Dean Dees Provided Words of Wisdom to 2022 Graduates

At the May 17 commencement ceremonies for the Kent State Columbiana County campuses, there were the usual traditions: caps and gowns; Pomp and Circumstance; presentation of diplomas; turning tassels; and proud families.

And, of course, there was the traditional commencement speech.

This year, the address to graduates was delivered by Dr. David Dees, dean and chief administrative officer of the Salem and East Liverpool campuses.

Dees presided over his final commencement ceremonies as leader of the two campuses and agreed to offer a few parting words of wisdom and advice to the graduates. He is returning to the classroom as an associate professor of cultural foundations on the Kent Campus beginning in early August.

This is his message to the Class of 2022 from the Kent State Salem and East Liverpool campuses.

…It is quite an honor to be here today. As I said, I’ve been a part of these incredible ceremonies for over 30 plus years and I am reinvigorated and reminded each time of the importance of what we do at this university and the importance of education in general. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson didn’t get along and, quite frankly, didn’t agree on many things.

“Joseph Ellis (2002) in his text Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, describes these two as “the odd couple of the American Revolution.” As a matter of fact, during the presidential campaign of 1800, Jefferson’s supporters accused Adams of having a “hideous hermaphroditical character,” while Adams’ camp called Jefferson “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow.” Despite their differences, there was one area that they completely aligned which was the importance of a public education in this new democratic experiment they were attempting.

If you think about it, this democratic experiment was extremely risky. Could you really trust the public to decide for themselves what was best? Could you really trust these “crazies” to make informed decisions? To ease their concern, both argued for the importance of some form of public education. The debate about what that would look like has continued over these 250 plus years, but at our personal core as Americans, we have a fundamental belief in the power and importance of public education. Simply stated, public education and our democratic core values have long been linked and connected together.

Continental Congress Ordinance 1785, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, Morrill Act of 1862, the GI Bill of 1944, and all of the public policies and laws regarding student access and personal rights of the 1960's and 1970's  are testaments to this continue linkage.  But why? What is this deep-rooted value for education.

Andrew Delbanco (2012) outlines in his text College:  What it was, is and should be, that we have had three primary reasons for public education and specifically higher education.  

The first one, with two different subsets, is about the economy – both personal and public.  From the public perspective, the economic health of our nation depends on educated people, like you graduates, who are experts in their fields, can add to new ideas and support the industries and professions that we rely on as a technological society. From the personal perspective it is about the economic stability of the individual. As many of you graduates know, the degree you are earning today will open all types of doors and possibilities for your own personal and financial well-being. These two reasons are the most common that we hear over and over again: we need more jobs and job development; and of course the thing we have said for years,  that your earning potential is over 1 million dollars more with a degree than compared to your peers. Education for the economy has been the most common discussion in all our lifetimes.

Delbanco’s second reason for the link between democracy and public education relates back to the passions of Jefferson and Adams and that is to have an educated citizenry that was informed and could make smart decisions for this new republic we were forming. As Robert Reich (2019) writes in his text, the Common Good, “Democracy depends on citizens who are able to recognize truth, analyze and weigh alternatives, and civilly debate their future, just as it depends on citizens who have an equal voice and equal state in it.  Without an educated populace a common good cannot even be discerned.”

Reich, echoing the founders' original concerns, notes that we have to have citizens that can recognize the truth and analyze options. In other words, we need people who are crap detectors!  Yes, people who are smart enough to recognize good ideas from bad and can see through the BS.

Graduates, one of my hopes for you tonight is that you leave this university with a very strong crap detector!  You won’t fall for gimmicks; you are smart enough to recognize charlatans that out for their own good; and that you are committed to analyzing and finding alternatives that stand the test of science, logic and rational thinking. Now, more than ever in our democracy, is this needed.

Granted, this is where the tension lies in our society. What some consider crap, others consider the ultimate truth. With the proliferation of access to unfettered information presented as truth, more and more of our peers are falling into these traps of ideology and moving away from the common good outlined by scholars like Riech and others.

But, it is Delbanco’s third reason, not as much discussed, that may actually be the most important for our conversation here today. A real education should teach you how to live a good and interesting life. Delbanco captures this best when he describes a conversation he overheard where it was said “You want the inside of your head to be an interesting place to spend the rest of your life”.    

To me, this is how we learn to “live” democracy. It is this commitment to living a good life that should send you to learn and hear the stories of others; striving to never be the smartest in the room; surrounding yourself with other people that know more about things you want to learn. Commit to never being stagnant. Find new challenges, even if it may go against the status quo.

Two of my favorite authors come to mind when I think of keeping my head an interesting place to live. The first is John Dewey, one of the most famous American educational philosophers.  My favorite quote from all of Dewey’s work is quite simple, but very telling. Dewey (1916) writes: “A democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience.” This educational institution we have created is not just about teaching you about voting, laws and rules. It is about how you live your life with the others around you. Think about this: this is beyond being a republican or democrat. This is truly about being an American – living your life in a way that not only makes your journey interesting, but it is about the others around you as well.

Parker Palmer (2014) expands this idea in his text Healing the Heart of Democracy.  As Parker outlines, we must all develop habits of the heart or ways of living and loving one another that support our democratic dream. He notes that there are five habits of the heart that are critical to rekindling our democracy:

The first habit is to recognize that “We are all in this together.” “We are an interconnected species and we must embrace the simple fact that we are dependent upon and accountable to one another, and that includes the stranger, the ‘alien other.’”

