Episode 31: Higher Education - Delivering the Promise of America

President Scott Wyatt and Steve Meredith talk about higher education, America's history, and looking forward to the future.

Full Transcript

Steve Meredith: Hi again everyone, and welcome to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. I'm your host, Steve Meredith, and joining me today as usual in-studio is President Wyatt. Hi, Scott.

Scott Wyatt: Hello, Steve.

Meredith: It's a pleasure to be here with you on this beautiful fall day, and we're going to deviate just a little bit from what has become our norm recently where we have guests join us, and it's just going to be me and you for this particular discussion.  

Wyatt: Yeah, so can just kind of have fun back here.

Meredith: Yeah. [Laughs]

Wyatt: We can just have a nice time here in the studio.

Meredith: That's right. When you were inaugurated to be the president of Southern Utah University, you chose as your topic for your inaugural address "Delivering the Promise of America", higher education delivering the promise of America and that's what our conversation is going to be about today. I think most everyone that knows you or people who are listeners to our podcast regularly know that you are an attorney who became involved in higher education first through some governance things with governing boards and through the legislature where you served as a member of the Utah House—am I saying that right?

Wyatt: Right, a member of the Utah House of Representatives.

Meredith: And so, you've always had your foot in the politics of education and in the administration of education and then about oh, 12 years ago, I guess, you became the president of Snow College and that's where I met you and then in the fall of 2014, you became the president of Southern Utah University. I'm sharing this with our listeners because that's your professional arc of your career as it relates to what our discussion will be, but I think maybe fewer of our listeners know that you are also a historian. You're a history professor here at SUU, you lead an honors forum on various historical topics and you are in the process of getting an advanced degree in history because you just didn't have enough to do, right?

Wyatt: [Laughs] Well, it's probably pushing it a little bit to say I'm a historian, and I don't teach history classes, but I do have an appointment in the political science department.

Meredith: That's right, political science. I'm sorry, so I apologize to my history colleagues for impugning them in that way. [Both laugh]

Wyatt: But, yeah. I think that if I look back at the high school days, junior high school when I was kind of getting through my history classes with the least amount of effort possible, part of that was me, part of that was the teachers. I think there's a way to make history interesting, and there's a way to find it interesting for ourselves, but I'm a late-comer to history. It's been something that I've loved to spend time with, and there's a lot for us to learn from there. And a lot of times, people will say, "You know, today is one of those periods in our nation's history where there's a lot of reasons to be depressed or discouraged or anxious about the future" and the reality is, this is a great time. This is a time to be optimistic. And some would say, "You're crazy" and the answer is, "Study our history and you'll find lots of times in the past that were more troubling than today." So, there's a choice to be made and, Steve, I think that we're both kind of at the same XXX (4:41) that the choice is to be optimistic and to see the good and to not overlook the bad, to not be complacent, but to recognize that there is a lot of good. Which is one of the reasons why the inaugural address was focused on the promise of America, because the promise is still there.

Meredith: And was…I mean, the seeds for education and the importance of it were sown right from the very beginning with the Founding Fathers.

Wyatt: Right. So, you look at the Declaration of Independence, which is our founding document, and Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner, wrote the words that "It is self-evident that all men" and of course if that would have been written today, it would have been all people, but wrote that "All men are created equal, endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights." Well, it may not have been perfectly self-evident that all men were equal in 1776. There wasn't a country where they were all equal.

Meredith: Including the United States, right.

Wyatt: Including the United States, yeah. Abraham Lincoln would say in his speech in response to the Dred Scott decision that Jefferson was laying down a principle, that perfect equality was not possible in 1776, but it was a principle that he threw down that would stumble us forever. That this would be something that we would constantly be striving for, that equality, liberty, all of these noble virtues that this country had in its founding document are things that we're striving for. They weren't descriptive of who we were, they were a statement of where we were going. This is a small tangent, but as you know, the Continental Congress declared independence from Great Britain on July 2, 1776.

Meredith: That's right.

Wyatt: They declared independence that day, they published it in the newspaper that day, and John Adams wrote to Abigail on July 3, "Yesterday was the great celebration day. It's the day we declared our independence. It's going to be celebrated from now…forever with parades and fireworks and bands and all these things." And we didn't ever celebrate that day. In fact, most people are completely unaware that Independence Day was July 2.

Meredith: Missed it by that much.

Wyatt: We missed it by that much.

Meredith: Yep.

