February 26, 2012
Timing is everything.
On the night Hollywood celebrates stars and starlets in royal excess and hype, we gather here in a more restrained setting.
And I would argue, a more real place, to recognize exceptional work being done by students at SMU.
Let me begin by congratulating the Hyer Scholars.
It goes without saying all of you worked ferociously hard to qualify for this award.
As SMU’s most prestigious undergraduate honor society, you represent less than 5% of the school’s already very talented student body.
You bring great distinction to yourselves, your families and SMU.
Tonight’s ceremony welcomes 27 new members to the Hyer Society.
- 9 sophomores
- 12 juniors
- 6 seniors.
We also recognize four who were selected for the exceptional quality of their essays.
This year’s topic, in brief, asked students to identify an issue, event or concern that should matter most as presidential contenders address the American people;
Students were also asked “what story are America’s journalists failing to tell that should be top of mind for every citizen.”
The question tested the news literacy of every student essayist.
No surprise, the students jumped the news literacy hurdle gracefully and responded with a very rich variety of topics, according to Professor Christine Buchanan, chair of the Hyer Society Committee (she and her team read more than 70 essays this year):
Among the topics submitted:
- The economy (in many nuanced forms)
- Health care
- National security,
- Human rights
- The war on drugs
- Energy independence
As well as:
- The divorce rate
- Internet censorship
- Church/state separation
Essay awards go to juniors: Allison LaRoche and Matthew Rispoli;
And seniors: James Ames, III and Caitlin Crowley.
Let me speak up for the art of the essay.
It is incredibly hard work to write a cogent and interesting essay.
Your best teachers usually provide a sensible formula for success.
Distill your theme into a few words, even one word if you can.
By doing this, by mentally sifting and winnowing all the potential ideas swimming in your head, through all the rigor of finding your focus, you arrive at something worthwhile and clear.
This way, the pathway to your winning essays unfolded.
Obviously delighting your judges.
Returning to dressy event happening in Los Angeles tonight, let’s juxtapose it a bit more with what’s occurring here in Umphrey Lee.
“There is something better in the world waiting for you students than a culture obsessed with appearances and affluence.”
It’s the difference between an exploitive hit movie and a smaller scale film that breaks artistic ground.
It’s the difference between a formula best-seller book and an overlooked title that resonates over time as a classic.
I often cannot recall much of anything about so many big films I’ve seen over the years.
But a film that touches me, stays with me pretty much always.
Why is this?
It may have something to do with personal preference.
More often, though I think it ties back to the lessons of a strong liberal arts training.
Great universities like SMU cultivate a way of thinking among serious students that blends appreciative thinking and critical analysis.
SMU is densely populated with interesting and intelligent students and professors - perhaps the greatest concentrations of talent in one place you will experience in your lifetime.
Because you are here, because you have worked so hard and done so well, these years will set you on a course of lifelong learning.
The issues and challenges that absorb you during these years, will build into bigger, bolder, more nuanced ideas that you will wrestle with forever.
It is the examined life that SMU prepares you for, not just a remunerative position afterward (though that would be nice, too).
And getting back to those blustery films I keep forgetting, I do believe a liberal arts education helps dissect good stuff from bad.
The training also makes you better media consumers, superior workplace partners and more discerning citizens.
Too often, the special place of a university like SMU is not always fully appreciated by the larger community.
Dallas would be a vastly lesser place without SMU.
Here is one small story that demonstrates what I mean.
In the early 1980s I was invited to take part in a gathering of young Texas professionals with a similar group from Mexico.
We gathered on campus here.
The impresario that this weekend was the esteemed retired diplomat Richard Rubbottom, whom some of you may remember.
The weekend event was funded by a very nice businessman named Robert Amundsen, a man who made his money in the barbeque restaurant business.
He had a big heart and an idea.
The concept was to foster better understanding and expand cultural networks between these distant neighbors, Texas and Mexico.
When we gathered, it is not too harsh to say, it was a bit unclear what we were supposed to talk about.
Anticipating this, I am certain, the shrewd Dr. Rubbottom, asked the noted SMU professor, Dr. Luis Martin, to address the group of 30 somethings.
What followed was not so much a lecture, as it was cultural enlightenment.
Story after story, told so well by Professor Martin, awakened the group.
One told of a conquistador’s musings the night before what would be a decisive battle over a once great native civilization.
The conqueror was not so certain that the better civilization was about to prevail. Though win it would.
By the end of the Dr. Martin’s talk, most of us understood this: the Mexicans among us knew a lot more about the U.S. than we know about Mexico, and there was much to learn from one another.
Dr. Martin’s words inspired us; they set the mood perfectly, they challenged our conventional wisdom.
A university can help lift up the public domain.
Or as my theme suggested: there is something better in the world for you than appearances and affluence.
A university helps provide the ingredients.
Ideally, most of us want to live rich, meaningful, unselfish lives; the less self-deception and rationalization the better.
But it’s hard.
In my world, I prefer:
Knowledge-based, fact-based journalism over succumbing to propaganda and bias; information over disinformation; verification over mere assertion, showing over telling.
But every day, I leave my office feeling: I could have done better.
We could have done better.
Some things worked, some didn’t.
