Last weekend I greeted many of you who were fortunate enough to accompany your children to Charlottesville and help them move in as they start a new and important phase of their life. For those parents I was not able to meet, let me offer my greetings in print, as Dean of the College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, but also as another parent. The older of my two children is starting his third year in a university in Chicago; so two years ago, I was in the same situation you are in, sending off a child to be on his own.
During the convocation at his university, I sat—like so many of you did last Friday—and listened to no less than four different administrators speak about the “life of the mind,” and about the fabled discussions in the student dormitories that stretch into the wee hours of the night at that university—as students debate about Adorno and Horkheimer, about Foucault and Poulantzas. That is certainly admirable—far better that they should contemplate the horrors of the historical predicaments that Adorno and Horkheimer faced, than to spend hours on Facebook with ear phones jammed into their heads, rap music pulsating in their brains. They will do enough of that, as all parents know.
Today, however, I want to talk to you about something other than the “life of the mind,” another kind of life. Exactly one hundred years ago, Abbott Lawrence Lowell, who was then President of Harvard, said: “The object of the undergraduate education is not to produce hermits, each imprisoned in the cell of his own intellectual pursuits, but men fitted to take their places in the community and live in contact with their fellowman.” What he said was true then, and it is true today, and it includes both men and women.
I am mindful that you have entrusted us with an exquisite responsibility—to educate, nurture, and help find larger purposes in life for your children, who are dearer to you than life itself. In the four years that your children will be with us, they will transition from being male-children to men, and female-children to women. Those will be truly complicated years—exhilarating, challenging, confusing, frightening, and fraught with massive opportunities and dangers. The College will provide your children with safe boundaries in which they can grow, learn, experiment, and find out who they are as human beings. And at the end of the four years, your child will leave Charlottesville better educated and more mature—and above all, a better human being.
In Aristotle’s Politics, he pondered the purpose of education. Do we as educators impart to our students truth through knowledge, or do we impart useful skills? Or—and here is a tough one—do we impart virtue? There are many professors who believe that truth, being relative, cannot be taught, let alone virtue. Yet the point of our education really ought to be all three: knowledge, skills, and virtue, each informing the other.
But how do you teach virtue?
Harry Lewis, a former dean at Harvard, reminds us in his recent and excellent book Excellence without a Soul, what John Dewey said about learning: “the only way to develop curiosity, sympathy, principle, and independence of mind is to practice being curious, sympathetic, principled, and independent. For those of us who are teachers, it isn’t what we teach that instills virtue; it is how we teach. We are the books our students read most closely.”
At the College of Arts and Sciences, we still practice something that has gone out the window at most research universities: faculty advising. We are one of the last public universities where world famous scholars—Guggenheim award winners, members of national academies—are still assigned undergraduate advisees; and where mentoring takes places at every level—in residence halls, classrooms small and large, tutorials, undergraduate research opportunities, and in the pavilions on the lawn where the deans live, just as Mr. Jefferson intended.
Our system of mentoring and advising is not perfect, and it is stretched to the limit. It is hard to ask excellent scholars to dedicate themselves to advising when few other research institutions would insist that they do so. And it is not necessarily the case that world-class researchers make the best advisors and mentors. But we do what we can, with an imperfect system—and always trying to make it better. We have no choice: as the teachers of your children, we are the books your children read most closely, and we will endeavor to be better role models.
For your part, I would ask that you stay in touch with your children. I don’t mean that you should hover over them as “helicopter parents,” but please stay in touch, which is so easy to do these days with cell phones, text messages, email, and even Facebook pages that many of you keep. No matter how safe we try to keep the confines of your children’s universe for the next four years, there are always dangers—like drugs and excessive alcohol, the scourges that afflict every university.
I would also ask you to be engaged with the College. You have every right to scrutinize our work, and we are the better for it. If you have any questions, do not hesitate to email me at . I don’t have all the answers, but I know the deans and faculty members and administrators who do, and we will answer your queries as efficiently as we can, and do our best to help you and your children.
Welcome. I cannot tell you how delighted I am that you are now part of the College community.