And now we commence

Posted: May 08, 2007 2:01 PM

I'm here to deliver this year's commencement address at Lyon College, one of the fine small liberal arts schools left in the country. A sure clue: It's had the grace not to style itself a University.

How many graduation ceremonies, I wonder, did I attend during my own checkered academic career? I not only lose count, I realize I can't remember the name of any of the commencement speakers, or a single word they had to say. Which ought to tell a commencement speaker something.

What it tells me is that my function here this overcast morning is to take up the last 20 minutes that stand between the Class of '07 and


I sure don't want to get in the way of the stampede. So I solemnly resolve to set the all-time record for the shortest commencement address ever delivered.

So much for my good resolutions. Because then I watch as a professor of biology-Dr. David J. Thomas- is awarded the Williamson Prize for Faculty Excellence. And it sets me to telling the graduates about some of the great teachers I have had along the way, especially a professor of biology at Centenary College named Mary Warters. And then there wasŠ.

I can't help reminiscing about the light all those teachers shed, and especially their disinterested passion for their subject. How rare such types are in an age when professors moonlight as ideologues, although it has become customary to refer to them as Social Critics or Public Intellectuals.

The very meaning of the word disinterested,meaning impartial, without a personal interest or prejudice to further, is now almost lost, having been converted into another synonym for just bored. Which ought to tell us something about our Entertainment 24/7 society and its generalized attention deficit disorder.

But this is no morning to complain. It's the kind of still, overcast day that brings out the dark blues and greens and soft yellow sunlight here in the Ozarks; you could be inside an Edward Hopper painting.

It's a particular pleasure to share the platform with Little Rock's Keith Jackson, who now runs one of Pulaski County's great assets-an after-school program for kids in danger of falling between the cracks. That's Keith Jackson-two-time All-American tight end at Oklahoma, six-time NFL Pro Bowl choice of the Philadelphia Eagles and Green Bay Packers, elected to the College Football Hall of Fame, color commentator for the Razorback Sports NetworkŠ.

And the culmination of all this is that he's devoted himself to helping kids in his hometown. How lucky we are to have him Little Rock, where he was meant to be.

Keith Jackson is acquiring one more distinction this morning: Lyon is making him an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters.

Walking behind his towering frame in the academic procession, I can't remember a time when I've felt so well protected. I've never had blocking like that. And the sound of the pipes in the backgroud-Lyon has not forgotten its Scottish Presbyterian roots-makes us all stand taller.

But as always on graduation day, the spotlight is where it should be: on the graduating seniors. Now that they have a degree they can commence their education. Every day. Like the rest of us.

Those graduates who majored in education are a special inspiration-because they've gone through Lyon's pioneering education program. Imagine: a college that believes teachers should be educated, not just trained. What a concept. Here at Lyon, it is only after acquiring a liberal education-literally an education befitting the free-do these future teachers begin their apprenticeship in the classroom.

A liberal education. That's one more idea and ideal we learned from the Greeks that, in our modern hubris, we seem to have un-learned, either reducing it to only a superficial decoration or confusing it with professional training. There are some returns to the past that would be a great step forward.

These future teachers have quite a challenge ahead of them, the least of which may be the students whose young minds they are going to open and shape. Because as teachers they'll also have to deal with unimaginative administrators, unhappy parents, and the kind of critics who know all about education without the inconvenience of ever having spent a single hour teaching. Not to mention the kind of school boards and teachers' unions that worry more about perks and political power than educating the young. No wonder teachers burn out so soon these days.

While I'm congratulating the graduates, I note that they include the president of the student body at Lyon, Emily Wilson, a friend of the son of an assistant to my dentist in Maumelle, who by the way sends his best wishes. That's Arkansas for you. If folks don't know you, they know folks who do. Sociologists speak of there being only six degrees of separation between all of us. In this small, wonderfully interwoven state, it's more like four. At the most.