You can’t be any good in my job if you don’t fully appreciate the benefits of a free press on a free society; and the role free press has had on preserving free markets and this democratic republic.
At the same time, you can’t be any good in my job if you are not a press critic.
Gloat too much, and a thoughtful reader will surely bring me back down to earth.
The late Deborah Howell, a Texan by birth, was the outstanding editor of the St. Paul Pioneer-Press and the spouse of the president of the University of Minnesota at the time.
The morning after it was announced that her paper had won its first Pulitzer Prize, she arrived at work warm with the knowledge that she would soon be answering countless messages of congratulations from an admiring and doting public.
The same morning the Pioneer-Press bannered on the front page its vaunted Pulitzer victory, the paper also published a routine, daily schedule about which side of the street snow plows would operate that day.
The paper got the snow plow schedule wrong.
All over St. Paul motorists were being ticketed.
Deborah Howell received few messages that day about her Pulitzer, and was instead swamped by angry callers.
Deborah liked to tell this story. I can understand why.
It is, after all, a perfect definition of humility.
So a journalist better be self critical to be any good. Few things are worse than an arrogant journalist – or an arrogant anybody for that matter.
But, again, not easy to do.
I love the way Judge Learned Hand described the elements of humility in a democratic republic:
“The spirit of liberty,” he said, “is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right.”
I was reminded of this frequently as I read your student essays.
Matthew Rispoli was rightly concerned that the funding of fundamental research in science has been largely under covered in this year’s Presidential race.
Caitlin Crowley built the case for misplaced emphasis in our war on drugs.
Caitlin’s argument was doubly powerful when you realize that Presidential elections are occurring in 2012 in both the United States and Mexico – and it’s important how the drug question is covered in both countries.
James Ames assembled a strong argument lamenting the debilitating effects of debt on future generations, especially if no action is taken to curtail it.
And Allison LaRoche thoughtfully embraced greater environmental stewardship of our resources and made a strong case for less wasteful consumption.
I can’t do these excellent essays justice.
But they are good, and you will soon hear them.
I said earlier that a great liberal arts education fosters both appreciative thinking and critical thinking.
Together, they form an important paradox, a creative tension in how we regard the world.
One without the other can undermine our development as fully functioning human beings.
Appreciative thinking fosters interests in mathematics, the arts, the sciences, history, literature and the many other fields of learning you can find at SMU.
Critical thinking, on the other hand, demands of us keen analytical skills; the capacity to dissect ideas and explain what we see, detail what we like and dislike in clear terms; to use data in revealing ways.
I admire the writing of Dr. Coleman Brown, the longtime chaplain of Colgate University.
He is one of the many significant scholars who influence hundreds of students over the generations at their universities.
You know who those professors are at SMU.
Coleman Brown has thought deeply about the paradox and meaning of being appreciative and critical.
“Appreciative thinking without critical thinking becomes sentimentality and superficiality” he wrote.
“Critical thinking without appreciative thinking becomes cynicism,” he said.
And “cynicism at the foundation of our minds corrodes democracy and, yes, it corrodes intelligence.”
Know all that the cynic knows without being cynical.
Once again, I believe an SMU education helps foster hope among students in the potential of mankind.
The idea of hope reminds us that being bright and intelligent is not an end in itself.
The sharks that brought down Enron and in so doing ruined countless lives liked to think of themselves as the smartest guys in the room.
All of us are capable of great substance, accomplishment and significant achievement.
Yet we all know we are capable of mischief and more.
But a great institution like SMU helps harbor within us the power to act, to discern, and to match intelligence with enduring values.
One of my childhood heroes was Pete Dawkins.
For those of you who have never heard of him, he was a running back at Army.
He not only won the Heisman Trophy as best college football player in America, he was named a Rhodes Scholar. He was president of the senior class and in the top 5% academically.
All those qualities had never occurred in one student before at West Point.
Dawkins went on to be the youngest General in the army, and after he retired from the military, he made a fortune on Wall Street.
In short, he possessed arguably one of the best resumes in the world.
When he announced that he would run for the United States Senate, not a few people thought: this guy could be president some day.
Except it turned out he lied about his combat experience in Vietnam. He stretched the truth about his accomplishments on Wall Street.
One can only speculate why he felt compelled to do that.
But these things undid his political career.
Don’t get me wrong, his life is the sum of many, many fine elements. But in a world of continuous news and information, in a world where political operatives dig deep into a person’s past, a lie can significantly damage your reputation and career.
Robert Wright wrote a very thought provoking book, Nonzero.
The title obviously plays off the notion that “there can only be winners and losers” in a zero sum world. That’s the way a lot of educated people view the world.
Wright says it doesn’t have to be that way.
Wright builds the case – with some evidence – that society is becoming more non zero; meaning societies are more commonly collaborating to solve problems.
I hope we are becoming more refined, more communicative and progressing beyond our more primal evolutionary selves.
Match this with the research of University of Toronto scholar Richard Florida (author of the Creative Class).
In an Oct. 2011 Atlantic article, Florida maintains that tomorrow’s workforce – and he’s referring to folks like you Hyer Scholars – are developing exceptional social skills to complement your already powerful academic acumen.
Those with such social and collaborative skills, Florida said, will be essential to making societies work better.
But you know that.
And SMU has helped you on your great journey toward meaning and fulfillment.
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