The Catholic University of America

Class of 2017 Convocation Reflection
Todd Lidh, assistant dean of undergraduate studies and director of the First-Year Experience
Upper Church, Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
Sept. 11, 2013

 

Thank you, Dr. Shoemaker. And thank you, Dean Ott, for your thoughtful words. And for your challenge.

You rightfully point out the difficulty of navigating between the Scylla of specialization and the Charybdis of “the universal.” Regardless of how you steer your ship, someone is going to die.

Luckily for you students, the people you are working with right now are among those who have survived that harrowing journey. They themselves have traveled on – let’s call it an “odyssey” – they have traveled for years, charting a path that has led them to a kind of balance that allows a narrow focus founded on a capacity for the general. These survivors are your professors, women and men who were once at the very stage you yourselves are just now. And they made it. Some with more battle scars than others, but they made it.

And outside the specific content of the classes themselves, these brave soldiers have much to teach you. Not how to be just like them, mind you, but how you can learn to be just like you. The “who you are going to be” certainly won’t be the “who you are now,” and you want that future you to be someone who knows and cares about the world around you.

And that world won’t be narrowly defined by your interest or your major; rather, your area of study gives you but one set of skills with which to understand, interact and, possibly, change the world. But, like any good craftsman, you should want a whole set of tools to help you out. After all, living by the maxim “if all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail” means you won’t have the tools or the understanding to work with glass, wire, fire, water, or any other material. Or even with drywall anchors, trowels, mortar, S-hooks or paint.

[As you can probably guess, I’ve been doing many home improvement projects.]

Your set of tools might include:
- the paintbrush of rhetoric, so that you can color your thoughts in various hues and tints
- the screwdriver of evidence, so that you can tighten your ideas and make them stronger
- the hacksaw of argument, so that you can engage in dialogue and debate
- the T-square of language, so that you can be a member of the world community

Speaking of tools, let me highlight one of the most insidious aspects of specialization: the formula.

Now, full disclosure: I was a math major my first two years in college, so I spent plenty of time with formulas. In and of themselves, they are wonderful things. However, too often, real learning, real understanding is replaced by formula.

You want to write an essay? Intro paragraph, body, body, body, conclusion.

You want to create a work of art? Paint-by-numbers.

You want to play a song? There’s an app for that. [whispers] It’s called “Garage Band.”

You want to know about the American Revolution? “Listen, my children, and you shall hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.”

You want to design a house? Start AutoCAD and load a template.

You want to take a standardized test? “When in doubt, C it out.”

Again, formulas are useful for their purpose, but they are also indicative of specialization, of learning a single way to do something or know something and that’s it. As Dean Ott cautioned, limiting yourself to a narrow band of ability, of utility, means you are doing just that: limiting yourself. While you can’t possibly hope to learn everything about everything, this university is a place where you can open your mind and hands and heart and soul to what is out there.
Otherwise, you must rely on formula because you don’t have outside perspective to draw upon that allows you to deviate, to speculate, to innovate. And reliance on a formula – the specific way to do a particular task – can often illustrate the very limitations of that formula.

Perhaps I can demonstrate through humor. After all, most jokes follow a formula, right? And if you follow the formula, you should be funny. Right? Let’s see.

Which is funnier:

What do you call cheese that isn’t your cheese?

Someone else’s cheese.

Or

What do you call cheese that isn’t your cheese?

Nacho cheese.
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Or how about this one?

How many lawyers does it take to screw in a light bulb?

One. Because lawyers are smart and capable and have the manual dexterity required to screw in a simple light bulb.

Or

How many lawyers does it take to screw in a light bulb?

[look back at President Garvey]

Well, I think you get the idea….
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You see? If you simply follow a formula – because you have to – then you haven’t cultivated knowledge and skills outside a narrow field. And what you’re left with are some pretty unfunny jokes.

So look outside the specific, the specialized. There’s nothing wrong with knowing something really well – each and every one of us on stage and across the faculty here has done that to some degree or another. But if you settle for just knowing something specific, you are missing out on the universe.