The Power of Education

The Power of Education

By Timothy Dohrer

This is a draft of the address Timothy Dohrer delivered at the Northwestern University School of Continuing Studies Convocation on June 21, 2013. As a graduate of the program himself (MA, English, 1995), it was an opportunity to congratulate the students for accomplishing this monumental undertaking and get them thinking about using their new skills and knowledge to give back to their community. There is power in education. The question is: how do we use it?

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Dean Gibbons, Faculty, Staff, Graduates, Family and Friends,

Let me begin by thanking you for inviting me to speak today on this auspicious occasion. It is an honor to be here to celebrate with you and share a few words of wisdom as you leave Northwestern.

I especially want to congratulate the graduates. You have accomplished something extraordinary. In 2012, 31% of Americans completed a Bachelor’s degree but only 8% completed a Master’s degree. And we know that on average, people with Master’s degrees have more options available to them, are in more demand by employers, and make more money per year than those who do not. In my own profession of education, most teachers who complete a master’s degree will get an automatic bump in their salaries, and position themselves for leadership roles in schools and districts. As Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro has reminded us all recently in an article in Education Week, the power of an advanced degree is still one of the best investments an individual can make. You have tapped into the power of education.

And you’ve done all this despite great challenges and not without great sacrifice. Most of you have completed this degree while working full time. At the end of a long day, when you were weary and probably just wanted to go home and rest and be with your family, you chose to come here and push yourself just a little bit more. You stole moments during the week to read another article, finish that chapter in a book, and complete the next essay or practice for the presentation tomorrow. You probably also learned how to “wing it” in class when maybe you did not prepare as well as you could or couldn’t find time to read that article. Always, though, the discussion and debate in class with your colleagues, and the wealth of knowledge coming from your Professors, and the in-depth exploration of an idea kept you engaged each week and gave you something to look forward to as you arrived on this beautiful campus.

I know all this because I lived it myself. In the mid-1990s, I was a high school English teacher expending a tremendous amount of energy each day teaching lessons, working with kids, grading essays, and, at that point in my career, still learning how to teach! But eventually I was ready to pursue my dream of getting a Master’s degree in English. Thankfully, I discovered the School of Continuing Studies here at Northwestern. This program allowed me to achieve that dream while still working. I took classes in the evening and in the summer, which means my perspective on Northwestern is a little different than full-time students. I never felt fully invested in the University and I was only familiar with certain buildings where my classes were held or the library. What I did feel was incredible support by my peers, my instructors, and the School of Continuing Studies.

I also really appreciated the opportunity to take a variety of classes in several departments that truly expanded my thinking about the world. I think the best example of that was my Master’s Thesis, which grew out of two African-American Studies courses I took and let me to analyze the racial bias in high school English textbooks. I’m very proud that a revised version of that thesis was published two years later as chapter in a book. My work here also gave me the training and confidence to pursue another dream: to complete a Ph.D., which I did in 1999 at Penn State University. Since that time, I have continued to go back to my training and experiences here at Northwestern. The payoff of all those long hours and hard work has been evident in my daily life. Like you, I am a product of this school and university and am very proud to call myself an alumnus.

Now, there are probably several reasons why I was invited to address you today. One certainly is my history as a graduate of this program and my continued support of it since then. The other has to do with my more recent and future connections to Northwestern University. I have spent my entire career as an educator, trying to help young people understand themselves and the world around them. For most of that time, I was a high school English teacher, which means, yes, I believe that every tree, animal, or green light at the end of a dock is a symbol for love, death, greed, or jealousy. It also means that I have also read every poorly constructed sentence ever imagined, lines like: “The red brick wall was the color of a brick-red Crayola crayon” and “Her vocabulary was as bad as, like, whatever.”

For the last five years, I have served as Principal of New Trier High School. That means I spent most of my time in meetings worrying about the next state or federal mandate, whether we had enough garbage cans in the hallways, attending so many evening events, games, and productions that my children refer to me as “That Guy Who Occasionally Sleeps Here”, and worrying about how to reduce the number of beach balls the seniors are tossing around at our Commencement Ceremony. And by the way, thanks for keeping that number low today.

