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Posted in Current Preoccupations, Future of Undergraduate Education, Lessons | 0 comments

The Pursuit of Meaningfulness: Toni Morrison’s Commencement Speech

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Well, the new graduation procedure appears to have gone off without a hitch. Some 40,000 folks found their way to the stadium; parents and friends cheered during the conferring of degrees; Toni Morrison gave the address to the first students to graduate from the School of Arts and Sciences; no one got shot.

Excuse me? The beauty of the academic calendar revealed itself once again, as it does annually: students arrive in the fall; time passes inexorably; and just as inexorably, students depart in the spring. This year’s graduating class was the largest to date: some 12,000 individual goals realized, hurdles vaulted, milestones passed, C’mon, you can do it. one step closer to The Grim Meathook Future. To the what?! Admittedly, the run-up to this year’s graduation didn’t exactly go well, but May’s pomp and circumstance appears to have swept April’s many disasters from the stage. Snooki’s highly publicized and well compensated visit to campus and the mini-meme it generated–”Study hard, party harder”? Rutgerfest 2012, the spring’s featured social event, with its shootings and its brawls posted to youTube? The ragtag student protest with its dog’s breakfast of complaints, ranging from tuition hikes to transcript fees?  And the fall semester’s headline-grabbing suicide back in the news with the spying roommate indicted on fifteen counts? That’s all in the past, now. Best to focus on the future and all the great things it has in store for the graduates. Yes, the past *is* the past. Well said. Now you’re hitting your stride. And what a future it looks to be. Here’s the blogger “Zenarchery,” who introduced me to that arresting meathook phrase, reflecting on what the future looks like for those who have access to technological toys and for those who don’t:

The upshot of all of this is that the Future gets divided; the cute, insulated future that Joi Ito and Cory Doctorow and you and I inhabit, and the grim meathook future that most of the world is facing, in which they watch their squats and under-developed fields get turned into a giant game of Counterstrike between crazy faith-ridden jihadist motherfuckers and crazy faith-ridden American redneck motherfuckers, each doing their best to turn the entire world into one type of fascist nightmare or another.

Joi Ito and Cory Doctorow? Yeah, those names were new to me, too. Though they shouldn’t be. So much to know. Ito is the incoming director of MIT’s Media Lab and Chairman of Creative Commons. Ouch. Cory Doctorow is a writer and Internet pioneer. Co-editor of Boing-Boing, a popular, edgy group blog with a moderated comment section, designed to promote a functional virtual community that shares ideas and information about technological developments. OK. The Grim Meathook Future. Not exactly the coin of the realm in commencement speeches. Going out on a limb, I’d wager that this stark image has yet to make a single showing in any speech offered to the cap and gown set. But, it’s not exactly hard to find versions of that grim future on the open market. Indeed, just today, “above the fold” on the New York Times‘ homepage, the Grim Meathook Future Zenarchery evokes is granted the power to shove what was once thought to be real news (i.e. Mubarak, Netanyahu, Obama) to the margins: So, that’s one future the students have graduated into: tens of millions of dollars by the entertainment industry spent developing virtual warfare games which, in turn, generate hundreds of millions of dollars in sales, so that a nation of consumers can play fight while the nation’s leaders (those old news guys) squander trillions of dollars in three different war efforts, bankrupting the students’ generation so the Boomers can keep on driving to the mall in civilian tanks to purchase all that great stuff teeming and gleaming on the shelves.


Toni Morrison offered a different vision of the future in her commencement address, less grim than ominous:

The nation’s only living nobel laureate for literature gets a lot done in this two-minute clip: in the last moments separating those who arrived at the stadium as students from leaving as graduates, Morrison takes her audience back to the nation’s origins in language and in the slave trade. Jefferson decides on “pursuit of happiness” rather than the pursuit of property: we live in a future that is indebted, in part, to Jefferson’s choice of words. Sometimes, word choice really does matter.

