James W. Harrington, Jr.
Keynote address,  Early Identification Program conference
University of Washington
20 May 1998

We each have favorite mottoes and epigrams — or we should;  they’re easy reminders of difficult truths and goals.  I have a favorite epigram, by no means original to me:  “The true measure of our lives is not what we have, but what we’ve become.”
I want to talk to you about what we can become:  first, what we as individuals can become, and then, what we can become as a society.

It was with absolute euphoria that I left my small, insular hometown in September 1973 and set off for college.  In hopes that my collegiate life and thoughts would be more interesting than my previous life and thoughts, I began keeping a journal.  Years later, when I bound the first, thick volume of that journal, I gave that volume a title:  “Becoming a Person.”  I have mixed feelings about that title, now.  On the one hand, I think I undervalued my childhood, my hometown, and my uniqueness.  On the other hand, using that title, “becoming a person,” for that period illustrates the power of exposure and education to my sense of self-identification.  How can we know who we are individually until we’ve been exposed to ideas and people different from ourselves?

Diversity — a broad diversity of ideas, ways of being, and human characteristics — is colorful and interesting, but it is really (1) a means to an end, and (2) a proxy for our success.  It is a means to an end, where that end is education.  Education should engage us with each other and with the thoughts and findings of others, so that we can develop our latent capabilities.  I learn from others, and from our differences.  It is from the juxtaposition of professors, graduate students, adjunct faculty, and undergraduates that we learn different ideas and approaches.  It is from the juxtaposition of different class and racial backgrounds that we learn what our own backgrounds mean to us.   It is from the juxtaposition of different masculinities and femininities that we learn our own way of relating to ourselves and to others.

Despite the importance of others in our education, it is our capabilities that we must develop.  We are individually responsible for that development and for the use of our capabilities.  Even as I try to convince others of my point of view, and even as I share in and help shape my students’ discoveries, it’s my own development for which I’m responsible — my development as a teacher and my development as a student of my subject.  Further, I have to use my capabilities in the best way I know how, and I have to hope that this “best way” changes as I learn more about myself and my subject matter.  There’s no one way to be a professor;  there’s no one way to be an African American;  there’s no one way to be a man.

My hope is that each of us will leave here tonight with a strengthened commitment to learning, to becoming.  Don’t wait for some “final” lesson or revelation before acting.  However, even as we act on our current understanding of biochemistry, genetics, economics, or social institutions, let’s not close our minds.  Let’s commit ourselves to learn, to act, and to become.

How can we implement this commitment to become?  Continued formal education is one route.  The way our formal educational system is structured in this country, we gain basic skills in primary and secondary school, we’re exposed to current debates and methods in undergraduate college, we are expected literally to master a body of theory and applications in professional or Master’s degree programs, and we are expected to extend theory and applications in doctoral programs.

In my observation, as well as my personal experience, the typical motivation for a professional or Master’s degree is implementation.  I wanted to be able to apply economic and geographic methods to improve urban and regional planning.  Somewhere in that process, I realized that the current concepts and methods were pretty inadequate.  Improving the concepts and the methods would take "a few years of work," which I might as well invest in a research degree, like the doctoral degree.  And here I am now, for better or for worse.  If you question an approach or method of inquiry that you have been exposed to in college, see if you can improve it!  If you feel intellectually stymied because a potentially promising line of research was abandoned too soon or is currently under-appreciated, pursue it!

Where does such a research education lead?  To take an example close to home, UW’s Graduate School has just compiled the results of a survey of 3500 people who received Ph.D. degrees from UW during the period 1986-1996.  Of these 3500 Ph.D.’s,
· 56 percent are currently employed by colleges and universities;
· 19 percent are employed by business firms;
· 14 percent are employed by community colleges, medical centers, primary and secondary school systems, and others;
· 10 percent are employed by government agencies or government laboratories;
· only 1 percent was unemployed at the time of the survey (1997).
This illustrates the range of careers pursued by our relatively recent Ph.D.s.  I’d like to see us revel in this diversity as well, encouraging individuals to use a research degree in any number of ways, infiltrating many different communities.  We can become anything we want, with education as one route toward that becoming.

Education should engage us with each other and with the thoughts and findings of others, so that we can develop our latent capabilities.  Having emphasized “us” as individuals, let me speak to “us” as a society.

