The Ten

On a morning in May – some eight years ago – at Kenyon College, a small liberal arts college in Ohio, the late, award-wining writer David Foster Wallace stood in front of a mass of shiny-new graduates and delivers a commencement speech called This Is Water.

“There are these two young fish swimming along,” Wallace said, “and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’”

Wallace went on to assure the audience that he is not the “wise old fish,” but that the point of the fish story is that “the most important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.”

Wallace suggested that the real value of an education is understanding how to think. “How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out,” he said. “…The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what ‘day in, day out’ really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine and petty frustration. …It hasn’t yet been part of you graduates’ actual life routine, day after week after month after year.”

The real freedom of education is understanding that you can choose not to think solely on a default mental setting, he said. “There are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about in the great outside world of wanting and achieving. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. …That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.”

Wallace concluded, “The capital-T truth is about life before death. It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: ‘This is water. This is water.’”

To test the validity of Wallace’s commencement statements, Harrisburg Magazine asked 10 midstate college and university leaders one simple question to be answered in no more than four sentences: “In your opinion and based on your personal and professional experiences, what is the most important life lesson college students can gain through higher education?”

“Higher education, and specifically Millersville University, provides multiple life lessons for students, ranging from empowering them to develop their leadership potential to instilling in them the passion to make a difference.  Rigorous courses of study and extra/co-curricular activities compel students to consider new ideas, develop critical-thinking skills, imagine new realities and innovative solutions, stimulate creativity and curiosity and encourage the exchange of divergent opinions.  Specific examples at Millersville include getting hands-on experience by working with business owners and leaders through a variety of innovative programs, such as an entrepreneurship minor, and Millersville University students’ annual contribution of approximately 75,000 hours in volunteer service in the community.   Awareness that you have acquired valuable skills for the global marketplace and comprehension of the importance of giving back to your community are invaluable life lessons.”

– Dr. John Anderson, president of Millersville University

“The most important life lesson college students can gain through higher education is learning how to learn.  Students very often arrive at college not knowing how to learn on their own because of the highly structured nature of secondary education.  It is in the dynamic, unstructured and option-filled world of higher education that students can figure out the important life lesson of how to learn.  Learning how to learn is vitally important in today’s world of rapidly changing technologies and ever-evolving career paths.”

– Dr. Eric Darr, president of Harrisburg University of Science and Technology

“One of the most important life lessons that both traditional and non-traditional college students gain is preparation for success in life.  The global and rapidly changing economy into which our students head requires new skills: intellectual flexibility, ability to handle ambiguity, ability to work with many people who do not look or sound like them and to do all of these things in both face-to-face and virtual settings.”

– Dr. Kathleen Howley, senior associate vice chancellor of Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education

“Students gain from higher education a new life perspective that is different from what they might have had – and better. Being surrounded by smart people from diverse backgrounds and cultures challenges students intellectually and teaches them how to work with others to find answers, to solve problems. These experiences guide them professionally and personally for a lifetime.”

– Mukund S. Kulkarni, Ph.D., chancellor of Penn State Harrisburg

“At Dickinson, we are intentional in creating a community and a residential environment that reflects the diversity of people and thought that our graduates will experience over the course of their lives. Here, and while studying abroad, our students navigate diversity writ large: socioeconomic, racial, religious, political, intellectual – the list is truly endless. They engage with the perspectives, stories, passions and dreams of others they might not otherwise have encountered. In this way, our students are broadened, opened to unanticipated possibilities for themselves, given opportunities to develop the cultural awareness needed to manage the global marketplace and taught that despite all of our differences, we all have so very much in common.”

– Dr. Nancy A. Roseman, president of Dickinson College

“College students who embrace the holistic impact of the many components of higher education quickly discover how small they are in the world. Immersion into a diverse environment filled with brilliant minds, infinite knowledge and varied and unique perspectives is humbling, inspiring and motivational. I think the most important lessons college students can gain through higher education are the value of diversity and varied perspectives, the power of collaboration in problem solving and the profound merit of life-long learning. Each of these components will serve them well as responsible citizens, career professionals and caring human beings.”

– Karen M. Scolforo, Ed.D. president of Central Penn College

“In my opinion, the most important life lessons students learn through higher education revolve around self-actualization and professionalism. Self-actualization encompasses the process of discovering one’s passion and potential, and how to best put that potential to use in the broader world. Professionalism is a set of skills and characteristics (e.g., communication, integrity,accountability) required to be successful in a career of one’s choosing.”

– Dr. Pamela Gunter-Smith, president of York College of Pennsylvania

“The most important life lesson that college students can gain through higher education is to choose a meaningful vocation that offers the opportunity to do purposeful work. At the end of their careers, individuals who are most satisfied with their accomplishments are those who did not just chase a job.  They thought hard about what they were good at, how their careers fit their values and what kind of life they wanted to lead. A successful college education teaches students how their talents can make a positive difference in the world.”

– Carl J. Strikwerda, Ph.D., president of Elizabethtown College

“‘Higher’ education expands our individual and collective existence. The information, socialization and new understandings we are exposed to help us in our unending search for meaning and connection. Education is necessary for the questing that moves us beyond our own existence – hopefully toward, as philosopher Paul Tillich said, ‘…a humanity that exhibits ultimate concerns.’ Therefore, higher education offers individuals and communities a wealth of exposure and insights for that journey.”

– John J. “Ski” Sygielski, Ed.D., president of HACC

“From a higher education experience, students often expect a better job.  What they will find after graduation is a better job and a better life.  In college, I would encourage students to focus on the tools of thinking rather than just the facts of what has already been thought.”

– Dr. Lewis E. Thayne, president of Lebanon Valley College