You can take it with you. Education is the most portable asset and its value increases as you share it.
As we celebrate educational milestones this month, remember what a precious good education is, one that grows as we share it. Students enjoy lovely moments of commencement, beginning new adventures with support from family and friends and a public that continues to celebrate educational achievement, despite some misgivings about the institutions that provide it.
As long as we have scholars dedicated to open discovery who have a passion to share knowledge with students, we have the core of that of which we must not lose: the basic bonds of civilization. As long as we have this, we can figure out the business plan, but woe to us if we lose our teachers, the ultimate craftsmen of our education.
And the bonds of civilized life do collapse; it is happening all around us. We see it in the refugees who flee the dissolution of civilization. We also see it in the nativist response that cries scarcity and cultural contamination. The claims of racial and genetic contamination are rarely made explicit today. These are mostly confined to the past, but bombastic assertions of certainty trump curiosity and the trusted exchange of ideas at the core of civilization begin to fray more broadly. This makes education all the more precious, all the more urgent for each of us.
Refugees show us the personal value of education. It is the one asset that cannot be taken from you, even when you have lost everything. My Balkan relatives share this learning as they tell of the forced migrations across Europe during and after the Second World War. They tell of clever folks who thought they had a form of secure and portable wealth in the gold crowns they had implanted in their mouths. And yet like all other forms of material wealth, these were extracted by ruthless authorities.
So, from a purely selfish perspective, if you survive the most brutal of ordeals with your mind intact, it is your education and what you have learned that will be your most precious resource. This is education at its most practical, providing skills and knowledge that make you useful, to yourself and to others, providing the tools for survival.
Yes, you can take it with you, which is reassuring should very bad things happen that force you to make a fresh start somewhere else. But education is also portable in a happier sense. When you wander with curiosity and an open mind, eager to share what’s in your mind and your heart, your education has a way of uncovering the wonder in new people and new places, at the same time adding to your stock of enlightenment and usefulness.
From the mythical journeys of ancient heroes to the study abroad experiences that we wish were available to all our students, encountering the unfamiliar with curiosity and the aim of learning allows education to multiply many fold. Even if your passion is to serve your local community, you will add more value the more you know how other localities engage their challenges.
Not only does education grow through travel, it grows through sharing. If you don’t share what you know, you are less useful to others and you also learn less if you don’t connect to what is in other peoples’ minds.
But just as it grows through sharing, it decreases in value if it is not shared. Stagnant knowledge becomes vulnerable and withers when it is not continuously shared or challenged by new facts or new ideas. Think of cults and closed systems of thought that don’t test themselves or wonder “how can we be wrong,” and “how can we do better?” We are seeing a closing of civic spaces in many places around the world where this kind of sharing can take place.
It is ironic that the same commodity that can help you survive the worst of times only grows and flourishes if it travels and undergoes ongoing challenge.
That is why it is good to call a graduation ceremony “commencement.” We acknowledge the educational achievements of a new cohort of deserving students, but we call it a commencement because they have prepared themselves to start a journey in which they will test the value of what they have learned by engaging it with other people and places.
Commencement also represents a new beginning for our school. Each year’s cohort of graduates will tell us how our education travels, informing our faculty as they update the knowledge they will share with new students who arrive to join our school.
Every year is a new beginning. This ongoing renewal is probably one of the reasons that universities are some of our longest-lasting institutions, operating longer than countries, companies, and even some religious traditions.
So if you want your education to be as evergreen as our great universities, you should realize that education is the greatest form of wealth, and that it remains vital and strengthens as you share it, challenge it, and continuously work to renew it. The more fraught our times, the more curious and eager to learn should we be. So dive in, but remember, you can take it with you, but you can’t keep it to yourself.
Eugene R. Tempel Dean