President's Speeches & Writings

Practical Wisdom: A Graduation Message


Adam Weinberg

May 18, 2019

Congratulations to the great Denison Class of 2019.

At its core, an education is about learning to make choices. We hope you leave Denison with the capacity and interest to make choices that will give you the life you want in ways that make the world a better place. Your life will unfold based on the choices you make (or don’t make), and the world you will live in will be formed by the myriad choices we all make (large and small), which construct and reconstruct the world around us.

In the wonderful book Practical Wisdom published a few years ago, two Swarthmore professors, Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe, (yes, liberal arts faculty) asked a simple question: How are we to make things better? By better, they meant both for individuals and the world. How do we create a world where people have learned to make good decisions — defined as decisions that enhance their lives and the lives of those around them.

The problem, they write, is that we have come to believe that we can get (or force) people to make good decisions by creating lots of rules that create boundaries on our decisions, as well as incentives that guide us to do what is right. While this would make things easy, they argue it does not work. Instead, we need to be guided by practical wisdom. Yes - Professor Lisska - I am going to talk about Aristotle. You can shake your head when I get it wrong.

The starting place for Schwartz and Sharpe is a tacit (or polite) recognition that rules or incentives are necessary, and maybe even important and helpful, but they are rarely enough. What the world needs is what Aristotle called practical wisdom. They state, “Without this missing ingredient, neither rules (no matter how detailed and well monitored) nor incentives (no matter how clever) will be enough to solve the problems we face” (5).

It turns out that life is complicated, because we are faced with choices that often each have merit. Our world is complicated and full of contradictions. For example, they write, “A good doctor needs to be honest with her patients, and kind to their patients, and to give them the hope they need to endure difficult treatments. But in diagnosing a patient, these aims can be at odds, and the doctor must decide whether to be honest or kind, or more likely how to balance honesty and kindness in a way that is appropriate for the patient in front of her” (7).

They go on to state, “balancing acts like these beg for wisdom” (7). But they point out that abstract wisdom is not helpful. “Wisdom has to be practical, because the issues we face are embedded in our everyday work” (7).

What is practical wisdom and where does it come from? Schwartz and Sharpe describe six characteristics of someone who has the capacity for practical wisdom.

  1. “A wise person knows the proper aims of the activity she is engaged in. She wants to do the right thing to achieve these aims—wants to meet the needs of the people she is serving” (25).
  2. “A wise person knows how to improvise, balancing conflicting aims and interpreting rules and principles in light of the particularities of each context” (25).
  3. “A wise person is perceptive, knows how to read a social context, and knows how to move beyond the black-and-white of rules and see the gray in a situation” (25).
  4. “A wise person knows how to take on the perspective of another — to see the situation as the other person does and thus to understand how the other person feels. This perspective-taking is what enables a wise person to feel empathy for others and to make decisions that serve the client’s (student’s, patient’s, friend’s) needs” (25).  
  5. “A wise person knows how to make emotion an ally of reason, to rely on emotion to signal what a situation calls for, and to inform judgment without distorting it. He can feel, intuit, or “just know” what the right thing to do is, enabling him to act quickly when timing matters. His emotions and intuitions are well educated” (25).
  6. “A wise person is an experienced person. Practical wisdom is a craft and craftsmen are trained by having the right experiences. People learn how to be brave, said Aristotle, by doing brave things. So, too, with honesty, justice, loyalty, caring, listening, and counseling” (25).

Practical wisdom is a craft, and craftspeople are trained through experience. We learn to build by building. We learn practical wisdom by making decisions based on practical wisdom.

I believe this is what liberal arts colleges, like Denison, do particularly well. Our mission statement is a variation on this theme, “to educate and inspire people to be autonomous thinkers, discerning moral agents, and engaged citizens.”

I often like to say that the liberal arts prepare students to think critically, understand profoundly, and connect broadly. Denison alumnus and former Princeton President William Bowen wrote in Lessons Learned that the purpose of college is to educate students with an “openness to new ideas and new friendships, respect for both evidence and the beauty of language, appreciation of ‘difference’ and an ever-deeper awareness of the pure joy of learning” (144).

We are all saying variations on the same thing. We start with a hope that we can unlock your potential to be the architect of your life, and we hope that you will then do this in ways that make the world better. We also recognize that this is a lifelong journey.

Our education is never complete. The goal, according to Schwartz and Sharpe, is to make things better for ourselves, and to do this in ways that also make it better for others as well.

This happens, or I hope happened, as you worked your way through the three parts of a Denison education.

It started with your classes. The academics are the core of an education. The reason we exist. We took you wide and deep across a range of courses and academic disciplines. We did not train you narrowly, and we did not teach you what to think. We sought to open your minds and imaginations by giving you an education that acts like a prism, allowing you to see the world through a variety of academic disciplines, social theorists, and research methods.

But, the true beauty of your academic work was not just the classes, but also (maybe more important) the faculty who taught them. Denison faculty were fully committed to you, the liberal arts, and undergraduate education. In the very best tradition of the liberal arts, they pushed and prodded you. They engaged you, asked you to think harder, longer and deeper. They challenged you, and helped you understand how smart you are, and how excellent your academic work could be. My hope is that they taught you in a way that also instilled a humility and thirst that will lead to lifelong learning.  

