Friday, April 01, 2011

An honors education: creating the self-educating individual

Friday, April 01, 2011, winter is (pretty) safely behind us, we will ignore the snowstorm hitting the East today, and snow on the ground for the White Sox opener in Cleveland, and a few random forecasts for smaller amounts of same here, and look ahead one month to graduation season, and present you with these thoughts on education.

From the archives. Given to Ohio State University College of Agriculture, Honors Banquet, Ohio Union, 6 p.m., Thursday, November 3, 1983. Was chosen to speak since earlier that year college had given me Young Professional Award. Audience included faculty, staff, parents and students -- several hundred in all. I am amused that I called "journalism" a "hard" discipline vs. soft like literature. Otherwise, I am surprised at how prescient my comments were -- 12 years before Al Gore invented the Internet. The meat of the message -- we must continually educate and re-educate ourselves -- remains more timely than ever....

Thank you Dr. Darrow.

I appreciate the opportunity to be back here at Ohio State. I took an awful lot away from this institution and it's nice to be able to bring a little something back tonight.

Of course, it brings back a lot of memories to me.

I remember things like a victory over Michigan, the winning of a Big-Ten title and following a jubilant crowd down High Street ••• a crowd that was carrying part of the goal post down to the state capital. Kind of a crazy thing to do ••• but it seemed like a good idea to many at the time.

I remember personal things like meeting my future wife-to-be at an agriculture college function here in the student union.

And, I remember more sedate things like ••• studying. I suppose all of us in the honors program spend a good deal of time studying.

One of my favorite places to study was the stacks in the main library. I remember going up into the stacks in the early evening and settling into a quiet nook listening to the Orton Hall chimes, looking out occasionally on the Oval, and then getting distracted by all the thousands and thousands of volumes containing the wisdom of the ages in the bookshelves around me. I especially remember coming across one particular book, and happening upon a quote that stuck with me, and this is the quote. It said simply, that "the goal of a liberal education is self-educating man." I suppose for our purposes here tonight, we would not be doing too great a violence to the text if we were to substitute the word "honors" for "liberal" and say that "the goal of an honors education is self-educating man."

As a professional communicator, I try to avoid clichés and trite phrases and hackneyed sayings as diligently as I can. But I think it's important to note that we are living in a changing world. And the phrase "a changing world" is a cliché. But like most clichés it's very true.

And in this rapidly changing world, the need for self-education has never been greater. This need is amplified by the sometimes volatile economic pressures that are forcing these tremendous changes.

We hear a lot about computers.

We hear a lot about consultants and we hear a lot about communications in agriculture. We hear phrases like post-industrial society, third wave society. In his book megatrends, John Naisbitt examines these changes. He cites ten major changes ••• or megatrends. Quoting from his book, he says:

1. Although we continue to think we live in an industrial society, we have in fact changed to an economy based on the creation and distribution of information.

2. We are moving in the dual directions of high tech/high touch, matching each new technology with a compensatory human response.

3. No longer do we have the luxury of operating within an isolated, self-sufficient, national economic system; we now must acknowledge that we are part of a global economy. We have begun to let go of the idea that the United States is and must remain the world's industrial leader as we move on to other tasks.

4. We are restructuring from a society run by short-term considerations and rewards in favor of dealing with things in much longer-term frames.

5. In cities and states, in small organizations and subdivisions, we have rediscovered the ability to act innovatively and to achieve results -- from the bottom up.

6. We are shifting from institutional help to more self-reliance in all aspects of our lives.

7. We are discovering that the framework of representative democracy has become obsolete in an era of instantaneously shared information.

8. We are giving up our dependence on hierarchical structures in favor of information networks. This will be especially important to the business community.

9. More Americans are living in the south and west, leaving behind the old industrial cities of the north.

10. From a narrow either/or society with a limited range of personal choices, we are exploding into a free-wheeling multiple-option society.

Back in the days of antiquity, when I was a student at Ohio State in the late sixties and early seventies, social issues were paramount. Our economy hadn't yet begun to fully pay the price through inflation of the Vietnam War. Our society was still fat, happy and extravagant.

As we came through the economic wrenchings of the 70's, however, everybody found out that the party was over. Really over. Getting a job, keeping a job. These were the things that became paramount. Studies showed that the students of the mid and late seventies were more conservative. And with the tight economy, especially in agriculture of the recent years, this trend has continued.

I daresay your number one interest is your career. Getting started, getting your toe-hold in the marketplace.

From my experience, I can tell you that you already have a leg up on the situation. You are in the honors program. In being named to this program, you're already telling the marketplace that you're a little bit more motivated, a little bit more determined, a little brighter, perhaps, than some of your fellow students.

