2014 Presidential Charge to the Graduates

Thursday, May. 22, 2014 9:39 am

Charge to the Graduates, Grinnell College Commencement 2014

President Raynard S. Kington charges the graduates of the Class of 2014 to humble ourselves "before the ... the greater, more complex truth of being a caring, wise, and engaged human."

President Raynard S. Kinton's 2014 Charge to the Graduates

Welcome to our graduates; parents, families and friends; our guest speaker, Nancy Giles; honorees and platform party; Trustees; faculty and staff; alumni and members of the Grinnell community. Welcome, also, to two of our past honorary degree recipients with us today: John Canady ’80 and Sam Tanenhaus ’77, both parents of 2014 graduates. Congratulations!

Today is Grinnell’s 168th commencement ceremony. We’ve done this a few times! But for you and your families and friends, it’s your one day. I appreciate the opportunity to spend it with you.

I especially appreciate it because you were my first entering class as a new president. When you came here, you were nervous about just getting through your four years. And so was I!

But look what we've done together. We’ve made it through.

Grinnell’s great contribution is that we take brilliant young people and with a lot of advisement we enable you to craft your own education. Our goal is to help you become, over the course of four short years, autonomous, socially committed, insightful individuals.

In your case, that transformation coincided with my first four at Grinnell. During that time it has been my privilege to watch you grow—intellectually, and socially, and emotionally. I don’t have time to teach a course at Grinnell because of all my travel, but I will. I have worked alongside many of you, and come to know many more. And I share the pride that your teachers feel, and certainly your families and friends.

You have had moments of great individual and collective action with all sorts of innovative activities—online; we have students who have excelled in athletics; our Grinnell Singers completed a West Coast tour. Students in our AppDev group developed a series of extremely creative mobile apps for everything from accessing the dining hall menu and campus directory to listening to KDIC, our student radio station, or reading the campus newspaper, the Scarlet & Black. You’ve done Mentored Advanced Projects on topics ranging from network analyses of Civil War-era political party membership, to studies of how art is used as a tool of global diplomacy.

These are accomplishments that in many places would get you mistaken for a grad student—but it’s not enough.

Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to participate on a panel of college leaders talking about the future of higher education. The conference was co-sponsored by The New York Times and Colgate University, and the panel was hosted by the Chairman of CBS News and Executive Producer of 60 Minutes, Jeffrey Fager.

In that discussion, as at other national meetings I’ve participated in, I talked about the fact that the majority of babies born in this country are now, for the first time in modern American history, nonwhite.  Our future—not just at Grinnell, but as a nation—depends on building institutions that help people thrive in a diverse world. Yet many of our schools and public institutions are unprepared for the change.

The greatest gift we can give you is an academically excellent education rooted in the experience of living, working, and learning with people who are different from you. Grinnell has a long history of support for diversity, and indeed it’s one of our core values. But the form and scale of that commitment is only going to have to increase in the near future.

Increasingly, we’re talking about a kind of education that’s available at only a few very special places in the world. Statistically, you’re part of a vanishingly small global elite privileged enough to be given the chance to live and study side by side with people from different backgrounds and cultures.

If you look at our peer schools nationally, you’ll find that even some of them are having trouble maintaining diversity year to year. That’s a consequence of some very profound shifts in our society, including in the distribution of wealth and resources, which is leaving far too many low-income children—a disproportionate number of whom are not white—trapped in underperforming schools where they aren’t getting the kind of education that prepares them to compete for admission to college in general, and especially to a place like Grinnell.

A true commitment to diversity at the college level means recognizing and addressing these challenges, so that students from all backgrounds have an equal chance at an excellent education—and, more importantly, that they have the chance to get that education together and to learn from each other.

I’m very sensitive to the burden families have to bear to pay tuition. But as a parent of two little boys, I also know that I would go to almost any lengths to give my own sons such an experience. And your families have extended themselves for you, too.

Look around you. This entire operation runs around the clock, day in and day out, for one purpose: To educate you. If some aspect of our campus can’t be shown to contribute to the educational value we provide, it’s not going to be supported.

So, why should you care? Especially on the day of your graduation. Shouldn’t this just be a big party? Shouldn’t completing your Grinnell education be like getting on the highway at 70 mph without having to worry about how the engine in your car works?

