“Why is college important NOW?”

Talk given during the Tusculum University Week of Welcome, August 15, 2020. Last year I gave a similar talk in an auditorium. This year it was through Zoom to small collections of students in 20 or so classrooms.

It was an awkward way to give a talk, but hopefully it was well-received.

You can also see the full slides of the talk as I presented them to the students.

This is the second year I’ve had the assignment of this talk at Tusculum, of facing the new freshmen and telling them why this is the time of their lives filled with the most promise, the most transformation and the most fulfillment. The freshman year of college is where I personally see the most change in student’s lives, the entry of one type of person, wide-eyed and excited for the new experiences ahead, the construction of a different type of person, newly aware of the world around them in a much larger way than they could have possibly imagined when they started.

I’ve promised a lot of folks this, in a lot of years gone by, and I’ll promise it to you as well: you will change more this year than you have ever changed in your life, as your immersion into this new world becomes real in ways that you don’t expect. 

But this year is unlike any other year I’ve been at any college or university. This year, the reasons that you will change are also the reasons that I’ll change, and the world you’re being immersed into is the world I’m feeling a sudden immersion into as well.

2019. I miss it. We all do.

Last year, I was in the big auditorium in Annie Hogan Byrd giving this talk to 400 of my newest best friends, in person, complete with a selfie of them at the end of it. It was a very cool, very 2019 thing to do. 

You know and I know that 2020 is not 2019. There’s not been a freshman class that has dealt with anything like what you’re going to deal with, perhaps in a century, perhaps ever. And no faculty has ever entered into their responsibilities to teach, to help make learning happen, with the kind of pressures that those of us on the faculty are facing right now. There’s much less of the face-to-face that I’ve been so privileged to have for most of my life as faculty – and when there will be face-to-face, it will be separated by masks. There will be a lot more of this – screen-to-screen, two dimensions instead of three, frustrating distance between us. 

So much of what your experience is going to be is different than any experience a freshman class has ever had before. 

And yet so much of that experience hasn’t changed. The college experience is supposed to be a time of broadening horizons. You will still be exposed to ideas that you’ve never even considered, let alone thought deeply about, before. You will find your abilities in reading, writing, mathematics, logic taxed more strongly than they ever have been before. 

You’re here to be prepared to make a contribution when you’re done. You’re here to start a path of two or four years that will end with you being equipped to be an expert, to be a professional, to be a leader in your community, your state, your nation, this world. 

I want to spend time today talking about why that preparation is important now, as important as it ever has been, in the time of COVID-19. I want you to understand not merely why college is important to you, but why college is important now – in this time.

I’m in this space, equal parts excited and terrified. 

One of the reasons that you’re unlike any freshman class before you is because you’re going to have the opportunity to learn using resources that students in the last great pandemic could have only dreamed of.

Pandemic learning, circa 1918.

Over 100 years ago, in 1918, when influenza began to rage across the United States, there was no realistic substitute for face-to-face learning – except for locking yourself in the room with books and pencil and paper, if you were so privileged as to have a room of your own. Imagine starting college like that. Here are your books, and here’s what we expect you to understand when this year is done. Have fun!

But in 2020, you can see my face, even through the screen. Not only can you see my face, but you can see a little electronic whiteboard that I can write notes to you on. Not only can you see that, but I have software that can guide you through some of your early homework assignments, offer you feedback on the work you provide, make you feel less alone. 

I’m fond of this representation of online learning. Thanks to our friends at Bluefield College for the image.

The more I can do that reaches out to students and provides them with means to feel less isolated as they go through their studies in a socially isolated place, as many of you will be doing this semester, the more exciting being a professor in this time becomes to me. The power of being a student at a small university like Tusculum is the access you have to so many experts in their fields, all of us just an email away, some of us crazy ones a text message or a social media hit away. (Follow @shorterpearson on Twitter and Instagram.)

There is so much unique power in being a student in this time. 

And yet there is still the reality of being surrounded by this novel coronavirus – still so new that we don’t understand all the implications of becoming sick with it, that we don’t completely understand all the ways that it spreads or how it has no impact on one person infected with it while bringing another person to the brink of death. 

We’re attempting to create normal around us, to make face-to-face learning feel as ordinary as possible while all of us are going to be wearing masks and staying as far apart as possible and while we’ll all go into classrooms checking up on one another’s day-to-day health. But wearing masks and staying as far apart as possible and checking up on our day-to-day health is an absolutely essential discipline for this moment. The risk at hand if we don’t keep these disciplines up could easily become a matter of life and death. Especially while these realities are so new and so unique to our time, the dangers of understating the risks at hand could literally be fatal. 

The simple reality is that we’re returning to our studies while our country is the awe of the world – and not in a good way. The spread of this disease in the United States has dwarfed the spread of this disease in almost every other part of the world. In one of the more stressed countries in Europe, in the United Kingdom, the First Minister of Scotland saw fit to order lockdown policies in the city of Aberdeen two weeks ago. Aberdeen was locked down because of 54 new cases of COVID-19 over the course of a week.

From the Johnson City Press.

Most counties in Northeast Tennessee had more than 54 new cases of COVID-19 last week.