Morrison exhorts the students to aim higher than mere happiness. Morrison offers other words: meaningfulness; integrity, Truth.

There are Morrison’s words. And there’s the jiggling camera, the cut away shots capturing students waving gleefully as they realize their pixilated images are briefly on the Jumbotron screen for all to see, and the stone faced administrators arrayed in rows behind Morrison. There are Morrison’s words and there’s the documentation of the event slipping past one another in silence.

With the pursuit of happiness an unalienable right and the real motive behind all this college attending, just how does one embark upon a pursuit of meaningfulness? It seems like a crazy question to ask, I know, but the pursuit of happiness has a built in motivator: the physical experience of pleasure. What does the pursuit of meaningfulness look like?


Let me put my working hypotheses on the table. Humans are meaning makers. Story-telling is one of the foundational ways we have of making meaning. What counts as a story varies according to context and what counts as a good story varies within any given context, but story-telling is the constant; it runs from the Caves of Lascaux to the present.

The earliest images at Lascaux date back 32,000 years.

Formal education works with these givens, extending the powers of meaning making by compelling confrontations with the unknown. Early on, just about everything falls into this capacious category: the alphabet, numbers, words, equations, logic, formulas, structured argument, evidence, facts, laws. All the things which can be known become means for making more meaning, but nothing more: just inert material awaiting the animating activity that is the pursuit of meaningfulness.

What motivates the pursuit of meaningfulness? What drives the search for something deeper, something beyond, something out of reach? In “The Surprising Science of Motivation,” Daniel Pink makes a case for the necessity of rethinking motivation in the post-Industrial age. He does this by showing that what successfully motivates workers performing routine tasks–namely increased pay for increased productivity–not only fails to motivate those who work with ideas, but actually degrades their productivity.

And what do those who work with ideas require to thrive?

Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose

Autonomy: the freedom to define the focus of at least some of one’s work time; Mastery: the work remains challenging over time and has increasing levels of difficulty; and, finally, Purpose: the sense that the work is connected to something bigger than oneself.

Pink is primarily interested in the hi-tech workplace, but his analysis can be used to explain the lasting appeal of the teaching profession. The classroom, the lab, the lecture hall, the summer: our autonomous spaces; the study, the library, research, scholarship: the places where our understanding of field mastery is forever being re-calibrated; students, civil society, social justice, the world of ideas, truths evanescent and transcendent: the potpourri of possible purposes that point beyond the self.

Of course, the redefinition of teaching as test-preparation, incarnated in No Child Left Behind and continued in the Obama administration’s Race to the Top, has dramatically reduced the degree to which autonomy, mastery, and purpose figure in the day-to-day experiences of those who work in public education. And, it is also true that the two-tiered structure in higher education, where part-time laborers provide instruction without benefits for a hand-to-mouth existence is, to a large degree, made possible by the widely-held belief that the academic workplace does, indeed, provide its employees relative autonomy, in recognition of their mastery, and that it allows its employees access to a sense of purpose, broadly defined. While the rise of the test-ocracy and the steady increase in education’s reliance on temporary workers have combined to reduce the appeal of teaching as a professional choice, this fact itself underscores Pink’s central thesis: ideas and innovation proliferate in spaces where workers have a sense of autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Take those aspects out of the workplace and replace them with an empty regime of assessment, accountability, and bean-countery, and you’re no longer in the business of ideas and innovation; you’re in the business of handing out degrees.

Or to put this another way. At the very moment the advent of Web 2.0 is redefining the foundational concepts that shape society as we’ve known it–ownership, privacy, freedom, work–our educational institutions are reverting to a results-oriented model designed to produce high-performing Industrial Age workers.


Do schools have a monopoly on the pursuit of meaningfulness? Of course not. Do they play any role in spurring students to pursue meaningfulness? To strive for something beyond happiness?


