.
The Eckerd experience is characterized by five key values: First, the Eckerd experience is residential. Living and learning together are an essential part of the educational program here, and 95% of your classmates will be living on campus.
The Eckerd 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 encourage each of you to have a study abroad experience sometime 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 to the ultimate questions.
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 faculty and staff 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 life.
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. But changed because, from the continual encouragement and challenges to you to think outside and 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.
College is the time when and where students of your age decide what their lives will be about, what their lives will mean. College is the time when most of us build the lives—not just the intellectual equipment, but the lives—we will live as adults.
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,The Human Experience, will introduce you to the ultimate questions; 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, recognize 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.
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. 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.
Both inside and outside the classroom, Eckerd College seeks to engender and nurture in each of you an educated imagination. 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 multiverses and the uncertainty principle, modern science continues to provide the most vivid images of the contemporary intellectual world.
The great Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote: “In dreams begin responsibilities.” Tonight you join the community of Eckerd College, for more than 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 video games and other cultural activities. The evening news continually features a perp walk of seamy politicians apologizing for their behavior or financiers who have betrayed the trust of their clients. You begin tonight a journey that 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.
The best piece of advice I can give each of you 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 accomplishment.
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 Wendell Berry says, “The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.” A less elegant way to say this is that you’ve got to be able to take a punch and get up after you’re knocked down. Getting up after you’ve been knocked down is what courage is about, not driving too fast or drinking or risking too much. This is the essential lesson of maturity.
“America the Beautiful,” the hymn we sang a few minutes ago, was selected for two reasons: We want you to take America seriously. We want to celebrate its virtues and ideals, as this hymn does. We will also want in the years to come to analyze and criticize and explore opportunities to improve it as well. We can do that, in good faith, while remembering that it is still the land of the free and the home of the brave.
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 Samuel Johnson’s famous line from Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to 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.