Professor Henderson Convocation 2015 Address
“Aspects of Transformation”
William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of Education
Furman University Convocation
September 3, 2015
Good morning. As the title of my talk indicates, I’m going to spend a few minutes discussing something that President Davis has emphasized on previous occasions. Specifically, I want to talk about an education that not only informs, but also transforms.
First, let’s see what the dictionary says about the word transform. Dictionary.com provides this utterly professorial definition: to transform is to become transformed. That was helpful, wasn’t it? Fortunately, another online dictionary provides the following definition for transform: to change the outward form or inner character. Having once taught middle-school students, I can tell you that there isn’t a whole lot a teacher can do to change the outward form of a student (bovine gum-chewing notwithstanding)—and because Furman extends a laudable liberality with respect to what our students wear and how they—AIR QUOTES—“style” themselves, I think it would be safer for me to confine my remarks to inner character instead of outer form.
Before identifying which aspects of inner character we might wish to transform, let me take a moment to talk about how fast we can expect those changes to occur. Basic physics tells us that velocity equals distance divided by time. To put it differently, velocity depends on how far you have to go and how much time you are given to get there. And therein lies the rub. We are living in an era when policymakers and elected officials often set highly unrealistic educational goals. They want our children—both individually and collectively—to make dramatic gains—to travel great academic distances—in very short periods of time. Even more frustrating, we are told that these gains must be quantifiable; nothing, it seems, matters unless you can affix a number to it. Colleges and universities are not exempt from these contemporary fetishes. More and more colleges are having to report the standardized test scores of their graduates—for instance, GRE and LSAT results. Furthermore, there are increasing calls for a national exit exam that all college graduates would be required to take—and whose results would form the basis of “grading” institutions of higher learning. That would certainly make us retreat back to the monasteries.
I assert that we make a fundamental mistake if we think that a transformative education—a change in inner character—can occur rapidly. We are not alchemists and this is not Hogwarts. Indeed, if a student comes to class tomorrow morning and says, “Dr. Henderson, I was transformed last night,” I will immediately send that student to the infirmary—or suggest that he/she read a little less Kafka. (If necessary, feel free to Google “Kafka.”) I would further submit that in educational terms, even the span of four years qualifies as an overnight sleepover. With regard to the issue of quantification, it rarely has any validity or even relevance when we speak of inner character. Who among you could quantify the impact of your one or two most influential teachers? Were you transformed from a 5 to a 7? Or were you closer to a 6 who became an 8? I think you get my point.
Let me now suggest three things that Furman students should look for in terms of transformations—though no two people will experience them at the same time or in exactly the same way.
First, Furman seeks to transform closed minds into liberated intellects. No, I didn’t say “liberal intellectuals”—I said “liberated intellects.” One of the oldest and noblest objectives of a liberal arts education is to liberate the mind to doubt intelligently. That’s what we mean by a liberated intellect. I hasten to add that this doesn’t mean you should question everything all the time; that’s the opposite of acting “intelligently.” I should also add that you shouldn’t doubt only the views of others. You must apply thoughtful skepticism to your own beliefs as well.
Second, Furman seeks to transform unreflective speakers into perceptive listeners. I once heard the concept of “listening” defined in the following manner: “Listening is not an activity that can occur when your lips are moving.” It took me a minute or two to get that—I must have been talking instead of listening. At any rate, we live in a world in which people increasingly talk past one another instead of to one another. Worse still, if we refuse to listen, we miss the chance to potentially learn something—or even more important, re-learn something. Our own silence can sometimes be the best teacher.
Third, Furman seeks to transform mutual exclusion into mutual inclusion. When we state that two things are mutually exclusive, we mean that they cannot co-exist. And yet one of the great problems confronting the human race has been—and continues to be—the ability of different races, religions, philosophies, and ideas to peacefully co-exist. Residential colleges and universities are on the forefront of this kind of real-world problem-solving. To take but one of countless examples, Furman and other colleges have the opportunity to show the rest of society how to welcome individuals who identify as transgender. Mind you, words alone will not be sufficient. As the philosopher John Locke noted in his 1690 essay entitled Some Thoughts on Education: “People learn most by example. Thus, we should not wonder why children better understand what they see than what they hear.” Or, as a participant in the current cohort of the Riley Institute’s Diversity Leaders Initiative recently noted: “Diversity is a fact, but inclusion is a decision.”
These are three of the primary—though not the only—aspects of a transformative education. You cannot find them on a midterm exam, or in an acceptance letter to graduate school, or in a year-end bonus from your employer. Rather, you will find them in what the ancient Greeks referred to as “human flourishing”—which in the most literal sense means “good spirit.”
With confidence and eagerness, let us all begin this new academic year by making our way toward the goal of a good spirit.