Will an honors education give you the skills you need in the workplace? It may. Being in the honors program is a great advantage. You can use this experience to help you win the job and create the career that you're working so hard to do.

Not long ago I read a book by an employment expert who recommended that students and recent graduates develop "clusters of expertise." in other words, combinations of expertise, that give them a unique advantage in the marketplace. And I know some of you are doing that. Some of you are combining agriculture and law, for example. Some of you have structured your technical and ag business program to prepare you for law school, thus ultimately giving you a unique agricultural and legal skill for the marketplace. You might be interested to know that an agricultural law center has just opened this quarter at Iowa State university. Immediately, thirty people signed up for this unusual combination or 'career cluster.'

Others of you are combining computer skills with all facets of agriculture, whether animal science, ag econ, horticulture or whatever.

Still others of you are combining agriculture with advertising.

And still others of you are combining technical agriculture with heavy course work in genetics and statistics and related areas to prepare you to take your place in the vanguard of the Biotech Revolution • • • a revolution that many futurists have written on extensively.

So will an honors education give you the hard skills that you need to get ahead? It very well may. But, it may not. But your custom-made honors program may give you something just as important as skills. It may give you curiosity and resourcefulness.

In my program, I took both a hard and soft skills route. Hard -- courses in journalism so that I could learn my trade, so to speak. But I also took independent studies in literature, criticism, music and history. Not hard core skills, but courses to satisfy my own curiosity.

How does this apply to what's happening in the marketplace? Well, in undertaking some of these areas that were not ag related, I learned that you can learn about anything, if you're interested. You can, in

Fact, self-educate.

How does this apply to the "real world" so to speak? Several years ago, our company was faced with a unique problem. Our client, Elanco Products Company, wanted us to develop a multi-image program for the U.S. Feed Grains Council. A multi-image show, as you know, is a rather spectacular and wonderful thing. Many images, music, action and so forth. They are very expensive to produce and very expensive just to put on. We knew that the initial showing of this multi-image show would be spectacular, but we also knew that the resources of the Feed Grains Council were limited; the number of times the show would be seen after that would be limited. So we went back to the drawing board. For some time, our company had had an interest in television, specifically narrowcasting or beaming messages at farmers.

As a matter of fact, we had counseled our clients and developed special reports in this area. We had studied it, read magazines, interviewed people, spent time self-educating. When this moment arrived, when we were to undertake the multi-image program, we told our client that we appreciated the assignment, but let us go back to the drawing board and think about it a bit.

We came back to them with an idea that cost them a great deal more than a multi-image show, as expensive as those are to produce, but our point in so doing was to bring our client an idea that would generate for our client many, many times more the value than a mere credit at the end of multi-image show.

Our idea was to create a television special! A national television special for national agriculture day. Our client liked the idea immediately, and we were commissioned to do the job.

The first year’s program dealt with grain exports; our second year program was a human interest story on three young people who, despite the odds, got started in farming, and wet re right now in the midst of the production for our third year show. We have applied the idea to communications opportunities for the National 4-H Council and the National Association of Realtors. We are presently producing a television special for "Private Property Week" April 8 - 14, 1984 for the National Association of Realtors, the nation’s largest trade association.

The point is, all this was made possible through self-education, the goal of the honors education. Just as you go beyond traditional curriculum to put together agriculture, law, computer, biotech and other unique combinations, so too we had to go beyond traditional public relations: news releases, feature stories, and so forth, to create a public relations concept that expanded our frontiers, and those of our clients. The television program included dimensions of public relations, but also of advertising, programming and so forth. Through this intra-disciplinary broad outlook we were able to go beyond traditional public relations to create an entirely new communications product. One that’s not only of value to agriculture but also to other industries, such as real estate.

I tell you this story to encourage you to use your time now in the honors program to be original, to be thinking, to be expanding your concepts of the areas that you will soon be working in. I also tell you this story to encourage you to take full advantage of your honors program.

How to do that?

Plan for your career. Set goals. Nothing ever happens until a goal is set.

I recently ran across the definition of a goal that I liked very much. Someone said that a goal was a dream with a deadline. So dream, plan, set deadlines.

Second, allow for some serendipity. Allow for synthetic thinking. Take an idea from area A, apply it to area B and create a whole new area, C.

Third, take an academic chance along the way. That's the only way that you can really achieve synthetic thinking. Even if you are not comfortable in humanities, take music history. If you're very literary, take a computer course. Your right brain will start to talk to your left brain. You will create new vistas, new horizons for yourself.

If you do all these things, you'll be well prepared to begin another phase of your education upon graduation from this hallowed ground. You'll be ready for a whole new set of achievements. You'll be self-educating and you will have achieved the goal of an honors education.

Thank you very much