Summer 2005 Commencement

Dr. Michael T. Nietzel, President
August 5, 2005

Universities are expected to pursue the truth and explore it in an open and forthright manner. So in the interest of maintaining this honorable tradition, I will be truthful with you about my reaction to being tabbed as your commencement speaker this year.

First, of course, I was honored. This is my first opportunity to serve as a commencement speaker in my position as President of Southwest Missouri State University, an institution that I am very proud to represent. It is particularly gratifying to me.

Second, I was reminiscent. As a student at Wheaton College in the '60s and the University of Illinois in the '70s, I attended several commencements. I remember thinking each time that the event was very important for the institution and that sage advice was being imparted to me.

But I must admit that as important as the commencement exercises always seemed then, I have a hard time now remembering any of the advice that was given or even who the speakers were. I remember that I stayed awake each time; I tried to concentrate; I did not misbehave, but try as I might, I cannot dredge up many useful recollections of those gatherings.

I stand before you now, recognizing that my remarks will probably have a very short half-life in your memory. So I have decided that if I won't be memorable, I can at least be brief.

My message to you today is simply this: Your University education will be worth almost entirely what you will now begin to make of it.

This institution has a dedicated and able faculty. It has had resourceful and well-respected leadership. It has very capable students, among whom you have been honored to be included. Its educational value to you must now depend on your motivation and resolve to become an outstanding graduate.

Neither SMS nor you should settle for anything less than an insistence that stakes out the highest possible expectations for your own careers and contributions to society.

I urge each of you to make a personal commitment that you will cultivate what Morris Berman, in his book The Twilight of American Culture termed "your heart's imagination."

This is not necessarily an easy goal to attain. It requires a sustained, personal involvement on your part with literature, science, aesthetics, and the public agenda.

Such a goal is not always championed by modern society; it is not often encouraged by your peers or the media; in fact, it is often disparaged - surprisingly enough - even in some of today's institutions of higher education - especially those that seem to have worn themselves down with so much skepticism that they have trailed off into a kind of aimless cynicism.

You will have to overcome cultural forces that actually discourage high-level intellectual attainments and the individual pursuit of becoming well-educated, encouraging in their stead a mixture of mass-market values, technological trappings, vapid entertainment, extremist doctrines, and unchallenging curricula.

The key to becoming a well-educated citizen is to develop and refine four personal habits of thinking and self-reflection that I believe should be the ultimate aims of your educational refinement.

Your post-graduate years offer you a grand time to begin to practice and instill these habits:

Cultivate a taste for art and creative expression. Now is the chance for you to begin to hone an eye for fine visual arts, an ear for great music, and a mind prepared for theater and drama.

Contrary to popular sentiment, not all art is created equal.

Some music is worth listening to more than other music, and live theatre engages your intellect in a way that few movies can ever equal. It has become fashionable in America to decry fine art, classical music, and first-rate stage performance as elitist entertainment.

It is interesting that nobody ever condemns the NBA, the NFL, or the NCAA champions for being elitist. In fact, their unique status and stature are celebrated.

Yet, sometimes in higher education and the arts, we seem to have reached the point of thinking we should be suspicious of excellence as a goal.

Mediocrity has gained a special appeal as being fairer.

As a goal for you own personal development, don't settle for the second-rate or for mere distractions -

Push yourself to acquire a taste for artistic and expressive creations of the highest sort.

Practice critical thinking. Now, more than ever, Americans are being victimized by their lack of knowledge about the world, especially in the areas of science and mathematics. As a result, we are becoming increasingly more gullible to New Age inanities, confusing astrology with astronomy, scientology for science, and self-help platitudes with psychology.

Without a fundamental understanding of math and science, we are doomed to more marginalization, superstition, and downright dangerous stupidity. Americans are losing their once-admired prominence in science and are becoming better known for what they do not know about the world and how it operates. I urge you to develop the habits of a rigorous, critical thinker, who challenges sloppy thinking and who keeps abreast of scientific advances and discoveries.

3. Become a serious, life-long reader. Reading opens windows on your private selves. It is a key to self-knowledge, political power, and personal autonomy.

Frankly, not all reading qualifies. Despite the trend these days to level all books and authors to the same floor, some books and authors are more worthy of reading, studying, and struggling over than others. Just as examples, read -- or continue to read -Dickens, Shakespeare, Austen, Dostoyevsky, or T. S. Eliot.

These are not easy authors; their books cannot be skimmed or browsed. You have to sink down in a chair and concentrate on them in a way that no computer screen will ever quite allow.

Great reading is not limited either to distant authors or dead ones. Read Harriet Arnow to learn how growing up in Appalachia can shape your life and view of other people. Read Thomas Friedman to learn about the Mideast or Asia, Lorrie Moore about love in the modern age, Malcolm Gladwell about big ideas in social science.

Serious reading is a solitary activity that allows you to explore and understand your own interior. I know of no other activity that guides so much self-discovery and secures such a sense of identity.

4. Entertain a curiosity about the world, a curiosity that will be essential to being a contributing citizen to this society. Curiosity is critical to an understanding of the major issues about which you should be well-informed - options for health care policy, the moral and medical implications of stem-cell research, the local implications of international politics, alternatives for the criminal justice system, the public benefits of higher education, and the nature of civil rights.

A viable democracy depends on its citizens maintaining a curiosity and a desire to be informed. This curiosity, in turn, drives an active participation in communities, and it sustains the fundamental activity of a democracy - voting.

It is no accident that as Americans gradually decrease the rate at which they read newspapers and keep up with current events, the rate of voting in the U.S. has declined to one of the lowest levels of any western democracy.

Sustaining an intellectual curiosity is the key to you continuing to learn, after you leave SMS, after you choose a profession, after you begin to raise a family, and even as you begin to grow old.

Your continuing education should be driven by what have sometimes been called the selfish and the social aims for learning.

The selfish aim is motivated primarily by ones desire to know and understand more. It is indulged simply because one wants to satisfy ones curiosity. It can be accomplished if you wake up daily, eager to figure out the world. No more, no less.

The following story illustrates the relationship between selfish and social goals for learning.

Only in his 20s, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the 18th century French philosopher and writer, was incorrectly diagnosed as suffering a fatal illness. In response to this news, Rousseau responded by throwing himself into a frenzy of nearly constant reading.

His explanation for this obsessional preparation for death was simple: I wanted to "collect a little knowledge for the next world, as if in the conviction that I should find no more there than I brought with me."

Luckily for Rousseau and happily for us, the diagnosis was wrong and he did not die then. But he did keep reading and learning. And one of the results was his book The Social Contract, a book that was important to the subsequent redefinitions of governments.

What began as a private curiosity had been transformed into a social good. This public benefit -- the application of knowledge to a practical or at least a diffuse good -- is often the added benefit of what we might be tempted to dismiss as only an egotistical pursuit. The lesson is that I hope you commit yourselves to the individual quest of private curiosities so that we might all prosper from the social benefits that you may discover along the way.

On behalf of the institution, I want to say that Southwest Missouri State University is pleased that you advanced your education with us. We are privileged to have been a part of your development as persons, and we are proud of you as our graduates.

I want to congratulate your for your achievements and thank you for the efforts you have made to become educated persons, and I want to pay tribute to your families and friends for the encouragement and support they provided that made this graduation possible.

We expect much from you -- do good things every day; strive for the great things as often as you can; and remember us fondly as an institution that helped make a difference in your life.

My best wishes for a memorable day and a productive, mindful life.

Thank you.