In 2011, the New American Colleges and Universities established a national award to honor the legacy of Ernest L. Boyer by recognizing an individual whose achievements in higher education exemplify Boyer’s quest for connecting theory to practice and thought to action, in and out of the classroom. The 2016 Boyer Award was presented to Cathy N. Davidson at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. The following article was adapted from the address given by the author on that occasion. A podcast of the original presentation is available atwww.aacu.org/davidson.
“Simply stated, what we have on many campuses today is a crisis of purpose.” —Ernest L. Boyer, Scholarship Reconsidered
In every myth, there’s a doorway, a gate, a portal, a river, a ladder, a mountain, a pathway. There is a threshold, and, if you are the hero, your journey requires you to cross over. It’s that simple. You start on one side, and your challenge is to make your way across to the other.
In American life—in most of modern life, worldwide—the threshold that looms largest and that defines almost everything else is the age of majority. One day you are the legal responsibility of a parent or guardian, the next you—and you alone—are legally responsible for yourself.
At seventeen years and 364 days old, your parents can tell you what to do. When you wake up the next morning, at eighteen, they cannot.
You have crossed over. Before and after.
In individual and social terms, the consequences of that crossing are so vast that they are constantly being debated in our society. How old do you have to be to drink alcohol? To be tried and executed as an adult? To go to war? To vote? Sometimes it is eighteen, sometimes twenty-one, with the exact age fiercely argued. Because it matters—and not just to you, the individual, but to your society. Your journey is a stand-in for something else, for all the life-and-death issues we grapple with as a society. That is why we can’t make up our minds about when childhood ends, when adult responsibility begins—when the torch will be passed. The journey is a stand-in for what we believe should be the future of our entire community. Your journey is our journey. How you are prepared to enter and perhaps lead a community, a generation, matters to those who have gone before you and those who will come after.
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