David Bayley '55 Inauguration Address
October 11, 2013
This is an important occasion in the life of a college, not just because you are changing leaders. It's the occasion to pause for a moment to ask ourselves whether we at Denison are doing the right thing for our students. It’s a time to see whether things are well with us. I think it's particularly important because there’s a lot of what I would call mischievous nonsense being talked about by the pundits and the media and the politicians about higher education today — especially about the value of broad-based liberal arts education. And I want to address that mischievous nonsense today.
Now, before I do that — I think some of you are sitting out there thinking, “Oh my God, this is going to be duller than I thought.” Perhaps the best advice I ever got at Denison was after a speech communication class, and I’d given a presentation, and one of my friends came up to me and he said, “David, if you haven’t got anything to say, for God’s sake, be brief!” I’ve never accepted the premise to that statement, but I am going to accept the advice.
What is this mischievous nonsense that I keep hearing and you people keep hearing about? It is that broad-based liberal education is too broad, too diaphanous, not focused enough, and what we need to do is to give students in colleges and universities the skills they need immediately to be employed, so that they land on the ground running, so that the people that have hired them can say, “Oh, good, we’re glad we have this person.” Now I think this view of college education is very mistaken.
At the same time, I know that many of you who are seniors, standing in the back, are beginning to be anxious because you’re listening to these voices and you’re worried about your future. Some of you are beginning to say, “Oh, gosh, I’m going to graduate from Denison, but then I'm going to work for McDonald’s, have to trade in my iPhone, and go back to that high school bedroom with the posters of Justin Bieber and Derek Jeeter on the walls. I say emphatically, I don’t think so. Maybe briefly — but not for long. Let me give you three reasons why I think this kind of advice is very shortsighted.
The first is that the unemployment rate — let’s go right to the root of your anxiety — the unemployment rate for high school graduates, people without four-year degrees, is three times higher than it is for a person with a B.A. degree. Three times higher! That’s a lot of value that you’ve gotten from a four-year college education. More than that, a B.A. over the course of their life will earn twice what a high school graduate will do. For a person with an M.A., income will be one and a half times more, and for a person with a Ph.D, it’ll be three times more in terms of earning power. Yes, I know — I must now say to my blighted colleagues over there on the faculty that there is a distinction between people who have Ph.Ds and people who have professional degrees, and I lumped them together. Sorry about that — it's true that people who have professional degrees will earn a bit more than Ph.Ds. Nonetheless, even faculty are privileged in terms of their earnings. They’re clapping, but you’ll notice weakly.
The second reason why I think what you hear is nonsense is that we should all expect that the nature of work will change in the course of our lives. Work generally is changing. If you overemphasize the particular skills that people need at the moment, you are building for obsolescence. All of us in the course of our lives have learned our job two, three, and four times. What’s important is not what you know at the very moment you graduate and are employed. What you need to know is how to learn — and how to reinvent yourself time and time again. That’s one of the things that Denison builds in with its emphasis on learning for the long haul.
And the third point is that it’s true that we all want to be employed, that is fundamental to a good life. At the same time, is that all we want - to have a job? I don’t think so. I think that most people have a larger ambition for when they’re employed. And it is to be that kind of person, regardless of the line of work — whether you’re a doctor or a lawyer, raising money for an arts council or running a dance troupe, whether you’re in the performing arts, whether you’re raising money for the PTA or organizing neighbors — don’t we all want to be the kind voice that people listen to when they speak up? That kind of person that when they speak — remember the old E. F. Hutton ad? Some of you aren’t old enough to remember this, but anyway: “When E. F. Hutton talks, people listen”. Isn’t that what most of us want to be, so that people treat what we have to say with respect? We want to be the person who rethinks issues, so that people say, “Gosh, I never thought about it that way. That makes good sense.” I think that’s the ambition that most of us have, and that’s the ambition I am suggesting that Denison has for you.
Now, how does Denison do that? It does it because it is constructed to provide the kind of education that gives you what I call a transformative voice. And it does so in four particular ways.
The first way is by teaching you the value of knowledge and making you competent in what you do. That’s the foundation for being taken seriously in any line of work.
But there’s more to it than that. Denison, second, teaches you to think outside the box. It teaches you to understand what the limitations are in what you’ve learned and what you’ve been taught. What’s the frontier? What are the next questions? What are the things that people have gotten wrong that we need your help in figuring out? That’s the transformative part of having a transformative voice.
The third point is that Denison insists that you can communicate persuasively. You hear this all the time. The faculty emphasize how you write and how you talk. That’s fundamental to what Denison does.
But there is a fourth aspect to what Denison does to make you a transformative voice in anything that you may do. And that is, it gives you space to learn how to use your voice to mobilize others to carry out the vision that you have suggested. Don’t we all know people that are competent, that speak in a loud voice — speak too often, as a matter of fact — but are also the kind of people that begin to grate on your ear, so that you think, “If I hear him one more time, I am going to scream!” In other words, we need people who are not only competent and have a voice and think outside the box, but can mobilize others, who can cause others to say, “That really makes sense, and I’d like to help you do that!”
Now, where does Denison teach and encourage that? The answer is not in a classroom. I don’t think this is something that is teachable by faculty, no matter how gifted. Denison does it in the extracurricular parts of life here. In dance and in athletics and in all the clubs, Denison provides experimental space to learn how to communicate what is on your mind and to enlist others in your cause. It teaches you how to be successful in action and not just in words. Denison provides you with a place where you can fail, but in a relatively costless way. The only cost is probably some embarrassment. And I think, if I can confess a little bit, I think all of us who have been out of college for a while have mixed feelings about Denison. On the one hand we say, “Oh, wouldn’t it be wonderful to be 21 again?” and on the other hand we say, “Oh my God, I don’t want to be 21 again! Was I really that stupid? Was I really that young?” You shouldn't worry about that — I don’t think many of us do, who have gotten to this point some years after Denison. That kind of experimenting, even if it comes at the cost of some embarrassment, is valuable because it transforms your voice into action and mobilizes other people.
It seems to me that this is the ambition that Denison has for all of you: to be a transformative voice - to be competent, to think outside the box, to speak and write persuasively, and to get others to follow your cause. This, I think, is what Denison is all about.
So I say, to the students who are here: If this is your ambition, you’ve come to the right place.
And to the faculty I say: If this is your ambition for your students, we’re lucky to have you.
And to Adam, I say: As you become the twentieth president of Denison, my hope is that you will be as ambitious for Denison in this transformative way as Denison has been for all of its students for generations.
Read President Weinberg's remarks: “The Importance of a Well-Directed Course of Education: An Inaugural Address.”
Learn more about the Inauguration and related events in TheDen.