Graduation Address to the Program in Education

July 10, 2013

May 9, 2013

This time of year I am asked to share a lot of thoughts. And I want to keep things fresh—there is nothing worse than a recycled graduation talk. So each talk that I give in this season, I try to make sense of all the things that have happened over the year, and sum up the educational challenges in front of us.  And my guess is that many of you have your minds on other things. This makes it hard to focus on anything I might share—especially since you may have already heard some of it before. I did an informal poll this morning, and only one of the twenty-odd colleagues I interacted with remembered what was said at their graduation!  Against all odds, then, I am also going to try to make it memorable, and share with you a particular image that has been important to me educationally and speaks to the key questions of our time.

This year I have been working a lot with members of the Program in Education department, particularly in the Program in Service Learning, about the role of integrative education. What does it look like for us to put it all together? How do we do so by following our passions as well as getting a job? How do we move beyond the binaries that plague us—as David Malone and I spoke about with students the other day—Wall St versus Peace Corps, passion major versus the major that will get you a job, and so on. How do we live our questions—the ones we will never fully know the answer to but we will never tire of asking?

As students of education, and as families of students who focus on education, you have already made that choice to move beyond those binaries. You have already committed your lives to something that will be less lucrative than Wall Street, and yet, in another way, more powerful and transformative than any form of wealth we know.  And so for choosing an alternative form of wealth—that of intellectual and cultural wealth— I give you my congratulations.

I work a lot with Wall Street folks, and they all remember their professors at Duke in the same way that they remember their primary and secondary school teachers. For them, Duke professors have a kind of mythic quality. They remember the professors’ inspirational qualities, they remember their ethics, and they remember tone of voice. They remember the living examples before them and try to emulate them somehow.  So I know from the other side of the desk that you have far more influence than you think you do.

What is the nature of that influence? I think of you all as fellow tillers of the field, going into the same business that we all chose so many years ago—that of the care of intellectual souls. That is indeed the business of education—the care of intellectual souls. And in that care, I have been concerned this year about one thing: as we care and nurture the life of the mind, how do we move beyond a world in which the choice of topic determines our identities? How do we move beyond a world where the economics major is better than the classics major? Where we cultivate the life of the mind without stigma attached to any given topic of study? We live in tough economic times, and those times are such that it does feel as if certain majors and topics of study bestow more prestige than others.  

And this is the challenge that I ask you, newly minted fellow educators, to help me with. You will be teaching at all levels, and in all sorts of contexts. You have a challenge before you because of the contexts of our times. We are not living in the days of exploration of the 60’s and 70’s. We are not living in the economic good times of the 80’s or the mid 2000’s. We are living in a world which has still not recovered from the great recession, and is not necessarily culturally focused on exploration.  And so: how do we cultivate a sense of wonder and self-respect, a sense of exploration and intellectual purpose, in these particular times?  I don’t fully know the answers, but am trying to live the question. And because you comprise a new generation of educators, you too must live this question.

In trying to answer this question, I am haunted by the short story of Elizabeth McCracken, “Mercedes Kane.” The story’s main character is Ellen, the single mother of a particularly listless girl, Ruthie.  Ellen is frustrated by Ruthie’s lack of motivation. When she was a girl, Ellen longed to be a prodigy—to be amazing at something.  The nature of what her talent would be was almost immaterial; it could be music or math or literature. During Ellen’s childhood, she was inspired by Mercedes Kane, who was just this kind of prodigy. By the age of eight, Mercedes was a published writer and spoke six languages. Now as a mother, Ellen meets Mercedes Kane again, walking in the street, and invites her home to stay with them. She hopes that this genius she admired could light a fire under her and her daughter. As Mercedes spends time with Ellen and Ruthie in their home, Ellen praises her and her accomplishments.  But during their week together, Mercedes Kane rejects all of their overtures, and abruptly leaves in the middle of the night.

Ellen is heartbroken when she realizes that Mercedes Kane has left.  It is clear from this departure that Mercedes Kane will go on hiding her talents for the rest of her life. She has insisted over and over again that she does not have those talents. And yet, at the end of the story, there is another small clue: Mercedes leaves a corrected math paper on the table, suggesting that indeed she is the person Ellen thought she was.

Mercedes Kane’s hiding of her own genius is one of the most poignant parts of McCracken’s story. She hides her own genius because she feels as if she had no other option in becoming a successful person: the life of the mind was only instrumental in becoming a “success” in someone else’s eyes. Being a genius reminds Mercedes of her past struggles, and her own failures at fitting in. She confides during her visit that she always wanted to be pretty, not smart. And so the story asks us: is there one way to be successful? Do we all possess only one narrative of success, and if we do not fulfill that narrative, are we doomed to tell ourselves or others that we have failed?

As educators, you are responsible for addressing that possibility and reversing that sense of failure. What if you have young women and men like Mercedes Kane in your class? Whose passion for something, whose delight in something, is muted or distorted because of the social forces around them—some of them quite legitimate forces? What if you see this happening at an early age, such as at age 8 or 9? What if you see it happening in high school?  How will you, as the caretaker of intellectual souls, change this situation? The number one person who has the power to change that distortion is you. The number one person who can help someone reconcile who they are and what they want to be is you.

That is the depth and extent of your charge, and in my view, it is the most serious responsibility that this society can give. You will be the person who can guide a child or a young adult in delighting in their own abilities and taking responsibility for them. You will be the person who can prevent someone from running away from their own abilities. How many children and young adults only leave faint signs of their own particular genius, like Mercedes Kane leaves her corrected math test as a faint sign that there was once a person with enormous talent, who now needs to be hidden? And how will you take the nascent traces, or even the repressed or silenced or forgotten traces, of that talent and create instead for that student a productive, fulfilling way of being in the world?

If you have been educated by this extraordinary Program in Education at Duke, then you have the tools to do this. You have already become extraordinary educators. You will help your students become the best stewards of their own talents, and reaffirm their commitments to the life of the mind. You will thrive with all of your new skills and insights and research that make this program so vibrant. And you will be the difference between the students whose talents are hidden, and those whose talents have become a joyful and open part of who they are, and are used to build and re-build the world.   

Congratulations on becoming the caretakers of intellectual souls.

Laurie L. Patton
Dean of Arts & Sciences
Durden Professor of Religion