On the morning of May 26, the day before Middlebury’s 212th commencement, President Ronald D. Liebowitz delivered his 2012 Baccalaureate address to graduates, parents, and other assembled guests in a crowded Mead Chapel. As one who has not shied away from provocative or controversial topics when speaking to the senior class on the eve of graduation, President Liebowitz did not disappoint. He began: “Baccalaureate addresses usually involve presidents offering students some wisdom about how to succeed in life following graduation. My advice today is perhaps a bit unorthodox, because it boils down to this: Be wary of the advice you get from your elders, and find ways to gain their trust and provide advice to them.”
Middlebury Magazine recently spoke to President Liebowitz about this address and the thoughts behind it.
How did you settle on this provocative topic as the focus of your address?
It was a long time in coming, actually. For several years, I’ve been thinking about this generation of students and how different they are from other generations. Hearing what’s on their mind, what they are thinking about, how they work, how they get information, the environment they live in . . . just getting a feel for the magnitude of change that they are operating in as compared to previous generations.
It’s one thing to say that things have changed—they are always changing—but it’s another thing to consider the magnitude of the change and what has gone into the change that makes it different. As I noted in the speech, “The volume of information alone that is available to today’s youth, and the speed at which it is attained and shared, has altered quite dramatically what is possible for one to do, where it might be done, with whom, and at speeds that were simply inconceivable even 15 years ago.” All of these things came together.
You spoke of a problem of perspective and a problem of perception when attempting to bridge this generation gap. What did you mean?
This generation has been shaped by a vastly different set of circumstances than those that have shaped previous generations. That hit me over the head during a board meeting this spring when we were meeting with students to talk about a big concern: student stress.
To the adults, the solution was simple: reduce all of the things that students are doing and that means taking all of the stuff outside of their assigned work, take that out of the equation, and they will be fine. And the students at first didn’t quite understand us. And then finally one basically said, “No, that’s just a temporary solution. This is the world we inhabit, and it includes all of these other things.”
Yes, student stress is a very valid concern, but our solution was not their solution. Eliminating these options would not make the situation better; if anything it would make it worse. Students noted that all of these opportunities outside of the traditional classroom contribute to how they learn.
The world they inhabit is not the world we inhabited a generation ago as students. We don’t like the fact that students are completely wired, connected all of the time. To them, that’s not odd, it’s not something they can turn on and turn off. To today’s generation, this is the way they operate, it’s the way they get information, it’s the way they determine where they will go to lunch, it’s the way they communicate with their friends. All of these things are normal. “This is not the problem you think it is,” they told us. So, there are different problems we have to try and solve, and we will work with the students, learn from the students, how to best achieve this.
And the danger in not doing so . . .?
I referred to it as being like the movie Groundhog Day. These issues (student stress, student self-segregation, binge drinking) keep coming up, problems that need resolution, and we as an institution have tried diligently to deal with them, but the results have all been the same: an affirmation of the problems, but no agreement on how to address them.
Four or five years ago we established a task force on social life because we had heard how unsatisfying the social life was for our students. And one of the things we did was appoint a student-only committee, thinking that if we got the adults out of the equation, students would create their own solutions and their own recommendations. And they did! But we reacted to those recommendations in a way that was part of the problem. That is, we rejected some of these ideas because we did not understand how their life experiences were so different from our own. We framed the problem, but we didn’t comprehend the students’ responses. Now, we did some positive things, but there were other issues that we thought were kind of odd, so we didn’t deal with those. And those, in essence, are what we’re dealing with five years later. But I think that’s beginning to change. I mention in the speech two specific instances—the student stress meeting and a meeting involving the Socially Responsible Investment Club —where today’s students are effectively educating us and engaging us in a way that will allow us to make progress on a couple of important issues.
About midway through the speech, you make a hard pivot from a local perspective to a global one.
Right. This is not an issue of a group of students behaving one way—plugged in, redefining how one learns— because they live in relative isolation in Middlebury, Vermont. It’s a generational perspective, and that’s why I brought it from a very local campus example to the much larger picture.
You see it in debates within the academy in which there is a resistance to challenge convention, to reformulate assumptions. That’s why I wanted to call attention to the young scholar at Harvard, Professor Eric Nelson. In his book, The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought, and in his scholarship, Nelson forces us to re-examine long-held views about political values and what they mean. And in doing so, he really turned things upside down in the academy, where scholarly achievement and scholarly respect are hard to come by, where seniority is so valued. Yet through his own way of hard work and expertise, he has challenged conventions of centuries, really, on this topic of political thought. And he was able to do so by demonstrating how generational issues can be bridged: with a younger generation effectively educating the older generation in a way that is both respected and legitimate, through hard work, gaining trust, and the introduction of new lines of thought.
That should be a template of how this younger generation can do the same.
That’s an empowering idea.
It is, but there’s another part to it. An important part of this speech that I think is crucial is the notion of not turning one’s back on the older generation, either. There’s vulnerability in the younger generation of falling prey to self-righteousness, of identifying all the wrongs committed by their elders and then doing one’s own thing. Just as we need to turn to learn from them, it is incumbent upon them to communicate with us, to stay in touch, and to be being agents of change in the right way. I wrote in the first paragraph, “Be wary about the advice you get from elders.” It doesn’t mean ignore elders. It means this generation needs to learn their elders’ blindspots; it needs to learn how to enlighten the older generations by virtue of what they, this current generation, see that the older generations do not know how to see. It is not enough for this current generation of students to see a productive new path to innovative solutions. It is their special challenge to learn how to bring the rest of us along.