Universities: Safekeepers and Breeding Grounds


Universities: Safekeepers and Breeding Grounds emphasizes the importance of universities as the preservers of past learning and the generators of new knowledge. The author encourages students to build an intellectual foundation that will serve them in whatever they do over a lifetime, from graduate and professional study and career building to casual pursuits such as travel. Dean Cox points out that this is the first time in the history of the United States where voices are being raised to say that a college education lacks value, unless it is directly related to making money. By contrast, she emphasizes not only the financial benefits of a college education, but also the propensity of the college educated to enjoy greater job security and be more involved in the work of citizenship. Her remarks focus briefly on malaria as a tremendously costly illness that is being alleviated by the contributions of university researchers. She argues that even as we acknowledge the intellectual giants of the past, we should celebrate the intellectual giants among us now whose work and knowledge are changing the world, all the while supporting and teaching the next generation of intellectuals to whom the world will look for answers to problems and ways to make life more interesting, comfortable, and exciting. Finally, Dean Cox seeks to encourage the young scholars in the audience, in the hope they will value their opportunities and continue in the pursuit of their goals. 

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    It is an honor to speak from this lectern today, mindful as I am that this is the tenth anniversary of Scholars Day. Just an idea, a thought, perhaps even a dream, a decade ago, but today, we mark the tenth anniversary of celebrating student researchers and their mentors at UNT. We have been privileged over the years to have wonderful keynoters, and I hope you will take the time on some very cold or very hot day when you have to stay indoors to look back through them in the archives of The Eagle Feather. Those past addresses will warm your heart and inspire your mind.

    Celebrating Ten Years of Scholars Day

    University Scholars Day began in 2004 as the brainchild of Susan Eve, a scholar who knows the importance and value of undergraduate research firsthand. After all, she conducted research as an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina. She wrote an honors thesis, unwittingly preparing herself for the day when she would mentor her students, by which I mean guide, teach, encourage, direct, and celebrate with skill and patience.

    In 2004, University Scholars Day was small—merely a blip on the radar. After all, the program for the event was just a folded sheet of paper, a single page. Everything took place down the hall in Room 43 of the Gateway Center. Today’s program runs many pages—and costs a fortune to print, by the way—but it serves as an indicator of the great variety of research being conducted by UNT undergraduates, and the number of faculty and students involved. Today, for instance, more than 150 students and about an equal number of mentors are being recognized for their scholarly work. We think that many more UNT students should be involved in this research, and we look forward to the day when we are able to encourage them in that direction. For now, you are here, and you are the very model of what we want students to be—inquisitive, talented, hardworking, and committed.

    Building an Intellectual Foundation

    One of the best courses we ever offered in Honors, and one I am thinking about reviving, is How We Know What We Know. The class was an overview of the intellectual history of the west for the past 2,500 years or so, beginning with the Greeks and coming on up through the scientific and industrial revolutions. Scholars from across campus were warmly welcomed to our classroom to talk about philosophy, politics, biology, economics, art, geography, whatever, so that students could build for themselves a picture of our intellectual history. We thought it would help students put all of their university learning into a framework or context, which would then last for a lifetime. That is why we liked it.

    A good bit of the class focused on the past 500 or so years, specifically the scientific revolution and the industrial revolution that followed. As the class was mostly freshman students new to college, it was not uncommon for the ideas and discussions they heard to cause them distress. For instance, the biologist always said, “Modern biology would not exist without evolution.” To some young freshmen, those were fighting words. On at least a couple of occasions, we had some big disagreements as students took issue with the ideas they heard—which is, of course, a wonderful thing in a college classroom. I remember a geographer who told students the implications of having an exploding world population headed for nine or ten billion or more in coming decades. One student complained to the president of the University that a speaker had attacked her faith by disagreeing with her view that God would provide for everyone, pointing once again to our varied views of the world.

