About the Speaker:
Dr. Barry R. Sang
"SELF-CULTIVATION FOR THE SAKE OF ALL"
I want to express my appreciation to the Alpha Chi members who have given me this rare opportunity to speak to you on this very special day. However, I must admit that I'm a bit concerned about fulfilling this role. Normally the person giving the spring Alpha Chi Induction homily is someone who is about to retire. Perhaps there is something that President Lewis hasn't told me yet. In any case, I am carefully studying my new contract to make sure that I didn't miss something. Anyway, I promise to do my best to be uncharacteristically brief, whether I have a job next month or not.
During the next two days, graduating seniors and their families will be hearing time and time again about the value of higher education. Just to entertain the social and behavioral scientists among us, here are some data that I scrounged up from the New York Times and a publication called The Atlantic Cities:
- The unemployment rate for those who have only a high school degree is twice that of those with a bachelor's degree.
- In 2012, 76% of the job openings in the U.S. required at least some undergraduate education, while 43% of the jobs required at least a bachelor's degree. In short, it really does pay — literally — to get a college education. A college education is very likely to raise your starting salary, and increase the probability of future promotions. And, this degree also makes it more likely that you will find a job that is more interesting to you. All of these are great reasons for doing what you are doing, and for doing it in excellent fashion; these are great personal reasons.
But I want us to look at the purpose of that education from a slightly different perspective for just one moment. In a prayer entitled "Lifestyle Education," Stephen H. Wurster, former president of Catawba College, prayed that God would "give us the patience and the depth of spirit to reflect carefully about the profound meaning and responsibility" of the opportunities our education at Catawba presents. I'm here this afternoon to ask you--you who have demonstrated exceptional academic achievement, and many of whom are about to leave this community of learners--to ask you to do just what Dr. Wurster encouraged us to do — to reflect carefully about the responsibilities our education here places on our shoulders. I want you to think about not only what your education can do for you, but also what your education can do through you for others.
In the 6th century before our era a man was born who would change forever the way the Chinese would see themselves and their world. His name was Kung fu-zi, but we know him as Confucius. One day a disciple asked Confucius what made up an excellent human being. Confucius answered, "Self-cultivation with the goal of providing greater satisfaction for others." "That, and no more?" came back the disciple. "Self-cultivation for the sake of all," Confucius finally responded.+
You can tell from the title of today's homily that I think Confucius was on to something here. I believe he grasped the essence of why education is truly, in the long scope of things, an excellent and fine thing. He said it simply: education is worthwhile not only for personal reasons, but for social reasons: we learn so that we may help others.
Confucius was not the only great thinker to encourage the notion of "educating me for the sake of thee." All of us should recall the critical role Thomas Jefferson played in the early development of our nation. But probably not as many of us are aware of his leadership in higher education, especially in the State of Virginia. Among other things, he was responsible for the foundation of the University of Virginia. But before that could happen, he had to raise the money necessarily to build this dream. And to raise the money, he first had to convince his benefactors of why a University of Virginia would be a good idea. In his Report of the Commissioners for the University of Virginia (August 4, 1818), Jefferson described his justification for the formation of a state university. Listen to some of the reasons in Jefferson's actual words:
- "To give to every citizen the information he needs for the transaction of his own business;
- "To enable him to calculate for himself, and to express and preserve his ideas, his contracts and accounts, in writing"
Let's notice two things in those words: First, we note how Jefferson has just provided justification for at least two of Catawba's General Education requirements (e.g., computational and communication skills). Second, notice that he is describing benefits to individuals. In fact, Jefferson goes on to provide quite a list of personal advantages of higher education, including recognition of individual rights, and developing skill in agriculture, manufacturing, and commerce. But Jefferson wasn't done yet. When he continued describing the purposes for higher education, he said that we need a college education not just to promote our own welfare, but so we may become responsible citizens: specifically, so we may understand and discharge our duties to our neighbors and country; so we may faithfully and intelligently conduct ourselves in relation to others; and, so that through our practical wisdom and virtuous behavior, we may become moral exemplars for others to follow. This is almost opposite of the Wall Street attitude which focuses on "me, my job, and I," or which is seen in that famous slogan, "those who die with the most toys win."
An article by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin speaks of the need in our new millennium for a "moral imagination," an imagination which considers the possible harm our actions might cause for others even if we cannot fully empathize with their current situation."++ Part of Telushkin's moral imagination includes how we handle our responsibility for a stewardship of the mind. How we educate ourselves individually touches humanity corporately, he says. One of my favorite quotations — it's even on my office door — expresses this idea well: "What we say and what we do, how we feel and how we act, makes a difference in the coming of every tomorrow" (Douglas Sturm). Simply put, how you and I educate ourselves affects everything around us. Whether we want it to or not, our education touches the world.
In the 4th century before our era, the Athenian philosopher and statesman Socrates was accused of corrupting the Athenian youth through his aggressive, questioning method of teaching. When asked why he persisted in this annoying style, Socrates said that he taught the way he did and what he did because it was necessary for the Athenians to learn practical wisdom, truth, and the perfection of their souls. Why were these things important? Was it for personal embellishment or success? Socrates couldn't disagree more. He said to his Athenian audience,
"I conferred on you individually the greatest possible benefit; I tried to persuade each of you not to care for external goods before caring that you make yourself as good and wise as possible, not to care for those goods provided by the community more than for the community itself, and to care for other things in the same spirit."
Socrates argued that the reason he felt compelled to educate the Athenian youth was for the good of Athens itself. In short, Socrates claimed that education is not for the individual, but for the benefit of the community.
Tonight, a good portion of this college community will gather here in this very room. We will gather to thank God for our experiences and what we've learned, and then the graduates and all the people will share in a traditional litany of prayer. One of the litanies that is often used for that Baccalaureate service contains these words:
"We commit ourselves to stretching ourselves to allow our transformation to be lived out in knowledge, understanding, service, and love."
Those of us who speak these words commit ourselves to live out of our education beyond ourselves: we promise to live out our education for the sake of all.
Each of us here may have different motivations for educating ourselves for the sake of the community. Some of us may believe that, by helping the community, we might eventually help ourselves. Or, we may believe that self-education may be a good idea because it will improve the quality of living for everyone. But I would encourage you to heed the words of the Apostle Paul who, in his first letter to the church at Corinth, said that all of the wisdom in the world, without love, is nothing but a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. Paul pleaded with the Corinthians that they should use their gifts, including their knowledge, not for self-glorification but for the common good.
My fellow learners, I would encourage you to give careful thought to those words of Paul, Socrates, Jefferson, and Confucius. Excel, learn even more; become the finest thinkers and dreamers this world has ever seen. You have certainly shown us that you can do this. But learn and live not just for yourself, but for others as well. Cultivate yourselves, but, by God, do it for the sake of all.
In the next two days (or sooner!), you will forget most of what I have just said, but I sincerely pray that you will remember this principle: Learn to serve with what you learn. When you do that, you will find much more meaning in your lives, and you will honor the values of this College from which many of you will graduate tomorrow — the values of scholarship, character, culture, and service. As you learn to serve with what you learn, your education will have given birth to goodness. Thank you for the privilege of learning with you.
+ Analects XIV.
++ "Ethics, One Day at a Time," in Imprints 29, no. 3 (March, 2000).