One of the bases of the social sciences is that people’s beliefs, actions, and constraints result from more than the sum of identifiable actions by individuals.  Behavioral and physiological processes interact with broader, social influences to determine human activity.  Economists refer to “external economies and diseconomies” when the benefits or costs of one’s actions can’t be restricted to that actor.  Sociologists refer to social institutions or conventions that influence individuals’ behavior.  Political scientists and political economists refer to the political processes that generate formal and informal institutions — and to the political processes that can change institutions.  Geographers refer to the ways in which social proximity and regular interaction create distinctive places.  In other words, it is insufficient to understand the world or to change the world one individual at a time;  the society and its institutions have responsibilities and effects of their own.

Society, the collective, has a stake in education.  A primary rationale for publicly-supported education is the social benefit or externality of an educated citizenry.  In a democracy, the ability of my neighbor to reason and to criticize thoughtfully influences my own well-being.  In an market economy with employees and employers free to begin and end relationships at will, an individual company will not pay to educate an employee who may leave at will, and an individual or family may not pay for all the education that would be beneficial to employers.  If we are to have an educated populace, we must jointly shoulder some of the cost.

Society has a stake in education at localized levels, as well as overall.  While people are highly mobile, especially in times of social crisis and at certain times in individuals’ lives, people do have attachments to places.  For example, exactly one-third of those surveyed UW Ph.D. recipients have remained in Washington State, despite the range of employment opportunities elsewhere.  Maintaining high standards of education for its population is one of the best measures that a place — a state, for example — can take to insure its social and economic well-being.

Society has a stake in the education of all its citizens.  The outcomes of democratic processes depend on the exposure of all potential voters to the history of thought, the lessons of history, and the reasoning of science.   The material wealth of a place depends on the abilities of all adults to participate well in productive activity.   We need to set standards for education, standards which we review — upward — from time to time.  We need to get all citizens to meet these standards:  rural as well as urban, central-city as well as suburban, middle-aged adults as well as children, daughters of the poor as well as sons of the wealthy.

As individuals, we have a stake in our own education.  As a society, we have a stake in the education of others.  Let’s not turn away from this commitment to education.

In this light of social commitment to (i) education, (ii) democratic participation, and (iii) productive activity, and in light of the political origins and political changes in our rules and institutions, I’d like to reframe the current fracas over affirmative action.   I said earlier that diversity — that broad diversity of ideas, ways of being, and human characteristics — is colorful and interesting, but it is really a means to an end, and a proxy for our success.  I’ve talked about diversity as a means to exposure and education;  now let me suggest how diversity is a proxy.

Affirmative action:   the original phrase was “affirmative action and equal opportunity.”  This pair of actions describes a challenging process.  One part of the process is deliberate action to increase the variety of people in the pool of applicants for education and employment.  Another part of the process has to do with the criteria for selecting people from the pool.  Criteria for selection from the pool should reflect the likelihood of success in education or employment, and should reflect the benefits to society from education or employment.  It’s not easy to increase the variety of people in the pool, and it’s not easy to set up criteria along these lines.  Because neither of these actions is simple, the debate has degraded to its present state.

It requires a greater commitment of resources to increase the pool of viable applicants than is required to argue about end results.  If we want to see real change, we have to reduce malnutrition, reduce drop-out rates, increase literacy and numeracy, improve transportation, improve schools, change attitudes about what is possible, and perhaps even change some of the positions we’re talking about to reflect the fact that not all executives need to be six feet tall and devoid of home duties.  You may notice that these changes are ends in themselves.  Bravo — let’s work on these ends themselves.

It requires substantive study of our goals and measures of success to determine what characteristics really do forecast “success” in school and on the job.  SAT scores?  Grades?  Willingness to work?  Improvement over time?  It’s time to be reflective, and to rely more on in-depth and qualitative assessments rather than simple scores.

It requires study and consensus to determine the social benefits are from having different backgrounds and viewpoints in our universities, our police forces, our corporations.  What are the purposes of these institutions?  What roles do we want them to play in our societies?  Who are the stakeholders, and how should the stakeholders be given voice in the institutions?  The answers to these questions are not God-given, but are the result of formal and informal political processes.  We must not be afraid to engage these political processes.  That engagement should be our means, and change should be our end.

My point?  Visible diversity is a proxy for our achievement of these ends, the ends of social advancement through individual fulfillment.   Let’s work on these ends, through every reasonable means.  For us, this means educating ourselves for our own purposes, and supporting better ways to progress toward these social goals.

Let us expose ourselves to ideas and to others;  let’s not be afraid to experiment with ideas, ways of being, and career paths;  let’s engage the formal and informal political systems that shape our institutions.  Let us maintain our strength and our good humor, as we act based on who we are, on our way to becoming what we and our institutions can be.