    Life and Learning Transformed by Science and Technology

    No one doubts that this is a time when science and technology are transforming the world. This is quite a modern occurrence, of course, and although we might gush over the power of someone who lived, say, a thousand years ago, their life was nothing like ours. Take the year 800, for example, when Charlemagne, King of the Franks, was crowned emperor. He may have been emperor and king of the Franks but the world of his time was not one in which any of us would have wanted to live. We know little about it, relatively speaking, but it was a time when the urban life of earlier times had virtually disappeared, along with literacy, money, government, and commerce. These were, instead, times of war and religious struggle, usually merged into one, as when Charlemagne forced people to declare they were Christians. Life went by without a single plane ride, a glimpse through a telescope, an antibiotic to heal the body, a ride in a convertible, a microwaved pizza, or any of the many conveniences we take for granted, from artificial light to telephones to hair dryers and ATMs. Neither Charlemagne, or Louis XIV, or William Shakespeare, or Thomas Jefferson could have said that they had just gotten off a jet plane and had to see their internist for a prescription for some antibiotics. And neither George Washington nor Lafayette could have fixed a little lunch in their Panini grill and eaten it while watching a movie on television. And Paul Revere never complained that his car was using too much gasoline, or that he thought the batteries in his cell phone were failing.

    Naturally, people living in such a boring world needed very few words in their daily routine. All of us know more words than we actually use, of course, so our vocabulary is larger than our common usage, meaning we understand words that we seldom or never say or write. A college educated person probably has a vocabulary of 17,000 or so words, but thousands of those words are merely understood and rarely or never used. For instance, brandish is a fairly common word, but when did you last use it in a sentence? It just isn’t correct to say that “he brandished a book,” and fortunately, we almost never need to say that “he brandished a weapon.” I have read over the years that historians believe that peasants, or serfs, used only about 40 words. While that sounds awful, lots of people even now get by with about 500 words. There are geniuses among us, of course, and from the past, we would include William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and Winston Churchill.  Some suggest that old Will Shakespeare had a vocabulary of about 66,000 words—and still felt the need to coin more.

    Thanks to the scientific and industrial revolutions and the spread of the written word and education, English has exploded to at least 500,000 words, with more coming all the time. After all, when something is invented, we need a way to talk about it. The scientific advances that began around 1550 transformed everything, and gave us, in Shakespeare’s beautiful phrase, a brave new world. But, of course, it was the computer that wrought the revolution.

    Learning from the Past

    Even so, it is clear that no generation starts over entirely. We look backward before we look forward, an idea recognized for many hundreds of years. In fact, we see it mentioned as far back as the 12th century, when John of Salisbury wrote of standing on the shoulders of giants. We know that Newton also used the phrase when he wrote, “If I have seen farther, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.”

    We share a strange tendency to look behind us for those intellectual giants, but, of course, they are among us now, giants in every field, living, working, and teaching. Some giants, in fact, many of them, are at universities serving as mentors, even as they were mentored by others. I have a feeling that there are several in this very room at this moment. We recognize that, for a long time in the western world, universities have been the repositories of true knowledge. And in the United States, the home of the greatest universities in the world—not by my judgment, but by the assessment of virtually every scholar around the world—universities have been the places where two things take place: knowledge is passed on from intellectual generation to intellectual generation, and knowledge is expanded.

    The Role of Universities

    This is the glory of universities. Many of us have known the joy of the college classroom, either as student or teacher, or both, and have had the sense that time was standing still in that moment as we learned or taught. Still, we are living at a time when there is a cloud hanging over us, as prominent members of society, often powerful and wealthy ones, complain that universities have no role to play unless it is job training. By that measure, there is no role for philosophy or creative writing or political thought or music history.

    This is a disturbing trend, as it represents a turning away from what we have valued in the United States for many generations. We have broadened the right to education over time, and now, for the first time, some are saying that education is not necessarily a good that benefits both society and the individual. Our tradition in this country is to encourage everyone to learn all they can, toward the goal of being all they can be. How can it be a good sign when some of our nation’s leaders are unable to see the value of education? What do they think propelled us to the front of the industrial revolution and the parade of inventions that characterize modern life?