There are very real reasons why we don’t respond to this disease in the same way as our European friends. Americans are, and always have been, highly individualistic – it is a matter of personal liberty to trust your neighbor’s wisdom in their response to this threat, and that personal liberty is a matter of faith for many of those who live here. Telling your neighbor what to do is one of the last great American taboos. It’s just not done.

But it’s also very real that modern Americans are trained not to trust experts. We live in an era of information abundance – where we can simply go to Google and search the answers to all our questions. And the search algorithm refuses to tell the difference between the advice of someone who has spent their career trying to answer exactly that question and the advice of someone who simply spent a few moments ranting in a blog post. 

Human nature dictates it – we find the answer that best fits our biases, no matter, who gives it, and we move along, and what’s actually true or wise be damned.

The rebellion we need right now is a generation of young thinkers who don’t merely resort to knee-jerk answers to very real problems, but who learn enough to become experts in those problems in their own right, with knowledge that doesn’t just mimic the knowledge of their teachers but that actually surpasses it. 

And we don’t just need those thinkers to be experts, but expert communicators as well – people with the equipping to share that knowledge with their peers and their communities, not lording that knowledge over them as if they’re more-educated-than-thou, but providing authentic tools to their communities to lift them up and give them better lives than what they have right now. 

Here’s the good news: the principles of that rebellion are laid down in the mission statement of the institution you’re joining today.

Our mission statement has an entire web page given over to it now. It’s taking a new importance at the center of this institution, and you need to be aware of it. It informs the work you’re going to be doing while you’re studying at this place.

This is the mission statement of Tusculum University:

Let’s take this statement apart, one line at a time.

There are multiple statements given over to our faith heritage. In earlier documents describing Tusculum, you’ll find references to Tusculum’s “Judeo-Christian” environment. We have a distinct faith, but an open and welcoming one – we build on the Presbyterian faith of our founders, but it’s a man of Baptist background who holds the presidency of this place now, and it’s a Methodist who is talking to you now. The specific faith experience isn’t privileged – we all return to the same book, we all acknowledge Abraham as the founder of our faith experience, and we see the same story told throughout Scripture to inform the day-to-day practice of that faith experience with one another.

The nickname of this place is hidden in the mission as well, and it’s not accidental. The history of Tusculum is the story of the founding of higher education in the state of Tennessee and in the central Appalachians. We literally carry with us the inheritance of the pioneers who made life in this part of the world possible for us, and we carry with us the charge to be new pioneers – people who take our learning into our communities and envision new ways of living. 

We provide an active and experiential education. We don’t just want you in your seats, listening (how ironic that that’s what you’re doing right now. Sorry about that). We want your education to be one of doing – learning by participating, doing activities, having experiences.

We provide that education in a caring Christian environment. It’s hopefully not just a place where people say things about Jesus Christ and expect you to follow. To be in a Christian environment means experiencing sacrificial love – people giving up their power and privilege in the name of supporting others.

The slide here shows three nursing graduates from Tusculum who went to New York City in April, when this pandemic was at its most intense in the Northeast, when so much about care for patients in this pandemic was still a mystery. They gave up a part of their life to help people when they needed it the most. That’s the benefit we hope you experience in this caring, Christian environment – and that’s what we hope you learn to give to others.

We believe in career preparation – we want you to have a job, not just to make money in the short term, but to satisfy you for life. We believe in personal development – we care about who you are as a person, and we want you to be the best person you can be.

And if there’s a thing that drew me to Tusculum at the point in my life when I was considering this stage of my career, it is the statement at the core of the mission and that repeats all around the institution – the belief in civic engagement

This is where I most intentionally repeat the message I had for last year’s freshmen.

Tusculum uses the word “civic” every place they can. We care about your citizenship. We care about your place as a member of this society, and we care that you contribute to that society in the most productive, positive way possible.

So many of the things you learn as a student here are to help you be the best citizen possible. You need to see other examples of communication and expression, in speech and English classes, so that you can be the best communicator you can be, so what you care about can be expressed to those around you. You need to be informed as completely as possible, both about what’s happened in the past – your history – and about the knowledge that is building your future – our science. You need the best background on your faith you can get, so you can not merely speak the language of faith to those around you, but you can be encouragement to others to live that faith out better. And you need the arts, to appreciate the creativity of others in this place and express your own creativity on your terms. Encouraging creativity in others and in yourself is part of your best citizenship, too.

All of you need to bring your best selves to this process of education, and to take the education itself as seriously as possible, no matter what place you’re from, no matter what place you’re going. The values that Tusculum believes in are important no matter what time you’re living through.

But in this time, with all the pressure on us to bring our safest selves to our study as we live through this uncertainty, with all the structures in place to provide our education in the most distanced means possible, it’s all the more important to keep reminding ourselves why we’re here and what we need to get out of this time.

I wish I could take a selfie with all of you now, to remind you like I reminded last year’s freshmen that you are the most important people in the history of Tusculum right now. In the very way that you’ll be learning, you are pioneers in your own right: discovering unique paths through the canon of knowledge that generations before you have studied, seeking unique ways to remain connected with one another through our era of social distancing, finding unique ways to fulfill this institutional mission in the face of all kinds of obstacles. 

Those of us who are faculty feel the burden of this moment right along with you. Even if we can’t talk face-to-face the way we once did, we can still talk, or email, or even text. We will do what we can to support you in this moment. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.