2019 Faculty Convocation
September 12, 2019
Iona President Seamus Carey, Ph.D.
Welcome. It is a bit awkward welcoming people back to a place they have been before me. But welcome to the new academic year. I haven’t had a chance to meet many of you before now, but I am looking forward to working with you and getting to know each of you individually.
For today, I want to share with you three general ideas I have been thinking about and tie them to what I have seen in my first six weeks at Iona.
First of all, starting today, here, now, I want to invite all of you to engage in the conversation that is underway about reimagining higher education. This conversation is critically important, it is unavoidable, and it is one in which we, the Iona community, should be a leading voice. As we turn our attention to this conversation, we should remember that it is not a new conversation nor is it foreign to academics. We in the academy have been in the business of reimagining education for over 2500 years. In fact, reimagination, I would argue, is our primary business. And, though it may seem like we shy from invention, or adaptation, or innovation, we have been the leaders of those endeavors since the days of Babylon and ancient Greece.
Second, I want to argue that the struggle between whether universities and colleges ought to devote their energies either to workforce development and job preparation or to knowledge and learning for their own sakes is a false conflict that belies the very definitions both of good work and fruitful learning.
Finally, I will argue that regardless of which side of this manufactured conflict we find ourselves on, we start from a common point of concern, we share a common goal, we have a common obligation, and we seek to make and meet a common promise.
Let me ease into these choppy waters with a story. A year ago around this time, my wife and I were traveling to LaGuardia Airport, usually a 15-minute drive from my family’s home. But when the Mets are playing at Citi Field and the U.S. Open is in session on the same night, the drive can take more than an hour, so we arranged for a taxi to come early. As we climbed into the cab, I asked the driver about the traffic. He said it was heavy, but he didn’t seem concerned.
Then he asked if I knew about the Waze app. I told him that I did. He ignored my response and launched into an animated explanation about how Waze works. He explained, ‘it provides real time traffic updates by constantly processing data from its users’ phones. It even tells you where the police are.’ Looking up from his phone after some fidgeting, he announced that we would arrive at 7:15. This was a little confusing because that meant our trip would take only 20 minutes.
We then started on the ride of our lives. Familiar roads, unfamiliar roads, highways, side streets, we took them all. As soon as we crossed the Whitestone Bridge our driver jumped off the highway at the first exit and began speeding down unfamiliar streets like a starving mouse in a maze. I told him that I had lived my entire life in New York and I had never been down any of these streets. I got a little nervous when he shot back, “Me neither.”
On one busy narrow street we came upon a car struggling to parallel park. Our driver immediately began blowing his horn. In a panic, the driver of the other car abandoned his efforts to make his car parallel with the curb and instead backed up diagonally onto the sidewalk to let us go by. Our car sped past him and, after a few runs through yellow lights, we arrived at the airport terminal. “It’s 7:17. What time did I say we would arrive?” the driver asked. “7:15,” I reminded him. “Damn. If it wasn’t for that guy trying to park, I would have made it.”
Initially I was surprised by his disappointment, since we had avoided what was likely an hour of traffic, but then I realized that we were approaching Waze differently. I was pleased because we had avoided the potential traffic jams with ease. He was disappointed because he didn’t match its predictions. It wasn’t his fault, of course. Waze had missed that random guy having trouble parallel parking, and our driver, despite mastery of the best tools available and despite experience and well-practiced skill, couldn’t overcome the ordinary chaos such events represent. As I thought more about our driver’s reaction to being two minutes late rather than 60 minutes early, it struck me that he felt he had let the technology down.
"I believe that cultivating wisdom and fostering meaningful lives is what motivates us to be here."
Think for a moment about his enthusiasm for the Waze technology and the frustration he expressed using it. The technology gave him the pragmatic freedom to navigate the busy streets of New York while dodging obstacles that would have inhibited others. But it also trapped him. Even with the magical app he still had to manage the unpredictable, crazy-making, accidental encounters that define the human condition.
One way to view the struggle of this cab driver is to consider it in light of the cultural moment we are living through today. We all realize that we are in the midst of a serious conversation about higher education. If you listen to the critics and the pundits, America’s colleges and universities are in serious trouble. You cannot turn on the television or pick up a newspaper or magazine without someone declaring loudly and sometimes shrilly that we cost too much, that we aren’t relevant, that we aren’t practical and worse, that we aren’t needed.