I don’t think so.

As Grinnellians, we assume a special responsibility for not just seeing the world, but looking at it: analyzing it, appreciating it, understanding how it works, thinking about how to make it better.

One of the unique benefits of attending college in the rural Midwest is the opportunity for focusing on your studies and on building your community. It also offers you perspective: the chance to see the world in terms of relationships and systems.

Ultimately, I think it also helps you become what business leaders these days are calling a “T-shaped” person, which means simply that you have both breadth and depth of knowledge. Nationally, there is an unfortunate tendency to see this as an either/or proposition: between a broad but supposedly shallow liberal arts education; and a narrow but supposedly deep vocational focus.

But Grinnell has proven that it’s possible to educate truly T-shaped students, which is the kind that employers increasingly want to hire, and graduate programs want to recruit. It’s almost a cliché to observe that at Grinnell you get such supposedly “unusual” creatures as an anthropologist who studies advanced statistics, or a statistician who analyzes human behavior. Or a musician who writes elegant computer code, or a computer scientist who makes beautiful music.

That isn’t accidental. It’s the consequence of some very careful advising and great teaching, which these days is taking many new forms, from Skyping alums and other experts into our classrooms; or organizing course-embedded trips where you can your ideas out into the world and test them against real conditions; or highly advanced mentored research projects, or creating great performances and works of art.

And while this is your graduation day, I think it would be appropriate to pause and ask you for a round of applause, to thank your teachers and your families for their hard work. [Applause]

We can also think of our institution itself in terms that are analogous to that “T” shape that I talked about. Diversity contributes to the breadth of your experience, and the depth comes from our rather profound cultural view.

A century ago, in 1913, Grinnell President John Main visited New York and conducted an interview with The New York Times. It was published under the headline “The Big Work that is Done by a Small College.” I’ve quoted Main’s words frequently this year, and I’ll quote him one last time today. He told the Times reporter: “The traditions and ideals of such a college as Grinnell unify the students. Every student is a member of the College; inevitably [the student] acquires a social consciousness.”

Traditions and ideals unify the students here. That’s an inherently Grinnellian point of view. It respects the importance of our campus history and culture in giving depth to your experience. Our global community of alumni is also crucial in that regard.

Actually, very few schools have such a “T”.

Here’s one more quote from President Main from that 1913 interview, which I think illustrates why all of this matters: “Our chief aim at Grinnell,” he says, “[is] to make our students in the fullest sense citizens of the United States and citizens of the world….Grinnell College is a democratic institution. If the student is not democratic when he [or she] enters we give him [or her] democracy. What higher purpose can a college have than to be a school of citizenship?”

That is why this matters. We want you to get a good education. We want you to have a happy life and a wonderful career. But we also—and, I dare to say, more importantly—want you to be a great citizen.

This idea of citizenship didn’t just come to John Main by accident. On June 10, 1846, a group of New England ministers known as the Iowa Band made the long journey to these territories and founded Iowa College, which later became Grinnell. According to the lore, when the Band arrived in Iowa, one of their leaders, James Jeremiah Hill, laid a silver dollar on the table. He announced that the coin would be the cornerstone of a new college—the first dollar in its treasury. He set it down and told his colleagues, “now appoint a committee to take care of it.” (Even then, they were appointing committees!)

The medallion we gave you four years ago, at our welcoming ceremony, symbolizes the care they took to create this environment for you, and the responsibility you assumed for the welfare of generations to come. To connect it back to John Main, the coin symbolized your power and obligation as a citizen of Grinnell, and of the world.

I charge you to embrace that role.

As you do so, I hope you will live up to the College’s motto: veritas et humanitas. “Truth and humility.” For Grinnellians, these two principles are deeply intertwined. There can be no truth without humility. Because we know that egotism is an obstacle to understanding. And we also know that humility without truth is false posturing.

Being a Grinnellian requires that each of us humbles ourselves before the truth. Not the truth of simplistic “true or false” statements, but the greater, more complex truth of being a caring, wise, and engaged human. This is the charge which I bestow on you—and which it is now your duty to steward and transmit to others.

With it, I leave you with my warmest wishes and greatest hopes. May you continue to flourish, bringing with you on your journey your visions of excellence, action, and the possibility for a greater world.

Congratulations!