Commencement 2014: "A Moral Obligation to Extend Opportunity... | Teachers College Columbia University

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Commencement 2014: "A Moral Obligation to Extend Opportunity"

TC graduates “have a moral obligation to harness the power of our great institution to extend the promise and opportunity of education today and to future generations,” and to “transform our schools to make sure that every child has access to an excellent education,” President Susan Fuhrman said at the College’s recent convocation ceremonies at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

Calling them “uniquely prepared to meet the complex and sometimes confounding challenges we face in our city, our nation and our world,” Fuhrman implored the graduates to protect public schools in the United States, “the very foundation upon which we build a democratic society,” which are “under pressure on many fronts, from major changes in curriculum and assessment and oppressive approaches to accountability, to the challenge of educating students with increasingly diverse backgrounds and needs.

Click here to read stories of 2014 TC graduates.

“Sixty years after the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, persistent segregation and inequity still plague our schools,” she said. “Alternatives popping up in the name of providing enhanced choice often exacerbate stratification and separation.”

Education that recognizes and harnesses diversity was in many ways was the theme that ran through the three master’s degree ceremonies and doctoral hooding on May 19th, 20th and 21st, which together involved more than 2,000 graduates.

An ideal worth fighting for

“I see education as…the most consequential field and endeavor you can enter,” said Sonia Nieto, Professor Emerita of Language, Literacy & Culture, the College of Education at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, after receiving TC’s Medal for Distinguished Achievement at the Monday ceremony for students receiving master’s degrees from the Departments of Arts & Humanities and Curriculum & Teaching, received TC’s Medal for Distinguished Service. “What could be more democratic or worthy than a commitment to the education of young people, regardless of station, rank, race, religion, or gender? It’s an ideal worth fighting for and many, both in this country and around the world, have given their toil, sweat, and in some cases, even their lives, to advance and support it.”

Nieto reminded the newly minted teachers in the audience to “start where students are at.”

“We’re all the result of our upbringing, experiences, and social context and, as a result, we’re all limited in our perspectives, sensibilities, and understandings,” she said. “When I taught undergraduate students, for example, I needed to start where they were at. Rather than blame them for what I might see as narrow-mindedness or naiveté, I needed to present them with other ideas, not to change their minds but to educate them to other possibilities. That’s the role of a teacher, a role I have always taken very seriously.”

At the second master’s degree ceremony on Tuesday morning, held for graduates in Biobehavioral Sciences, Counseling and Clinical Psychology, Education Policy and Social Analysis and Health and Behavior Studies, medalist Temple Grandin, the world-renowned authority on animal behavior and an advocate for the rights of those with autism, issued a sharp plea to American schools and universities to welcome back into the classroom often ostracized creative, nontraditional thinkers who invent and make useful things. “Who do you think built this cathedral?” Grandin, a professor at Colorado State University, asked rhetorically. “I’m going to bet you the cathedrals were built by a lot of kids that are in special ed today. The dyslexic kids, the ADHD kids, the mildly autistic kids.”

Avoiding luxury

At TC’s Tuesday afternoon master’s degree ceremony, where students received their degrees in Organization & Leadership, Human Development, International & Transcultural Studies, and Mathematics Science & Technology, medalist Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, told the graduates that they are now “soldiers in the fight to continuously educate our population to make the United States of America even greater than it is today.”

That work, said Butts, President of the State University of New York College at Old Westbury, and Pastor of Harlem’s famous Abyssinian Baptist Church, requires a conversation about three things: our national character, which he believes should be defined by “the avoidance of luxury;” courtesy of the sort that involves “not just holding the door for someone or taking your hat off when they enter the room” but instead, genuine concern for others’ wellbeing; and an appreciation of beauty.

Carl Wieman, Professor of Physics and Education at Stanford University, who received the TC medal at the doctoral hooding ceremony on Wednesday, urged the graduates to make others in higher education aware of evidence-based research about how people learn.

“What really makes humans unique is our remarkable capacity to learn about learning and to use that knowledge to improve the lives of our fellow citizens,” said Wieman, a Nobel laureate for his work atomic and optical physics who was being onored for his pioneering efforts to improve science education. “You represent the pinnacle of that accomplishment.”

Guided by learning

Earlier, during the master’s degree ceremonies, the three student speakers, Noor Sandhu, Dana Daugherty and Yasmin Nooreddin-Ibrahim, spoke of the importance of learning as an internal life compass.

Sandhu, who was receiving her master’s degree in Music & Music Education, said that as a five-year-old growing up in Nepal, she wanted so badly to be a music teacher that she used to line up her dolls on her window sill to teach them songs from The Sound of Music. Her own schooling was “a struggle,” but thanks to “the endless support of patient teachers,” she developed a faith in her abilities that she expects to draw on once again after leaving TC.

“Stepping into teaching will be like stepping onto the Number One train – slowed, crowded and competitive,” she said. “But as TC scholars, I think we’ve acquired a remarkable set of skills that will help us get around that train and get where we want to go.”

Dana Daugherty (Psychological Counseling) said she had grown “in, up and out” during her two years at TC, through interaction with her peers, her professors, and her profession. Daugherty said she had taken to heart something a professor and mentor once told her: “Don’t ask yourself, ‘what do I want to do’? Instead, ask, who do you want to be like?” She urged her fellow graduates to “be willing to learn from those around you; teach and be willing to be taught; and leave your legacy wherever you go.”

Nooreddin-Ibrahim (Organizational Psychology) told her fellow graduates, “My question to myself and to you, is not about what we intend to write in this new chapter, but rather how we will write it, and why?”

In an age of information overload, she asked, how much of what we know “has been internalized as experiential knowledge that guides our actions in a meaningful direction?”

She urged her classmates to “reflect on how our formal education, social media, and other sources of information, have helped us acknowledge who we are, what we stand for, and what our purpose is, as human beings.”

Nooreddin-Ibrahim concluded with “a rough translation” of a poem by Imam Shafi, a 9th century Muslim scholar and sage:

There can be no rest for one of culture and intellect,
So travel. Leave the shores of what you know.

Travel! Seek new friendships and horizons.
And strive! The sweetness of life is in the to and fro.
I have seen water stagnate if it stops running,
The beauty of water is in its ebb and flow.

Published Monday, Jun. 2, 2014