By Anne Marie Amacher
The Catholic Messenger
DAVENPORT — More than 500 freshmen walked into the Rogalski Center ballroom Aug. 22 as faculty and staff at St. Ambrose University clapped for them to welcome them to the new academic year.
St. Ambrose University President Sister Joan Lescinski, CSJ, welcomed the new class of 2021. “We are fortunate that you are joining us and we look forward to getting to know you.”
Larry Skillin, associate professor, history department chair and co-director of the Honors Program, gave the convocation’s anchoring address: “Defeating ‘Fake News’ with the Toolkit of the Liberal Arts.”
He noted the saying that you will not always remember your graduation speaker or what that speaker said, but you will always remember your convocation speaker and treasure their message forever. The students laughed.
“OK, I have a confession to make, I just made that saying up. It is fake news,” Skillin said. He does have high hopes that the students remember his talk for three reasons.
• Affirmation. “You have just experienced a unique tradition on campus: being clapped in. And then a very strange looking guy with crazy hair got up and started talking at you and asking you to remember what he said for the rest of your lives.”
• Challenge. “I just lied to you to make a point now…. And I used the hot button term ‘fake news’ to do it.” He told students that they will dive headlong into important topics that may be controversial or challenging. They will also gain context and greater understanding, allowing them to develop independent judgments.
• Wisdom. Fake news, he noted, is a departure from wisdom. “We live in a rapidly changing media and technology environment…. We are bombarded daily with information, news, opinions and proclamations from a wide array of sources that we must constantly evaluate as we develop our understanding of the world around us and our place within it.”
Technology provides the tools to assist with understanding. “A few swipes of the finger can produce vast quantities of highly detailed information, ranging from the number of Union casualties at the Battle of Gettysburg to the escape velocity of Earth’s gravity in physics.” Smartphones don’t make a college education obsolete. “Actually, I would argue quite the opposite.”
St. Ambrose will provide students with opportunities to gain knowledge far and above reciting facts. Referring to the Gettysburg example, he asked, “What good does it do you to know the Union casualties at Gettysburg if you don’t even know what is meant by the word casualties in this context? Where is Gettysburg? Why was that famous address given there? How does it fit with the bigger picture of the Civil War? How should it be remembered?”
“… As you know from the recent events in Charlottesville, Va., and relating to the fate of Confederate statues, these questions are more than just academic. These questions cascade from the specific to the general and the later questions do not have straightforward answers that can be gained at the push of a button. You need something more to address those questions. You need to understand context.
“And that is why you are here,” Skillin said. “You will certainly come to hear more and more about the mission and vision of our university in the course of your time here. It is a powerful and important mission. We are proud of it and want to share it with you whenever we get an opportunity.”
Students will be asked to develop a competency in the liberal arts, so he advised them not to minimize the importance of their general education requirements. “They aren’t just hurdles or impediments to your progress that you need to ‘get out of the way’ in the easiest possible way. That approach will absolutely shortchange the enrichment of your life that is so critical to our mission here.”
A liberal arts education is like a toolbox, Skillin said. It isn’t always easy to predict which tool a student will need at any time. It’s best to have wide-ranging tools. “In short, take advantage of every opportunity you have to develop your own liberal arts toolkit for facing life. The world can be a frightening and challenging place filled with economic anxiety, false information, violence, social unrest, chaotic political situations and any number of other challenges. That is the bad news. The good news is that the modern world also offers wide opportunities, joy, love, reconciliation and the fruits of progress and expansion.
“With your St. Ambrose education, and a heart seeking social justice, and service, the toolkit of skills you develop in the liberal arts will give you a greater chance of success in leading the kind of life that is enriched and enriching of others. May God bless you all in that endeavor.”
Bishop Thomas Zinkula gave a blessing to the students following the convocation talk.