Wyatt: So, what happens on July 4 that's different? It's the day that we adopted this document that was supposed to be a document outlining the reasons for declaring independence. But Thomas Jefferson had the foresight to slip into the beginning of this document, in the midst of a revolution, amazing words. That 56 of this nation's brightest people gathered together on a hot July day in Philadelphia had the insight to throw down the standard of what we're about. And we're still seeking for it. So, it's not like we've accomplished it. We're struggling with all of these things. We struggled then, we're struggling today, we'll struggle in 50 years, but the struggle today is a…we have made progress.

Meredith: It is true that we've clearly made progress, and your XXX (8:38) is, I think, that one of the drivers of that progress has to be education generally, and specifically higher education, because it makes it so that people are exposed to different opinions, different schools of thought and so forth, but also because we simply need to be education to be able to understand our system of governance.

Wyatt: How to do it, yeah. This is…1776, we declare our independence, we find ourselves—we've already found ourselves—mostly at war, and by the time we get done, establish a Constitution, you go back and read a lot of the founders' words, you'll see that many of them were terrified of democracy. And we get caught up in this…every once in a while, somebody says, "Well, we don't have a democracy, we have a republic." We have a democracy. It's a form of democracy. We call it a representative democracy, it's not a pure direct democracy where the people are voting for every single measure. We have representatives that do it for us. Whether you call that a republic or a representative democracy or a form of democracy, it's largely the same thing. But, they were scared of creating any form of democracy because it had never worked in the past. And when it hadn't worked in the past, what followed was terrible.

Meredith: So, the tyranny of the mob then dissolves into just plain old tyranny? Or?

Wyatt: Just plain old tyranny, yeah. You create a democracy and then it kind of falls apart and somebody steps in and takes it over and you've got a tyrant. And find yourselves in a totalitarian sort of government. What they recognized too, was that it doesn't just take one dictator to take everybody's freedoms away, because you can do that through a majority. So, they created all kinds of things to protect us against some of the evils of a democracy—the tyranny of the majority and those kinds of things—but, the key to all of this, if you say for the first time in the history of the world, as they did in the Federalist Papers that Alexander Hamilton wrote, this was the first time in the history of the world that a group of people had sat down through reflection and choice rather than accident and force, and had designed a government that was run by the people. And how do you do that? Well, you've got to have a people fit to do this. People that are educated enough, and at the time, more than 90% of those that lived in America in the colonies, the British colonies, at the time, more than 90% were farmers running small farms. And the kind of knowledge one needed to be the sovereign, so to speak, to be the people that hold sovereignty, was not the kind of information that you needed to be a great farmer.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: And education was very limited back then. So, they needed to understand how to gather and sort information. They needed to understand critical thinking and inquiring analysis. They needed to know how to become informed voters. They had to be able to sort out the kinds of things that we worry about today.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: How do I take news that's coming from a hundred different directions and a million different opinions, or sometimes it just seems that there's two opinions. [Both laugh] But how do I take what appears like there's two opinions and discover that there's more than two, or how do I take a bunch of opinions and figure out which one is the best? This is hard stuff. And you don't just develop that as a tradesman or woman or as a farmer and all of these occupations that existed at the time. And so, they knew that they key was education. That we had to have an educated people. That was paramount.

Meredith: In fact, some of our earliest universities were to train clergy and to train people to legislate, right? I mean, I think that was fairly early on at Harvard and other places that you could either go there and become a clergyman or you could go there to become…I don't remember what they called it exactly, but they were training people to better understand how to serve in our government. And so, right from the very beginning, we see that civic-mindedness among our universities.

Wyatt: Well, yeah. And here's another interesting unknown fact about the beginning, and that, as you mentioned, trained clergy, that when the Constitution was adopted with the Bill of Rights, we read in the First Amendment that there will not be an established religion. But what the First Amendment says is that Congress shall not establish a religion. There was no application of the Bill of Rights to the states until after the Civil War and the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted. And so, when you go back and look at the constitutions that were created, adopted, for each of these colonies that then became states and needed a state constitution, when you read those, what you see is we had a lot of established religions in this country. There were a lot of states, most of the states, had an established religion.

Wyatt: And they had established religions because, at the time, it was a religion that…religion was the only thing that they saw, or the best means that they saw, to teach those virtues that were required to be a good citizen in a democracy. That was really important, too.

Meredith: So, the idea that the pilgrims came over on the Mayflower to escape religious persecution by the Dutch or whoever they were…is not entirely true. They came over here and established their own state religions.