Indeed, there’s a compelling argument that schools have no right to interrogate students’ motives for pursuing education beyond high school; and, further, that they have no right to insist that the students carry out such an interrogation. Teachers issues assignments; students either fulfill them or they don’t. That’s as far as it goes. The Woody Allen joke captures this:

I’m actually sympathetic to the argument the educators shouldn’t invite or compel personal disclosures, doubtless because I’ve sat through so many conference papers describing classroom practices that strike me as invasive, voyeuristic, naive, craven, manipulative.

But I distinguish between required disclosure and required introspection. Vocational education sticks to the facts: that’s its function. Higher education focuses on thought: that’s its function. Moving from what one thinks to how one’s thinking unfolds is inevitably personal, unsettling, messy, confusing. There is no more intimate relationship than the self’s relationship to its thoughts. Education necessarily involves engaging with that relationship–by showing that there are not only others possible thoughts, but other possible ways of thinking. This is the work of education: to turn the self from what is experienced as natural and familiar to what is unknown. One way to name this process of turning is “introspection.” But one can just as well substitute Morrison’s terms: the pursuit of meaningfulness, integrity, Truth. Or Pink’s: the search for inner motivation.

If work in these areas is placed categorically out of bounds on the grounds that the student has only contracted for information-transfer (Keep your filthy hands off my intellectual passions!), then higher education has been decoupled from the aspirations that have, historically, allowed the institution to provide a sense of purpose for many, if not all, of its teachers and researchers. And all those students listening to Morrison, those looking up at the Jumbotron, those lost in thought, those worrying about the future: they are being told as they head out the door that there’s an alternative to the pursuit of happiness, a pursuit that is necessary if the arc of one’s life is to be more than the catalogue of one’s purchases over time, a pursuit their education has not prepared–and perhaps cannot prepare–them to undertake.


This unsettling possibility may, in fact, be true.

A case in point: this graduation, the first of its kind for Rutgers, more than seven years in the making, followed the unification of the four liberal arts colleges on the Rutgers-New Brunswick campus, and the creation of a new entity, the School of Arts and Sciences, which has more than 800 faculty, 40 departments, and 20,000 students. This sounds momentous, but actually this transformation has largely been a bureaucratic and administrative affair realized on paper. I don’t, in other words, want to give the impression that this new School arrived along with hundreds of new faculty hires or shiny new facilities or a mandate to prepare students to confront the unique challenges of the 21st century. The bricks and mortar and the meat sticks are largely the same. Graduation requirements have been unified; a new core curriculum rolled out; some new initiatives funded. That’s not a criticism; it’s just to state that Rutgers has not escaped the realities of educational reform: it’s endlessly time-consuming; the changes realized can never be more than minor adjustments to whatever the original arrangements were; implementation is slow and uneven. Herding cats. Turning the Titanic. Etc.

Back in 2004, I served on the steering committee that helped usher this change, which was termed “the transformation of undergraduate education,” into being. My principal responsibility was to co-chair the sub-committee on the core curriculum. This involved meeting regularly was a dedicated group of faculty from across the disciplines and from schools outside of SAS (the Business School, the Graduate School for Education, the School for Environmental and Biological Sciences). We reviewed the four sets of graduation requirements then in place; we looked at the graduation requirements at our peer and our “aspirant” institutions; we talked about what we thought every student at Rutgers, regardless of major, should be able to do. And then we produced a rationale for a new core and outlined a possible set of requirements. Ultimately, our modest achievement was only to keep the ball of curricular reform moving; others have since taken up the work of fashioning a core that is acceptable to the faculty.

This is the result:

The Core Curriculum: Our Own Dog’s Breakfast

I have great sympathy for those tasked with bringing this new list of required areas of course enrollment to market. Any curriculum is a compromise and the more time spent in committee on the plan the more compromised it inevitably becomes, simply because every corner of the current system will insist upon being recognized and valued in the new system. (If you’re not in The Core, you are, by definition, on the periphery.) And the more time spent tweaking the launch document, the more likely it is that you’re going to end up with language like: “Upon completion of the SAS Core Curriculum, students will have developed competencies in the goals below.”

