Remarks at the Academic Convocation
GENERAL J. H. BINFORD PEAY, III
Remarks at the Academic Convocation
4 September 2013
Welcome to this morning’s Convocation marking the opening of the 2013-2014 academic year. We are honored to have with us Dr. Jonathan Lyons, today’s Convocation speaker, whom I will have the pleasure of introducing to you in a few moments.
First, I want to recognize the cadets who are seated to your front. They are Cadets Distinguished in Academic Merit, and I ask you to join me in expressing our congratulations to them on their accomplishments. [Applause]
Each year at this time we gather to acknowledge and to celebrate the central mission of the Institute, which is to produce educated, informed young men and women who have the knowledge, skills, fitness and character to be useful citizens for all professions…, and ready, if qualified, to serve as citizen-soldiers. The means by which we seek to accomplish this mission have changed over the course of the Institute’s 173 years, but the mission remains the same.
We begin this academic year at a time of much discussion as to the relevancy of higher education in the United States. Just one year ago, Newsweek magazine featured a cover story entitled “Is College a Lousy Investment?” More recently, William J. Bennett, Secretary of Education under President Reagan, published a book entitled Is college Worth It?, in which he asks if colleges have outlived their usefulness. (Bennett, by the way, was our commencement speaker in 1987.) Other publications, like the New York Review of Books, have asked if colleges are now an endangered species. Surely the mounting cost of higher education, plus the discouraging job prospects of college graduates in the current economy, have fueled such questions. I add, perhaps defensively, that greater than 90% of VMI graduates have jobs at graduation and the Institute is a national leader in that regard. But it appears that there is much more behind the current criticism of a four-year (or more) college education, including – to suggest a few reasons -- the availability of information at the fingertips of anyone with a “smart phone” or tablet; the availability of online instruction; the reluctance of many colleges to seriously question what undergraduate education should be all about; and even the example of some high-profile creative individuals who, as college drop-outs, have achieved enormous success and wealth. Today, some young people are asking, “Why am I going to college?”
The situation we face today may affect more individuals than any at any time in our nation’s past, but it is not new. The question of whether or not the education our young people receive is “useful” – as our speaker today has investigated – has been with us since the early colonial days. Closer in time and closer to home, the question was of intense concern to the founders of VMI, who wanted to produce educated citizens of character for, as they put it, “the varied work of civil life, and as Citizen-Soldiers.” It was no by accident that the Founders called their new creation an “institute” and not a “college.” For the first 25 years of the history of VMI, the goal was to produce engineers, agriculturalists, teachers, militia officers, and other professionals who could be described as being “scientific.” In the later nineteenth century, the debate in our nation often centered on “useful education” vs “moral education.” In my own time, the nation went through extreme soul-searching in 1957 when it appeared, because of the Soviet Union’s launching of the first satellite, that our colleges and universities had failed to produce the scientists and engineers needed to keep the US ahead in the Cold War. As long as there are colleges and universities in this country, I am certain that “debate” will continue over their proper role and purpose.
If the college or university experience were intended only to furnish the mind with “useful” information and prepare an individual for employment, some of the criticisms I have alluded to would probably be valid. Where the goal is simply to train a person for a profession, the task can be achieved in many, and perhaps more efficient, ways than four years in a classroom. There are, for example, many successful machine-teaching and online educational programs, some sponsored by traditional colleges and some offered by businesses and industry. There are apprenticeship programs. But we should not abandon the idea that the traditional college or university experience, particularly at the undergraduate level, is broader than professional training or the amassing of information. A college or university is also an academic community, where ideas are developed, discussed, challenged, or defended…even in a military structured environment. A college or university is an academic community that permits mental and emotional development of the individual before he or she launches out into the demanding so-called “real world” where there is often little time for sustained reflection or intellectual experimentation. A college or university is an academic community where relationships – finding new friends and mentors -- are created outside of one’s familiar environment. And…, a college or a university is “at its center”, a world of ideas and learning.
Are the years spent at a college or university wasted? Are the costs too high? Are the results open to question? Is the productivity too low? Have colleges and universities failed to do what the world wants done? Or, as Newsweek’s cover story asks, “Is College a Lousy Investment?” The answers to these questions may depend on your perspective. What sort of an investment is it for the nation and society? What sort of an investment is it for the individual? How do you measure the “worth” of a college education? Certainly, there should be transparency and accountability by and for all of us. There is no clear single answer…; perhaps there is only the answer of each student who invests four years – or more -- of his or her life pursuing a degree, and perhaps there is only the answer that is reflected in what kind of nation and society we are. And since we are a nation of individuals, the former may shape the latter. Unlike some Wall Street investments, where the return is expected in the short-term, a college or university education is an investment that often pays dividends, many unexpected, over a lifetime. I believe that is the case at and for VMI.
Our speaker today is a journalist and a historian, but above all he is a student of ideas. Jonathan Lyons recently has been studying the history of the American Enlightenment, the subject of his recent book entitled Society for Useful Knowledge. In it he deals with the founders’ belief that “the value of knowledge is directly proportional to its utility” and the modern world’s loss of notions of wisdom and mystery.
He holds a BA in Russian and History from Wesleyan University, and was a Fellow at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute of Soviet Studies. He holds the doctorate in sociology and has taught at George Mason University, Georgetown University, and Monash University in Australia. He served as an editor and foreign correspondent for Reuters for more than twenty years.
He has been especially interested in the relationship between the Islamic and Western worlds, which led to publication in 2003 of his Answering Only to God: Faith and Freedom in 21st Century Iran. He has also written The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization, and Islam Through Western Eyes: From the Crusades to the War on Terrorism.
Dr. Lyons has said, “The state of public discussion, news coverage, and political debate only reinforces his conviction that the problems surrounding our world spring from fundamental issues of thought, ideas, and knowledge…”
Please welcome, Dr. Jonathan Lyons.