Commencement Address for the Pepperdine University Graduate School of Education and Psychology
President Benton, Dean Weber, trustees, faculty, family members, friends and the graduating class of 2013, I am deeply honored and very happy to be back at my alma mater with you this afternoon.
It is, for me, a particularly intimate homecoming. I well know what it means to be part of the Pepperdine family. I can't recall a time when Pepperdine wasn't part of my life. I don't remember ever, really learning about this place, it was‐‐like the Pacific it faces‐‐ woven into my memory and consciousness. Pepperdine isn't just a part of my family history; it's part of our DNA. My parents went to Pepperdine, my cousins, my aunt and uncle, my mother's bridesmaids and my father's groomsmen. If there were family members who didn't go to Pepperdine, we politely ignored that fact, and treated them with the quiet pity they deserved.
I was very young when I started college, just 16, and the world of higher education was strikingly different. Now, don't worry all you graduates, I'm not about to descend into some nostalgic reverie. I'm no Luddite. In my capacity as a college President, I can't afford to be too sentimental about the world of card catalogs and chalk boards. In 1986, I taught my first computer aided composition class at Pepperdine and I’m thinking about designing a Mark Twain MOOC. The conversation on my campus is not whether we will offer e‐learning assisted courses or flip courses but how much more can we afford to offer. You will be teaching in classrooms where, by virtue of the power of digital technology and the internet, you will be able to access sources, bodies of knowledge, and expert instruction unimaginable even 10 years ago.
That being said, I'm not enamored of every technological advance in higher education, or in the world at large for that matter. Technology pundits argue that ours is the greatest age for communication; phrases such as "wireless environment" and "bandwidth test" are part of our vernacular. We email while scuba diving, make satellite calls from Mount Everest, and tweet while dining. And let's not forget, we can text: we text in the House of Representatives during the state of the union; in the space between one end of the crosswalk to the other, we text. We may even text during a very profound and moving Commencement speech.
Young people are virtuosos of the touch screen; the speed and the frequency with which they respond to a text are dazzling. My fear, not just as an educator, but as the parent of a 17 year old, who did imaginary texting when he was coming out of the anesthesia from his wisdom teeth surgery, is that they are not listening to deeper meanings of the words that they generate. I want my students, and my son Sparkey, to know that ideas are the product of stillness, that empathy can't be expressed in a tweet, that conversation should have a rhythm, like music. I want Sparkey to notice faces and to remember names, to have real friends, not a contact list full of avatars. Most of all, I want him to experience that moment of epiphany when a teacher illuminates an idea and I want him to experience it in all the immediacy of a real person.
The most important moments of my life have always been framed by, highlighted by, some deeply human interaction, when there was a person, in person, with whom I could reflect, converse, question, wonder, argue, or best of all, laugh. As we march rapidly toward a world where what's virtual can be easily mistaken for what's real, we would do well to remember the advice of my mother‐‐advice that fits the classroom as readily as the office office: "It’s the human touch."
It's the human touch that can make technology into something that will help us communicate; it's the human touch that occasionally makes social media‐‐Facebook and twitter and texts‐‐‐ more social than media. Foremost, it's not the gadgets we use to frame and package knowledge that inspires and empowers others and ourselves; it's the human touch; it's you, the leaders, the teachers, the practitioners.
As you move through your chosen career paths as well as through the rest of your lives, keep before you that whenever there are discussions about the latest innovation promising to change your lives, your learning, and your relationships for the better, that "the human touch" is where we all start, where the greatest learning and healing takes place, and where we all end. You don't need a huge amount of bandwidth, just a patient and listening ear and the wisdom that comes with education and training.
The faculty of Pepperdine excited my imagination and directed my future in a way impossible to imagine at 16. In my junior year I met the formidable Dr. Atteberry, professor of British literature. He was demanding, cranky, rule‐bound and endlessly patient. And I was lucky enough to be in his Victorian literature seminar where, if I was late to class, I was marked down for being tardy, a class in which my professor's favorite heuristic tool was the pop quiz, a class in which Dr. Atteberry didn't just know my name, he knew my strengths, my weaknesses, and even my evasive maneuvers. There was no fooling Dr. Atteberry, which is another way of saying that he cared. In those paleoterrific days, there was no Internet. One didn't email; you showed up in person and had a conversation. He made himself available to talk before and after class. How terribly old‐fashioned. And something happened in those conversations, in the ebb and flow of questions and answers, in the surprising turns of wit and metaphor, I learned to hear the difference between simple knowledge and lasting wisdom.
As Mark Twain observed: “Really great people make you feel that you, too, can become great.” That's what he did; he convinced me. All of you have a story similar to mine. The moment the light turned on, when you realized that learning is the best non‐caloric treat you can enjoy for the rest of your lives. I know it must have happened or you wouldn't be in graduate school. In your chosen field of Education, you are engaging in the most intimate and meaningful of human endeavors. As Dean Weber asserts, "these professions exist to serve the needs of others—to educate and heal the minds and souls of the community."
I will close with a story that I was told a week ago over dinner by a very successful businessman in his 60s. When he was a child he was severely dyslexic, a condition that went undiagnosed until he was an adult. In those days, he shared with me, he was considered dumb because he couldn't read. In the fifth grade, he met someone who would change his life. His English teacher required students to memorize poetry. Yes, at one time in our American elementary and middle school curriculum recitation was considered an important part of one's education. He went home and slowly, painstakingly, word by word, memorized his poem. And he realized then that he could read; he just had to take a different path. For the first time in his life, he felt intelligent. I was deeply moved by his story and he told me that his teacher inspired a life‐long love of poetry. He then began to recite "Mr. Flood's Party," a poem that he and his best friend, who had recently passed away, always held dear:
With trembling care, knowing that most things break;
And only when assured that on firm earth
It stood, as the uncertain lives of men
Assuredly did not.
A recitation lesson given such a long time ago by a teacher who had no idea of the future impact she would have on this little boy that is still part of his life. A pop quiz about Tennyson's "Ulysses," given by a professor who would affect the rest of a young woman's life as she grew up to be an English major and college president. These are the moments that describe the best of what life offers. When we connect; when we care.
You are entering your profession at a perilous moment. We are a culture that has spent a decade so focused on leaving no child behind that we haven't spent much time thinking about where that child is going. What gives me hope for the future is your human touch, your compassion and caring. As graduates of Pepperdine University, I know that you will engage individuals in conversations that will echo throughout their lives; you will not only help people to succeed in the world, you'll inspire them to change it for the better.
You are all life‐long members of the Pepperdine University family, as am I, and I wish you all the greatest success in your future endeavors. Thank you so much for inviting me to be part of your special day and for this most meaningful honor.