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TO THE GRADUATES // How will you know it was worthwhile?

Published Jul. 6, 2006

The following excerpt is from a commencement address delivered by Dr. Jacob Neusner at Dowling College, Oakdale, N.Y., on May 18. Neusner is distinguished research professor of religious studies at the University of South Florida and professor of religion at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.

Looking back five or 10 years from now, you will ask yourself, was the work worthwhile _ the time, money, energy, the reading, writing, thinking and doing that come to fruition in this day? How will you know how well your commitment rewarded you?

A trivial answer will not detain us. All of us want through education to improve our chances at getting and doing a good job. But you chose other than a vocational school, and however practical the degree program that you followed may have been, much that you learned has little to do with earning a living. So the trivial answer _ I worked for four years for a bachelor's degree, and now can't find a job, so it was not worthwhile, or, I got a good job so it was worthwhile _ does not match the enormous investment of years of effort and thousands of dollars of tuition and lost income and days and days of hard labor.

That seems to raise the fundamental question of the hour _ was it all worthwhile? _ and I am sure you are going to ask that question when you know the answer, in five or 10 years, because in completing your degrees here, you join the ranks of certified intellectuals, people who have attained academic degrees that represent the labor of the mind. And, as the great historian Peter Gay writes, "It is the fate of intellectuals in all ages to agonize over fundamentals." That is what, in course after course, you as successful students have done, and it also is what your teachers do as their livelihood and as their life.

What then are the fundamentals represented by the degrees bestowed today? What do they say that we can do, which people who have not gained a higher education cannot be assumed to be able to do, or to do so well? How will you know, in five or 10 years, that your education kept its promise?

Certainly the answer will not derive from the information that you have mastered, since in most fields whatever is true today will be criticized tomorrow, turned on its head the day afterward and repudiated by the end of the week. The road of learning is paved by bulldozers, busy crushing the certainties of earlier travelers. The history of all fields of learning is strewn with the ruins left behind by the ages. Even the classics, the enduring works of art and literature, find themselves renewed in age succeeding age by fresh minds. The chemistry and history, the philosophy and biology, the religion and science _ all the things you carry with you along with the degree you just received _ all things will age just as you do. Lose touch, and you lose out.

So if the learning that today represents what your degree certifies tomorrow will give way to new learning, then what endures that, over a lifetime, makes the years you spent in disciplined learning in this college the most formative years of your lives?

I have three answers. First, what you learn in college that rarely is mastered before then is how to learn. Every course you took was meant to be a course in learning about learning, a course in which you became self-conscious about acquiring information and ideas, aware of your own role in the process of intellectual expansion. That is why you should be able to continue to learn, so that, however much the world of knowledge continues to expand, you will remain an active player in the game of learning. That is why even though what you have learned here will soon lose all currency, how you have learned here prepares you for tomorrow.

Second, what you learn in college is to take responsibility for your own mind and its development. The one thing every first-year college student learns is: I may not be the master of my fate, I may not be the captain of my soul, but I'd better get myself organized. High school students depend on teachers, parents and fellow students to organize and keep up; college students quickly learn to depend on themselves. To become an active learner, the commander of one's own intellectual fate, the captain of the ship of one's own life _ these are the givens, the absolute requirements, of success in college. Everyone here has succeeded. If five or 10 years from now you continue to take charge and pursue a purposeful life of learning, then you will know that what you have learned here, what you have succeeded in accomplishing, has made a difference.

And finally, what you learn in college, is to learn new things, new ways of doing old things, to turn learning to a new purpose. You have learned to use your mind to solve problems and to pursue in unfamiliar paths the way to those solutions. In other words, you have learned to use your minds in your own tasks, to take risks and to bear the burden of experiments that fail. In high school learning is static, a body of information to be mastered. In college learning became dynamic, a process, not a product. That is why you took subjects in college of which, before hand, you had never even heard. That explains why you took risks in the form of professors reputed to demand your best, subjects known to challenge and demand not only concentration but imagination, exercises in taste and judgment, in analysis and understanding, enough to fatigue the hardest muscles of your mind. And it answers the question, how will you know whether it was all worthwhile.

Specifically, if five or 10 years from now you are still reading books outside of those your work requires, still seeking experiences of intellect beyond the familiar kind _ the experimental play, perhaps, or music of a different sort from the friendly and familiar; if you are still learning how to learn and taking charge of your own growth as a thoughtful person, above all, still venturing into those of life's classrooms that are intimidating because unfamiliar _ if you are still doing what you did here, then you stamp the work for these degrees as worthwhile, and yourself as a success.