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Answering the Call to Invent Tomorrow

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Victor Ramsey, with his three-year-old son, Caleb, on the steps of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, after receiving his Ed.D. in Biobehavioral Sciences.

Victor Ramsey, with his three-year-old son, Caleb, on the steps of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, after receiving his Ed.D. in Biobehavioral Sciences.
Photo by Heather Van Uxem Lewis

Learning is “the cornerstone of our globalized society” and the 21st century “is shaping up as ‘the century of the learner’” – a time when “major breakthroughs in cognitive and neuroscience and astonishing advances in digital technology…will transform education and galvanize learning for all, young and old, rich and poor alike.”

With that forecast, delivered at Teachers College’s commencement exercises on May 15th and 16th in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, President Susan Fuhrman called upon TC’s 2012 graduates to “accept the call to serve society by becoming the inventors of tomorrow” and to regard their preparation at the College as “a bond of trust” with “the students you teach, the patients you treat, the employees you guide and the communities you serve.” 

Speaker after speaker echoed Fuhrman’s theme of marshaling innovative research to “invent tomorrow.”

Surveying the array of sky-blue academic departmental banners at the first of two master’s degree ceremonies after receiving the College’s Medal for Distinguished Service, the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson said that “what’s interesting about these names is that they all shout out” a focus on “making a better world.”

The son of a Teachers College graduate himself, Tyson said he chose his career path after a childhood trip to the American Museum of Natural History, where he now serves as the Frederick P. Rose Director of the museum’s Hayden Planetarium.  He urged the graduates to care less about answers than the search to find them. To illustrate his point, he told them to imagine themselves as employers choosing between two job candidates, each of whom has been asked to estimate the height of St. John’s tallest spire. The first candidate, who has already memorized that figure, responds immediately with the precise answer. The second, who has not, runs outside, measures the length of the spire’s shadow, measures his own shadow, figures out the ratio between the two numbers, and comes back ten minutes later with an answer that is about a foot or two short.

Someone grading a standardized test might be impressed by the first candidate, Tyson said, “but I’m hiring the guy who figured it out.” His point: “When we ignore the importance of creating thinking en route to the right answer, that’s the beginning of the end of our functioning as a creative civilization. If you never know more than your instructor taught you, than we’d all still be living in caves. At some point, someone has to think differently.”

Speaking at the afternoon master’s degree ceremony, Martha Kanter, U.S. Under Secretary of Education, praised Teachers College as an institution whose leading lights, over the years, have “propelled this nation to greatness” in a range of fields. “You stand on their shoulders,” she reminded the graduates, urging them to remember their debt to teachers who have “shown you the world as it is and encouraged you to see it as it should be.” 

Retaining an idealistic vision is especially important right now, said Kanter, who, as the first community college president and district leader ever to serve in the under secretary role,  is spearheading President Obama’s initiative to restore the United States to world leadership in college enrollment. Over the course of just a single generation, she pointed out, the country has slipped to sixteenth place on that measurement. Kanter cited other factors that have contributed to that decline: a disastrous high school dropout rate; the failure of half of all students enrolled in college to earn their degree within six years; and an entrenched gap in which black and Latino students continue to trail whites and Asians in academic achievement by, on average, two to three years.

“It’s taking too long” to fix these problems, Kanter said, “and we’re losing too many students.”

She charged her listeners with the responsibility to “put the lie to the myth that poverty is destiny.

“Move our nation forward by creating opportunities for others,” she said. “Use the opportunities you have enjoyed here to model the way.”

At a time when friends and families are asking graduates to think about their futures, linguistic anthropologist Shirley Brice Heath, who also received the College’s Medal for Distinguished Service, said she wanted to “talk about going backwards, to origins.”

Heath, who is the Margery Bailey Professor of English and Dramatic Literature and Professor of Linguistics, Emerita, at Stanford University, has devoted her career to exploring the formative linguistic and artistic experiences of people in different cultures.  Her groundbreaking longitudinal research in the Piedmont area of the Carolinas, published as the classic work, Ways with Words: Language, Life and Work in Communities and Classrooms (Cambridge University Press, 1983/1996), has helped shatter the notion that class and race are inherent barriers to academic achievement.

Heath told graduates at Wednesday’s doctoral hooding ceremony that “at least once a month, I want you to seek out an origin story of anything you buy,” from flowers sprayed with preservatives that might be harmful to the migrant workers who picked them to furniture made from wood “robbed” from the forests of Papua New Guinea. 

She urged her listeners to reflect upon their own “origin stories” – to remember “the first time you were aware of being special, with your will, talents, interests and creativity,” or “the first time you felt the pulse of your energy as you imagined a world changed by you.”

And finally Heath reminded the audience that human beings have “the gift of the hypothetical – of ‘what if?’ and ‘as if’” – questions she suggested trigger the most powerful of all origin stories, because they tap the potential of all who ask them and spark dreams of what could be instead of what is.

The student speakers at each of the College’s two master’s degree ceremonies both spoke of commencement as a moment of transition, from thinking about changing the world to going out and doing it.

Kristen McGregor, who received her master’s degree in Human Development, told listeners at the morning ceremony of her work conducting what she called “the marshmallow experiment” with young children. In this well-known experiment, which tests children’s ability to “put off what they want now in order to get something better in the future,” participants are offered a choice between being allowed to eat a single marshmallow right away or a few marshmallows – or even a whole bag – later on. “I’ve come back to find kids with their kids literally with their tongues resting on the bag of marshmallows,” McGregor said to laughter. “It’s a classic example of desire controlled by the vulnerable human brain. And that’s how I feel right now. We’ve put off all sorts of things in our lives –we’ve made significant sacrifices—to make changes in the world.”

McGregor urged her fellow graduates to “think of what your bag of marshmallows is – of what you have done so far and what it is you want to do” because “today is the day we get to dig in and do what we came to do – and that, my friends, is truly sweet.”

Afternoon student speaker Imani Irving, who received her master’s degree in Curriculum and Teaching, recalled her grandmother’s advice to “aim for the stars – because if you fail, you’ll only fall into the trees, but if you aim for the trees, you’ll hit the ground and injure yourself.”

Irving, the mother of a two-year-old son, told her classmates, “We have all given birth to new ideas and recreated ourselves as professionals and individuals. “ That process began by “changing within and challenging our assumptions.” Now, she said, the challenge is to continue that evolution “by giving life to your ideas.”

“Shirley Chisholm, who was the first African American woman elected to Congress, and also a Teachers College alumnus, said, ‘You don’t make progress by standing on the sidelines, whimpering and complaining,’” Irving said. “’You make progress by implementing ideas.’”


Link to TC 2012 Doctoral Convocation
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