Diana DeGette

The Value of a Liberal Arts Education - Aug. 31, 1998

Diana DeGette
August 31, 1998— Colorado Springs, Colorado
Colorado College Opening Convocation Address
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Thank you, President Mohrman. This moment is very meaningful to me. I stand here as a proxy for so many people. This degree may have my name on it, but it is primarily a product of Colorado College. Here I encountered the history of ideas brokered by committed, wise, and dynamic teachers. Bob Loevy taught me all I know about American government. Tim Fuller opened my eyes to Aristotle's politics. I had the privilege of attending J. Glenn Gray's last lectures, and I was in his class the block he died. And Susan Ashley remains a personal hero to this day, both for her intellectual rigor and her personal commitment to her students. Many of these professors and so many others will inspire this generation of CC graduates, including the incoming class of 2002. But one instructor symbolized my time at Colorado College. He taught me the virtue of compassion and tolerance. He forever changed my way of thinking and my interaction with others. Colorado College would not have been such a profound and challenging experience without Al Johnson, the debate coach. He helped me to set high standards for my conduct and my conversation, and to have confidence in the person molded and shaped by my collegiate experiences. He was, and remains, an inspirational teacher, a close friend, and a role model, not just to me, but to generations of CC students like Mark Paich and John Shoskey. I would also like to recognize my family: my husband, Lino, my two daughters, and my sister, Cara. They are present today and have given me constant love and support. Thanks for coming.

The Value of a Liberal Arts Education

In 1974, the year before I entered as a freshman, the college celebrated its 100th anniversary. As part of that celebration, Tim Fuller arranged for an address by Michael Oakeshott, the British political theorist. What a wonderful parallel that today, on the 125th anniversary of the college, Tim himself will give the address. If any of Professor Fuller's students are here today, you won't be surprised that I mention Oakeshott. He has a way of coming up in any lectures by Tim, and we may hear more about Oakeshott in a few minutes. In any event, Tim will be pleased that I am still reading political philosophy these many years on. In his lecture, Oakeshott spoke of the value of a liberal arts education and the value of Colorado College as a liberal arts institution. Here, on this campus, Oakeshott reminded his audience that we are what we learn, that this is "the human condition." He argued that a liberal arts education is a form of "emancipation." Education is the way we learn to become human and learn to make the choices that chronicle our lives. A liberal arts education also teaches us how to handle the difficulties that accompany our existence. For Oakeshott, life is "a predicament, not a journey." A human being is a "history" and he (or she) makes this "history...out of...responses to the vicissitudes...encountered." I agree. In a world of advancing technology, exponential increases in scientific and medical discoveries, and instant communication, a liberal arts education teaches us how to understand and to use the opportunities created by our fluid, complex world. A liberal arts education teaches values, compassion, and empathy. It opens our eyes to vast possibilities and new choices. It enables us to be a part of history and to make history. It allows each of us to have open and candid conversations with the philosophers of the past and to formulate new paradigms of thinking for the future. It gives us a common heritage of literature and the voice to capture our experiences for those to come. It gives us the tools for life and insight into life itself. A liberal arts education takes us from the predicable, commonplace, limited lives of our childhood and adolescent years and illuminates new horizons and passages in our minds through which we confront a larger set of human experiences. We gain a measure of the self-knowledge of which Socrates spoke, tempered by Cartesian skepticism. We witness the "nasty, brutish" side of Hobbes' vision of the state of nature and the need for Locke's "politics of trust." We see the fallibility of the human state, as presented by Reinhold Niebuhr, and the importance of forgiveness, as articulated by St. Paul. We share in the experiences and lessons expressed by Jane Austen, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Elie Wiesel, and Toni Morrison. We see the visions of Raphael, Michelangelo, Picasso, and Joan Mitchell. One of the best classes I took here was on the history of jazz. I left CC with a love for Sonny Rollins - and also Tchaikovsky and Van Morrison. A liberal arts education is not simply a study of the humanities. It is a bridging of C.P. Snow's two cultures - The Humanities and the Sciences - it is to develop a "Renaissance mind" even as one gains a degree within a specialty of interest. Oakeshott called a liberal arts education an "adventure in human understanding," and these adventures take place in mathematics, astronomy, foreign languages, genetics, and environmental studies every block on this campus.

The Threat to Liberal Arts

As a product of a liberal arts education, in front of an audience committed to the study of the liberal arts, I am surely preaching to the converted. But the liberal arts remain under attack elsewhere. There are many people who see a liberal arts education as an expensive extravagance or a waste of time. Such people counsel against a liberal arts education because it is "too soft" and "irrelevant." They often say that the liberal arts are a diversion from the "real world" of jobs, money, status, and media popularity. There are other people who speak more forcefully. They see it as a danger, the road to misguided thinking, to paradox, to sin, to the collapse of the polity, or to worldwide catastrophe. What are they afraid of? For them, liberal arts students are intellectual troublemakers. We are not willing to blindly follow dogmas nor are we willing to have our thinking directed by others. We don't follow the party line. These critics want to limit the freedom inherent in a study of the liberal arts, to pre-determine the outcome of our lifelong engagement with learning. The attack against liberal arts is nothing less than an attack on rationality, on individual autonomy, and on cultural diversity. Oakeshott warned about all of this. He cautioned us about the powerful forces pushing toward conformity, easy answers, callousness, and bigotry. He spoke of those who want to reduce us to Pavlovian responses: to let appetite, love of money, fanaticism, or hatred rule over compassion, mutual respect, responsibility, and tolerance.

