One Last Lecture for the MLIS Class of 2020

Last Thursday would have been the hooding, and this past weekend graduation. While I would love nothing more than to be with you to say congratulations, I did want to use this opportunity to talk about tradition. As part of the academic tradition at the school you would have worn academic robes, and you would have to endure one short last lecture from me. While we are not gathering together, I wanted to at least pay homage to those traditions for this year’s graduates. I think in a time of pandemics, a lecture on those robes would be appropriate to talk about what we have prepared you for.

Many may have heard that academic robes are modeled on the robes of medieval monks. Monks held a special place in society in Europe – not least of which they were partially exempt from many of the daily chores of survival. They had to be literate to study and preach the bible. These two things made them ideal tutors for the gentry. They became teachers. As time progressed the gentry pooled their monies and gathered these tutors into colleges.

Some may have also heard about the hoods worn by graduates at the masters and doctoral level. The hoods symbolize where the monks would keep their food and wine. What folks don’t always know is that the food and wine were often the payment for their services. Hard currency was either hard to come by, or lacked reach for traveling tutors, so they took their payments in sustenance. The wine, fermented, was much safer than water at the time.

What many familiar with academic regalia do not know, however, is why at the big graduation ceremonies at most universities the procession of faculty is led by a mace holder. The mace is usually VERY large and ornate (check out UofSC’s here: https://www.sc.edu/about/offices_and_divisions/registrar/graduation/commencement_ceremonies/commencement_traditions/university_mace.php ). Why a mace? It seems a bit discordant at a place of higher education that a weapon opens and closes major events.

Except, think about the origin of the symbol. You are a monk. You are carrying payment in the form of gold or wine or food as you travel to many often unknown locations. You needed your robes to keep you warm, your hood to carry your living, and a mace to keep you safe. The mace has become a symbol of academic authority because it recalls that the world of the educated is not always easy and, to an extent, must be protected.

This week you graduate. You have earned through hard work and long hours the right to wear those robes and claim your place as a master of your field. You are doing this in a perilous time. No one planned this, and no one wishes it upon you. However, here you are, and you must move forward.

Many of you are going into our state’s schools. There you will face education by Zoom, and a student body disconnected – sheltered at home trying to learn while taking care of siblings, struggling with technology, or all too often struggling with a lack of access to technology. Most of your partners in this endeavor, teachers and administrators, are teaching online for the first time, and are unable to truly comfort their students, much less push them toward excellence.

Some of you are headed, if not today, then in the future, to public libraries. Closed buildings will be reopening, most likely too soon, and you will be the face of local government hopefully in a mask. You will be asked to be a place of gathering for a community that has become suspicious of touch, and who are wounded by weeks of loss and isolation.

Some of you are headed to the nation’s colleges and universities. You will be facing a faculty also struggling to teach online, and students morning the loss of the college experience. Traditional means of creating a community of learners side lined for safety.

All of you will be faced with a world no one wants and be given a choice. That choice is what will the new normal look like?

You’ve heard the phrase, the new normal. But you have almost always heard it in a negative frame. The new normal is talked about what we will give up. A new normal of social distancing, of fear of infection, of shuttered businesses. But I ask you to ask what should the new normal be? What if we learn from this horrific pandemic and work together to forge a new normal founded on the principles of equity and inclusion?

What if the new normal is universal broadband access to erase the digital divide? What if the new normal is the gathering of local voices to make governments more transparent, accountable, and tied to accuracy? What if the new normal for libraries is not just serving people at home in times of crisis, but every day serving our communities wherever they must be – the mother and father and home bound? The elderly and differently abled? What if the new normal allows us to connect the scholar to research articles and kids to story time online without fear of copyright lawsuits? What if the new normal is access to the world’s memory and opportunity as defined by desire and not a zip code?

No monk foresaw today’s academy as he walked through dirty streets of desperation seven centuries ago with a loaf of bread tucked into his sleeve and a mace in his hand. No monk foresaw the gathering of the tutors, the creation of colleges, the advancement of education and the creation of a scholarship that pushed humankind out of the middle ages to explore the globe, and the moon. And yet, that monk didn’t have to – he merely needed to continue to teach and serve.

We – you and I- do not know what literally tomorrow holds. Will there be second waves of infection? Will classes ever return to full in-person? Will the next economic boom be about technology or medicine or learning? But what we do know, is that over these past years, you have been preparing to serve and inform, and educate. You have learned skills, but also principles that uniquely qualify you to shape the future. You will be entering into organizations reeling from change, and you will embrace that change, and with calm competent compassion you will lead.

I congratulate you on your graduation. I look forward to the great things you will do. Here’s to the class of 2020.

2 Replies to “One Last Lecture for the MLIS Class of 2020”

  1. A truly wonderful and historic speech – just what I would expect from you, my pal. Thank you for sending this out, and for being you.

  2. Impressive speech, great inspiration for students and for your colleagues in the library field, I particularly appreciate the positive and aspirational twist you bring to the “New Normal”.

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