Wake Forest is hosting the “Rethinking Success” conference this week, examining the role of the liberal arts and higher education. I sat in on some of the conference sessions yesterday and found the speakers to be very engaging.
The capstone to the conference was a speech by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Wait Chapel last night. There was so much demand for tickets that there had been a lottery, and all 2,400ish seats in Wait Chapel were filled.
Dr. Rice – who had been the provost at Stanford before assuming her role in the Bush administration, and who is back now as a faculty member – gave a wide ranging and very interesting speech. Sans notes, she wound us through a nearly hour-long examination of history, the higher educational process, foreign affairs, the life of an academic, as well as her family history. She has a razor sharp mind and enviable comic timing and delivery. She seemed to me to have a universal appeal – no matter which side of the political aisle you are on, people loved her.
Now, to her speech. She talked a lot about her belief that one of the most powerful forces of the USA abroad is the American higher education system. She repeatedly called it the gold standard and talked about how the elite of many foreign countries want to send their children to US schools, and that in her experience of being in rooms with many foreign leaders, she’d hear people say “I’m a Trojan” or “I’m an Aggie” – the leaders studied here too.
She praised the great breadth of options in American higher education. We have everything from small liberal arts colleges to large research universities, historically black colleges, community colleges. And that people abroad seem to have a good understanding of the various branches of our educational system and the nuances in each type of school and where they fit in best.
Dr. Rice talked about how higher education in the US has historically played a role in social mobility. It doesn’t matter where you came from, she said, it matters where you are going. She said that some of her most affirmed moments at Stanford come from seeing a fourth generation Stanford student sitting next to a first-generation college student who comes from itinerant workers.
And while I went into her speech with the mindset that she is a major figure in public service and this would likely be a policy-laden talk, I could not have been more wrong. This is a woman who has a deep and abiding love of learning, of the process of uncovering knowledge, and in passing that on to the next generation. This is a teacher-scholar. First and foremost.
Dr. Rice said that the wonderful thing about a university is that you get the “combustible mixture” of the best and brightest 18 year olds, and they come together with faculty who are leaders in their fields. It’s amazing what they can produce together, she said. Creativity. Innovation. Things like Hewlett Packard. Google. These came out of this combustible mixture.
Her talk then shifted a bit. She said that the “real world” has some trouble understanding how we at universities do what we do. In the collegiate world, we attract people who want to think and pursue an idea simply because it interests them. She said that as a faculty member, she likes the freedom to get up in the morning and think about why X does what it does. She wants to understand X better and pursue it purely in the push for truth. That might seem a bit frivolous. But the creation and propagation of knowledge can impact the way we live and improve our global peace and prosperity.
She offered a caution as well. While colleges and universities have been the gold standard in higher ed, sometimes the most successful institutions are the ones that don’t see trouble coming. Some well entrenched institutions don’t always see the signals that we need to revise and do things differently, so she cautioned that universities need to be attentive always to the currents of the day and be sure to adapt to new realities. She related this to her academic background of studying military history, recounting how nearly every army got it wrong when they introduced tanks to warfare (many mixed them with the cavalry, running over the horses and running amok; only the Germans got it right, she said, with tank-only divisions).
The challenge we face as institutions of higher education is to adapt to the challenges without losing the core of who we are. But how? Critics ask questions about the cost of college and where we actually add value. She says this is a timely topic these days, when in the news we hear a lot about people asking about liberal arts degrees: “Is it marketable?” “What does it cost?” “Where does it get you? “ She referenced a transactional mentality, with the barbed question lurking of “you [college] cost a lot, but are you really worth it?”
Dr. Rice said that it’s the work of all of us who believe in the power of higher education and who have reaped the benefits of higher education to consider these points and think about redefining success. She said we have an obligation to train our students. We impart certain ideas and skills to our students during their time with us so they are prepared for life’s challenges later on. She listed a few critical skills she thinks liberal arts students have:
– The ability to write clearly. This skill carries over into almost anything you will do in the workforce. As Secretary of State, she did not have time to read a meandering paper or memo. Things had to be clear and crisp. For faculty members, insisting students write well and write a lot is very important.
– The ability to make oral arguments. She said often students will begin a point with her by saying “This might be wrong, but…” – and she said “So why should I listen?” She urged students to make their case and be confident.
– She had praise for a few specific academic disciplines, Economics chief among them. She said knowing the basics of Economics is critical to understanding the world. She urged all students to take an Econ class. “Promise me you will take it,” she said.
Because of her background, many students come to her to ask how to become a leader. Her reply: know something first of value, and then you can think about becoming a leader. Students need to know facts, she said.
If some of the basics of a good college education are thinking well, writing well, arguing a point well, and knowing facts, how can you explain to a skeptic that the skills our students learn may not pay off for many years? And how can you exactly pinpoint their importance or demonstrate success?
For this part of her speech, she took us through a part of her family’s history. Her grandfather, a sharecropper in the deep South, was a man named John Wesley Rice and he understood the transforming power of education. He worked to go to school, earning a scholarship and becoming a Presbyterian minister. The world of the mind and ideas mattered to him.
Though money was extremely tight in the 1920s for them, he bought nine leather bound books for $90 – a fortune. They were the works of Shakespeare, and Balzac, and Hugo and others. Her grandparents paid $9 a year for 10 years to own these book Her proudest moment was being given the surviving five books from this set when she got her Ph.D. It was through education that their lives could be transformed and elevated.
Dr. Rice talked about the importance of students finding their passion, not just a job or a career. To be fulfilled, people need something that makes them want to get up every day and do that thing. Her own academic path was full of twists and turns. She had initially thought she would be a pianist. But she realized that was not what she wanted, and tried several possible majors (without feeling the right fit), then she wandered into a course on international politics taught by a former Czech diplomat, and that class opened up the world of the Soviet Union and the Eastern block and diplomacy.
Her parents were supportive. She joked that when she told her parents she wanted to be a Soviet specialist, her mom and dad did not say “What’s a nice black girl from Birmingham doing this for?” They knew that finding your passion is a powerful tool to finding out what you are good at and how to be fulfilled.
In terms of advice for today’s students, she challenged students to do something hard. It’s easy to do what you are good at, but she urged students to go outside their comfort zone and take those harder classes in academic departments that stretch you. Those classes will broaden your skills, she said, and you will get more out of overcoming something hard than just doing something easy.
She did venture into the realm of civic responsibility. Dr. Rice praised service learning and said she hopes we have students learn what life is like for people who are not as fortunate. Service learning and volunteering not only helps students learn to be good citizens: by helping others who have need, you get back so many benefits.
Finally, she addressed some of the disparities in education. Education is a privilege, she argued, not a right. Dr. Rice said that there are people who are just as smart and capable and yet have not been able to go to college because of their life’s circumstances. She cautioned that people should never give way to aggrievement about why life is hard for them, nor should people who have benefited from college or other advantages make you feel like you are entitled.
Her core belief is that people who are educated have a chance to engage with a whole wealth of human knowledge, and are thus better able to navigate a changing world more capably. And by extension, help the world in a more peaceful and prosperous direction.
We have done it and will continue to do it, she said. But only if we acknowledge that what we have in higher education is very special and that it is our responsibility to pass it on to the next generation, leaving the world and higher education in better shape than we found it.
She received a much-deserved standing ovation at the end, then took questions from the audience for about 15 minutes.
I don’t believe I have heard a better speech in Wait Chapel in the last 10 years. Again, no matter which side of the aisle you are on, this woman is a special talent and her likability cannot be understated.
How fortunate we were to have her here sharing her thoughts with our faculty and staff, and your students!