Address at the Opening Convocation

Daniel Webster College, 6 September 1996

David Gries

Computer Science, Cornell University

Listening to elders

I have been asked to share my thoughts on education and teaching. Freshman, I hope you will listen and take something from this address, although, based on my own experience, I believe you may not!

When I was your age, I rarely listened to my elders; why should you be different? It is the nature of youth to try to forge its own path, to strike out on its own, to want to do things differently, to be impatient with the older generations --perhaps because youth sees that the older generations don't have all the answers, haven't fully succeeded in making the world a secure, happy, healthy place, and haven't been shining examples to follow. Youth is often idealistic, and the world is not an ideal place.

The world today

Indeed, the world today is tougher than it was when I entered college 40 years ago, in 1956. Of course, there has been some progress. The cold war with Russia is over, the threat of nuclear war seems diminished, arms are being reduced, there is environmental awareness, and there are real attempts at peace in many parts of the world.

But in other ways, the world is tougher. Drugs are now pervasive (when I went to Queens College in New York City, I hardly knew what marijuana was, and I certainly didn't know how to get it). Today, graduating seniors have trouble getting jobs; when I got out, jobs were plentiful. Welfare and health care are bigger and more expensive problems now. In the U.S., every hour, two people under twenty contract AIDS (in 1956. we hadn't heard of AIDS). The population of our jails has doubled in less than ten years. And the environment is in a mess.

(Speaking of the environment, we have on our refrigerator a cartoon: a picture of a man kneeling at his bed, praying. He is saying, "And may we continue to be worthy of consuming a disproportionate share of this planet's resources." That, in some sense, sums up the American Dream.)

So, you are growing up in a much tougher world, and perhaps some words of advice and encouragement might help you.

What is education for?

Let me tell you what Daniel Webster, the person after whom this fine college is named, said of education.

For Webster, education was not about imparting knowledge, not about pouring facts into minds. Instead, it was about imbueing minds with high principles, with a just fear of God, and with love of their fellow men.

I think that many of our problems have arisen because we have shied away from such lofty goals. Instead, we use colleges and universities to pour facts into people, to prepare them with a particular skill to make a living, to earn money. These are important, but more important are the high principles, the high values, the search for a meaning to their life, the fact that only through loving all men, no matter what their culture, can the world be at peace. We have forgotten that money comes and goes, while morality comes and grows.

Many people have said, in one way or another, that the chief aim of education is character. For example, the Irish poet Spencer said "education has for its object the formation of character." Plutarch said that ``The very spring and root of honesty and virtue lie in the felicity of lighting on good education.'' It has also been said that education is not for living but for life. Yes, education will provide the skills for landing a job, but more important is the values that determine how you live your life, not how you earn your living. Abraham Lincoln expressed a ``desire to see the time when education, and by its means morality, sobriety, enterprise, and industry, shall become much more general than at present.''

Stephen R. Covey's book "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People" points out a rather momentous fact. Covey noticed that books on how to suceed have switched in the past 50 years from a character ethic, which had been the paradigm since 1776, to what Covey calls a personality ethic.

The character ethic is based on values or qualities like integrity, humility, fidelity, courage, justice, patience, industry, simplicity, modesty, truth, peace, love, righteousness, nonviolence. The character ethic teaches that these are basic principles of effective living, and true success and enduring happiness are based only on living these principles. Benjamin Franklin, Covey says, was a model for the character ethic, and if you read about Franklin, I am sure that you will agree.

The personality ethic is based more on outward personality, on public image, on quick fixes, on skills and techniques to impress people. It is based not on how you look to yourself but more on how you look to other people. There are, of course, some good things about the personality ethic, like having a positive attitude and getting training in communications skills, but the personality ethic can be negative as well. For example, the personality ethic may be based on deception in that it may tell you how to act so that people like you, whether you feel that way or not.

The personality ethic would pressure a child into a particular social mold in an attempt to impress others; the character ethic would be more concerned with the child's values, such as honesty, integrity, and service to others.

People full of the character ethic areconcerned with their own values and way of living; people full of the personality ethic are concerned with what others think of them and how they can get ahead.

Reviving the character ethic

Now, I believe that this character ethic is our basic nature. Values like love, truth, peace, good conduct, nonviolence, integrity, honesty are innate in all of us, but they have been covered up by envy, greed, the need to impress, a desire to succeed, and so on. Learning to let the character ethic dominate, letting these values assume their rightful place in our life, could have momentous effects on ourselves, our family, the community, the nation, and the world. For example, suppose that here at Daniel Webster all were able to live and teach in such a way that all students became imbued with these basic values, these high principles. Then Daniel Webster could produce:

Would Daniel Webster College and all the other places of education turn out people of this kind, instead of those who are more personality-ethic oriented, our country and our world would be a better place. And if even a core of people would change thusly, a collective consciousness would be developed that would help change the rest of the world.

Relearning the character ethic

Ideally, solid values should be emphasized during childhood; one gets one's values from one's family and later from school and one's peers. However, it is never to late to begin self-inquiry, and Daniel Webster College is a wonderful place to do it. Daniel Webster is small and congenial --you will even get to converse with the President from time to time. Classes are small, teaching is the only concern, and I know from experience that Daniel Webster is always looking for inovative, forward-looking, better pedagogical methods. Daniel Webster wants to do the job right. If educational institutions begin to discuss ethics and morals and values, if educational institutions begin to ensure that all students understand the difference between a character ethic and a personality ethic and have time for such self inquiry, you can be sure that the Daniel Webster Colleges will be leading the way.

Until that time, freshmen, take it upon yourself to think about your own values and what would make you most content. For example, consider points like the following.

In summary

Freshmen, welcome to college and to a new, exciting, journey: the rest of your life. The next four years should be a good time; live it fully, get as much out of it as possible; have fun. This part of life's journey is one of intense learning. But please remember that it is not only for learning facts and skills. Instead, learn about yourself. Do some self-inquiry. Ask yourself whether you live solid values or whether you are more inclined to the personality ethic, and work to change yourself accordingly. This self-inquiry will make the life after your education more rewarding for yourself and more useful for society.