Today we celebrate academic achievement. As I was preparing my remarks, I was thinking about all the ways that I have been inspired by the academic community at Denison. I have been so impressed by the quality of the education — the academic enterprise — at our college. In my view, our students are the beneficiaries of an education that is world class in every sense of the word. As I was reflecting, the word that came to mind was mentorship.
Over the last two years, my views on education have shifted. I have come to believe that one can receive a great education many places, but what happens at Denison is different in what we call mentorship. In a recent book, sociologist Dan Chambliss writes,
People, far more than programs, majors or classes, are decisive in students’ experience of college… So students who want to both enjoy college and get the most from it in the long run must find at least a few good friends, and a couple of great teachers. A great mentor—a trusted adult advisor, if one can be found, adds a tremendous advantage. (How College Works, p.163)
Mentorship happens in all kinds of ways at Denison. Today, we honor a few of the many who do it well.
We are honoring faculty who go beyond being teachers to being mentors. During my time at Denison, I have met with hundreds of students, alumni and parents who talk in great detail about the power of faculty-student interaction at Denison. In some sense, they talk about how our faculty do what other faculty do — teach classes, meet with students in offices, grade papers and exams, run labs and other experiential components. But if one listens carefully, they are talking about much more. They are describing how our faculty members do ordinary things, done in 4,000 colleges across the country, in extraordinary ways. The key to what they do is mentoring. They listen, challenge, collaborate, show empathy, and exude humor, but most of all, our faculty connect, care and catalyze. A student recently wrote to me:
I've enjoyed so many of my professors at Denison that I don't want to single anyone out specifically, but I will say that many of them encouraged me to take my own ideas seriously, which was a huge reason for my success here. They taught me to believe that my words have power, and they pushed me to explore that power regularly. More than that, though, they forced me to consider the world differently and to take the time to recognize the perspectives of others. They made me think, made me laugh, and sometimes even made me sit in awe for a moment or two. I am happy to say that I hope to stay in touch with many of them after I leave Denison, and I know how beautiful and rare a thing that is for an undergraduate to say. I won't remember all of the things they said, but I will remember the many great moments they made me take the time to feel. Simply put, my professors made my time here worth it, not because they prepared me for a job in any specific field, but because they prepared me for life.
Today, we also celebrate students who have exhibited academic excellence. At first glance, what they do is not that different from what other students do, but how they chose to do it transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary. They routinely take on the hard issues on campus. They exhibit intellectual courage by leading us in important debates, both in the classroom and across campus. They ask the hard questions as a matter of normal practice. They are mentors. For not only do our faculty often learn from them, but these students raise the level of intellectual discourse among their peers. They set a tone. They lead by example. They challenge and inspire their classmates to be better students and to be more intellectually engaged as part of their everyday lives. They live the liberal arts ethos, and they do it in ways that mentor their peers to do the same.
At its core, Denison is an academic community, whose mission it is to inspire and educate incredibly talented, motivated, and committed students to become autonomous thinkers, discerning moral agents, and engaged citizens who are uniquely prepared to lead lives of personal, professional, and civic success. We do this well because this is a community of connections and relationships that lead to a remarkable amount of mentorship. Through that mentorship, we push and prod each other to find our more intellectually aware and better selves.
As I was writing my remarks today, I came across a wonderful quote from Parker Palmer in his book The Courage to Teach.
Mentors and apprentices are partners in an ancient human dance, and one of teaching’s great rewards is the daily chance it gives us to get back on the dance floor. It is the dance of the spiraling generations, in which the old empower the young with their experience and the young empower the old with new life, reweaving the fabric of the human community as they touch and turn (25).
Denison is a deeply relational place. What I admire most about the faculty and students we honor today is not just what they accomplish academically and intellectually as individuals, but how they create pathways for others to do the same. They awaken an intellectual curiosity within each of us that makes everyone a teacher and a learner. They elevate the academic game of the entire community. In doing so, they create an environment where all of our students will leave Denison having developed three kinds of interconnected intellectual habits.
First, our students become life-long learners. We want to help our graduates develop the habit of producing and consuming knowledge as part of their everyday lives. We want them to be people who understand the value of asking good questions, collecting sound data, and forming views based on logic, reason, and sound thinking.
Second, our students learn the thrill, to quote the historian William Cronon, of learning to “connect.” We seek to produce graduates who are able to connect people, ideas, and actions. And in the course of doing so, see the world anew.
Third, our students aspire to excellence in all that they do. To be a Denisonian is to use one’s liberal arts skills, habits, and values to do things well. We seek to produce graduates who live our mission as part of their everyday lives.
The people we honor, those who are attending, and many beyond this room, help to drive Denison toward this ideal academic community every day. They do it through their own actions and by mentoring others who then do the same. This is a tradition at Denison. It is what makes this college so great. During my two years, I have been continually inspired by this college and the students, faculty and staff who invent and reinvent it every day.
Denison deserves to be celebrated every day. But since we cannot do this, I look forward to this day every year. This ceremony is uniquely Denison. I respect the people we celebrate and all that they have done. And I take great pride in how many of you show up and cheer for them. In the midst of the cheering, you demonstrate the relationships and mentorship that form the core of this great college.