Skip to main content

Convocation 2010: Remarks of Alumni Council Award Recipient Charles "Doc" Dey

Thank you, Dr. Hirsch, for that generous introduction.

Having known many outstanding educators who might more deservedly be standing here, gives me pause. But I'm not about to begin these remarks with, "You've made a mistake!"

In truth, I am delighted, and humbled, to be in this distinguished company. As a college sophomore in 1950, contemplating a career in education, I could not have conceived of such a moment. Any inkling that I might be so honored would have been beyond my comprehension.

That I am standing here today is due, in no small measure, to the wonderful teachers - formal and informal - I have had in my own life, and to the support I have been given by family, most especially my beloved wife of 54 years, Phoebe.

Because of how seriously I take all of you, and because in these few minutes I want to engage you as personally as I know how, I hope you will forgive my speaking in the first person.

When I told my mother that I was going to be a public school teacher, she said, "Well, you won't make any money." With 20-year-old naivete, I replied, "Money's not important." She paused, her eyes in the distance, then softly, "You'll find out."

The next 60 years have been all about finding out, but in ways neither my mother nor I could ever have anticipated.

And for you, ready or not, in the decades ahead, your learning curve will be all about finding out. If not, you're in the wrong profession. The saddest sight in the American educational tableau is educators who have stopped learning, who are no longer finding out -- in ways that excite young people, or challenge conventional wisdom.

In 1952, my "finding out" at the Ed School was interrupted by the Korean War. I left just prior to first semester exams. The Statistics professor never found out I had not a clue about sorting coefficients from correlations. Fortunately, upon my return 5 years later, a young curriculum counselor, who looked like a high school senior, generously granted degree credit for naval service and Andover teaching. Exquisite judgment by Ted Sizer!

In fact, naval service and Andover were great teachers. The first black officer assigned to our ship boarded in Italy. What I recall most vividly was the impact on the wardroom mess stewards, the only other blacks on our 1500-man heavy cruiser. In their eyes, seeing gold on black, first, disbelief, then, palpable pride.

While in the Mediterranean, going ashore with that Ensign was never a problem; only in Norfolk, Va., our home port. In a movie theater, he had to sit in the balcony. It was then I began to understand how segregation stole from both of us.

At Andover, my finding out began with observation of my Department Chairman's eight o'clock English History class - where I witnessed focused, challenging, lively exchange - teaching as art. Two hours later, he observed my hesitant, obviously nervous, semi-chaotic struggle in front of a similar class. In the post-class review, no beating around the bush, "Charley, define your terms!"

Finding out could be deflating. When the University of Edinburgh don heard my field was US History, he was dismissive, "You have no history, it's all current events." Relatively speaking, of course, he was right.

Closer to home, in the 60's, some college students were equally dismissive of deans. Lecturing me on pollution coming from the Dartmouth College heating plant, one undergraduate was very convincing --- until his final, clinching argument; "The trouble with all you old guys (I was 31!) is that you're all shine on the outside and rust on the inside."

Peace Corps director, Sargent Shriver, was more welcoming. Convinced that college deans were just what he needed to ride herd on the first volunteers, he assigned the Dey family to Southern Luzon in the Philippines. Working in a rural foreign culture brought a different kind of finding out. The reality of being light skinned novelties in a dark skinned barrio was only the beginning.

Centuries of deference to westerners, whether Spanish or American, had institutionalized and prolonged Filipino dependence that inevitably undermined individual and national self confidence. I would never teach colonialism the same way again.

Returning home to President Kennedy's assassination and civil rights upheaval, I was asked to develop a transition program, A Better Chance, for talented, minority students to integrate private secondary schools.

For me, that was a life changing experience. Needing to understand where and what the students were coming from, my wife and I visited ABC families from New York to Alabama. With four black students from Birmingham, the return trip to Dartmouth began with a noontime eviction from a packed, then hushed, Holiday Inn dining room in Athens, Georgia. On the sidewalk, a 14 year old, sobbing, "Someday we'll throw them out." Inadequate to the moment, I mumbled something about "That's not the answer." Had I handled it better, instead of dropping out, he might have gone on to become one of the more than 10,000 students who have since completed the ABC program.

Thirty years later, still ambivalent about what we and our society had asked of those pioneer integrators, my wife and I revisited 50 ABC mid-career veterans for follow-up discussions. Whether councilwoman, bank officer, newspaper publisher, pediatrician, teacher or judge, a defining characteristic was their determination to give back.... to young people of equal promise, whose life chances remain starkly unequal.

In 1994, over lunch with Professor Lightfoot, she astutely advised, "If you write a book, Charley, choose 5 or 6 ABC graduates and concentrate on those stories." Though timelines for doctoral dissertations are sometimes flexible, I may not have the courage to petition Dr. Lightfoot for a 16 year extension!

Believing that strong public schools are essential to a healthy democratic society, throughout my career I have been preoccupied with how to harness the freedom of the private sector to public purpose.

At Dartmouth's Tucker Foundation, that exploration included education for Native Americans, a Jersey City Learning Center and a bridge program for gang leaders from Chicago's Vice Lords.

At Choate Rosemary Hall, the search included ways to broaden access, increase diversity and, in concert with the Connecticut Association of Urban Superintendents, establish a full time office of public/private collaboration. International initiatives included a faculty-student exchange with an elite Soviet math/science boarding school, a Young Science Scholars program for 11th Graders from around the globe, and assisting South African schools from Soweto to Capetown in their efforts to loosen the bonds of apartheid.

More recently, at the National Organization on Disability, our Start on Success collaboration includes school districts, universities, hospitals, businesses and highly competent Special Education teachers. Together, they have prepared over 3,000 low income, mostly minority high school students with disabilities for competitive employment.

Their accomplishments led the US Army to ask us for help with the most severely wounded from Iraq and Afghanistan. Working with these veterans and their families for three to five years in three demonstration sites -- Texas, Colorado and North Carolina -- our career specialists are discovering new ways of reconstituting broken lives. One of our veterans was invited to sit with Michelle Obama at the State of the Union Address.

If there has been an overarching theme to my career, it has been faith in the promise of our society, however flawed.

In his The Disuniting of America, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. made the point that large numbers of estranged citizens outside the mainstream increasingly threaten the very idea of an overarching American nationality. "It is the bonds of adhesion that make us a nation rather than an irascible collection of unaffiliated groups," he wrote. "The only way we have been successful in making a federal, multi-ethnic state work is by giving diverse peoples compelling reasons to see themselves as part of the same nation."

For every person in our society who feels alienated, unengaged, unloved, whatever the reasons, we as a nation are weaker, and all of us, collectively, are at greater risk. On the other hand, to the extent that individuals have hope, however difficult their lives, to that extent, all of us can be more optimistic about our collective future.

How our national story plays out will depend, in part, on all 685 of you. Your futures represent some 30,000 working years. As you invest those years in the unfinished business of our society, you become the bearers of hope.

A glorious reality of our profession is that it's ever evolving with ever changing students and cultures. Sharing in that journey is a unique privilege. Your Ed School experience is now part of your lifelong scaffolding - rungs that will serve you well in the years ahead.

Someday, one of you, proudly and deservedly, will be standing in my place, sharing with your successors the hard won "finding outs" of your journey. And though I may not be present, with boundless enthusiasm from afar, I will be sending accolades and admiration for all that you and your fellow members of the Class of 2010 will have made possible -- for so many others.

You can count on it, I promise.


The latest research, perspectives, and highlights from the Harvard Graduate School of Education

Related Articles