Many of you know that New Trier High School has a long-standing and nationally recognized reputation for excellence, much like Northwestern. I am often asked: “What is your secret?” The answer is complicated because there are many, many reasons why New Trier has remained so good for so long. I could talk about the incredible community support, the oldest Adviser System in the country, a merit pay system that actually works, or an approach to differentiated instruction that is woven into the fabric of the school. But the best symbol of New Trier’s success is our school motto. Now, many schools have mottos but very few actually live out that motto on a daily basis. Ours is so real that every staff member and almost every student can repeat it. It reads: “to commit minds to inquiry, hearts to compassion, and lives to the service of humanity.” It is a powerful vision of education that focuses on the mind, body, heart, and soul of every individual. It drives our decisions about what to support and what to leave behind. And it has guided this institution for 113 years. This is the culture I have worked in for the past 23 years.

My experience as an educator and administrator, led me back to Northwestern several years ago when I was invited to become an adjunct instructor in the School of Education and Social Policy, teaching reading and literacy methods classes. It has been a real thrill to serve as a mentor to novice teachers, especially here at Northwestern. Next week, I will finish off my career in public schools and join the Northwestern faculty full-time as the Director of Teacher Education. I’ll be a part-time administrator, a part-time professor, and still have some time to conduct some research and write, all things I truly love. In a way I am coming home and I am very, very excited to be a Wildcat full time.

Yes, I’ve certainly benefitted from the almost 25 years of education I’ve received as a student from Kindergarten through graduate school, and the years I’ve spent teaching in public schools and universities. I am a product of our American education system and I believe that we do it right in this country. Let me repeat that. I believe that our American education system is the best in the world. Of course, we could do it better. And there are plenty of critics out there who suggest that American education is broken and failing. In fact, it is sometimes hard to find an article that praises our education system. It is also easy for us to believe education, as a whole, is not so great. In the annual Gallup polls, more than half of Americans say they are dissatisfied with the quality of education in the United States. However, the vast majority of those same Americans believe their individual child’s education is satisfactory or more than satisfactory. We have strong opinions about education. So who is right? And why should you or any of us care about the quality of education?

Well, we know that “individuals with access to quality education through elementary and secondary school are more likely to find gainful employment, have stable families, and be active and productive citizens”(Mitra). So education can be a powerful determinant of social and emotional health. There is also an economic impact of quality education. Penn State researcher Dana Mitra has found that decreasing the number of high school dropouts by half would nationally produce $45 billion per year in net economic benefit. Generally speaking, education leads to a better life for individuals, families, communities, the country and the world. There is definite power in education. But that power can have limitations. Recently, the Census Bureau reported that 15% of Americans live in poverty and the IRS reported that based on wage figures, half of all Americans are in or near the poverty line, which is currently set at $30,000 a year for a family of four. We have yet to find a way for education to help reduce poverty and maybe it can’t. Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond recently reminded educators that schools alone cannot solve the problem of poverty. Educators are certainly willing to be part of the solution but it takes a village to raise a child and to help raise people up and out of poverty. If we can find a way as a nation to reduce poverty, our schools will have a better chance of making a greater impact on kids.

And that’s where you all come in. You have achieved a high level of education, as I mentioned earlier, something only 8% of Americans accomplish. But what now will you do with that degree? How will you use this knowledge going forward? I hope that you will, first and foremost, put it to use! Find success in whatever area you choose to pursue, strive to be excellent and ethical, to work hard and set the bar of expectations high for yourself and those around you. This drive to be successful and excellent is the foundation for American ingenuity and accomplishment. It leads to personal satisfaction and pride in everything you do. But I also hope that you find a way to help others, to dedicate yourself to not only inquiry but compassion and service as well. Volunteer in your community, volunteer in your schools, and make yourself available to young people as role models and mentors. We need to help each other and make compassion and service equal in importance to personal success.

And because you have accomplished something only a few people have done, you have yet another responsibility. And while I could use some heroic figure from literature or history or politics to illustrate this point, let me draw on something that is maybe a bit more pedestrian but also personally influential to me. One of my favorite comic book heroes growing up was Spider-Man. Stan Lee created this character, Peter Parker, who was just a kid who was suddenly given strength and power. But Stan Lee also gave him a strong moral center. Peter’s father figure, Uncle Ben, always told Peter: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Peter Parker certainly has power but he also has a choice. This ethical value, taught to him by his mentor, allowed Spider-Man to wield his power carefully and with an intention to “do good.” If there is indeed power in education, then this room is swimming in it. We all have a responsibility to go forth from here and find ways of using that power to do good, to improve the world around us, and leave it better than we found it as a gift to those who will follow us. I look forward to continuing that work myself here at Northwestern and I look forward to hearing from all of you as you enter into this new phase of your lives.

Good luck and congratulations!

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