University of Pittsburgh
May 1, 2005

'You Can Take it With You': Address by Helen S. Faison

Address Delivered at the University of Pittsburgh's 2005 Commencement, May 1, 2005, in the University's Petersen Events Center by Pitt Alumna and Emerita Trustee Helen S. Faison, Director of the Pittsburgh Teachers Institute
Contact:  412-624-4147

As members of the Class of 2005, you have spent the last several years on this campus during a period when we have celebrated certain landmark court decisions and executive or legislative actions that have affected the development of public education in our country.

Last year, for example we celebrated—and we celebrated one of those days on this campus—the 50th anniversary of the Brown vs Board of Education decision of the United States Supreme Court. Labeled a landmark decision, Brown vs. Board overruled the Plessy vs. Ferguson decision of 52 years before that supported the constitutionality of separate schools for White and Black children.

In the Brown case, on the other hand, the decision was reached that separate is not equal. That decision set in motion a series of court battles. It led to the abandonment of public schools by many White families and the establishment of a host of religious and other nonpublic schools in protest.

The jury is still out on the long-term benefits of the Court decision. To the chagrin of those of us who welcomed the Brown decision as the beginning of a new era in the struggle for equal educational opportunity for all children in the nation, recent demographic and other changes have resulted in there being more Black children attending racially segregated schools today than were attending segregated schools in 1954.

The several years of your stay at the University were also the years during which the nation celebrated the 40th anniversary of the passage of the Elementary and Secondary School Act, better known as ESEA. This Act, a product of the War on Poverty, provided for the first time in the nation's history significant federal funding for the elementary and secondary schools which serve large numbers of poor children.

The years between 1954 and today, when we mark the 25th anniversary of the establishment of the federal Department of Education, have been characterized by a growing interest of our federal government in, and support of, public education. In fact, there have not only been individuals who in seeking the governorship of states have sought to become known as the Education Governor of the state, but there have also been those who in seeking the presidency aspired to become known as the Education President. And, you might ask, why?

In the same span of years between 1954 and today, we have become more aware of, and more seriously concerned about, the failure of our public school system to educate well large segments of our population. Until the advent of technology, and until our country became a part of the global economy and no longer independent, we had reason to be proud of our public schools.

As long as there was space in the economy for those whose formal education was very limited, we could be proud. The schools were doing well in terms of what was expected of them. Those who left the system early had mastered the three R's. They easily found places waiting for them in the economy in which they could earn reasonably good livings and support families. Those who remained in the system until they graduated found themselves ready to move on to the colleges and universities to prepare for the professions and careers for which more formal schooling was required.

But, when it began to become clear that thousands, even millions, of those being served by our public school system were not faring well in the economy into which they were moving, many began to doubt the effectiveness of the system. Some even wondered if there were the will to educate all children well.

Concern about the adequacy of the public school system grew as the world underwent rapid change, and especially so following the period when the Russians won the race into space with the launching of Sputnik. These concerns ushered in the longest period of educational reform that this nation has ever known.

As a growing underclass out of which escape became more and more difficult to achieve began to grow it became clear that immediate intervention was essential. Reformers, those persons with either a social conscience or political ambitions, began to look for ways to improve the schools. Not surprising, as the schools were the only institutions charged with responsibility for serving all of the nation's children, all 50 million of them between the ages of 5 and 17. It should not have been a surprise that attention was turned to the schools from which more than one-fourth of the enrollees were leaving before they graduated. And just as alarming was that among those who stayed until they graduated many were woefully under-prepared to assume the responsibilities expected of adults or serious students.

This concern led to an examination of the characteristics of our public school system in which we had taken much pride.

At the risk of modifying some of these characteristics, new directions were taken, and what began to become the characteristics of public education in colonial times began to become subject to federal influence, with the federal government using the power of its purse to achieve compliance.

In a nation whose Constitution does not even mention the word education, the federal creep into matters related to public education has grown, as the quality of public education available to all children has been shown to be highly correlated to the wealth of their families or the communities in which they live.

Among the events that signaled the growing influence of the federal government's role in public education was the convening of the first-ever governors' conference on education by the President in 1989. Out of that conference and a second such conference convened by the next President emerged eight national goals to be delivered by the year 2000.

The year 2000 came—we all know that—and while some progress had been made toward the achievement of the eight goals, none of them had been fully realized. The follow-up to the national goals was the passage by Congress of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001—an act that has been opposed and supported with equal enthusiasm.

