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Defending the liberal arts at graduation time

As I try to wrap up a busy year in the dean's office, I want to post the graduation address I delivered last week to the NYU College of Arts and Sciences. This was a chance to try to usethe Roman world to get people thinking afresh about liberal arts education. How can we create more such moments (that don't rely on graduation ceremonies)? What would you say to audiences outside of academia? How can I improve my own argument? (Do keep in mind that I had less than ten minutes to address a body of parents, graduates,and faculty, and it's a celebratory event.)

Deputy President Yu, Dean Starr, my distinguished faculty colleagues, students of the great Class of 2014, and finally an audience I am especially pleased to address, our students' parents, family members, and friends: thank you. It is a great honor and a frank pleasure to speak to you on this day of celebration.

These days there's a lot of confusion and misinformation out there about college and the point of a college degree. So I want to say something to you today about the history and purpose of the liberal arts experience. I say "experience" because we faculty know very well that college is just that. Despite what you may think from the fact that we throw assignments and papers and labs at you week after week, semester after semester, we understand that college is not a bunch of our classes strung together; it's an immersion in a community, a set of experiments in social life and culture.

When I look back my own years in college, the memories that surface include images and sensations, but also sounds. One all too common sound, and a memory I expect I share with some of you, was the clacking of the keyboard in my quiet dorm room as I pulled an all-nighter while everyone around me slept in peace. Another one: the ding of my alarm going off again, and again, and again, and again, at a time in my life when getting out of bed before noon felt outrageously early. And of course I remember the uproar of some truly spectacular parties.

But most of all, I remember people talking. The voices of my friends at the dinner table; the lilt of new languages; the cadence of my professors as they lectured.

Dean Starr noted a few minutes ago that speech was the core of liberal arts education in the Renaissance. As she said, an education in rhetoric meant much more than learning how to build an argument. It was an education in sound — in creating sounds that would appeal, sway, convince, and educate. In the west, this tradition goes back to the cities of ancient Rome, where teachers first began to describe education using the phrase "liberales artes," the skills suitable to free, self-governing people.

At the heart of ancient liberal arts education was an exercise known in Latin as the declamatio, or declamation. It worked like this: the teacher would pick a sample case and assign students to argue one side or the other. As we do today, teachers back then sought to keep students hooked with interesting assignments; so these cases were sensational, sometimes even gruesome. Virtually all of them were fictional, and would never have been argued in a court of law. Test yourself now against three two-thousand-year-old exercises:

  • A man commands his son to kill his own mother, who has been caught in bed with another man; the son refuses. May he be disinherited?
  • Twin babies get very sick. All the doctors agree the case is hopeless except one, who guarantees he will cure one of the twins if he is allowed to examine the internal organs of the other. The mother objects, but the father consents, and the doctor vivisects one child. The other child is cured, but the mother charges the father of criminal behavior. Who is right, mother or father?
  • Last one: A poor man and a rich man are country neighbors. The rich man grew flowers, and the poor man kept bees. The rich man complained that the bees were harming his flowers, and told the poor man to move them. When he did not, the rich man sprinkled his flowers with poison, and the bees all died. The poor man seeks property damages. Is he justified?

Confronted with the job of prosecution or defense, the Roman student quickly composed a speech. Later, surrounded by his fellow students, he declaimed his work from memory with all the passion and flair he could muster.

Keep in mind that there was no such thing as a classroom or a school building in Rome two thousand years ago. Students and teachers met outdoors, under colonnades: this was truly an education, as NYU's slogan goes, in the city and of the city. Classes were held close to the Forum, the center of politics, commerce, and law, so that the students could learn from real-life situations.

For the tiny number of students who would go on to careers in law or politics, this training in speech-making had obvious utility. But Roman educators believed that for all the others too, the great majority, the benefits went far beyond the practical: therhetorical curriculum bestowed an indestructible sense of self-knowledge, confidence and mastery.

Think what would produce a good grade in the exercise about the sick twins. Wide reading is key. Philosophy and the sciences refine powers of logical thought and illuminate questions of health and illness; studying history, language, and religion enriches understanding of human values and laws; literature and art spark the imagination and offer insight into what moves people. Understanding of human psychology is required to grasp the role emotions play in moral decision-making — and in fact, the classical rhetoricians were the west's first psychologists.

Roman teachers demanded memorization, but creativity and inspiration had to take over when memory failed. This education was physical, too: posture, gesture, facial expression and voice were honed for maximum impact. In the Roman school, it was impossible to forget your homework or lose your paper on your hard drive. You had to perform, on the spot.

Students had to study and shape themselves, and confront their strengths and weaknesses head on before the eyes of their peers. Grit and risk-taking were crucial.

Above all, though, rhetorical education inculcated a quality the philosopher Hannah Arendt calls "worldiness": deep familiarity with the world around us, and a commitment to protect all its diverse aspects — nature, the institutions we live by, the people we know personally and people we can only imagine.

At its best, Roman rhetorical education gave students a remarkable opportunity to take a very active part in their own development: it trained them to make moral judgments by drawing deeply on knowledge across disciplines and fields. Ideally, the need to persuade taught students to find common ground with others — and to learn the fine lines between confidence and arrogance, between a good thought and a great one. Roman rhetoricians believed that the best speakers were the ones with the best imaginations: only they could think and feel outside themselves.

This, I think, is the great aim of a liberal arts education. So I want you to use the hours you have spent here absorbed in study; use those hours spent in the world outside the university, in community service or an internship; use those hours lying in bed lost in self-reflection, or talking with friends at a noisy party. Use all these experiences to discern what is just and right; make yourself into an engine of purpose; imagine the world as others see it; speak out; persuade; connect.

This is the dream of one faculty member for you, at least; and I wish you strength and happiness as you turn yourself to the future. Congratulations, best wishes, and good fortune to the Class of 2014.

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