College as a Disney World of Learning


(Talk given at Case Western Reserve University’s Share the Vision program, Severance Hall, Friday, August 21, 2009 1:00 pm. This program is to welcome all incoming first year students. My comments centered on the common reading book selection Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. Mortenson will be the speaker at the annual fall convocation to be held on Wednesday, August 26, 2009 in Severance Hall at 4:30 pm.)

As I read the book Three Cups of Tea, two stories struck me. One begins on page 202 and is that of the little boy Mohammed Aslam Khan who was sent by his father alone on a perilous journey downriver in frigid waters, all so that he might get a chance at an education. Despite all the odds against him, he not only survived the trip but got a good education and returned to the village to become an educational leader.

The other story is on page 31 where Mortenson describes his amazement when he saw eighty two children assemble by themselves and do their lessons on their own in the open, in the cold, some writing on the ground with sticks, since the village could only afford a teacher for three days a week, and on the other days they were on their own.

As Mortenson said, “Can you imagine a fourth-grade class in America, alone, without a teacher, sitting there quietly and working on their lessons?”

Why were the people in that remote region of Pakistan willing to go through so much in order to get an education? Compare the situation in the US where learning is often seen as something to be avoided, and the complaints that some teachers get when they cover too much ground. When schools are closed or lessons cancelled due to some emergency, it is usually a cause for cheering amongst students. As a colleague of mine here said recently, education may be the only thing in the US where people actually want less than what they pay for.

There are of course classes, teachers, and students in the US where learning for its own sake is valued. But these are unfortunately few. But I do not believe that there is any fundamental difference between the children in those remote villages of Pakistan and Afghanistan and those in the US that explains this difference in attitude.

What may be true is that America suffers, if that is the right word, from too easy access to education. Schooling is fairly easily available and, at least in the K-12 sector, is free. A good analogy is with food, which is also freely and cheaply available in the US, when compared with other countries. And we waste and throw away vast amounts of it. I am sure your mothers pleaded with you to eat your vegetables, invoking images of starving children in China who would gladly eat with relish the food that you want to dump in the trash. Actually given the economic crisis in the US and the rapidly rising economic power of China, soon Chinese mothers might be pleading with their spinach-rejecting children to think of poor starving children in the US.

Students in the US, because of the ease and abundance of educational opportunities, have to be exhorted to take advantage of these abundant resources, just like they have to be coaxed to eat their broccoli, and this may be devaluing education in students’ eyes, because people tend to not value the things that are easily available.

This is why the story of the immense struggles and sacrifices made by the villagers that Mortenson worked with to build their schools is so inspiring. They realized that education is a precious gift to be cherished, not something whose availability can be taken for granted.

All of you are now embarking on four years of education here at Case Western Reserve University. Some people may tell you that college will be the happiest time in your lives. I disagree. In fact, it would be very sad if the happiest years of your life were over by the age of twenty-two. So I hope that you will have much happier times in the future.

But there is one aspect in which these four years will be a unique experience that you must take advantage of to the fullest. It is the one time in your life when you will be surrounded by people who want nothing else but to help you learn. The world-class faculty here, who are experts on all manner of things, will share their knowledge and expertise freely and willingly. Here you will get free access to incredible libraries full of books, journals, magazines, audio-visual materials, and newspapers, and to librarians who are positively eager to help you use them. And it is all available to you just for the asking. Once you graduate and go out, that opportunity is gone.

Of course, all this is not technically ‘free’ since you are paying tuition that, despite the extraordinary fund-raising abilities of our president, is still considerable. But the way to think of tuition fees is the way you would the admission price to Disney World or other amusement parks. It is not cheap to get in but once you are in, people try to get as much out of their time there as possible. It would be absurd to spend all your time sitting on a bench eating ice cream or surfing the web or sleeping.

You should have that attitude during the years you spend here. Think of Case Western Reserve University as the Disney World of learning. You have paid the admission fee in terms of grades and tuition. Now that you are in, rather than get by with minimal work, you should try to get in as much learning as possible, formally in classes, and informally in all the talks and seminars and casual discussions with teachers and fellow students. Once you develop that attitude towards learning, you will find that it is much more fun than roller coaster rides and with none of the accompanying motion sickness.

I am lucky in that I actually work here and take full advantage on a daily basis of the knowledge that is so freely available. And I would urge you to do the same. In fact, as soon as this program is over, and you have some free time, you should go over to the library and see what they offer, and you should go to all the museums that are right here in University Circle, as the first steps in a four-year adventure of learning.

Trust me, you will never regret it.

POST SCRIPT: The story of Genesis as told by Eddie Izzard

Much more interesting than the original. Makes more sense, too.

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