“Competencies in the goals below.”

Not exactly a commitment by the institution to provide instruction that prepares students to embark on the lifelong pursuit of meaningfulness, integrity, Truth.

And, come to think of it, not exactly an intelligible objective if one pauses to consider what it would mean to have  “developed competencies” in goals. Competency is expressed in actions not nouns: I am not competent in oranges; I am competent in picking oranges. Goals define aspirations; if the aspiration is competency, then the starting point must be somewhere below the line defined by competency. If the goal is only as high as competency, less than flattering implications about the aspirants and the goal-setters follow. Either way you run the phrase, you get a train-wreck at the level of meaning.

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of goal competency.


Is writing with precision a worthy goal? A general requirement? An annoyance?

If we drop down to the heading, “Cognitive Skills and Processes,” we see that a full nine credits in The Core are set aside for Writing and Communication: the required expository writing course (101); one writing course that features revision (a WCr); and one disciplined-based writing course  (a WCd). Three tick boxes and five bulleted items appear under the statement: “Students will meet all goals. [WC].” If students are to meet all goals, then why three boxes, five bullets?

If you already know that courses are three credits, then you know nine credits translate into three courses and the presence of the three tick boxes will make sense; one tick each for 101, the WCr, and the WCd. If you don’t already know this, the relationship between the boxes and the bulleted items is not self-evident. If you look elsewhere on the page, you find: there is a bulleted list with no boxes; a single instance where the boxes and the bullets match; and mismatches in the majority of instances, but with no steady ratio between boxes and bullets.

Is this being too picky?

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of precision.

Effective document design requires attention to layout.

Effective communication is, by definition, attentive to audience.

The trained mind works dialectically from part to whole, from whole to part, seeking anomalies, exceptions, errors, holes, obscurities. That’s what it means to be thoughtful.

Any document that’s been in committee for seven years is sure to have worn out its authors and hypnotized its many internal reviewers. This is a given–a known cognitive reality, if you will. To correct for this, external vetting is required: focus groups need to be consulted to see if the design is working as hoped; neutral outsiders need to report in on readability. If this doesn’t happen, you get . . . .

Well, you get the point.


Curiosity doesn’t make a showing in The Core.

Or imagination.

A form of creativity makes one showing: “Engage critically in the process of creative expression.” Um, ick.

Obviously, I’m fishing in the wrong pond.


We have a winner. Seven times.

Critically engage, critically assess (four times), and then, jumping the verb for the Arts and Humanities goals, engage critically and examine critically.

All this mental labor–engaging, examining, assessing–ostensibly raised to a new level by the omnipresent adverb; all forms of the academy’s most valued activity: critical thinking.

Does critical thinking trigger the pursuit of meaningfulness? Does “engaging critically in the process of creative expression”? (I gather this last phrase means not going into a trance while writing a poem.)

With no training in countervailing acts of creativity–creative engagement, creative assessment, creative examination–students are in for a lot of dismantling and a lot of judging, but not much questioning or building. There’s no meaningfulness without recursive movement between inquiry and judgment, building and dismantling, from planning to making to modifying.

Or to put this another way: the pursuit of meaningfulness isn’t possible without sustained experience of the activity of making–the making of ideas, research, music, art, articles, archives, etc. The list of possible made objects or activities is long and drawing it up allows us to imagine an education where students are prepared to be makers as opposed to consumers.

Now that you’ve graduated, what are you going to make?


I’ve got an ax to grind. Fair enough. (If I don’t grind my own ax, who will? Am I my brother’s ax grinder? If you cut my ax, does it not bleed? History is replete with support for the activity of the virtues of self ax-grindery: this is but a suggestive sample.)

