Fairfield Now - Winter 2008
The Value of a "Whole Education"
Former CNN Chairman Walter Isaacson delivered the first annual President's Lecture
By Virginia Weir
Members of the President's Circle of donors were treated to a stimulating afternoon of ideas and conversation as Walter Isaacson, noted corporate leader, humanitarian, and best-selling biographer, took the stage as the inaugural speaker at the first annual President's Lecture earlier this fall.
"In bringing this signature recognition event back to campus, and in showcasing 'well-rounded' individuals and citizens such as... Walter Isaacson," said University President Jeffrey P. von Arx, S.J., in his introduction, "it is my intention that their interesting and committed lives will inspire us to reflect on our own life paths."
Walter Isaacson with Fr. von Arx, answering
questions following the first annual President's Lecture.
Approximately 200 alumni and friends attended the private afternoon event at the Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts. Fr. von Arx thanked those present for their support, which make speakers such as Isaacson possible.
A graduate of Harvard College, and Pembroke College of Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, Walter Isaacson was the chairman and CEO of CNN, and managing editor of Time magazine. Currently, he is president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, an organization based in Colorado and Washington, D.C., whose mission is to both foster values-based leadership, encouraging individuals to reflect upon what defines a good society, and to provide a neutral and balanced venue for discussing and acting on critical issues.
Isaacson's extensive background has made him a sought-after facilitator. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Isaacson (who was born in New Orleans) was appointed vice-chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority by Governor Kathleen Bianco. In 2007, President Bush appointed him chairman of the U.S.-Palestinian Partnership, a government and private sector effort to provide economic and educational opportunities for the Palestinian people.
Isaacson is also the author of three biographies: Einstein: His Life and Universe (2007), Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (2003), and Kissinger: A Biography (1992), and co-author of The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made (1986).
Franklin and Einstein - examples of "whole education"
Understanding the importance of a "whole education" was the theme of Isaacson's lecture, and he had a captive audience as he elaborated with passion on the importance of "education with a noble purpose," using the lives of two famous men as examples: Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein. "I picked them to show how a life can be lived that is worthy and valuable and has a spiritual component," he said.
Fr. von Arx greeted President's Circle members Michael Guarnieri '84 and Edie Chaifetz, who said, "It's such a privilege and a pleasure to be a part of this. This is the kind of programming that I am proud to support."
Isaacson contended that a "whole education" goes far beyond the acquisition of knowledge. What also needs to be encouraged is imagination, and the value of pursuing ideas - not just because they may be relevant - but because they are "beautiful." Truly inspired thinkers are also moved to serve a cause or community greater than their own self-interest. "Education puts us in perspective...," he said. "The point of an education is to better serve your fellow man."
Very different men, from different centuries, Einstein and Franklin were both beneficiaries of a "whole education," although neither followed a straightforward path. The tenth son of a Puritan family, "Franklin was no Jesuit," said Isaacson, "but a runaway Puritan." It was intended that Franklin attend Harvard to become a minister, but he quickly found that he was not "cut out for 'the cloth'." Instead, he was apprenticed at 12 to his older brother's newspaper, where he schooled himself by reading everything he could find in his brother's library. Eventually he would write for the newspaper, sharing a wealth of common sense under the pseudonym of an elderly widow.
Later, at the ripe age of 17, Franklin formed an organization for tradesmen, maintaining a list of now-famous virtues to serve one's community (temperance, order, resolution, frugality, moderation, industry, cleanliness, tranquility, silence, sincerity, justice, chastity, and humility), listing them on a slate board, which he would wipe clean when he felt he had accomplished the virtue (hence the term, "clean slate"). Franklin found he was never very good at the virtue of humility, Isaacson said. He was, however, good at the pretense of humility, which in time became almost as good as the reality, because Franklin learned to listen to the other party and assume they had a point.
"What a treat this was! It was inspiring and thought-provoking," noted Ann (Brokamp '92) Williams, pictured with her husband Bob, who added, "He (Isaacson) presented such a balanced point of view, and made you think about your own life and how you can serve others."
Einstein's education two centuries later was more traditional, but one would not have predicted his future from his time as a student. As Isaacson humorously noted, "Albert Einstein was no Einstein when he was a kid." He was rebellious, constantly questioning authority, alienating his professors. After college, Einstein could only find employment as a third-class examiner in a Swiss patent office, an environment suitable to Einstein's penchant for challenging assumptions. It was through close work on patents involved with the synchronicity of clocks, and because "he thought in pictures, not words," that Einstein eventually devised his Theory of Relativity. Finally, in 1909, he was hired by a university.
Creativity and imagination were driving forces throughout Einstein's life, as well as a respectful recognition of the limits of the human imagination. Even at the very end of his life, Einstein was still developing equations in pursuit of a unified field theory, and writing a manifesto on world peace in an atomic age, pulling himself, as Isaacson said, "one step closer to that spirit manifest in the laws of the universe."
Isaacson held the crowd enthralled for over an hour, and the public conversation following the lecture was lively, with questions about the role of journalism in today's world and the global stature of the United States. When asked who was a world leader that exemplified a life of noble purpose, Isaacson answered "Nelson Mandela" without hesitation, noting that Mandela, after 14 years spent in prison, was able to rise above that injustice and sit down with the authorities in South Africa to help bring about a formal end to apartheid and inspire a movement toward reconciliation.
Isaacson also promoted the value of service after college. "We need to make it easier to serve," he said, advocating for defraying costs of student loans in exchange for service, and finding more effective ways to channel volunteerism. He spoke of the success of Teach for America, whose board of directors he chairs, and recommended creation of a volunteer "civilian reserve corps" comprised of doctors, lawyers, mental health professionals, and others who could be called up in emergencies.
|Drs. Karol '74 and Mary (Stronkowski '75) Chacho of West Redding, Conn., and Dr. Robert and
Mrs. Rosellen Schnurr '74 enjoyed the champagne reception in the lobby of the Quick Center after
Fr. von Arx praised Isaacson's commitment to a full and integrated life. "Lives that exemplify this integration are the leaders we have always needed - today more than ever," he said. "Individuals who ask the question that Mr. Isaacson has asked: What does it take to lead a life that is good, useful, worthy, and meaningful? These are the kinds of lives and individuals we are trying to cultivate in our students here at Fairfield University."