Samford University English professor Roderick Davis encouraged graduates to ask the right questions as they head off into their post-university years. But he cautioned them that the best inquiries usually come from having enough personal involvement in a matter to know what is important to learn.
"In other words, it helps to have learned something about the subject already," he said during Commencement May 17 for Samford's Howard College of Arts and Sciences, Orlean Bullard Beeson School of Education and Professional Studies and School of the Arts. "What are the important questions to ask?"
Dr. Davis said "the value of this institution must be judged by how much it has contributed to shaping your life in ways both tangible and intangible." He added, "I hope that in four years at Samford we have encouraged you to develop an enquiring spirit that you will take with you throughout life."
The 1958 Samford graduate, current holder of the school's George Macon Award for teaching excellence, addressed an audience that included about 400 graduates and 4,000 others in Samford's Pete Hanna Center.
Also present were 38 members of Davis' his own class who returned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their graduation, the first on Samford's Lakeshore Drive campus after its 1957 move from East Lake. The group marched with graduates and faculty in the academic procession and received a rousing ovation when introduced by Samford President Andrew Westmoreland.
One of the 2008 graduates was Caroline Williams of Bristol, Tenn., the great-granddaughter of Maj. Harwell G. Davis, the Samford president who led the move to establish the Lakeshore Drive campus more than 50 years ago.
Davis, the speaker, shared a story he enjoys telling his classes at the start of each term. It involves Columbia University physicist Isidore Rabi, a Nobel Prize winner in 1944. When Rabi was asked to explain how a poor Jewish boy from New York City slums became a pioneering physicist, he said his mother made him a success.
"Instead of asking him, like other mothers, What did you learn today?,' she would inquire, Tell me, Izzy, what good questions did you ask today?'" Davis related.
Davis said that, "unfortunately, in this country when students have left the labs and libraries behind, the fearless asking of good questions in the public sphere seems to have languished a lot." He referred to the environmental problem the world faces because of the refusal to limit carbon emissions.
"There is hope if we act in time," he said. "The technology already exists today to create alternative energy that will reduce carbon emissions enough within the next decade to possibly prevent our encountering a tipping point beyond which it looks like it would be impossible to recover.
"What is lacking is for the leadership of this country to get serious about the problem, because the people they represent aren't pushing them enough to do so."
Davis closed by asking the graduates what good questions they would go out and ask today. "Make it a question that you, when you come back fifty years from now, will be pleased with your younger self for asking."