Wyatt: They established their own state religions. So, what we've got is religion is one of the sources to teach us these values and virtues that we need. There wasn't a public education system at the time. There were universities, but they were limited in who could go, how many people could attend them.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: It wasn't until many years later that we really start into this public education system of public schools and public universities that are open to everybody. But that the education is so absolutely imperative, and in universities today, we would say that one of our main purposes—everyone that's a president of a university or the faculty of universities—will say, "One of our main purposes is to help prepare our students to become good participants in the democracy that we have." One of our goals is to teach them critical thinking skills, analytical skills, how to sort information, how to be a good voter. It's in our strategic plan.

Meredith: Indeed.

Wyatt: And we assess that.

Meredith: We do.

Wyatt: One of our goals is to see that our graduates vote at a higher rate than the public in general.

Meredith: And they do.

Wyatt: And they do.

Meredith: Yeah.

Wyatt: Yeah, it's part of what we're trying to do. This was so important that John Adams put right into the Constitution that he wrote, he wrote the Constitution for Massachusetts, and this is what he put in it, and it's still in their Constitution today. "It shall be the duty of legislators and magistrates in all future periods to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences and to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence. Public and private charity, industry and frugality, honestly, good humor, and all social affections." This…you can't have a democracy unless we can have good humor. Unless we can have social affections. That we can talk to somebody that has a strong political disagreement with us to try to find commonalities and where we're different and talk it through. To be able to be a good voter, to be able to read literature and understand the sciences, these things were of paramount importance and it's fun to remind all of us that that was one of those goals. Thomas Jefferson, of course, said that "A people who want to be ignorant and free want what never was and never will be." During the period of our history when slavery was spread across many of the states, it was against the law to teach a slave how to read. And the reason for that was that you teach them to read, and they want more freedom.

Meredith: That's right.

Wyatt: That they start learning and discovering and they become more, if I can use the term, they become more equal to everyone else. So, it was strictly prohibited to teach a slave to read. We want to keep somebody down, we keep education from them. We want somebody to be elevated, we give them education. We want somebody to participate in the government, we help them be educated. It was so important to them that you've got Thomas Jefferson…Thomas Jefferson was the founder of the University of Virginia.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: George Washington, who was probably the least educated of all of the Founding Fathers, donated $20,000…

Meredith: Back when that was money.

Wyatt: Back when that was a lot of money [Both laugh] to the university that now bears his name, Washington Lee University.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: These people were really focused on trying to help move education along. I think here's a…this is a really interesting point. Jefferson wrote into the Declaration of Independence, and if you read Abraham Lincoln, he would say that, quoting from Proverbs, actually, that the Declaration of Independence principles are like an apple of gold in a silver frame, and the frame is the Constitution and the Union. That the frame was made to adorn, to protect, to display, the apple of gold, not the other way around. And so, the foundational point of this country is that all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. Well, if the main purpose, according to Jefferson and Lincoln and so many others, if the main purpose of government is to protect life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, what do we mean by those terms? And I think that we all understand what life means.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: And liberty is pretty understandable. Pursuit of happiness—what do we mean when we say the pursuit of happiness? Jefferson is drawing from words that were written by Locke, and Locke used the word "property" and Jefferson changed it to "happiness". From "life, liberty, and property" to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Nobody's going to guarantee anything, but we are all guaranteed the right to pursue it. And if you read David McCullough, he gives us a great definition of what the Founders thought happiness meant. He said that, "Happiness to these 56 people that adopted the Declaration of Independence was education and the love of learning. The freedom to think for oneself." This great thing that happens when we become an educated person. Aristotle might have said something like human flourishing. IT's this greatness, this depth of understanding and the freedom that we have when we can think and act and be intelligent and read and look at a mountain and have some idea of how it was formed and listen to a Shakespeare play and try to understand it.

Meredith: [Laughs]

Wyatt: I didn't say, "Understand it", I said, "Try."

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: But those are the kinds of things. This then becomes almost a circular logic stream, that the government was formed so that we could enjoy the pursuit of happiness, which was meant to be to live an educated life. And an educated life was critically important to maintain this government that's purpose was to protect our rights to live an educated life. And it just keeps going in a circle. And the more educated we get…the more educated we get as a country the better off we are. The further we are along on our pursuit of happiness—there's been a lot of studies done about this—my mother was a very happy person and she didn't finish a bachelor's degree, but on average, people with a bachelor's degree are happier than people that aren't. People with a bachelor's degree are going to live longer. They report higher levels of health, they're more likely to provide service, which is one of those sources of a happy, fulfilling life. If they're…these kinds of things that and education brings does, in fact, help us in our pursuit of being happy people, and they do result in that. We've talked about this before, Steve, the return on investment of education.