The second habit is that we “Must have an appreciation of otherness.” As he states, it doesn’t have to be “us versus them.” Instead, it can remind us of the “ancient tradition of hospitality to the stranger and give us a chance to translate it into twenty-first century terms.”

The third habit of the heart is the “Capacity to hold tension creatively.” “Our lives are filled with contradictions – from the gap between our aspirations and our behavior, to observations and insights we cannot abide because they run counter to our convictions.”  All of us are complicated individuals and, as he continues, that if “… we allow their tensions to expand our hearts, they can open us to new understandings of ourselves and our world, enhancing our lives and allowing us to enhance the lives of others.”  If we acknowledge to ourselves that we are not perfect, this will allow for more personal growth and grace for those around us.

“The fourth habit is developing a “Sense of voice and agency.”  “We grow up in…institutions that treat us as members of an audience instead of actors in a drama.” We are all asked to watch a lot of things around rather than doing. As he continues, we need to “find our voices and learn how to speak them” so that we can add to change in our world.

The last habit of the heart is the “Capacity to create community.” For Palmer, creating a community does not have to be a big change. He states: “The steady companionship of two or three kindred spirits can help us find the courage we need to speak and act as citizens.”  

Graduates, find that group, even if it is small, that helps you speak your voice and create a space for positive change.   

As I think about Parker Palmer’s challenge to us, I am also reminded that much of what he argues for can be found without much access to traditional education. My grandmother, Grammy Dees, was raised in the hills of eastern Kentucky in a very poor and struggling environment. With no more than a sixth-grade education, she lived a difficult life of poverty and struggle. She was a very strong woman who conquered incredible obstacles: losing her husband to a tragic workplace accident at a young age with three kids; having to work multiple jobs to make ends meet; and even learning how to drive at the age of 60. This woman was amazing.  

Yet, every time I read the words of Parker Palmer, I can’t help but think of Grammy Dees.  To her, life was pretty simple: leave things better than you found it and love one another. All of the habits of the heart that Parker Palmer mentions: creating community, knowing we are in this together, speaking up and listening to one another, inviting those in that are different, and reflecting on your own journey could be summarized in these two principles outlined quite simply by this “uneducated” woman.

Graduates, what you have learned in your time at Kent State is very important. It will help our economy as a nation; it will help your own personal economy. Also, hopefully, you will be living crap detectors that can identify truth from falsehood and will not fall into the trap of just really bad ideas. But the most important thing I want you to take from all of this is how do you now go live a life worth living.

Don’t be afraid to stand up for those who can’t. Recently I was in the hospital with a very serious health issue. It was clear to me, and the nurse who was treating me, the plan wasn’t working. Like many of you in the health professions, she had learned to be an advocate for her patient. She knew it wasn’t working and went to the doctor with a new strategy. The doctor, again living the habits of the heart, listened. He didn’t devalue her insights because she was below him; he listened and they strategized together to create a plan that worked. It was this small community of experts that worked together to directly impact my recovery.  

My point is that this isn’t just philosophical talk we have been expressing today. As an educated person, you now have great responsibility to live your life in a different way. You haven’t just learned these ideas in college to get a better job and make more money. you have learned these ideas to help your community become a better place. And remember: this doesn’t depend on your degree as well.

Think about this: if you are a business major, do you want to become an investor that makes a lot of money yet destroys our economy? When I think about the economic collapse of 2008 that all of us in this room are still living the impact from, it was perpetrated by well educated people who knew how to make the money, but never asked if we should be doing it this way.

Many people have asked me why I am stepping down as dean of these campuses and returning to the classroom. The reason is quite simple. I am following the habits of the heart.  

Your value is not about the money you make in life or the prestige in your job. True, money makes many things in life much easier. I’m not going to deny that. But, when you are asked the question “is your head an interesting place to live?”, hopefully, you can say “yes.”  

We live in an incredible time in our history. There are tremendous options for all of you out there. The data shows that each of you will change your career at least two to three more times before you are done and, in some cases, that job you will hold doesn’t exist now. Don’t be afraid to change. Keep your mind an interesting place to live and stick to the habits of the heart and you will be fine.

So, graduates, congratulations! You have made it. You should be quite proud of this accomplishment because I know that all of us in this room are quite proud of you. However, this is just the beginning and I hope as you live your life you take these ideas with you:

  1. Keep that crap detector strong: commit to lifelong learning so that you can always know when your being sold bad ideas.
  2. Never be afraid to try new things: life is not a linear journey. Challenge yourself and keep pursuing that passion that drives your sou. It will make you a better citizen and you owe it to all of us to live that best life.
  3. Listen and never assume you are the smartest in the room: it is the voice of others that can guide your thinking and expand what you know.
  4. Remember to live these habits of the heart, or as Grammy Dees taught me: always leave whatever you touch better than you found it and love one another.

Congratulations to all of you and thank you again for letting me be your dean and participate in this wonderful journey with you. Thank you.

POSTED: Wednesday, June 8, 2022 - 4:49pm
UPDATED: Wednesday, June 8, 2022 - 4:49pm