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McCullough Urges Graduates to Embrace the ‘life of the mind’

Published: May 18, 2009

QUINCY, Mass., May 18, 2009 ? Embrace learning and the “life of the mind.” That was the message that Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough shared with more than 200 graduates and their families Saturday at Eastern Nazarene College’s 87th spring commencement exercises.

McCullough, who received an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from the college, told attendees he was pleased to be back in Quincy, a city that figured so prominently in the research for his Pulitzer Prizewinning biography of Quincy’s most famous son, John Adams.

“I’m one who loves commencements,” said McCullough, whose appearance at the Christian liberal arts college was arranged by former Quincy Mayor and ENC Alumnus James Sheets. “We have no more moving, more relevant, more worthy ceremony in our civic, secular lives than commencements, a time when we celebrate hard work and achievement in the quest for learning.”

McCullough began his address by sharing the story of a young farm boy who at the age of 14 received the first book he had ever owned.

“He was so proud to own it, he wrote his name six times in the cover,” said McCullough, noting that the boy’s mother was likely illiterate while his father could barely sign his name. “And yet that boy, because of education, went on to make a great contribution to education when as president, he signed into law the creation of the greatest library in the world.”

The boy was John Adams. McCullough recounted how the future president was an indifferent student, until a tutor named Joseph Marsh awakened a love of learning that would consume Adams for the rest of his life.

“John Adams became the emblem of the transforming influence of education,” McCullough said. “He cherished the book and the life of the mind, purchasing thousands of books at a time when books were very expensive. And he became the most well-read leading figure of his very bookish age.”

From Shakespeare and Cervantes to Moliere and Cicero, Adams embraced learning, McCullough said, often “arguing” with the authors through the copious notes he wrote in the margins of his volumes.

“(Adams) never had any money or social prestige,” McCullough noted. “It was thought at the time by those who didn’t know him ? and became accepted years later by those who knew even less ? that John Adams was a rich, Boston blueblood. He was none of those things. He was a farmer’s son from Braintree.”

Yet the farmer’s son would have a pivotal impact on the education of future generations through his role as the author of the Massachusetts state constitution. The oldest constitution still in use in the world today ? and considered by many to be the model for the U.S. Constitution ? Adams’ state constitution included a groundbreaking statement on the need for public education:

“Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties; and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people, it shall be the duty of legislators and magistrates in all future periods of this commonwealth to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them, especially the university at Cambridge, public schools, and grammar schools in the towns; to encourage private societies and public institutions, rewards and immunities, for the promotion of agriculture, arts, sciences, commerce, trades, manufactures, and a natural history of the country; to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence…”

“When John Adams wrote those words, they were quite radical,” McCullough said. “He was convinced that the legislature would reject them.”

Instead, the legislature approved the document unanimously, establishing education as the foundation of American liberty.

“Education was the key to our whole conception of a good society from the very beginning,” McCullough said. “When (the forefathers) wrote about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, that didn’t mean longer vacations, easier work weeks and more stuff. It meant more opportunities to pursue the life of the mind.

“Adams, Franklin, Jefferson all viewed education as the gateway to happiness,” he continued. “And they all attributed what they were in large measure to the teachers who had changed their lives.”

In concluding his address, McCullough warned graduates not to confuse information with education.

“If information were learning, theoretically you could memorize the World Almanac and be qualified to graduate,” he said. “But if you memorized the World Almanac, you wouldn’t be educated. You’d be weird.

“I hope you see lots of the world. I hope you enter work you love, and that you choose a vocation, if possible, and not just a job for the money. I hope you will thank, either in person or in writing, those faculty who have opened your eyes to the world of the mind and books. And wherever you go, whether you stay in a hotel or motel, please remember to tip the maid.”

Other highlights of ENC’s commencement included the awarding of Professor Emeritus status to Donald Yerxa, a nationally renowned historian and longtime professor in ENC’s acclaimed History department; and the presentation of the Senior Class gift: a fully endowed $10,000 scholarship. The gift marked the first time ever that an ENC graduating class has presented a scholarship that is fully endowed and thus able to be awarded immediately to incoming students.

“We are so very proud of this class,” ENC President Corlis McGee said. “Despite the times and the economy, when it would have been understandable if they had chosen to put that money toward their own tuition bills, they have caught the vision and are already giving back so that others can be enriched through an education at ENC.”

About Eastern Nazarene College
Located in Quincy, Mass. on Boston’s historic south shore, Eastern Nazarene College (ENC) is a fully accredited liberal arts college. With approximately 1,200 students distributed across its traditional residential undergraduate program as well as adult studies and graduate programs, ENC is known for its success in getting students into top graduate and medical schools, and has a 100 percent acceptance rate for its students into law school. While many faculty members are active in publishing and research, and several are leaders in their fields, ENC is committed to focusing on the teaching and mentoring of students in a nurturing, spiritually informed and academically supportive environment.



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