2017 Senior Banquet Speech — Dr. Charles McDaniel

On Wednesday, April 26, 2017 we gathered to celebrate the BIC graduating students of 2017. As part of the banquet, Dr. Charles McDaniel, associate professor in BIC, was invited as the honored faculty speaker. We hope you enjoy reading his edited remarks from that evening’s festivities. 

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This is not just a “go forth and do good” speech.  Many of you know me too well and would instantly recognize that as a con, and as those of you who’ve attended my classes know, perhaps all too well, I’m not one to sugar coat things. Besides, there are complications associated with doing good these days that didn’t seem to exist when I left Baylor and entered the workforce those many years ago.  You enter a unique situation in the history of Baylor graduates, and unique in this case doesn’t necessarily mean good. The nation’s international prestige has taken a hit in recent years and our position as the world’s superpower, while perhaps militarily intact, is no longer culturally assumed.  Traveling abroad today one often encounters skepticism and even, at times, derision for being an American.  My site visit for the Baylor in St. Andrews Program shortly after last fall’s presidential election made that point clear to me.

Traveling domestically, it is apparent that your university has become the subject of much controversy.  Serious mistakes have been made and if our Christianness means anything, we must recognize that there are consequences to “our” actions, whether or not those in this room have been directly involved.  We are all part of the university culture and, as such, we have much to make up for.

Yet in the face of those challenges, I wish to affirm the choice you’ve made by choosing the Baylor Interdisciplinary Core. You’ve swum against the current to an extent.  Core education, in general, has taken it on the chin in recent years.  You will soon enter your professional lives emerging from a unique interdisciplinary core curriculum in Baylor’s Honors College at a time when the very notion of an educational core is under assault.

Despite such negative attitudes, I would suggest that there has never been a greater need for comprehensively educated individuals like yourselves.  Baylor, like its Baptist heritage, is distinctive … of that I have no doubt; the question is whether we are distinctive enough to say, yes, we need more qualified graduates in STEM fields, and we want to engage an impressive research agenda, but our essential commitment, based on our heritage is to help develop fully formed individuals, graduates who can engage the complexities of life from the ground up.  That is our traditional baseline from which, hopefully, we can go on to greater things, but never at the sacrifice of core education.

There are faculty members and administrators on American campuses who are convinced that programs like the BIC are rather frivolous and that core education generally is one of those traditions we can now minimize in the interest of moving students more aggressively into their fields of specialization.  There are rumblings about, even here at Baylor—the general education core is too laden with foreign language, philosophy, etc., in ways that do not enhance our students’ competitiveness in the marketplace and deter them from future success.

Think about it.  There is a movement about to de-emphasize core education at a time when only 17% of American young adults can locate Afghanistan on a map.  Although it’s a bit dated, a 2002 National Geographic-Roper poll found that among the US, Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, Sweden, and Mexico, American students outperformed only Mexico with respect to knowledge of geography.  Similarly, in March of this year, the National Review published an article titled “How Historical Illiteracy Fuels Political Polarization” in which the author cited an American Council of Trustees and Alumni survey that showed “only 38 percent [of college grads] knew that U.S. senators serve six-year terms while House members serve two-year terms. In a more recent ACTA-commissioned survey, conducted in 2015, “fewer than half (48.7 percent) of college graduates knew that presidential-impeachment trials take place before the Senate, and even fewer (41.6 percent) knew that proposed constitutional amendments must be ratified by three-quarters of the states to become law.” Can the general level of knowledge reflected by these statistics truly support self-government?

I’ve had conversations with some faculty members who seem to doubt the value of core education. Drawing on my previous life, I’ve told them that when I recruited colleges for very technical jobs in very technical industries (telecom and IT consulting), I looked quite intentionally for well-rounded candidates who I could turn loose in front of clients without the need to babysit them.   In those cases where we needed highly specialized and technical expertise, we went outside to consulting organizations.  We couldn’t afford offering permanent employment to workers lacking socialization skills or the ability to communicate to a broad range of people.

A particular consultant we brought in at one company, we’ll call him Carter because that was his name, is someone I’ve often described as Brad Pitt handsome and Kosmo Kramer quirky.  After bringing him to Kansas City from some foreign location, like NJ or someplace, we assigned Carter to very specialized projects—he was expert in the C programming language, which is (or was at that time) probably the most flexible cross-platform development tool out there.  Several times I asked Carter to come into my office and gave him the most challenging assignment in the shop, typically building interfaces across seemingly unconnectible proprietary operating systems.  His response in those situations was always the same: “it’s impossible”; which came to be music to my ears because every time he described a project as impossible, I knew that it was his form of self-motivation; he would disappear for 3 or 4 days and then suddenly reappear in my office, telling me the assignment was complete and he was ready for the next project.   While Carter could do things technically that no one else in our development team could, there was no way I could hire him because he had no real knowledge of telecom and I had to chaperone any interaction between Carter and the clients.   This odd character named Carter fully realized his potential one day when he eloped with our operations manager. Early one morning, the AVP of IT stood in my office doorway giving me a rather indicting  glare and telling me that Carter had run off with our operations manager and they weren’t coming back, and he said it as if I was the responsible matchmaker in this arrangement.

