Great! A Philosophy Professor…

Bill Stoklosa

As a senior I was really looking forward to finding out who Colgate’s commencement speaker would be this year. Usually it is someone noteworthy, someone you’ve heard of, someone who has taken their education and made a difference outside academia. Even if it is not someone whose name you instantly recognize, usually commencement speakers are people who have gone and accomplished something remarkable out in the so-called “real world.” That’s why I was bit taken aback, outraged really, when I heard that Dr. Martha Nussbaum was to be our commencement speaker.

A philosophy and ethics professor is about the last person I want to hear for commencement. I mean, we seniors have all heard professors talk for four years and, while many of their lectures have been interesting and informative, I’d like to hear a perspective from outside of academia for my commencement. Not only do we spend lots of time in class listening to professors talk, most of the guest speakers who come here are professors.

Some people on the faculty and in the administration might be thrilled to listen to a scholar with such a solid reputation, but I don’t think I’ve spoken to one student who is excited with the choice of Dr. Nussbaum (I’m just opening myself up for an online comment here). Call me crazy, but it seems reasonable that when choosing a commencement speaker, how the graduating seniors will react to the choice should be a primary concern.

While other schools get to hear accomplished politicians, writers, journalists, actors, athletes and humanitarians, we get to sit through another lecture. If any of us wants to hear an accomplished academic talk we can just can go to the office of one of our professors and, heck, in this current economic climate Colgate could have saved money on airfare by having one of its own faculty give the address (don’t get any ideas!).

On May 16, I wanted to see someone who took his or her degree outside the university and made a difference. I would not have been upset if our speaker was not famous. I thought Geoffrey Canada, last year’s speaker, was a great choice. He got an education and then left the world of the academy and made an important difference in people’s lives. Hopefully, that’s what most of us will be doing after graduation. Very few of us will become intellectuals like Dr. Nussbaum. Most of us are going pro in something other than academia, and I think we should see someone who also left the university setting to pursue their career.

To be fair, my reaction to Dr. Nussbaum has much to do with my view on my four years here more generally. I have not enjoyed my liberal arts education. In general, I think it has done little to prepare me to be anything but an academic, but that is not what I plan to do with my life. Perhaps my perspective would be different if I had majored in one of the “hard sciences,” rather than history and religion. However, as I reflect back on my four years I can’t say I am able to place much value on my education. I have spent hours upon hours reading debates upon unsolvable problems, articles by academics that think that they know just what happened hundreds or even thousands of years ago and busted my rear-end to do research papers that one other person in the whole world is going to read.

I’ve grown a lot as a person while at Colgate, but that was due more to the fact that it was my first experience being away from home, the friends I made and the communities I have been a part of, especially University Church. I don’t think the liberal arts education has made me a deeper thinker. It has made me a more polished writer and speaker, but sometimes I think those skills simply mean I can dress up my ideas unnecessarily.

So, as you can see, a speaker who was billed by our senior class president as someone who “writes and speaks eloquently about the nature and importance of the liberal arts” does not exactly inspire me. I’ve listened for over four years about how great a liberal arts education is, and there was a time I believed it. That’s why I came here. However, for me, and I daresay most of the seniors that are graduating, a philosopher’s perspective on the value of a liberal arts education is not something we put much stock in. I do not think such abstract philosophizing really connects with students here, and I am certain it does not connect with me. I’m not excited by the pursuit of knowledge in itself. I am not a better person because of my education; I cannot even say that much of what I learned will be of value ten years from now, or that I will even remember most of it. For me, and I think this runs true for most of the people here, we got a college education because of what it will enable us to do. In short, a degree from Colgate will help us pursue the career we want. I don’t think many students will leave here reflecting on how valuable their Colgate education was for their personal development; they’ll be thinking how valuable a degree is for pursuing their career goals.

So I expect that Martha Nussbaum’s speech and the presentation of the honorary degrees will be an ode to the wonders of the liberal arts, a seminar on their immeasurable merit. It is a story I have heard for over four years, and frankly I do not buy it, and I think that few of us graduating from here do. It’s pretty rhetoric, but it does not match up with reality. The reality is that a Colgate education is a necessary stepping stone as we pursue our goals, many of them extremely laudable. Many of us even enjoyed our time here, but very few, I suspect, buy into the notion that the liberal arts made them a better person, and fewer still are looking forward to Dr. Nussbaum praising the liberal arts. I for one am much more excited about the upcoming release of Iron Man 2.