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Commencements reflect individual educational value

As a school superintendent with many years in the harness, I am no stranger to commencement addresses. In any given year, I will automatically hear two such from students at Mitchell High School's exercises and at least one at MTI's. This year, m...

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As a school superintendent with many years in the harness, I am no stranger to commencement addresses. In any given year, I will automatically hear two such from students at Mitchell High School's exercises and at least one at MTI's. This year, my son also graduated university and this added no fewer than 8 to the 2016 count.

I don't envy the person tasked with giving a commencement address for any number of reasons. It is impossible to think of anything genuinely novel to say because literally millions of them have been given over the years by hundreds of thousands of orators. Most listeners to commencement addresses have, as their top priority, the speaker's adherence to FDR's advice: "Be sincere; be brief; be seated." More than lofty thoughts or even solid entertainment, they are after brevity. Finally, it is difficult to know just who you are, or even should be, speaking to. Are you addressing the graduates? The other people on stage? Parents and family? It's tough to find a message that applies to everyone but if you speak only to the graduates, you are abandoning most within hearing distance.

What I have noticed about commencement keynotes is that, by and large, they reflect our own feelings about education. While one can split up perspectives on education in an infinite number of ways, one of my favorites is the duality reflected in the words of Yeats: Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. I have yet to ever hear a commencement speaker revel in the items memorized or the concepts captured or the standards mastered as a result of classroom work. Rather such speakers discuss the development of the lifelong learner, of the zest for learning of a favorite teacher, of the capturing of the imagination of the student in such a way that they become no longer a pupil but a scholar, a person who has taken charge of their own learning.

So is the commencement address then proof positive that 'filling the pail' is a hopefully narrow-minded, dead-end view of the education and that 'lighting a fire' is the true measure?

Actually, I don't think so. Many years ago, an old friend of mine, possibly at a high school reunion, possibly not, wondered aloud why he could not remember a single instant of the many hours he had spent in a high school American government class, but reminisced vividly on football games, pep rallies, and even just hanging out with friends. Does this then mean that these were really the only meaningful things about school?

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Again, I don't think so. Take one simple example: learning the multiplication tables. While various teachers and mathematicians over the years have worked hard to make the mastery of the times tables purposeful and interesting and even enjoyable, the truth is that, in the end, you simply have to memorize the fact that 8 times 7 equals 56. And you have to memorize it because you have to be able to recall that fact instantly. Long ago, when I was an elementary principal, I had a teacher instruct her first grades in addition facts using the 'dot method,' the assignment to each numeral's shape a number of dots which they could then tap out and count to find the sum of two numbers. The next year, the successor teacher asked me into her classroom to the unmistakable sound of 22 woodpeckers tapping out their sums, irritating the teacher and making the move forward to multiplication slow and virtually impossible.

The point of that, of course, is not to malign woodpeckers but simply to note that there are certain facts on which students must hunker down, get to work, and memorize. There are certain pails which must be filled and there are more of them than we sometimes care to admit.

But the commencement speakers are also right to note that education isn't only a series of pails to be filled, as was once the case with the British educational system and is sometimes today still vaunted by the latest manifestation of the 'back to basics' movement. There is, unquestionably, something more, something greater.

Like so much of life, then, the solution to this seemingly difficult choice between two options can be found by searching for that 'golden mean' between them, ala Aristotle. Between cowardice and foolhardiness can be found the virtue of courage. Between endless memorization of facts and the quest for fire as the spirit of learning can be found such a quest rooted in the hard work of gaining knowledge, the much maligned lowest item on Bloom's Taxonomy (Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis, Comprehension).

To attempt to mount education's lofty parapets without a lot of work and, yes, even drudgery, is impossible. To do the latter without ever reaching for the former, though, is to miss the point, to prepare a wonderful meal which no one ever eats. To give an exalted reflection upon the ultimate meaning of education, as of the essence of what it means to be human, to an empty room.

That final description, of course, is also a fairly apt one for the true commencement address. For even in an age in which the public oration increasingly fades in importance compared to the creatively spelled, impulsively abbreviated text, the commencement address remains.

A speech, thankfully, never given to an empty room.

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