Use UND’s flame to light your imagination

Think of imagination as the greatest gift of all, said Kathy Gershman, UND professor emerita, to graduates at Winter Commencement

Kathy Gershman delivers the Winter Commencement address at the Professional and Graduate Degrees Ceremony, Dec. 16, 2021. Photo by Mike Hess/UND Today.

Editor’s note: The following is the commencement address delivered by Kathy Gershman, professor emerita of Educational Foundations and Research at UND, at Thursday’s Winter Commencement ceremony for professional and graduate students. 

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Thank you, President Armacost, for your kind invitation to speak today.

Like about every person up here – and out there – l spent a lot of time in graduate school. I was in no rush to finish. At my graduation, my brother and sisters gave me a big fancy, wrapped box that turned out to be a collection of job ads. Their card said “NOW will you go to work?”

Well I did, for a long time. Teaching at the University of North Dakota was a great privilege. And fun! Sometimes I would get home and tell my husband “we had such a good class tonight. I honestly would do this job for nothing.” Then he’d say, “Hmmmm. OK, there are a few people voting on the state budget who seem to think you should.”

The courses in our Department of Educational Foundations and Research were a blend of the old and new. The Foundations courses kept us studying the great thinkers and social issues that framed the study of Education. And Research courses have us searching for ways to keep pedagogy moving in a progressive direction, to keep up with a changing society.

So thinking about that – Foundations and Research, the old and new – brings me to the restoration of the old Presidents’ Residence on campus, just as you new graduates head out into the world. I am not saying that looking out at you puts me in mind of an old building, but I might say something like that in just a second.

A generous gift from Hal, ’66, and Kathy Gershman has transformed the original president’s home on campus for use as a center for graduate students. The photo above was taken shortly before the renovations started. Image courtesy of Korrie Wenzel, Grand Forks Herald.

The old Oxford House had plenty of both charm and tradition. The house was built in 1902 for $20,000. Webster Merrifield was president at the time. There were five bedrooms on the second floor, one bathroom and a ballroom on the third. In 1954, the last of the four presidents to live there, President West, retired. And then the house became a dormitory, then the Art Department, and from 1991 to 2012, the home of the Alumni Association for 31 years. By the time the decision was made to reclaim and renovate the president’s residence, the old house was 109 years old.

Over the past three or so years my husband and I worked with the university to bring it back. After so many varied uses and then sitting totally empty for about seven years after that, the “charm of tradition” was diminishing by the month (in inverse relation to the cost of reviving it). The second-story porch was hanging off and the stately front columns were hollow and rotting from the inside.

But in a case of hope triumphing over experience, we set about repurposing it. Now the old residence has a new foundation, basement, roof, staircases, elevator, back porch, patio, kitchens, director’s office, wallpaper and upholstery. What was once one bathroom became four; two of the upstairs bedrooms became a roomier elevator; and the three other bedrooms became meeting rooms, all tricked-out with technology for far-ranging collaborative work and study spaces for individual study. Finally, we repaired the antique grandfather clock and even tuned the old piano.

So how is renovating an old house like getting a graduate education? Because you, new graduates, now have been repurposed. To me, learning is always amenable to continual review and reuse. There is an old expression, “Education is what remains after you have forgotten everything you learned in school.”

Photo by Mike Hess/UND Today.

As a former high school teacher, I find that a teeny bit cynical. I prefer to think of it this way: after you have forgotten what we call inert ideas, or inactive ideas that are just received in the mind without being used, or tested or refreshed, what remains – and it is the greatest gift of all – is imagination.

Einstein famously said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”

A university imparts information, but ideally we would impart it in an atmosphere of exciting, imaginative consideration. That is what will transform information into knowledge. With imagination, a fact is no longer a bare fact. It is no longer a burden on the memory. It is instead, invested with all its possibilities. Another great thinker, Whitehead, was also keen to give credit to imagination, writing that it is, “the poet of our dreams, and the architect of our purposes.”

More than 2,000 years ago the ancient Greeks symbolized learning by the image of a torch to be passed from hand to hand, down the generations. Even the old expression, “to fire up the imagination” refers to a torch. That lighted torch is the logo of the University of North Dakota. It is in fact, the symbol of the imagination.

So today, having finished your graduate degree you might have an odd combination of feelings: Exultation that you are done, and a faint unease that your learning is unfinished.

This faint unease actually signals something very healthy. It is the realization that you now have to throw ideas you learned into new combinations. The so-called “facts” you learned are not always worthy of certainty! You can see more sides to a story; you take more into account. To me it means that you have become more tolerant of ambiguity. This is good!

You look essentially the same on the outside, but you have been repurposed. At the risk of being sent to rhetoric jail for torturing a metaphor, I might say, you are like an old presidents’ residence, now become: a Graduate Center. What goes on inside you should be a habit of mind we call imaginative thought, if we have done our job. You are energized by the opportunity to not only seek new answers to questions, but to ask new questions.

We really need some fresh questions. That’s where your imagination will be put to its most noble use.

So, congratulations on your excellent accomplishment! All of us here salute the hard work that brought you to this moment. And we’re counting on you.

Good luck!