Secrets and Scarecrows
Graduation Address, August 5, 1989
University of North Florida
Dr. Steven K. Paulson, Professor of Management
Since being invited to prepare this address, I have been doing a lot of thinking, and some reading, about what a person should get out of the college experience. What is it that one should have acquired as a result of being at a college like UNF as compared to other educational approaches?
For example, what has a graduate in the accounting field acquired as a result of being here as compared to what could have been acquired by self-instruction? And it would be possible, difficult, but theoretically possible, for a literate person to pick up the facts of the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles and to pass standardized tests. Or take a student in political science; the facts of the political process and government administration can be learned informally and such a person could indeed become a successful agency official. Or the elementary education student; we all know of so called "natural teachers", those people who taught us invaluable lessons, especially in childhood, without the benefit of formal education.
One answer, which often comes up, is that college is just a very efficient approach to acquiring the facts -- and it is indeed efficient with centralized locations of specialized teachers and support units such as libraries and computer services. But college better offer more than just convenience!
Another idea is that college goes beyond the simple learning of facts by providing instruction in "how to think" and this does seem to get a little closer to the heart of the matter. The idea is that college offers role models and experiences which enable a person to think, for example, like a chemist or a performing artist or a nurse or an engineer. But couldn't this actually occur in a chemical company, or a hospital, or a theater, or a construction firm? Yes, it probably could; not as efficiently, or as uniformly, but it could be done and to some extent it is done. Management graduates, for example, will often tell us that their new employers provide a great deal of training in terms of industry procedures and practices.
No, if you look at it carefully what you will find is that the essential distinction is not efficiency or that a person has learned how to think in a particular way. Rather, the distinction is that the graduate has acquired a general predisposition for thinking -- thinking as an approach to the problems and opportunities of living. As a process, thinking is fairly simple and involves classifying things and then looking for relationships. But it is also personal, and this is where the complexities come in.
This general predisposition requires personal exposure to and understanding of many different ways of thinking in diverse fields. The more diverse, the greater the possibility for creative and useful ideas. The differences between sociology and economics and graphic design and biology and linguistics and all the other disciplines are not so important when compared to this common attribute -- this inclination to think one's way through problems and consequences and opportunities.
The development of thinking also requires exposure to specialists who can clearly present their fields in a reinforcing and challenging way -- people who have committed their lives to this activity. Likewise, the surrounding environment must encourage one to develop one's approach. About twenty years ago, I was a high school teacher and a disturbing memory, which I have from that time, is of a student who had to do all of her homework on the school bus because if she did it at home her parents would make fun of her. The university provides the core of the environment but, as we noted a moment ago, that environment requires outside support of relatives and friends as well as employers and the larger community.
This is probably one of the "best kept secrets" in higher education. We hear a lot about the higher incomes, satisfying lives, interesting careers and other benefits of college education, which are indeed well documented. But this intellectual tendency is probably the most important outcome. This means that you have joined the ranks of those who handle problems with reflection and analysis rather than by blindly following others or traditions or by responding with a flash of emotion or, as is increasingly the case in our nation, with a gun. It means that you value diversity and uniqueness as well as order. With a thinking point of view you dig to the core of an issue for the "facts" rather settle for a superficial understanding. And you recognize that change is always occurring hence we always have a need to update and clarify our thinking.
Well, so far so good but what does this mean for the so-called absolute values of religion and ethnic traditions? Does a person with a predisposition for thinking have to become a complete relativist? Of course not, but what it does call for is to always be looking for deeper understandings and more meaningful ways to enhance one's value commitments.
In a way you have been joining a movement, which is hundreds of years old, in which there is a "conspiracy" for thinking, if your will, and in this sense we all have a responsibility, a responsibility to continue to pass it on. In this regard, we in Jacksonville have our work cut out for us. UNF has to work hard at making its opportunities available to everyone in the region; elementary and secondary school systems must develop innovative programs for retaining and preparing students; business must take the lead in demonstrating responsible citizenship; the voluntary associations must keep questions of value in front of us and government has to work diligently at planning all of this.
Thinking is an abstract subject, isn't it? Yet it can't be just an abstraction. Remember the Wizard of Oz? Recall how the Wizard "gave" an education to the scarecrow? He handed him a diploma and immediately the scarecrow began spouting off mathematical formulas. The point, of course, is that he had been getting an education all along but like most of us he needed to see what he had achieved in a concrete form.
Our species has a great need for concrete signs of achievement. We all have such needs. About ten years ago, the spouse of a student wrote me a four-sentence thank-you note for some help I had given. It's in my desk drawer. When I get into a rough spot with a class I pull the note out and read it (to myself that is). It helps.
There is also the image of Diego Maradona holding the Soccer World Cup over his head like nothing else mattered or, if your follow basketball, remember Isaiah Thomas planting about a dozen sweaty kisses on the NBA trophy, or just last week, Greg LeMond clutching the yellow jersey --a "T-shirt" -- as the ultimate symbol of winning the Tour d'France.
Concrete objects help don't they? Ultimately we want to see it. So let's get on with it. It's O.K. today to give your diploma a squeeze, be sure to give your support group a lot of squeezes and by all means embrace your highly developed capacity to think and to care for the development of all people. Thank you.