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Reminding Me to Be

Image of students in caps and gowns at commencement

Each term we ask a senior academic leader to write to our students encouraging them to finish strong. Today one of the Executive Directors sent to me an email response from one of these students. It read as follows:

I am 67 years old and will be graduating in June 2016. One of the most important things I never had was a college education. Like your parents, the “sheepskin” was a dream … but not very attainable when you have no money. I now will have that dream as it will basically complete my life. I have cancer and am in the last stages with a few more months to live. Regardless, this was my life’s dream and it is within my reach now. SNHU was the impetus for me to continue and the teachers here are outstanding. I could not have finished without their guidance. I just wanted to tell you a little about my story … as I am very proud of my accomplishment. My parents (rest in peace) would be very proud. Thank you for listening.

I received the email in the midst of my daily dose of news articles and updates about what is happening in higher education and academic technology, and it reminded me of an oft-overlooked truth about education. We insist upon the power of education to transform lives, but at its essential core education is able to transform lives because it transforms people.

In a world increasingly focused on gainful employment and career services, that distinction might be lost if it weren’t for people like the student above, who reminds us that while many students are pursuing college to get a better job, a raise or a promotion, education has inherent value to individuals because it makes them more aware, more alive, more of a participant in human existence. Society benefits every time a citizen makes better-informed decisions or engages those different from themselves with more information about how differences bring strength at every level, whether it’s the gene pool or the pool of human cultures and societies.

Education is the fire Prometheus brought to man, the apple Eve and Adam ate. It brings with it the responsibilities and the rewards of enlightenment, like an ability to produce and be aware of Truth and Beauty. But like Original Fire and that Tree of Knowledge’s fruit, education also presents us with the possibility for cruelty; fire allowed for both life-giving warmth and the ability to forge weapons, while the fruit brought a loss of innocence and was quickly followed by the world’s first murder. At a time when the tide of anti-intellectualism seems to be rising, it is important to remember that this is what separates man from the rest of the animal kingdom, the essence of our soul, our meta-awareness of the larger universe. It is what allows us to attach meaning and values that transcend our basic more visceral responses.

When I read this student’s email, I was reminded of a piece I read and taught from years ago, an essay by Roger Rosenblatt titled “I am Writing Blindly” that came out shortly after the Russian submarine Kursk settled on the ocean floor with its doomed crew still alive. Rosenblatt explores why men in such a situation wrote letters to their loved ones, knowing that there was little chance that they would ever be read. We are a species that longs to BE and not just to exist, to BE MORE not just for ourselves but for those who follow after us. We want to share our stories, to make our mark, whether its graffiti under a bridge or petroglyphs in an ancient cave.

And so a student who realizes it may be his last opportunity to affect things still insists that he will climb the mountain. He will rise. And in reminding us all of this gift of knowledge, he gave me a gift as well — a reminder that beyond the bureaucracy and day-to-day administration, what we in education are doing matters not just because of the vocational or career factors but because we — all of us — ARE.