Political candidates ask us to consider how many jobs there are for “Greek philosophers.” Others joke that “psychology majors will end up working at Chick-fil-A.” Pundits, on the left and on the right, demand that we pour all our energy into job preparation and workforce development. Those same pundits chastise universities and colleges for “coddling students by being too politically correct or not politically correct enough,” and everywhere we turn there are commentators yelling “fire” at the top of their lungs while offering shallow solutions to deeply entrenched challenges.
Now we shouldn’t be naive. We cannot ignore these critics. I have two children in college and one recently graduated. I know first-hand that college costs a great deal. And I know that college must be worth the cost. Those of us in higher education – regardless of our discipline or academic interests – must be vigilant about helping students acquire the knowledge and skills required to get and keep good, productive jobs. And given the technological revolution we are living through, the very meaning of work and jobs is transforming radically. We must identify what they need to navigate the emerging economy and prepare them for it. At the same time, we know that we must be efficient and cost-effective for their parents' sake if for no other reason. Most importantly, we know that we must ensure that we only make promises that we can keep, and then we must live up to the promises we make.
I also believe unreservedly that this work is the core of what Iona does; it is one of the central reasons we exist and who we strive to be. But I also know that we must do more.
We should remember that the academy has always colored outside the lines. Socrates was many things, social critic of those indifferent to true wisdom, gadfly to the so-called experts hired to tutor the young elite in rhetoric, or politics, or warfare. He was also relentless in questioning these “experts” on what they knew, because he recognized that the knowledge they were teaching was incidental to the wisdom required to live a full and free life. In fact, in Socrates’ view, to be satisfied with what one knew could actually turn out to be the most serious obstacle to obtaining wisdom. Consider again my cab driver: He knew how to get to the airport faster than ever but did not have the perspective or wisdom to counter his unhappiness at not being fast enough.
Though we might not say it loudly in these contentious times, I believe that cultivating wisdom and fostering meaningful lives is what motivates us to be here. I believe every one of us interested in higher education is dedicated to helping students look beyond the facts they have been taught, and to see how those facts connect to each other and to the wider realities they sustain. I believe that we do our work because developing wisdom and deepening meaning is the way to a more fulfilling life. I believe that it is the pursuit of such wisdom and meaning that holds the best hope for our survival as a free community.
I believe, too, despite the chatter of the moment, that such conflicts between practical knowledge and wisdom or meaning, rather than being impediments to progress, have been the chief driver of innovation and progress throughout history. The monks of the scriptorium used sophisticated, carefully mastered skills to advance and preserve both the practical knowledge and received wisdom of the Middle Ages. Significant periods of history – the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Age of Exploration, the Industrial Revolution, even our very modern era of online education – were all jumpstarted by academics, scientists, and intellectuals who discovered transformative knowledge in the pursuit of hard facts and uncomfortable truths. Consider the work of Galileo, Descartes, Mary Somerville, Newton, Darwin, Lise Meitner, Einstein, Barbara McClintock, Watson and Crick, Alan Turing and Grace Hopper. Indeed it was the pursuit of wisdom in their times by these individuals that created the history of invention, innovation, and creative adaptation that made possible the advancement of civilization, whether that advancement occurred in 400BCE, 1666, 1859, or 2019.
"...we share a common goal, we have a common obligation, and we seek to make and meet a common promise."
My point is simple. What we do here at Iona has to be about more than just more education. It has to be about more than jobs, wages, and skills. It has to be about more than cost-effectiveness and efficiency. It has to be about the uniquely human traits of friendship, courage, virtue, compassion, honor, and freedom that turn a well-earned job into a life worth living.
And, if we do not have the wisdom to put such wisdom first, if we do not have the courage to teach our students how to both get a job and be free, then we will fail ourselves, our mission for two millennia, and the tradition of St. Columba that nurtures us.
Put another way, our reimagining higher education has to be about the cultivation of effective freedom. As philosopher Michael McCarthy writes, “Effective freedom means that no human being can be truly free who lacks the power, cultivated by education, to understand, enjoy, promote and preserve the highest human goods.” Technologies such as Waze contribute to human freedom by enhancing convenience, comfort, and efficiency. Their development and design can create good jobs and offer our children good wages. But by themselves, they cannot enhance the effective freedom that comes from the genuine higher education we hope to provide. That freedom requires the cultivation of character and the willingness to help our students discover and live in accordance with their higher selves.
