"Do something really difficult: Go into education."
Those were the words that Hans Weiler, professor emeritus of education, offered at the start of his commencement address June 16 for the Stanford Graduate School of Education. He was repeating advice that another colleague had given to a young student many years back, and Weiler's talk underscored how education remains "a difficult enterprise" that takes "both smarts and guts."
"Our societies have a way of unloading their problems on education and of expecting education to solve them – from unemployment to obesity and from citizenship to crime," Weiler told the future professors, policymakers, school administrators, entrepreneurs and teachers. "Education is, you might say, a profoundly contingent enterprise, contingent upon the social, economic and political conditions under which it functions, while at the same time a major agent for shaping those very conditions. To cope intelligently with this kind of interaction is what makes education such a mighty difficult proposition indeed."
Weiler spoke to a group of 197 degree candidates and their families and friends, seated in the shade of the West Oak Grove, adjacent to the Oval. A total of 32 students received doctorates at the ceremony; another 165 received master's degrees from such programs as Curriculum Studies and Teacher Education; International Comparative Education; and Learning, Design and Technology. That also includes 82 students at the ceremony who completed the Stanford Teacher Education Program and will next fall be teaching in elementary and secondary classrooms.
It was the school's 122nd commencement, and it was a moment for celebration. Parents held banners congratulating their children; cheers and even an occasional air horn erupted as the graduates were hooded and received their diplomas. And many of the students walked across the stage with babies in arms, as well as festively decorated mortarboards. Afterward, they all gathered with faculty to nosh on samosas, crackers and cheese, fresh fruit salad and other selections, while sipping iced tea and water.
Dean Claude Steele opened the ceremony, congratulating the graduating students and proudly pointing out that they had been the most spirited school at the university Commencement a few hours earlier. While acknowledging difficult times ahead, he noted two larger trends – "winds at their backs" – that would benefit them as their careers evolved: the heightened interest and openness for innovation in education by critical education stakeholders, and the outstanding knowledge and skills they gained at the GSE.
And he encouraged the students to "ask for directions" – to resist the urge to adopt an authoritative and all-knowing attitude, but rather, to ask questions, especially in unfamiliar or challenging situations, and to open themselves up to new perspectives.
"When you are lost, when your work challenges you, when you deal with the challenges of difference and diversity, don't worry, be happy; don't be defensively authoritative, rather, lean in, listen, let in what you don't know you don't know," Steele said. "Make learning your go-to mindset under threat and it can set you free, allow you to never feel lost, to feel confident, and to be a great citizen of the world with a rich, exploring social range and sense of empathy and connection.
"As Einstein said: 'The mind that opens to a new idea never returns to its original size,'" he added.
Steele introduced Weiler as a leading expert in the role of education in developing nations who helped build the GSE's International Development Education program (now the International Comparative Education program). He served as the directorship of UNESCO's International Institute for Educational Planning in Paris and had a variety of assignments with the World Bank, USAID, the Ford Foundation and the African Development Bank.
At Stanford, he also served as associate dean for academic affairs in the School of Education, the head of the School's research training program for Francophone Africa and director of the Center for European Studies. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, he played a key role in the reconstruction of higher education in Eastern Germany and was appointed as the first Rektor (president) of Viadrina European University at Frankfurt (Oder) on the German-Polish border – a commitment that both the Polish and the German governments later honored by awarding him their respective Order of Merit.
While education can provide us with much joy and enrichment, Weiler noted, it is also at the center of major conflict.
"Issues of access to education, of language, of curricular choices, of quality – even of financing – are bound to be judged differently by different groups in a society, and are inevitably becoming the subject of often heated debate and contestation," Weiler said.
But don't despair, he told the graduates. "The fact that education is controversial is not only a reason why it is difficult, it is also one of the most exciting things about it.
"We stand to gain a great deal from embracing it and from reaping the creative energies that come from true debate and controversy. This is an important part of why education is not only a career, but an intellectual challenge and a professional commitment."
The troubled world, Weiler said, badly needs what education has to offer – reasoned inquiry, probing criticism and empathy, among other assets. He told the graduates that they will be in good company with other GSE alumni who are tackling an array of injustices and disparities around the globe. He noted such alums as Jonathan Jansen (PhD '91), the vice chancellor of the University of the Free State in South Africa and the first black dean to hold this position at the university in the post-Apartheid era, as well as Maggie Kilo (PhD '94), a senior official of the African Development Bank in charge of overseeing the role of education in the so-called "failed states" of Africa.
"The Jonathan Jansens and the Maggie Kilos and your other fellow graduates around the world have been doing the difficult work of education, and they are telling you not only that it can be done, but that it is an exciting and rewarding way to go," Weiler told the graduates. "They also bear testimony to the fact that the reach of this school does not stop at the borders of the United States. You are joining, in other words, one terrific group of people!"
Amy Yuen writes frequently for the Stanford Graduate School of Education.