“I hope you all realize the whole point of the last four years was to understand the connectedness of everything.”
-- Dr. Thomas Graves, President, College of William and Mary, at 1984 Commencement
The champagne corks had already popped by that time, in salvos on the larger undergraduate side of the hall, singly on the graduate students’ side. The guest speaker, the cartoonist Scott Adams (Dilbert), had amused us, as had a selected senior; I have long forgotten whatever they said. But Dr. Graves’ words, which he had heard a week earlier at the James Madison University commencement, have stuck with me ever since.
When I graduated from Temple University in 1967, I had no understanding of the connectedness of anything. That would start to gel during my studies after I returned from Vietnam. Attempting to return to my undergraduate discipline — English — revealed the gulf between veterans and academia.
After leaving active duty, I acquired greater appreciation for the differences between depth and breadth while gaining a masters in public service from Western Kentucky University. Not until I began teaching — on a dare from my wife — did I begin to realize the gaps in my own undergraduate education, which led me to the College of William and Mary Higher Education graduate program.
Interdisciplinary learning breached the divides between the bodies of knowledge we call curricula. There are — or should be — no hard perimeters around any body of knowledge that excludes complementary or even contrary information and perspectives. “Hard and fast” positions on controversial topics generally mask cultural prejudices. Incremental resolutions of “eaches” generally serve people and society better than “comprehensive” solutions, which are usually partisan rather than holistic “stalking horses.”
There is a surfeit of information “out there.” In the age of Google and other online search engines, learners’ pursuit of knowledge goes in a very different direction from my own experiences.
In a twist on Gresham’s Law, bad information (“fake news”) crowds out good information in a society no longer inclined toward research. Learning how to evaluate the hyper-heated current events — using critical thinking and judgment — is more important than ever. Young people will learn this at university level, or more certainly and painfully in the institutional/occupational culture.
We live in an age of polemics: Abortion, guns, identity, income distribution, racism, immigration, and our president — to name the more obvious and divisive ones — have their own universe of “knowledge” and norms of right and wrong. The stridency of advocacy has become institutional in many cases.
All advocates of whatever positions will decry the overwhelming sense of divisiveness, up to and including our Congress. Few appear willing to admit that the cure for divisiveness is exploring and nourishing the connections of realities and beliefs.
Commentary recently has suggested that the duties of citizenship include service to the nation and even keeping ones’ skills with weapons up to date. I would argue the major duty of a citizen is to participate in his or her government — at all levels — by becoming aware of its crises and challenges and actively participating in their resolution.
This view was championed by Thomas Jefferson and many of his colleagues in the early days of our Republic. To this end, education is adjunct, and with it, critical thinking and communication.
I frequently read that we as a nation and a people must prioritize the bewildering and astronomical issues we face, for personal and national survival. The whole point of connectedness is that we must do all of them in some fashion, for ultimately they are connected.
The cost of higher education, exaggerated by the for-profit institutions, and the admissions scandals to “name” institutions, clouds the real issues I have described.
Working students today are concerned primarily with career enhancement. The challenge we all face is to provoke the latent interest in America beyond the workplace — it serves the community and the nation.
Learning and education are not the sum of all the courses a student takes. It is all part of the connectedness of things.
Schoch lives in Williamsburg.