This distinctive issue of Dickinson Magazine takes on the audacious—and probably impossible—task of identifying the 25 most “influential” Dickinsonians. There are many ways a person can exert influence—from the smallest gesture of kindness to participation in a transformational national or international event. An influential person may also include, as this list does, those who made controversial, even deplorable, decisions but who nevertheless affected the course of history. This full span of accomplishment is noteworthy.
As I perused this list (with not a little amazement at being included therein—I had nothing to do with the selection), I found myself asking what it was about a Dickinson education that allowed these individuals—and so many other alumni—to lead lives of such consequence. As Dickinsonians, we share a common foundation. Our liberal-arts education engaged us with those texts and theories that have defined human thought and action over time. It was in the classroom, and through close interaction with our professors, that we sought knowledge and learned how to think.
We expanded our knowledge and critical-thinking skills further through experience beyond the classroom. We learned to engage the world through study abroad, internships, faculty-student research, field study, community service, student government, athletics and student organizations.
Through our seamless engagement, in and out of the classroom, we developed those habits of mind—Dickinson Dimensions—that will forever distinguish us from our peers: a global sensibility; a passion to engage the world through useful service to society; the ability to seek connections among disparate thoughts and ideas; a commitment to always practicing civility; and a sense of personal accountability that acknowledges the wider impact of our individual actions.
These are the foundation of a Dickinson education—those elements that prepare us to lead globally engaged and useful lives as informed citizens. (For greater detail see my Convocation speech at www.dickinson.edu/news/convocation/2007/address2007.html.)
I spent a good deal of time reflecting on the distinctive nature of a Dickinson education while my wife Elke and I were vacationing in Germany this summer. Our annual visits to Germany are enhanced greatly by our ability to speak the language—for me, thanks to my Dickinson education. This also allows me to explore issues that are not necessarily part of the American perspective.
One of the first stops we make each summer is to a remarkable bookstore, Zum Wetzstein, in Freiburg, where I studied my junior year. (Take a look at its amazing Web site www.buch-wetzstein.de.) We seek the advice of the manager on recent thought-provoking novels, essays and poetry. This year he recommended a “hot” topic in contemporary German literature—which led me to identify a critical outcome of a Dickinson education—“self-consciousness.”
Peter Bieri, a professor of philosophy at the Freie Universitaet in Berlin who writes novels under the name Pascal Mercier, described self-consciousness this way in an interview in ZEIT magazine: “We can take no step without knowing why. If we forget the reason why we are doing something, we are at a standstill. … We can only act if we have an idea of the direction of our life, a representation of who we are.”
This, I realized, is a distinctive characteristic shared by the individuals depicted in the following pages. This “self-consciousness” or “perspective” describes the confidence and determination with which Dickinsonians engage the major issues of the day. This confident, but not arrogant, sense of self that informs why you say what you say and do what you do continues to be one of the most important objectives of a Dickinson education. We strive today to engender this in our students so that they will leave these limestone walls with a clear sense of direction and the self-assuredness to move forward with intention to advance our world.
I salute the engagement of the “influential” Dickinsonians listed in the following pages—and of the countless alumni who have also led lives of consequence. By fully employing your Dickinson education through your acquired knowledge, your intellectual skill, your experience, the application of the distinctive Dickinson Dimensions, and your “self consciousness,” you serve as stellar examples for our current students—and many others. It remains my hope that, more often than not, your Dickinson education will permit you to render decisions that history considers positively for humankind.