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Harking Back to Dewey, Fuhrman and Others Call for Engagement with the World 

“If there is a single thread that links the full breadth of our activities at TC, it is the notion of serving as education partners to the world – locally, nationally and internationally.”

With those words, TC President Susan Fuhrman established partnership as the theme for the College’s 2008 commencement exercises, held over the course of two cool and rainy days on May 20th and 21st at Riverside Church. More than 1,900 master’s and doctoral students, hailing from 57 nations, 38 American states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, participated in the three ceremonies. (Their names and dissertation topics were read aloud – all of them – by Thomas Rock, the College’s acting associate dean for enrollment services.) Their interests and stories were hugely diverse, Fuhrman said, but in her view, the graduates had all originally come to TC “because you wanted to engage the world – and even more important, because you wanted to change it.”

And that desire, she said, is rooted in a view of partnership that began with John Dewey, one of the College’s “most iconic figures,” who wrote that “the learning in school should be continuous with that out of school. There should be a free interplay between the two. This is possible only when there are numerous points of contact between the social interests of the one and the other.”

Enlarging on that notion, Fuhrman said she understands Dewey to mean that “learning occurs through partnership with the world – that it must be derived by engaging with life in all its venues, including in and beyond the classroom, and that it must have meaning and application that is equally broad.”  

To illustrate her ideals for the College, Fuhrman told the stories of six graduating students.

Fuhrman called Patricia Lopez, who was graduating with a master’s in health education, “a shining example” of the idea of education as “the ultimate tool that empowers.”

Lopez, a single mother who came to the U.S. from Argentina when she was six, had struggled for 10 years to earn her undergraduate degree, and then lost her mother and two aunts to cancer. That horrific experience galvanized her to focus on preventive health for her graduate studies – and when a job opened up at TC recruiting patients for a study by Professor Charles Basch on the impact of health education conducted over the telephone  on patients at risk for diabetes-related blindness, she jumped at it. The job became full-time, enabling Lopez to receive tuition exemption credits and enroll as a full-time student. She will now pursue a doctorate at TC while serving as coordinator for a study of disparities in care between white and African American breast cancer patients.

“May you continue to share your strength, your experience and your understanding with all who need them,” Fuhrman told Lopez.

Fuhrman also told the story of Joe King, who was graduating with a master’s of science in education from our clinical psychology program. King, the Vice President of the Student Senate, is wheelchair-bound as a result of lifelong condition called osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bone disease. Yet he has been extraordinarily active at TC, interning in Washington, D.C., co-authoring a chapter in a faculty member’s book, working on several research studies, and also keeping a regular blog on the TC Web site.

“Perhaps because of his disability—or perhaps simply because of the kind of human being he is – Joe is someone who thinks about others; who both understands and sees past differences; and who, because of that, has the unique ability to connect with all kinds of people and bring them together,” Fuhrman said.

And she also told the story of doctoral degree recipient Ted Kesler, who more than a decade ago, as a classroom teacher preparing his students to take the city’s first high stakes promotion test for third graders, was the focus of a 10-part New York Times series.

“For Ted, who had taken a course with Tom Sobol at TC on ‘defining moments,’ it was definitely a defining moment,” Fuhrman said of Kesler, who has just completed his first year as an assistant professor at Queens College. “His actions were being scrutinized nationwide and debated in the editorial pages of the Times. It left him convinced that as a teacher, his job was to protect kids from the demands of the tests and to proceed with inquiry, engagement and everything you believe really connects with kids’ lives and motivates them to learn.”

If Fuhrman’s call was for graduates to partner with policymakers and practitioners, the three recipients of the College’s Medal for Distinguished Service urged an even broader union that would unite all Americans in realizing the benefits of education.

At the afternoon master’s degree ceremony, New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo – accepting the medal on behalf of Governor David A. Paterson, who had to cancel at the last minute when he was hospitalized with migraine-like symptoms – told the audience that 50 years after the Supreme Court’s decision to desegregate American schools, “we now have an educational system for the rich versus and educational system for the poor, with a growing inequity between the two.” He called for the nation to come together in delivering on its historic promise that “you could go to school and become whatever you wanted to be,” adding that the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which calls for all students to achieve proficiency in math and reading by 2014, has failed in this regard.

“Dictating standards without committing the funding and tools necessary to meet those standards is a shallow promise indeed,” Cuomo said, to loud applause.

At the evening master’s ceremony, Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers, said that Fuhrman’s mention of Dewey resonated for her because “not only was he one of the founders of this great institution, but also of the United Federation of Teachers.” That fact, she said, is a reminder to her that, beyond the battles she fights to improve teacher pay and working conditions, “the core for me, as for you, is about teaching and learning. Everything else is just a part of how you create an environment that enables teachers to be the best they can be and students to open the doorway of life.”

Weingarten thanked the graduates “because you want to make a difference in the lives of people, which is the greatest work we can do,” and told them they had made the right choice in their professions.

“I’m a recovering lawyer who worked on Wall Street, and many of my friends who are still there have said to me that they wish they were doing what all of you are about to go do,” she said. “You will have days when you say ‘Weingarten said I’d be glad, but it ain’t today’ – but hopefully not too many.”

Being a teacher in New York City requires a person to be a combination of “Einstein, mother Theresa and Tony Soprano,” she said, “but when your kids get it – when you see that connection between teacher and student, there is nothing that’s better in one’s professional life.”

But it was Gloria Ladson-Billings, Kellner Family Professor in Urban Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who spoke perhaps the most eloquently on the need for partnership. Ladson-Billings called for the graduates to engage in “public scholarship,” which she described as being “less the university and it’s faculty going outside the ivory tower to solve ‘community problems,’ and more the cultivation of norms of reciprocity and mutuality that place communities and universities on more equal footing.”

Ladson-Billings deplored scholarly exploitation of poor communities as what the scholar Jacqueline Jordan Irvine calls “’data plantations’ – places to mine for dissertations and grants, without receiving anything approaching in-kind or reciprocal benefits.” And she held up post-Katrina New Orleans – where the proportion of homeless people is four times greater than that of any other American city -- as a leading example of the need for scholarship that both partners with and improves that which it studies.

“The shame of New Orleans is not just what has happened to its edifices, it is how the city has become a metaphor for urban neglect and systemic failure,” Ladson-Billings said. “Such a situation might make sense in a totalitarian regime or a deeply impoverished nation, but how do we explain t in the richest and most powerful democracy? How do we not see that far too many of our urban centers are one natural disaster away from becoming another New Orleans? And how is it that we are not called to action as citizen scholars to bring our expertise to bear on our most persistent problems?”

Like New Orleans, the nation’s public education system consists of “beleaguered institutions allowed to limp along with flagging support from both the public and public officials,” she said. “This is an environment ripe for public scholarship. And I believe that the task of this next generation of scholars who sit before me is to help democratize our scholarship by making it both responsive and accessible to broader constituencies and more diverse publics.”

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