Appreciating Your Privilege, Embracing Your Responsibility
Aims of Education Address at Chapman University’s Convocation
Presented by Don Cardinal on August 26, 2014
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Hello, my name is Don Cardinal and I am an academic! I am proud of this label. My grandparents were poor and uneducated laborers in Italy, and came through Ellis Island, signing the ship’s manifest the only way they could, with an X. My parents averaged only an elementary school education, but America was good to them and their hard work paid off. I am a result of the American Dream. So when I tell you I am an academic, I do so with pride in my heritage and thankfulness for my privilege. It was not an easy road; I failed college, came back a couple years later, and while I had, and have, an incredible respect for labor, I found my passion in education where I have spent the latest 40 years serving others as an educator. It is a good life.
The topic this evening is more than just another talk for me. The purpose of education, the aims of education, is something I have thought about deeply over these years. So when I say to you that this topic has never been more important to us as a society than it is today, I do so thoughtfully, critically and with the passion and confidence that by understanding the aims of education we can create a better society, a better world.
But how does one discuss the aims of pre-school through high school and the purpose of all the colleges in all the states of America, from trade schools and community colleges through Ph.D. granting institutions. And in this shrinking world, how could we not consider all of formal education worldwide in twelve minutes! But I love a challenge and it’s not often I get to speak to 4000 people in a captured audience about a topic I care about so deeply.
This challenge did force me to focus on the central notions surrounding the aims of education. First, the answer you likely want to hear. The aim of education is for you to get a great job, makes lots of money, buy a great house and car and live the good life, with pretty people. I hope you get all of these things—that is, if you want them. But maybe “things” do not interest you as much, and you have come to Chapman with another aim in mind. Maybe your aim of education is to prepare yourself to maximize your chances at having the greatest positive impact on this world. That’s a good one too. Maybe you want both. Either way, my message to you today, is to evaluate your role in this world, to appreciate your privilege and to embrace your responsibility.
You may have heard of the idea of privilege without responsibility, this is called greed. And a presupposition of my talk to you today is that greed greatly hinders the building of a great society–regardless of what you have been told in the movies.
I will situate this task for you by outlining three central notions within the aims of education: power, privilege and responsibility.
Power: You may have noticed that I equate the aims of education with the aims of society. This is no over-generalization and I do not do so lightly. As goes education in any advanced society, so goes the goodness and prosperity of the people within that society. Regardless of your preferred economic or political system, education is power. Those in power control education. Those who control education, determine the creation of and access to knowledge. Need evidence?
Let me provide you with just two of the many examples of how the power of education in a society is not only theoretical, but real. Now trust me, these examples are harsh, but they are facts and they speak to the power of education.
Ask yourself why some countries mandate education as we do here in the US, yet other countries only permit it? And still others forbid it to large portions of its citizens, or worse, they eradicate those who are educated? Why would humans develop such social policies on the education of its people? Think about it.
In our own American system we had long lasting laws that forbad literacy to a segment of our society. Anthony Albanese, in his 1976 book, The Plantation School, argues “The ignorance of the slaves was considered necessary to the security of the slaveholders.” Education is power for those who hold it and weakness for those who do not.
For another example, consider Cambodia and Pol Pot’s enforcement of social engineering policies in 1975, when they began the purge of educators and those who were educated, labeling them as subversives. To this day Cambodia has struggled to have even basic education for its people. Many hide their education in fear of a return to the old ways. When asked about the children in a small school in Cambodia at which our Chapman students and faculty volunteer regularly, our students said, “The children run, and smile and play and want so much to learn.” I ask you, don’t you think that anyone who wants to learn should be allowed to learn?
There must be something very powerful about education, something that compels those who must work so hard to get it, yet deeply frightens those who desperately need to control it. What is it about education that is worth killing to stop and worth dying to attain? One need not look in a history book for these examples, only today’s newspapers. READ!
Education can be more powerful than a bullet, and the lack of education can be more devastating than a bomb. It must not be taken for granted and it must be defended and promoted for all. As soon as a society makes a decision that one segment of a society is more deserving of an education than another, know that at the root of such a statement is a message of power. Women are not denied an education in some countries based on sexism alone, rather, it is about keeping power from them. Never take your education for granted. Never take your education for granted.
Now on to a more positive note. It’s time to talk about you. Somehow, history is smiling on you. Regardless where you began, regardless of the education level and income level of your parents and grandparents, you’ve made it this far. Congratulations! But we’re not done yet.
Let’s move on to notion number two.
Privilege: The most modest definition of privilege is “to have something others do not.” Imagine an institution that gathered the greatest minds from around the world. They could work anywhere, but they decide to work here, with you. Add to that group the most dedicated staff you have ever seen. Now imagine they are all here to guide you through the metamorphosis called college. This is no dream; it is reality and it stands before you. So, look around at this beautiful and thriving campus. Yes, you are privileged, by any definition.
Your privilege will grow each day. You will be introduced to the great works of history and the greatest thinking of the world. Some of you will view Botticelli’s, “The Birth of Venus” and giggle at the naked woman. Some will only see beauty, such beauty that the word will have all new meaning. Strangely enough, the one of you who laughs, maybe years later, may cry at that same beauty–learning is funny that way. Some of you will see a math equation and begin to sweat; another will see the same equation and understand the magnificence of it. Or you will read a passage in a book that will change your entire life. Beauty comes in many forms and you get a guided tour by carefully selected world-class experts. This is what privilege looks like.
You will begin to see beyond facts and you will learn to make sense of seemingly conflicting forms of information. You too will learn how to critically examine and make sense of such things. I care less what you conclude and more that you do so through a critical, thoughtful and rigorous lens. This process is called education.
The next four years may be the most truly privileged time of your life. Seize it. Appreciate it. Work it. Enjoy it. But always remember that with privilege comes responsibility. Let’s move on to our third and final notion.
Responsibility: Your privilege carries a price and the price is responsibility. Over the next several years you will be engaged in the guided tour I previously mentioned, a tour that can prepare you to be a critical consumer of education. Your responsibility is to understand the power of education in society, to combat misinformation, to share your knowledge, and more importantly, not to bend knowledge to make your point, rather, make your point based on the knowledge. Arrive at new ways of thinking that will increase the chances that our society will perpetuate and will do so with greater beauty and happiness, an aim of any education.
Attain the riches you desire, experience the beauty and happiness you deserve. And continually remind yourself that your privilege gives you the power and responsibility to positively influence society. Be someone others want to follow, not due to your rank, education or wealth, but because of who you are and the actions you take on their behalf. Trust is power.
Students, each of you have come to this point from varying backgrounds and purposes and have worked hard to be here. Your families have done all they can. In a few short years, you will be included in the top seven percent most educated people in the world! Don’t wait. It’s your turn to take the lead in your life. Appreciate your privilege and embrace your responsibility.
Now go and be amazed by the brilliance of those who have accepted their responsibility, the Chapman faculty. Welcome to the academy! Welcome to Chapman University!