2011 Commencement Address

Tuesday, May 24, 2011
Javits Center North

Thank you, Celeste.

You know, it inevitably falls to a college president to provide a piece of parting advice—or at least something thought-provoking—for those of you graduating today. However, having had the benefit of an FIT education, you are probably way ahead of me by now—and need no more from me than a symbolic handshake and that good piece of sheepskin. For if we have taught you well—and I believe we have—you have not only completed all those projects, passed all those exams and absorbed all that information, but you have also mastered the skills that will set you on the path to a satisfying career.

Yet I would like to talk to you —briefly, I promise—about something that might sound odd coming from the president of a college whose entire mission is to prepare you for those careers. What I would like to talk to you about is the value of a liberal arts education—and all of those courses that you either loved or loathed—but were required to squeeze into your crowded schedules in order for you to graduate today. It may seem odd—but then, if you (and your parents) will forgive me for saying so: you are a rather odd generation. You are members of what they call the Millennial generation. And if there is one thing that most significantly characterizes you, it is that you are history's first generation born to the digital world. As the Pew Research Foundation tells us, you treat all of those ubiquitous multi-tasking hand-held electronic gadgets like a body part. In fact, as your roommates well know, more than eight in ten of you sleep with a gizmo glowing by the bed, ready for texts, tweets, phone calls, emails, news, videos, games and wake-up jingles. But I worry. Because while you are rapidly tumbling and texting away, something just might get lost in the translation. You see, all of the research also tells us that because you are living at warp speed—with instant and addictive access to information—your attention span has shortened—your patience, too and you have a harder time staying focused. So what could get lost in the translation is your capacity—or desire—for reflection, introspection, for thinking deeply and critically...all of those qualities that keep us truly and deeply engaged in the world around us and intimately connected to those whom we love. What might get lost in the translation—without sounding overly dramatic about it—could be some of those ineffable qualities that make up your humanity.

And that is why I want to talk to you about the value of a liberal arts education. Now I know typically when we at FIT have talked to you—or your parents—about the liberal arts courses you were required to take, we always zoomed right in on their practical application. And for good reason. As a tool box, the liberal arts hold all kinds of equipment you will need for the world of work. In fact, FIT's founders insisted that fully 40 percent of the FIT curriculum be devoted to the liberal arts. These were not educators. They were manufacturers, merchants and garment center workers. As one said, Fashion is a reflection of life. To be a creator or manager within it, a knowledge of history, nature, current events, architecture, paintings and literature is essential.

67 years later, we hear the same thing—and so have you. The industry leaders who visit our campus year after year—CEOs of companies like Macy's and Polo Ralph Lauren, Neiman Marcus and Kohl's—form a virtual chorus calling for employees who have strong communication skills, who are adept at analytic and creative thinking, who understand how society—and democracies—work, and possess cultural and global sophistication. I remember one man, a CEO in advertising design, who told us that in job interviews, his final question to job candidates is always: Who is your favorite writer and why?

This may not be the year (or the decade) to quote Alan Greenspan, but I do find it interesting that even he—the former head of the Federal Reserve a crucial role for liberal education in our country. Creative intellectual energy drives our system forward, he says. Successful innovation comes from critical awareness, the ability to hypothesize, to interpret and to communicate. These are qualities, he says, that are fostered through exposure to philosophy, literature, music, art and language. Through the liberal arts.

There are other practical benefits to those courses you took in psychology and economics and Asian studies—and why your ability to read Dante in Italian is not a mere educational ornament. The broader knowledge base and intellectual agility you gained in your liberal arts courses have also given you the adaptability you will need as you hop scotch through the many many many jobs—or careers—we know you will hold over the long course of your professional lives.

But lets step away from the hands-on practical—and think, for a moment, of some of the other gifts you gain from study in the liberal arts. That knowledge base that you picked up from history or earth science or from your Pre-Columbian Art and Civilization course is not only enriching to you personally—but it is part of the arsenal of information you will need and use as a contributing member of society. We know that Americans are reading less and less that, compared to other countries—including the world's poorest— our proficiency in reading and science and math is slipping dangerously. In March, Newsweek magazine gave 1000 Americans the U.S. citizenship test—and 44 percent could not define the Bill of Rights, 73 percent did not know why we fought the Cold War, and 38 percent failed altogether. Sam Cooke was right: we don't know much about history. Yet the health—and survival—of our democracy depends on a well-informed citizenry.

Last month, the playwright Tony Kushner was on campus to talk with students and other interested members of our community. One of the first questions a student raised with him was why the study of literature should matter to designers and artists. His answer was typically long and intricate and even poetic—but his salient point was that the ability to read critically, to think critically—is essential to understanding the world. And as he later said, even as a designer or artist or business executive you have another separate identity: that of a citizen. And that is why study in the liberal arts is so important. You don't take American history just to be able to cite the date of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, but rather—and indeed most essentially—to develop the analytic skills of interpretation, evaluation and inquiry, so you can put that particular event—and all of the other facts and events you learn about—into a meaningful context that will prepare you for lives of civic responsibility. Those analytic skills will help you to separate fact from fiction, demagoguery from serious argument. They will help you confront the difficult debates of our day: climate change and health care, nuclear energy and Guantanimo. Perhaps even more fundamentally, those skills, along with your exposure to the achievements and sufferings of cultures unlike our own, will help you to develop what the philosopher Martha Nussbaum calls a compassionate imagination—an ability to imagine what it might be like to be in the shoes of a person different from oneself which, of course, is a requisite for citizens in a pluralistic society and an interlocking world.

The liberal arts do yet one more thing: they offer ballast—an anchor in a clamoring sea of babble and digital glut. In a world of trends and high velocity change, they offer a sense of that which endures. As the author and sociologist Todd Gitlin points out, students need continuities to counteract vertigo as (they) shift identities and careen through careers and cultural changes. The study of history and literature and the arts invites reflection and helps all of us to know ourselves deeply. As he says, In a culture of chaff, here is wheat. Here is substance.

And here is something else, a grace note, perhaps: literature, poetry, the plays and films you see—they offer the kind of life-enhancing pleasures that we—as human beings—have always cherished. But if these pleasures are to be more than fleeting, they require cultivation. They only come if you pause and take time to find what the poets call the still point in a turning world, so you can focus, contemplate, and fully appreciate the riches that await you—I.R.L., in real life— through study in the liberal arts.

That is why, at FIT, we expose you as much as we possibly can to liberal arts learning. The professors in your majors have prepared you superbly for successful careers. We have all seen, admired and applauded your end of year demonstrations, projects and exhibitions. You leave us breathless with your skills and talent. But at this moment, when you are just about out the door—I wanted to shine a light on this other essential part of your FIT education. a part that will nurture and support you throughout your professional, civic and personal lives—and will remain a ballast in the curriculum of what will momentarily become your Alma mater.

Congratulations, Class of 2011. I wish you good luck and Godspeed.