The Qualities of the Liberally Educated Person in the 21st Century

The 2010-11 school year officially ended today, marking my first full year as Head of School at Frankfurt International School. It was an exciting year, capped off with a race to the finish,  the school’s 50th Anniversary, a local festival – Hessentag – which brought more than 1 million visitors to our small village of Oberursel and the graduation ceremony for the class of 2011.

Below is the speech that our faculty speaker, Richard Coburn, presented to graduating seniors at the Stadthalle in Oberursel on Saturday 4 June. His insights on the Qualities of the Liberally Educated Person in the 21st century struck me as something that was important to include here on my blog. As many are off for the summer, I wish you some quiet reading time to enjoy it.

Faculty speaker, Richard Coburn
Faculty speaker, Richard Coburn

Dr. Fochtman, Ms. Wood, Ms. Wanga, distinguished guests, members of the class of 2011, ladies & gentlemen: good afternoon. It is a great honor and privilege for me to be invited to speak to you today.

Eight and a half years ago, the headmaster and the graduation committee of FIS authorized me to write a letter to my distant cousin, Ben Affleck, inviting him to speak at the graduation in June. Ben wrote back to say he couldn’t commit himself to a speaking engagement eight months in advance, since he did not know what his film schedule would be, and he would hate to accept the invitation and then have to cancel on short notice. Ben couldn’t make it. So, you have his cousin instead. No Ben. Just Coby.

I would like to speak this afternoon on the Qualities of the Liberally Educated Person in the 21st century. What are the marks of an educated person? How would you recognize a liberally educated person if you saw one?

  1. Attention. An educated person knows how to pay attention to people and the world around them. He can follow an argument, track logical reasoning, detect illogic, hear the emotion that lies behind the logic and illogic and empathize with the person who is feeling those emotions.
  2. Knowledge. An educated person needs to know a little about everything and a lot about something. In the Age of Information, facts and figures are readily accessible with a click of the mouse on Google. So, while it may be exciting to have a smattering of knowledge on a lot of topics, students should bite deeply into at least one subject and taste its full flavor. It is not enough to be dilettantes in everything without striving to be craftsmen in something.
  3. Language and understanding. Educated people are literate across a wide variety of genres and media. They enjoy reading popular fiction ranging from the latest bestseller to a work of classical literature, and they are engaged by works of non-fiction. They can express themselves in the written word with eloquence, style, and structure. They know how to enjoy wandering through a great art museum or are moved by what they hear in a concert hall. They recognize extraordinary achievements represented by contemporary athletes in fields as diverse as tennis or gymnastics or football. They are engaged by classical and contemporary works in theater or cinema. They can appreciate good food. They recognize fine craftsmanship.
  4. Multi-cultural awareness. The 21st century will witness an even greater integration of cultures, peoples, and languages. The ability to relate to and work with an array of cultures will enhance the success of an educated person in the years to come. It will be necessary to speak several languages, especially English.
  5. Digital proficiency. Technology is an integral part of our society, and it is here to stay. The successful member of the 21st century will be able to handle the challenges of technology as the computer continues to evolve and change the way we live our lives.
  6. The power of growth. Educated people will continue to grow and develop from birth to their dying day. Their interests will expand, their contacts will multiply, their knowledge will increase, and their reflection will become deeper and wider.
  7. Professional zeal. An educated person will possess efficiency or the power to do things. A mere visionary dreamer, however charming or however wise, lacks something, which an education requires. An educated person will be effective in problem-solving providing evidence that the period of discipline of study and of companionship with parents and teachers has not been in vain.
  8. Refined and gentle manners. “Manners maketh the man,” wrote William of Wykeham. He pointed to a great truth. When manners are superficial, artificial, and forced, they are bad manners. When, however, they are the natural expression of fixed habits of thought and action, and when they reveal a refined and cultured nature, they are good manners.
  9. A sense of morality. An educated person will have a clear understanding of the difference between right and wrong and will choose to do good. The health of a society depends on simple virtues such as integrity, decency, courage, tolerance, and compassion for others.

These are the ingredients of success in the world tomorrow. You have reached a milestone in your road to success, as witnessed by this ceremony today. I wonder, however, whether you realize how far along that road you have already traveled. Let’s take a look:

  1. Focus. You are good listeners. (Glenn, pay attention.)
  2. Knowledge. You know much more about the world, are more advanced in mathematics and science, history and geography, and are much better informed on global issues than my generation was at your age.
  3. Language and understanding. You are well read, well spoken, and well versed in culture. And many of you write beautifully. (I know; I taught you myself.)
  4. Multi-cultural awareness. You have studied with students from fifty nationalities; you speak two, three, sometimes four languages. You have worked with children in the Kalahari Desert and debated issues in MUN.
  5. Digital Technology. You are at home with the computer, the Internet, and all the intricacies of cyberspace. You welcome new technology. (And this time, it is you who have taught me a thing or two.)
  6. Growth. You are open to new ideas and new ways of doing things. You enjoy learning, and you value new experiences.
  7. Zeal. You are doers. Your record of accomplishment is staggering: sports, music, drama, CAS, MUN, the Kalahari, not to mention the rigors of the IB diploma program: six courses, TOK, and the extended essay. Again, your accomplishments at age eighteen far exceed those of my contemporaries when we were your age.
  8. Manners. You are thoughtful, sensitive, and refined. You are comfortable with adults as well as your peers. You have a sense of appropriateness in any situation.
  9. Morality. You understand right and wrong, and you endeavor to do the right thing. You are considerate of other people.

It would not be a proper speech from an English teacher without a literary allusion. So, I’ve quoted the last stanza of the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling.

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!

From “If” by Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)

So, when we examine the whole picture of where you are today, and what lies ahead, it’s rather impressive. You made it. We are proud of you. You’ve done a great job. Today, we drink to your success. Now it’s up to you to go forward from FIS with the re-vitalization of life which brings change and which is encouraging. Use your energy and vision, take advantage of the gleam of youth that you possess and exercise an optimism, which will move mountains. The world is your oyster. Now go get it.

I thank you.