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CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--Much of the current criticism of higher education derives from a resistance to change, Dr. Hanna H. Gray, former president of the University of Chicago, told some 1,900 graduates today (June 9) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's 129th commencement.
Change, however, is essential, Dr. Gray said in her prepared remarks.
As an example, she said, there is the widespread belief that at one time there was greater harmony on the nation's campuses.
"Whether true or not," she said, "it is certainly true that once upon a time, and not so long ago, there was greater homogeneity on our campuses. And surely to have a broadened diversity now is a positive improvement and an educational good."
"Our campuses as a result have come to reflect more fully some of the problematic tensions in our society," she said. "An academic community in which those can be identified and discussed and understood from different points of view is in fact a better, if not a more comfortable, place for learning than the colleges of old. But education is not meant to be comfortable, however enriching."
All commentary on education, "a subject on which everyone has strong and stubborn opinions, assumes that things are generally getting worse," she continued.
"Why is this? I think the answer has a lot to do with the ways in which education and its institutions as they are thought about get transformed into emblems of other causes and hopes and fears," she said. "It is instructive to see how much of the rhetoric having to do with the decline of higher education derives from the language of a larger nostalgia and from romantic visions of a golden past that never quite existed, how much has to do with a resistance to major changes that cannot be argued away.
"Universities, seen as institutions immune to change and even caricatured for their conservatism, are at the same time regarded, especially by some of their own alumni, as institutions that should not change, that ought instead to preserve their own past as they, its loyalists, wish to remember it, a timeless security against the disintegrations and disappointments, the corruptions and uncertain turnings, of a threatening and fragmenting world.
"To the degree that universities mirror the tensions and shifts within the larger society, they become objects of the disillusionments and fears which those evoke--they appear as once safe places suddenly made unfamiliar and dangerous."
Dr. Gray, who served as president of the University of Chicago for 15 years from 1978 to 1993, taught history there from 1961 to 1972 and is now the Harry Pratt Judson Distinguished Service Professor of History.
While not denying that there is much to improve and strengthen within higher education, she said, "I am arguing that the symbolic and selective uses of memory and devotion have to be understood for what they are before we can think clearly about the state of higher education and its institutions."
Thus, the debate about education goes far beyond questions of curriculum and academic preparation, she continued:
"Ideals of education, what it should be about, what it should be for, how its worth should be assessed, are statements about the future and the ideals one would wish to see realized in that future, statements about human and social purpose and possibility, about the nature of human society, its needs and aspirations, about the character and direction of civilized existence. They are reflections, too, on the present and its deficiencies and opportunities, and reflections on the past, the lessons it provides to be perpetuated or disregarded.
"To think critically about education, then, is to think purposefully about the future and its requirements and to be willing to accept and to help shape the complexities of change. It is to create standards by which to measure the quality of what institutions represent over time in the light of fundamental values by which we hope to be guided. It is to be reminded that those institutions, and their enduring goals, require continuing renewal, and that this depends on the educated commitment of all their citizens. It is to develop one's vision of hope and substantive purpose for the generations to come."