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Pomona College President David W. Oxtoby's Opening Remarks

President David Oxtoby speaking at the 2010 Pomona College Convocation

President David Oxtoby speaking at the 2010 Pomona College Convocation

August 31, 2010

Welcome to the opening Convocation in the 124th year of instruction at Pomona College. On this occasion I am pleased to welcome the Class of 2014 to our community, and to greet the returning students from the College, our faculty, staff, and members of the Board of Trustees. Let me pause to note with sadness the absence of our seventh President, David Alexander, from his familiar place at the back of this hall; David passed away in July and we will celebrate his life in this very space on September 25.

I call your attention to the prizes and awards listed on the back of your program, as we join together to recognize the outstanding accomplishments of our students.

The purpose of today’s Convocation is to celebrate beginnings and to join together to explore the goals of a Pomona education. For those of you entering as first-year students, this exploration will last through your four years on campus and, I hope, throughout your lifetimes, since education does not end with the granting of a degree. I would like to begin today’s program with a few remarks about the values of a liberal arts education.

As some of you know, the sport that I care about most passionately is baseball, and this year I have been following closely the success of the small market, low budget Tampa Bay Rays, who have been matching the rich and powerful New York Yankees game for game. As we speak, the two teams are tied for the best record in baseball. When asked about their success back in May, the Ray’s manager Joe Maddon talked about his team’s versatility. In his words, “It’s more of the liberal arts form of playing baseball. It’s not just about power or just about speed. You really want to be able to do all those different things. I want us to play every component of the game well.”

The “liberal arts form of playing baseball!” The breadth that Maddon seeks from his team, the ability to respond to a new situation in a new way, the teamwork that results when a group of players with different individual strengths work together toward common success: these are all qualities that we seek in a liberal arts education here at Pomona College.

The liberal arts are under attack right now. Since January, I have been serving as chair of the Board of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, a national organization of more than 1200 institutions of higher education including community colleges, residential liberal arts colleges like Pomona, and research universities. The one signature commitment of the members of the AAC&U is to the values of liberal education. Yet even there, we have occasional discussions about whether we should de-emphasize the term “liberal arts education.” My colleagues from more conservative parts of the country say that the political baggage of the term “liberal” can hinder their discussion of educational goals with the general public.

The term “liberal arts” in the English language dates back to the 14th Century, from the Latin phrase “artes liberales,” which may be translated literally as “the skills of freedom.” (The word “liberal” only took on a political meaning in the 19th Century.) The goal of a Pomona education is exactly this, to teach the skills that are required to advance a free society: to think critically, argue persuasively, analyze quantitatively, work cooperatively, and create passionately.

My former colleague at the University of Chicago, philosopher Martha Nussbaum, recently wrote an essay entitled “The Liberal Arts are not Elitist.” The title of her essay refers to another threat to the liberal arts, one that often comes from the political left rather than the right and that emerges from a “practical” view of education. The argument runs roughly as follows: a liberal arts education such as that at Pomona College is fine for a very small number of elite students, but is impractical on any larger scale. If we seek to educate millions of Americans with very different backgrounds we should instead focus on a more narrow professional training, getting students ready for jobs that exist right now, in order to compete effectively in an international marketplace.

This is a complete fallacy, however. The jobs out there right now may not even exist in a few years, and the goal of education must not be narrow training but preparation for a lifetime of new opportunities. If we narrow our focus to jobs and starting salaries out of college, we put in jeopardy the respect that our system of higher education has developed. I was shocked to see the results of a nationwide poll last year which found that 60 percent of respondents believed that colleges are “like most businesses and mainly care about the bottom line”, as compared with only 32 percent who said they are mostly interested in “making sure students have a good educational experience.” If colleges themselves give up on core educational goals for the easy measure of direct success, they will be judged accordingly.

Nussbaum contrasts the pure model of education for economic growth with the “preparation of informed, independent, and sympathetic democratic citizens.” She notes that “education systems all over the world are moving closer and closer to the growth model, without much thought about how ill suited it is to the goals of democracy.”

During your four years at Pomona College, the education you receive will form the foundation for a future career. Treat that education not as a private treasure that sets you apart from others, but as a resource that you can use, now and in the future, to build the skills of freedom and use them to advance not only your careers, but knowledge, creativity, and democracy in the world.