Carter was never meant to be a BICer; not that there’s anything wrong with that—not everyone is.  He had some wonderful gifts and was quite productive (and entertaining) for our company, but he was not one who could drive the bigger conversation forward—the conversation about how we should live—the conversation that you’ve been immersed in now for several years, and will continue to participate in for many years to come, even as others seem to want to leave it behind.

A challenging core curriculum is one of the most obvious ways that Americans can be educated appropriately for the demands of self-government, a challenge that the Founders knew would persist.  Your generation has witnessed the age of the Internet and the arrival of self-driving cars, desk-top computers and phones that can monitor biological functions.  Your generation now is in the unique position of synthesizing all these developments in ways that can give them purpose.  What will we be doing when our future cars are driving themselves? That seems not to be a question to many in the present because we seem to ignore the fact that the explosion of gadgetry must have purpose at all.

Even as self-driving cars become reality, according to the Washington Post, a staggering 1.3 billion people worldwide do not have electricity—that’s around 18% if you do the math.  No country represents this kind of asynchronous development as starkly as North Korea, where 73% of the population live without electricity and, not coincidentally, are the subjects of a nuclear state with one of the most brutal dictatorships in human history; one that today has the world on a hair-trigger, risking millions of lives.

Perhaps our present dismissal of the value of general education is reflected in Woody Allen’s statement from his movie Annie Hall (and subsequently plagiarized by Jack Black in School of Rock): “those who can’t do, teach, and those who can’t teach, teach gym”.  Well, I think I can do (been there, done that) but I’m still working on the teaching part because I find it more difficult.  Hopefully, I can work my way into the position of someday teaching gym, at least in the ancient Greek sense of “gymnasium,” the combining of physical and intellectual pursuits in common with fellow citizens equally interested in advancing the common good, a BIC perspective if there ever was one.

De-emphasis on core education has led to growing assumptions that many of our founding institutions aren’t so necessary after all.  We can go nuclear in the Senate, bypass those pesky ethics laws, and make general assumptions that certain people are good because they are successful, until we learn they’re not.  A recent letter to the Waco Tribune stated that we should allow certain leaders to bypass some of the ethics checks and balances traditionally associated with their positions in the interest of getting things done.

But those laws are there for a reason and our country has benefited significantly from them as witnessed in the nation’s international influence, as well as its stability and relative integrity for some two-and-a-half centuries now.  We all benefit from a broadly educated public in terms of understanding where we stray from our founding values, something that, sadly, it appears we are losing sight of. We seem increasingly to make simplistic assumptions on vastly complex issues. Yesterday I heard a news story about resurging momentum for privatizing our country’s prison system, a similar attempt at which encountered monumental problems only a couple of decades ago.  Before expanding such programs yet again, given failures of the past, we need to debate a significant moral hazard at the core of these programs that can be phrased as a question:  What is “recidivism” in a privatized, for-profit prison system other than a marketing program? Broad-based education helps reveal such inner contradictions to a public that participates in its many benefits.  And it can greatly support us in deliberations as we seek to reshape institutions so as to achieve our desired ends while minimizing unintended consequences.

The point is that we are increasingly illiterate in many ways: historically, financially, geographically, and increasingly even literally illiterate. Our divisions have led to the place where we cannot relate to each other in significant ways, whether in political debate, among our many religious communities, or even across our children’s sports teams.  Whatever commitments to science, technology, business, etc., will mean to our economic competitiveness, they will not help improve our general illiteracy or curb our asynchronous development and the social problems it spawns.  That takes people like you.  Core education is a huge part of the answer to these problems, and you are a “Corp for the Core”—you are unusual, even among the upper crust of American college students at our nation’s most prestigious universities, for recognizing the importance of the fully formed human person. You’re also a salesperson for the cause.  In fact, you will have to sell the importance of that BIC distinction on your transcript because, believe it or not, the acronym BIC is not universally known.  People will ask what that’s about—and there you have a unique opportunity, not only to sell yourselves into a position with a corporation or a graduate or professional school, but to sell the importance of reshaping the philosophy of education in this country.  Just a minor task—I know you can handle it.

One last opportunity to be preachy here, so I’ll offer a final piece of advice: don’t skip the yardwork on the way to the gym.  I wrote much of this speech in my head laying St. Augustine grass in our yard, and chopping and hacking through our overgrown six acres at Aquilla; or Ā quilla as the natives call it.  That place, and the privilege of engaging in the generally hot and dirty task of trying to improve the land while also preserving it, has done as much as anything to help remind me of what is real. Draw on your inner Jefferson, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, whoever, to maintain that essential connection with nature that keeps us all grounded.  And whatever you do, don’t fake it—Nordstrum’s recently announced their “premuddied jeans collection,” where you can purchase a pair of jeans with the dirt preapplied, presumably soiled by machine, for only $425.  Have the pride to muddy your jeans yourself. And with that brilliant piece of advice, I say “Congratulations – now go forth and do good!”

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