Last but certainly not least, we want to share with you the senior oration of Daniel Stefany. (Editor’s note: I have known the Stefany family for years. His parents are both Wake Forest alumni and they have another son who graduated in 2009. The Stefanys have served on the Alumni Council and this year are chairing the Parents’ Council. For those of you fortunate enough to live in the Tampa area, they have hosted the Tampa New Student Reception for years. It has been a pleasure to work with them as alumni and parent volunteers, and to watch both their sons blossom while at Wake Forest. )
The Burden of Ignorance
In November of 2011, this campus witnessed what can only be described as a hate crime, when homophobic slurs were spray-painted on several buildings and fraternity lounges. Many of you may have different memories of that day, but I remember it as the first day of my life where I was consciously ashamed to be a member of this university. About a week later, a well written letter to the Wake Forest student body came from Dr. Hatch talking about the incident. I remember reading this letter and feeling anger at its timing but also the excitement as if something big and momentous was about to happen. I went to my first class the next day, a constitutional law course, still incensed by the prejudiced vandalism but hopeful that something good could come out of it. Shortly after class began, Dr. Harriger announced that she wanted to spend the entire session discussing the incident and what it meant to us as students and members of the Wake Forest community. For the next hour a genuine and important conversation took place between our professor and students from all the different cross sections of this campus. Some students tuned out, perhaps predictably, and others became preoccupied with things like blaming particular groups for the event, but a still sizable segment genuinely listened, contributed, and benefited from the discussion that took place.
When I think about that incident and its aftermath, I think about the words of Dr. Maya Angelou—words which every freshman student hears during orientation: “Here you are invited to lay down the heavy, heavy burden of ignorance.” Sitting in the chairs of Scales Fine Arts Center four years ago, these are the same words I heard as a freshman and the same words I have heard each year since as a Resident Advisor. To me, they represent the great promise and the value of higher education; however, I am convinced also that they represent a value which has begun to disappear. As wonderful of an experience as my peers and I had in that class, it was only one class. I was taking five others where it went unmentioned, and the opportunity was there for so much more. If ever there was a chance to remove the burden of ignorance as Dr. Angelou foretold, this was the time for it and it could have been done campus-wide. The GSSA and student body were ready. They did their part and looked to our administration for help. Instead an important conversation was avoided, and this university revealed a very real gap between what it claimed to be and what it actually was. Then, hardly a year later, we held a debate on this very campus about whether or not we ought to continue to host Chic-Fil-a considering its stated views on LGBTQ issues. We were so quick and ready to debate the merits of another organization when we had so recently and spectacularly refused the opportunity for self-inspection ourselves. At a bare minimum, how much more informed could that debate have been?
Higher education faces a challenge today. In the world of fast tracked degrees, rigid syllabi driven classes, and college rankings, it is easy to lose sight of what’s truly important; however we must hold on to that which gives us it the most value. It is not the degree that will someday bring the high-paying job, but the invitation that Dr. Angelou spoke to us all about. It is the opportunity to rid ourselves of the ignorance that claims so many of us. I believe that higher education is in danger of becoming just another stepping stone in life, a means to more fashionable ends like jobs and money. This is something that universities across the country must resist. Faced with a growing gap between what a university educational experience purports to be and what it actually is, we must aspire to close this gap. We must aspire to live up to the promise every freshman at Wake Forest hears when they first walk these beautiful grounds. Higher education must dedicate itself to the difficult, challenging conversations of our time and never shy away from introspection and opportunities for self-improvement.
We cannot force anyone to participate in these conversations, but we can do better to make sure the invitation is extended. Some will ignore it, sure, and focus instead on the next step to achieve that paycheck or getting to the next party. But I believe we would all be surprised by the diversity and number of students who would take advantage of such a wonderful gift—a true education, more valuable than any job our degrees may yet bring us. It is a blessing for us to be here and it is criminal for us to waste our time while we are, and it is equally criminal for our time to be wasted. Here—here we are invited to lay down the heavy, heavy burden of ignorance. Here—on these grounds and in these classrooms. In today’s world of online classes and short-cuts, we must never forget this should be our focus, and universities across the country and world must aspire to be places where the invitation to learn is one that is both constant and true.