Douglas J. Bennet Delivers Final Commencement Address as Wesleyan President

Posted 05/27/.07
The following remarks were made by by Wesleyan University President Douglas J. Bennet during the 175th commencement ceremony May 27, 2007.

Welcome to the 731 members of the Class of 2007.

Slava! Slava! Slava!

And if you don’t know what that mean’s you’ll have to ask one of the students. They obviously knew of my love of Russian history.

Welcome parents, family members, friends, and well-wishers.
Welcome to our distinguished honorees.
Welcome Wesleyan trustees, faculty and staff.
Welcome alumni and your families, including
Welcome to Wesleyan’s 175th Commencement.

This is the last time as president I will have the honor to address the Wesleyan community. The class of 2007 and Midge and I will depart together, all of us sharing enduring Wesleyan educational values. I want to talk about those values and particularly the interrelationship of individual liberal education and concern for the common interest. Having received a dose of both at Wesleyan, I have found the combination incredibly enabling.

Willbur Fisk, Wesleyan’s first president, spoke at the opening of Wesleyan University on September 21, 1831. Education has two objectives, he said, “the good of the individual and the good of the world.” This dictum has been much quoted at Wesleyan commencements ever since, but there is more to this passage, so that education for the public good becomes the superior goal and essential to an individual’s success in life. President Fisk went on to say, ”As people are too disposed to consider their own separate interests and are prompted by selfishness to act in exclusive reference to that interest, the only safe course is to provide for the education of youth in direct reference to the wants of the world…. For, although a fatal error may result from consulting only what appears to be the interest of the individual, yet he or she cannot be educated wrong, for any of the purposes of life, who is judiciously educated in reference to the public good.“

In reality, education, then as now, is intensely individual most of the time. The process of finding out, learning, testing, articulating is facilitated by good teachers and mentors, but it is eventually sustained by inquiring individuals. You will find that these individual intellectual capabilities are not lost through life but refreshed and sharpened.

The individual side of education obviously contributes to the public good side of the equation. There are a lot of courses you have taken that will directly reinforce your civic capabilities. But beyond the classroom and the study carrel, there is something in this place that produces strong civic commitment.

At this point I find myself wanting—perhaps for posterity, when some future president tries to figure out what we were thinking at the turn of the 21st century—a Bennet-era statement of what a Wesleyan education is supposed to achieve. Here are some lines from a plan the faculty and I worked out just after I became president: It was the best we could do to envision the world a Wesleyan education would address:

“Wesleyan graduates will live in a world of plurality and change. They will change jobs, communities, countries. They will work on a turbulent frontier of new information and technological advances. They will have to make ethical and moral judgments based on the reliability of their own gyroscopes, more than on received wisdom. They will need confidence to choose their own directions. They will need the ability to capture the energy of change rather than being captured by it. They must be able to prosper in a global economy. Their success as individuals, citizens, and leaders will require both enduring skills and a platform of knowledge and values against which to assess an explosion of new information and unfamiliar circumstances.

“The task of liberal education, as we see it, today, is to instill capacity for critical and creative thinking that can address unfamiliar and changing circumstances, to engender a moral sensibility that can weigh consequences beyond self, and to establish an enduring love of learning for its own sake.

We intend that Wesleyan’s graduates have a strong sense of public purpose and responsibility for the global future. Wesleyan education for the 21st Century.”

I have great confidence in the civic education you have received and developed at Wesleyan. You care enough to act. You will know enough to find the levers of change. You will figure out ways to capture and direct the forces of change that are all around us. I have already seen you take action in residential life, in the classroom, and in the community, and you have shown that you are the people who will affect change. This has been your response to Hurricane Katrina, to the Indian Ocean Tsunami, to the tragedy in Darfur, to Virginia Tech, to your Middletown neighbors, and to issues here on campus including your leadership on environmental concerns. By working together, by transcending geographical, cultural, economic, and political boundaries to promote positive change, you have given each other valuable peripheral vision that will help orient you in these struggles.

I have traveled a lot during these twelve years, meeting with Wesleyan alumni/ae of all classes. They are accomplished academically, but they are, in addition, risk takers, change makers and people, individually and collectively, with an extraordinarily high level of concern for the welfare of society. The class of 2007 will find a lot of kindred spirits.

Fisk saw being “educated in reference to the public good” as an antidote to selfishness that might allow people to err. Having been educated in reference to the public good at Wesleyan, I suggest that its importance is positively empowering or, as I said earlier, enabling. It nourishes breadth of vision which helps you make life choices that are important and valid. It draws you to common enterprises that are stronger than separate ones. Those common enterprises will, if they are sound, be populated with the kinds of diversity of colleagues who have learned to appreciate Wesleyan.

Whatever your daily work or profession, your influence will be greater if it includes public commitments. Reference to public good can provide regular ethical check-ups.

There is one more thing I want to say to the class of 2007, Midge and send our love and congratulations and expect to stay in touch.

Thank you very, very much.