Oxford College Commencement Address

From the Provost's Desk

Provost Dwight A. McBride delivered the keynote address at the Commencement ceremonies for Oxford College of Emory University on May 12, 2018.

Commencement Address Video Transcript

Good morning, everyone!

Commencement season is really among the times of the academic year that I most look forward to. And I hope that this ritual of today's special occasion here at Oxford will bring a measure of closure to one period in the lives of the graduates today at Emory, even as it represents the beginning of an important new phase in your journey to the Atlanta campus, full of promise and possibility.

Now we academics, as a lot, are rather peculiar. On the whole we don't go in for lots of fanfare and grandeur. But on graduation days, the community of scholars celebrates in all of its external splendor—with those medieval robes that Doug [Hicks] referenced—the culmination of many full days and long nights along the roads that have brought all of you to this milestone in your learning lives.

This is a great moment for all of you, a day of justly deserved celebration. A day to celebrate also all those teachers, family, friends who've supported you on your journey to this important moment. A moment I hope you'll recall for many years to come, and especially so when those other moments creep in—and they will creep in—when the streets of your lives seem to run only uphill, when the paths of your work seem so rarely traveled, and when the roads ahead seem to stop short of the goal. May the strength of your resolve on this day give you courage to face those future challenges when they come.

On this occasion, I'm reminded of the words of two great African American writers and intellectuals, Ralph Ellison and W.E.B. Du Bois.

Speaking about the importance of education, Ellison once remarked, and I quote, "Education is all a matter of building bridges."

Now having just completed this educational journey, having come to the end of this road, what lies ahead depends on the paths that you take, and on the bridges that you will build. And each of you will be building a unique type of bridge, one that you may not yet be able to imagine. You will build bridges between cultures and peoples, you will forge new ways of seeing and saying, and you will build bridges to new ways of thinking and knowing.

And as you build your bridges, bear in mind the words of W.E.B. Du Bois, and he said: "The function of the university is not simply to teach breadwinning, or to furnish teachers for the public schools, or to be the center of polite society; it is, above all, to be the organ of that fine adjustment between real life and the growing knowledge of life, an adjustment which forms the secret of civilization."

Now I've always said that one of the most important functions of a liberal arts education is to prepare students for citizenship and leadership in a variety of sectors of our ever-globalizing and connected world. And whether you ultimately stake your claim in education, in government service, in research, in the corporate sector, in the nonprofit world, in culture and the arts, or in any myriad number of the professional vocations, I very much look forward to walking those bridges erected by the contributions that each of you will make in your own time.

In an era where there seem to be fewer and fewer champions for the critical role that is played by higher education in our democracy, we must not doubt the importance of bridges that we build. When we are called upon as institutions—as we often are in this day and age—to explain what it is we do in higher education, ready-made answers for the sound bite are sometimes difficult to come by.

When reduced to the equations of "breadwinning" and "polite society," bridge-building seems to many an extravagance that we may well be able to do without, and the contribution of higher education seems uncertain when measured against other seemingly more pragmatic professions and businesses. Now I'm not going to not bother you today—especially in this heat—with an overlong explanation or justification. But instead, let me leave you with a bit of poetry.

Southern American poet Will Allen Drumgoole's "The Bridge Builder" tells the story of an old man traveling a journey, lonely and long. He reaches a vast, deep chasm. Crossing its depth in the growing cold of evening, he reaches the other side and begins immediately to build a bridge to span the gap that he has crossed. He is questioned by a fellow pilgrim, who suggests that he's wasting his time and strength building a bridge upon a path he's already crossed, especially given his advanced years and that he'll likely never come this way again. The poet offers the following rebuttal:

"The builder lifted his old grey head;
'Good friend, in the path I have come,' he said,
'There followeth after me today
A youth whose feet must pass this way.
"This chasm, that has been as naught to me
To that fair-haired youth may a pitfall be.
He, too, must cross in the twilight dim;
Good friend, I am building this bridge for him.'"

The function of a liberal arts education is to give to students the tools that they need to build bridges. The tools of critical analysis and reasoning, so that you may truly name and understand your social and political realities; the tool of critical writing, so that you may communicate that understanding to others; the tool of research and experimentation, so that you may know how to approach the learning not of one vocation, but rather of the many new vocations and careers that will make up an engaged life; and the tool of human understanding and empathy, so that you may know where and how your choices and work in life impact the lives of others.

As you embark upon new journeys, remember to build bridges for those coming behind you—bridges for those who could not continue otherwise, bridges to connect common understanding with new knowledges, bridges to foster greater communication and true understanding between peoples from disparate groups and backgrounds, and bridges to make previously unimagined journeys possible.

With the insights of a world-class education, let not the naysayers and the short-sighted pilgrims along your roads keep you from building your bridges as you go.

As you work towards change in your own life and in the world, may you draw inspiration—as I often have—from the words of Pulitzer Prize-winner and Poet Laureate Gwendolyn Brooks: "We are each other's harvest; we are each other's business; we are each other's magnitude and bond."

Once again, my deep and heartfelt congratulations to you on this very special day and this important milestone in your Emory careers.

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