Liberal Arts and Public Policy

There is no more important place to consider Oakeshott's warning than in our national politics. Public policy-makers should be guided by the rigorous thinking prized in a liberal arts education. But too often policy-makers look only at the polls. There are many good reasons why a liberal arts education is vital to the development of sound public policy. Let me give you a few examples. Classics scholar Martha Nussbaum has argued that fiction helps us to see the facts about the human condition in more depth than a mere recitation of statistics. In short, fiction is often more real than our presentation of the real world, especially in court cases or government reports. Fiction can help us to become more understanding and empathetic. So, we may learn more about the human condition from Homer, Melville, Joyce, or Baldwin than we can fathom from reading the New York Times. Nussbaum has underlined a central truth. We must have a breadth of experience and openness of mind to understand the people we encounter and the effect of legislation on the people we serve. We cannot view people as stereotypical, predictable, or flotsam on the tide of history's progress. A liberal arts education teaches us to look beyond ourselves and beyond the present. Policy-makers must look to the future. For example, Emerson once wrote that each of us is a "steward" of the environment. We live in an interdependent biosphere. Therefore, we have a duty to keep the air, the water, and the land safe for our use, and the use of the many to come. We must be good stewards, and knowledge of history, theology, and philosophy is just as important as knowledge of biology, economics, or business. Public policy also needs the liberal arts to encourage mutual respect for others. I agree with Arthur Schlesinger Jr. that race is the great failure of the American experiment. In his last Sunday sermon more than 30 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. urged each person to become an activist for civil rights, regardless of our circumstances or profession. The great challenge for both our public and private institutions will be to discuss race though a frank and full discourse, with the goal of understanding each other and beginning to heal the rifts that separate us. We must recognize what Dr. King called our "inter-related network of mutuality," the interdependence of our people and our world. I am encouraged by several developments, among them the president's discussion about race. There has been an additional movement toward a quiet and profoundly effective racial dialogue in the Congress. I am proud to be a member of the steering committee of the Congressional dialogues on race, sponsored by the Faith and Politics Institute. This bipartisan action, involving more than 100 members of Congress, has been underway for almost a year. The highlights, for me, have included a visit to Selma with Congressman John Lewis, hearing General Colin Powell speak from profound personal experience about the need for affirmative action, and involvement in my own race relations group in Denver. All of this is directed at encouraging a respectful discussion of race in our schools, in our businesses, and in our communities. One of the essential places for this dialogue to advance is on campuses just like this one. Now is the time not just to explore the perspectives of thinkers like Cornell West, but to talk openly and honestly among the college community about tough issues like affirmative action, bilingual education, and the continuing racial gap in our society. The challenge for policy-makers is the challenge for this incoming class, whom we celebrate in this convocation. How do all of us craft meaningful lives with the lessons of a liberal arts education as the overriding foundation? As incoming students, I ask you to consider what can be done for the betterment of the world in which we live. I have learned one important lesson in Congress. Armed with a quality liberal arts degree, one person truly can make a difference. But I soon discovered that I could draft legislation, take the issue to the floor, improve the legislation through helpful compromise, forge lasting consensus, and steer the bill through passage and the president's signature. I could make a difference. All that was required was idealism, initiative, and imagination - a view of what could be, not entrenchment in present predicaments. In just my first term in Congress, I have written and passed legislation on children's health care, environmental protection, reclamation of brown fields, and other issues because I have been guided by my experiences here. And I can testify to the fact that each and every one of you can also make a profound, positive difference, if you try. Many of you have already stepped forward. Some of you have become environmental activists, business owners, published writers, or recognized scholars. Most of you have already become opinion leaders. There will be a leadership vacuum in politics, business, finance, entertainment, and literature. You will be needed immediately as you leave Colorado College or as you leave graduate school. This is your moment for preparation. Your time is now. Do everything possible to acquire the intellectual tools for leadership. The future beckons with the dawn. When Oakeshott spoke here 25 years ago, he said that he had "crossed half a world" to find himself in "familiar surroundings, a place of learning." Today, I have crossed half a lifetime to find myself back at this place of learning, my intellectual home. Once again, I am honored to join the Colorado College community as it begins this academic year. I thank you for this honorary degree, and I wish all of you great success, personally and professionally, in this year and in all that comes your way in the future.