Specifically, it demands that we teach all our students more than the skills required to communicate clearly, think critically, read and interpret carefully, and experiment productively. It also demands that our students learn more than how to do their chosen professions well or even superbly. Our reimagined Iona education should kindle a love of learning that fosters the desire to be curious, to be inquisitive, to be inventors and discoverers, and most of all, to not be afraid of the unknown.
For many of our students, this love of learning is first ignited by observing the passion their professors demonstrate for their subject matter. Think about why we all pursued a career in teaching in the first place, the spark we caught from a teacher on fire with her own enthusiasm and training. Think of it now and think of it every day as you head to campus. Offer it up to your students. Show them the fire they will remember as their own inspiration. We know how intensely this light shines in the eyes of teachers who inspire and how it touches their students with grace. We know what it means to be forged in such fire. We have the opportunity to pass on that spark with every lesson we teach.
The effective freedom that results from this education must also lead to action. It does not allow us or our students to retire to the ivory tower or the withdrawing room. It is driven by a love for the world and a desire to fix what needs to be fixed. To quote Hannah Arendt for the second time this week, “Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from that ruin, which… except for the coming of the new and the young, would be inevitable.” It is also, she continues, the place “where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new and unforeseen by us.”
Arendt’s vision of education includes an obligation we educators share with responsible employers and civic leaders. The educator, or business person, or politician, who opens the door to the light of learning and knowledge out of a love for the young and a celebration of the new will not only clarify the good and the bad but will also foster a deep sense of responsibility to care for the world. As Kierkegaard points out, what is most important about the doctor at a patient’s bedside is not the knowledge the doctor has, but that he is at the bedside. Pragmatic knowledge and excellent job skills are meaningless without understanding, compassion, and caring. Dedication to transferring such knowledge may get the trains to run on time but cannot relay what it means to be on board or the significance of where it is going.
When our instruction moves students to become women and men who embrace effective freedom, they will not turn away from being engaged citizens. They will not shy away from places that are unfamiliar and people who are different. They will know the joy of looking into the past and exploring the future. They will not be afraid to uncover the beautiful and the broken, the distant and the familiar, the celebratory and the shameful. They will not be perfect, of course. None of us is. But they will not turn away from the struggle.
These then are our promises. We will not shirk our responsibility to educate productive citizens and prepare our students for successful careers. We will not ignore our students’ need for meaningful work. We will serve our students and the communities of Iona, New Rochelle, New York and the nation with vigor and pride. But we will do more.
We will ignite a curiosity and love of learning that together inspire the bravery needed to change the world for the better. We will help our students find the courage to know where they stand, to know what they value most, and to act for the common good even when it goes against their self-interest. We will help our students understand that sifting through what they value is not easy, since so many things we consider good are at odds with each other. But we will teach them that such conflicts do not mean that we must not try, that such conflicts do not mean we do not choose.
Robert Kennedy once said, “The Gross National Product does not include the beauty of our poetry or the intelligence of our public debate. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”
Let our reimagined higher education teach students to seek a worthwhile life in service to others. Let us stand as communities of free inquiry. Let us champion intellectual engagement. Let us acknowledge that risk-taking and failure are essential for growth. Let us provide spaces where creativity, compassion, integrity, and moral courage matter, where our students discover their talents in light of what the world needs, and where our graduates put those talents toward the repair of the world.
"We will help our students find the courage to know where they stand, to know what they value most, and to act for the common good even when it goes against their self-interest."
And, if we do it right, our students will get the jobs they deserve and the careers they want. They will be recognized across the nation as creative, compassionate individuals who seek something greater than self-interest and power. They will be familiar with this vast and complex world so that they are not strangers, even in the most foreign lands. They will be inspired to care for themselves, for their families, and for their communities. And, along the way, they will help Iona blossom into a place widely recognized for the creative exploration of new ideas, for the principled management of resources, for the mercy and tolerance we show each other, and, yes, for economic successes that flourish because they feel free to commit wholeheartedly to making the world a better and safer place.
I came to Iona for the opportunity to nurture these ideas. I am grateful every day to be a part of a community of teachers, scholars, and inquirers and for the conversations, dialogues, and debates we enter into about these matters. I speak now in the hope that together we can embody a vision of higher education universally recognized for offering its students both pathways to world-class jobs and highways to worthy lives. If we can achieve that end, who will dare to say that such an education is not useful, not practical, or not valuable? Who would not want to study at Iona College. Who would turn away Iona graduates?