    And because we are scholars, we look at the data, which clearly says that going to college is a great thing to do. According to contemporary studies, going to college increases your earning power substantially. It also increases your job security. During the recent recession and high unemployment, college graduates were far less likely to be affected than those with less education. A college education also makes you a better citizen, a person with increased tolerance and a greater propensity to volunteer in one’s community. And you are doing your future children a favor, because children of college graduates are more likely than others to become college grads themselves.

    So I worry about that storm cloud hanging over us, all who study and research as scholars, for the sake of discovery, the reward of knowing, because I believe that education has become far too closely linked to getting a job. I hope that cloud does not result in a decline of talented students who seek out the world’s best universities and find ways to work in studios, offices, libraries, and laboratories, alongside mentors who themselves are the students of a mentor, to learn how to learn. It is from this process, student working with a mentor, student becoming the mentor, that the pyramid takes place. It is from this process that answers to modern questions can emerge, as in the following example:    

    Malaria: a terrible disease. Every year there are 216 million new cases and 655,000 deaths. Many people, including me, believe that malaria is the worst disease out there, as it affects so many people, killing many and causing physical suffering, but also keeping economic development from taking place, robbing people of the meager savings they have to pay for treatment, keeping children out of school, and even causing political instability. Progress is being made but the best drug has come from a plant that takes 18 months to grow. But we are now benefitting from the work that began 12 years ago when a graduate student at UC Berkeley tried putting the plant’s genes into fast growing yeast. KQED, from which I got this information, says that large scale production of the drug started last week, and that this story will appear in the April 25, 2013, edition of Nature. Now, the cost will go down and there will be a plentiful supply—because a University valued research and encouraged it among its faculty and students.

    I believe that university scholars will continue to do work that will lessen suffering and improve the quality of life.

    • I would point out, future doctors, that Tarrant County has three of the nation’s top ten zip codes for infant mortality.
    • I would point out, future engineers, that many millions of people still need little cooking stoves that don’t pollute so much or make the family sick, and billions need a better water pump, because without running water, good sanitation is virtually impossible.
    • I would point out, future social scientists, that one-third of women suffer physical abuse, most often in their own home, and forty percent of the children in Denton County live in poverty.

    So I would say to you there is nothing greater in the world than being young, intelligent, and educated. Because you are in college, you will reap great benefits. But for the happiness and fulfillment you seek in your life, you will need to be involved in useful work that challenges your mind and contains the seed of solving problems. I urge you to continue the educational journey that has brought you to this moment. The scholarly work you are doing is for you, but it is also to advance the total of human knowledge, which is for the world.

    At some point, perhaps when I was in junior high school, I realized that a college education was the key—not a key, but the key—to the life I wanted—a life of the mind, a life with service to others. I made a secret promise to myself that nothing, save death or grievous injury, would keep me from getting a college education. And I meant it. I go back to Sir Isaac Newton who, in order to go to college, served other students by running errands for them, and survived by eating the leftovers of their meals. You probably don’t need to go that far, but I would urge you to continue the intellectual journey that allows you to learn by standing on the shoulders of giants. Who knows but that you will change the world?

    I love Universities—the very concept of them—and I love my own alma mater as well as this great institution. I believe universities are the safe keepers of knowledge as well as the breeding grounds of new knowledge. And learning is a truly wonderful thing. It is true for most of us that we must earn a living, and our studies will no doubt lead to work that pays us enough to survive and even thrive. But do not lose sight of the bigger picture. You are a scholar at a very fine university. You have faculty mentors to guide your research. I recognize that only a part of your work is captured here in your papers and posters. Keep on learning from the past and seeking new knowledge for the future. That is what a University is about, and that is what it means to be a student.