This was reinforced by your involvement across campus. You were athletes and artists. You served as June-O and Aug-O leaders, Community Coordinators, and in many other campus positions. You engaged in campus organizations where you put your liberal arts learnings into practice. All of this matters as we acquire practical wisdom through practice. The campus was a design studio for you to practice liberal arts skills, values, and habits.

All of this was reinforced as you lived on a fully residential campus. We learn from each other. This happens in lots of ways. Denisonians form friendships where we seek to support and bring out the best in each other. Denisonians are not monolithic. You are diverse in almost every conceivable way. This makes living together both fun and hard. It also makes it incredibly important. We have beautiful moments of learning, sharing, and having fun. And we have explosive moments of mistakes, conflicts, and misunderstandings.

None of this is easy. All of it has successes, failures, and challenging moments. All of this is part of the process. Schwartz and Sharpe talk about balancing acts. And much of what happens during a Denison journey requires learning to balance.

The world needs more practical wisdom. The world needs more liberal arts graduates. The world needs more Denisonians like you.

Here is what I ask of you, a charge:

First, take the education you have received here and live our mission. Be people who are autonomous thinkers, discerning moral agents, and engaged citizens. Be the person who always connects seemingly disparate people, helping them find the commonalities and learn to love the differences. Be the people who connect ideas to find new ways of thinking, thereby making a difference in the personal, professional, and civic spheres of your life.

Figure out what you want to do with your life and then find a way to live that life. And do this in a way that allows you to be the architect of your life in ways that also make the world around you better.

To do this, you must be lifelong learners. Read often and widely. Join book clubs. Be patrons of the arts. Attend public lectures. Set a tone within your communities that learning is important and part of developing fulfilling personal, professional, and civic lives. Convince others that facts matter.

Second, embrace and sustain the relationships that have formed here. Many of you will remain lifelong friends. Some of you will become lifelong friends, even if you were not friends at Denison. You are graduating into an alumni community of 40,000 Denisonians. You will be surprised at how much Denison and Denisonians provide relationships that contribute to your life.

Finally, stay connected to this college. Come back for your reunions. Put a Denison coffee mug on your desk at work, a bumper sticker on your car, and a Denison pennant on your refrigerator at home. You are great people, and we want the world to know that you are Denisonians. Identify yourself, so other members of our extended family can do the same.  

Before I close, I want to say something about our graduation speaker.

When Jennifer Garner agreed to be our graduation speaker, I was thrilled — but not for the reasons you might expect. Yes, she is famous and beloved, and it is always cool to have a famous graduation speaker whom everybody admires. Even my 13-year-old daughter was impressed. And I work hard as a father to sometimes impress her.

And yes, it seemed perfect to have her speak just as we are opening a 108,000-square-foot performing arts building. I want to thank Sharon and Lanny Martin, who are here this weekend. The Sharon Martin Hall will be our home for the arts. The words, “it’s in Martin Hall,” will mean something on this campus.

I was excited that Jennifer agreed to be our graduation speaker, because she has lived the life of a Denisonian. She used her Denison education to figure out the kind of life she wanted to live. She left Denison with a passion that she wanted to follow. If you are looking for a straight and easy path — you don’t choose actress. She took a risk. She found a way to use her liberal arts skills, values, and habits to rise to the top of her profession. She lived her dream of working and living in the arts.

That would have been enough for most people, but she is a Denisonian and the product of the liberal arts. She found ways large and small to use what she has accomplished. Her commitment to family and friends makes her a role model by simply being who she is. The best advice in this country right now on what it means to be a parent, friend, sister, and daughter may be her Instagram site.

She uses her success at work to find a platform to speak on public issues she cares about, especially a more honest and challenging national conversation around poverty, and early childhood education. And most recently, she is an entrepreneur who is pushing for food in ways that are better for people and the environment.

When I first met Jennifer, she talked about how Denison helped form her. It was part of her journey. It started in the classroom. She talked with such respect, gratitude, and awe for her faculty. I won’t mention them by name — but Lisa McDonald you were at the top of the list. She talked about learning through deep involvements in theatre. She talked about her friendships and lateral learning. And she talked about how it was not always easy. It had moments of joy, moments of disappointment, and things did not go as planned. But it always moved forward.

What I remember most from our first conversation was her conviction that perhaps what she took most from Denison was a way of being in the world that guided her. As I have gotten to know her better, I have come to see a person who embodies a way of being in the world that represents the liberal arts, but even more important — Denison.

This is what I want for you. Take what you learned. Live your life the way you want to live it. Do this in ways that make the world better. Do it in a way that is meaningful. And stay connected to each other and to this great college.  

You are great Denisonians. I am proud to be your president and I look forward to following your life’s journey.

Congratulations Denison class of 2019.  


Works Cited

Schwartz, Barry, and Kenneth Sharpe. Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing. Riverhead Books, 2010.

Bowen, William G. Lessons Learned: Reflections of a University President. Princeton University Press, 2010.

Read more of Adam Weinberg's speeches and writings.