What you who are being graduated here today are probably asking is, "What does all of this have to do with me?" If you plan to become a teacher, or if you plan to prepare individuals for careers in education, or to administer public schools, or even to seek service on school boards, you can see the connection. But if you do not have any such plans, I still hope that the educational issues to which I have referred will find a place on your life's agenda after the University of Pittsburgh, after today.

Many of you have attended some of the best public high schools and prep schools in the nation. Some of you may be able to say, as does one of my acquaintances, whose name you would recognize if you heard it, he never knew a high school dropout. I wish I could say the same.

But whether you are the first member of your family to earn a college degree or if you are the product of one of the best of the high schools and are a member of a family in which everyone has had the opportunity to attend a fine college or university, we all have something in common today.

Today, you are being graduated with a first, a second or even a third degree from a world-class university, a university of which you and I can be proud.

You are indeed ready to move on to professional schools or to embark on careers for which you have prepared. You are ready to assume the responsibilities of a world-ready person. You are ready to pass a rich legacy on to your descendants. But do not forget that you are going to live your life as we all must—in a world that is beset with all kinds of problems that cannot be confined to an area or to a certain group of people; problems such as diseases, acts of nature, violence, crime, poverty, and hopelessness from which we cannot escape. These are problems for which we as educated persons are partly responsible for finding answers. And many of us believe that a good education is a part of the solution.

John Ruskin, the noted 19th-century British author, art critic, and social reformer, summed up our responsibility as educated persons when he identified five objectives of a true education. He wrote that the true objectives of an education are:

• not to make people merely do the right things, but to enjoy doing them;

• not merely to be industrious, but to love industry;

• not merely to be learned but to love knowledge;

• not merely to be pure, but to love purity; and

• not to be merely just, but to hunger and thirst after justice.

What then can you do? What should those who have invested in you expect of you?

In response to those questions, I would like to share with you a little story

that Marian Wright Edelman, who one day was a commencement speaker here at the University, closed one chapter of her book she called Guide My Feet. She dedicated the book to her own three sons and to all of us who are concerned about the children in our nation.

The story is of a conversation between a mother and her son. Her son was ready to go back to college at the beginning of his senior year. The story goes something like this:

The mother reminds her son that she has been sending him

off to college for six or seven years (Note that he, too, did not

graduate in four years). She reminds him further that since he

first left, she has shed many tears but has found comfort in an old

saying that "Sunshine comes after the storm," so she says to

him as he prepares to leave, "My young man, when you finish, you just bring that college home."

The mother then reminds her son of how hard she has worked

to support him in college but hastens to add that she has been

patient, knowing that at the end of it all, "He's going to bring that

college home."

She goes on to say that the neighbors have predicted that he is

not going to finish school and he is just wasting time and her money,

but she responds that those neighbors need to wait until next

June, when he does bring that college home.

She admonishes her son not to let the naysayers

discourage him, for that is all that they know how to do and

not to worry about her, for she has fuel for the winter

and plenty of clothes to keep her warm. All he needs to do,

she says, is to "Next June bring that college home."

And before he finally leaves, probably a little disturbed by

what she has said, she reminds him

that she doesn't mean for him to bring the college buildings

home, she doesn't expect him to bring back college souvenirs. Rather, she expects him to bring home the education he has acquired, the lessons he has learned, and when he gets his diploma, to take off and set out for home.

And then, she charges him to show the critics that he has

taken advantage of what the college has offered by his

speech and by his demeanor . She warns him not to set

himself up as being above the neighbors, those who have

not enjoyed the privileges that he has been given, but to

settle down to be a light in his own village and to be a

college right at home.

Some of you who are being graduated today may be returning to the place that you call home; others of you may be moving to new places, maybe even to places you have never seen. But may I remind you as the mother in the story just told reminded her son, that while you cannot take with you the Cathedral of Learning, the Commons Room, the University classrooms, or even many of the human associations that you have formed during your years at the University, you can take the University with you.

But may I implore you that no matter what educational experiences you have enjoyed, what educational or other privileges you may be able to provide for the children in your own family, that you become and remain concerned about the other children and other families in our nation. As you reach out to those for whom you will be directly responsible and those whom you love, remember to give some of your time, some of your talents, and some of your gifts to ensure that every child is given access to the best possible educational experience and—in the words of Marian Wright Edelman, words that were later coined by the Department of Education—work to ensure that no child in this nation is left behind. You can make no better investment. Thank you.