Here are some things that have happened since 2004, when the discussion of revising the graduation requirements at Rutgers began:

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This list is just suggestive. And what does it suggest? That the primary resources for and the principle ways of making meaning in the United States have undergone a fundamental shift over the past decade. Where do we go to get the news? To shop? To publish? To do research? To socialize? We have shifted from a world where the final destination of thought was assumed to be paper to a world where the final destination of thought is the screen. Is that a big deal? I’d say it’s the biggest deal since this: Whether you accept that assessment or not, there’s no debating this central fact: the Internet has transformed writing’s reach, giving anyone with access to a networked computer the ability to globally distribute his or her thoughts in whatever form–text, speech, photo, sketch, sound, video–in an instant. And there’s no denying that increased access to this network has transformed journalism, publishing, the book industry, the gaming industry, the entertainment industry, banking, finance, government, just as there’s no denying how significantly this access has changed the ways those of college age communicate–with one another, with their teachers, and with the world of information and ideas that makes its way to their screens. And how are we preparing students to navigate this upheaval? When industry has placed instant publication and global distribution within reach on anyone with a cell phone, what are colleges and universities doing to prepare students to use these powers wisely? To become productive co-authors of the unfolding future? To pursue meaningfulness in the face of information overload and ubiquitous distraction? The short answer? Not much. The official answer? The Core at Rutgers devotes, in its menu of requirements, 3 credits to “information technology and research,” which comes with three bulleted goals and the statement: “Students must meet one goal.” As defined, the first goal is one that any student who has downloaded music has already met, since this involves accessing information (go to iTunes), conducting research (try out some new bands), and communicating findings (post purchase suggestions to Facebook). The second goal is a little confusing: “Analyze and (of course!) critically assess information from traditional and emergent technologies.” Given the table above, which tracks an unprecedented rate of change in the realm of information technology, how does one distinguish between traditional and emergent? Is Google, at the ripe age of 13, a traditional technology? Is an ebook an emergent technology? Last semester, in my daughter’s high school journalism class, students spent a week using IMB Selectrics to type up their articles. This was meant, apparently, to generate an appreciation of Woodward and Bernstein in All the President’s Men. Is the typewriter a traditional technology? A deceased technology? Is this the kind of pedagogical stunt we want to promote? (Extra credit for attending class in traditional dress.) The third goal is just baffling: “Understand the principles that underlie information systems.” The principles? What’s revolutionary about this moment is that the principles that governed paper-bound information systems don’t apply in the digital world. Alphabetization? The Dewey decimal system? The file cabinet? And, of course, the principles that govern a search engine like Google can only be known to outsiders in a general way, since the algorithm for ranking returned items is both a company secret and an ever moving target. What, exactly, is the value-added of this requirement?


Exasperated yet?

Sooner or later, in the midst of the act of critical analysis, exasperation makes itself known and a generative question surfaces: Enough of this dead horse beating! What’s the alternative?

This is the call to creativity. This is the invitation to make something meaningful. This is the moment that puts everything up for grabs and everything on the line.

Critique: “I have often wished that Jefferson had not used that phrase, ‘the pursuit of happiness,’ as the third right.”

Alternative: “I would rather he had written: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Meaningfulness. Or Integrity. Or Truth.”

To create a better future one must first be able to imagine that a better future is possible and then one must be prepared to work in the face of uncertainty, confusion, failure, defeat. It is the work of education, properly understood, to prepare students to confront these challenges, since they are the very conditions of learning and are constants over the course of a life spent in the pursuit of meaningfulness, integrity, truth. Can brick and mortar institutions designed in the 19th century, staffed with people who earned their B.A.s in the 20th century, prepare students to thrive in the 21st century?


We’d be moving in the right direction, I’d say, if we imagined graduation not as the inevitable result of the accumulation of X number of credits distributed here and there, but as certification that the graduate has been prepared to contribute to the effort to make a better world.


Rutgers images taken from here. The full text of The Grim Meathook Future Thing may be found here. Dan Pink’s TED talk of “The Science of Motivation” may be found here. Timeline information is drawn from’s New Media Timeline, which may be found here. Statistics on world internet use may be found here.

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