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: But it all ties back into the purpose of our country, and how do we sustain it and how do we make it better?

Meredith: So, one third of the golden apple that Lincoln refers to is directly related to education, generally, and higher education in our case? How are we doing?

Wyatt: Yeah, probably more than a third.

Meredith: Yeah, well, I'm just thinking life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, but you're right, I'm sure there are elements in the other two as well.

Wyatt: Yeah. How are we doing? Well, we're not doing as well as we should.

Meredith: From a purely educational standpoint, I've been surprised by that. Because I, as you suggest, I have an interest in history as well, and because of that, I paid attention in seventh grade and the other places where you learn that stuff…I'm always surprised, and this is not in any way meant as necessarily a criticism, but I'm surprised at how many gaps there are in the knowledge of people about our actual form of government. About the role of the Electoral College, for example, that we had talked about previously, or how things actually get done or get made in the United States. How the Constitution is amended, how that stuff can be done…it's almost as though, as you go back and read those things—which I think a number of people have done in light of recent political events in the United States—they go back to the founding documents and they say, "Wait, how did this happen?" And it's almost a very real sense that the founding documents in the United Sates are meant to put a break on the whims on change. That it's harder to amend the Constitution than to just have a popular vote, for example, right? There are processes that you have to go through because the idea is that it should be overwhelmingly important to an overwhelming number of Americans to get it done.

Wyatt: Right.

Meredith: Rather than a mere plurality (27:13), right?

Wyatt: We're becoming a bit tribal or polarized, and that in and of itself discourages some people from being involved. And when people run or become a nominee to the Supreme Court or something, they just get attacked by the other side. All those things have a tendency to discourage people, and we have busy lives and some just choose not to be engaged with it. But, to the extent that we can become engaged in politics, become well informed, vote, we are, in fact, securing this country's promise and passing it on. It might have been sometime in our past that people who lived in America were among the most educated people in the world. It's not that way today. There are a lot of countries where there's a higher percentage of their population that get a higher education. This is one of our reasons why we've created this collaboration with Southwest Tech to make sure that everybody understands that there are lots of opportunities to become educated, and everyone should find what works best for them. But along the way, we need to make sure that we're learning something about history and something about literature and something about the arts so that we have a broad education that helps us find what we have in common with people that may seem different at first glance, because we are one country. One out of many.

Meredith: It's a very interesting subject, because, as you point out, it not only strikes right at the heart of what we're about, but it also strikes right at the very core fabric of what it means to be an American.

Wyatt: Yeah. We have students at Southern Utah University from more than 60 countries, and I think that despite some of our challenges here, it is still seen around the world that a higher education in America is the gold standard. 56 countries, that's a lot. When I visit some of the countries where we have partnerships, you don't see any what I might describe as international students at their schools. They just have local people, those that grew up in the vicinity of the school or something like that. But this business that we're in, this business of education, is a grand business. It is, in fact, teaching people to become employable, to make more money, to become independent, to take care of their families or themselves. It is, in fact, teaching people to be more healthy, to have a more meaningful life, there's a long list. But I don't know that any of them exceed in importance the training that occurs to help people become active participants in our form of democracy. Because it's that democracy that protects life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And so many people who don't know history and haven't traveled a lot have no concept of this.

Meredith: No, they really don't.

Wyatt: There's just no…you really don't…

Meredith: Travel does a lot of things.

Wyatt: Travel does a lot and so does reading.

Meredith: It does.

Wyatt: Study what's been going on around the world. We have so much to be grateful for.

Meredith: We do.

Wyatt: So much to be…and we have so much to be grateful for that we're engaged in this industry, and for those that can come back and finish a degree, we would urge you to do it, and for those that can't, read. And many of you are doing that, you know. Many people are doing that. My mother, who never graduated from college, towards the latter years of her life would read more than a hundred books a year.

Meredith: Wow.

Wyatt: She just read and read and read. And was really teaching herself a lot and came to understand a great deal through that process. But that's why we're here. We're here to progress.

Meredith: Well, we're going to continue that book club part of our…for this very reason, because we think it's so important. [Both laugh]

Wyatt: Right. That's right. Southern Utah University is actively engaged, focused, on delivering the promise of America. And we see the promise of America, as we have been discussing, equality, liberty, life, pursuit of happiness, the chance to think for oneself, to have that freedom. The chance to be able to become independent and have a job and have leisure time enough to continue learning. Learning lives forever, that's our motto.

Meredith: You've been listening to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. Thanks for joining us, we look forward to talking with you again. Bye bye.