USC Gayle Garner Roski School of Art and Design 2017 Commencement Ceremony

USC Gayle Garner Roski School of Art and Design

2017 Commencement Ceremony

Remarks by Dean Erica Muhl

In December of 2016, I presented a talk on the future of education as the final keynote of the Adobe Education Exchange global webinar series. I talked about the profile of students coming to college today, about their extraordinary abilities to manage the rate of change in the world around them, and the technological and sociological factors that are driving that change. I talked about the need for education, and higher education, in particular, to adapt to a new independence in our students that is supported by an ability to influence opinion and action globally through devices that are carried in every pocket, purse, or backpack. I talked about how degree programs from here on will need to honor that independence, and empower our graduates not just to be suitable for a job, a career, or even a practice, but to take on whatever they choose with understanding, confidence, and foresight, and to continue to adapt and thrive no matter the changes in the landscape. I described in detail how those programs would use flexible models that respond to individual strengths and allow for unique pathways, that engender critical thinking skills, comfort with calculated risk, and an ability to work through even very long periods of ambiguity in search of new ideas and groundbreaking constructs. I talked about how, magically, those programs would provide an environment where every single pedagogical input could generate multiple successful creative outcomes, through a system that provided close individual attention from an interconnected and collaborative cohort of faculty mentors.


During the Q&A session at the end of the webinar, a question came in from a high school teacher here in the United States. The question was, “How do we as educators prepare our students for such programs, for such a level of independence and self-determination?” I answered very succinctly, “Put the Arts back in K-12.”


The message board lit up – no one expected that answer, and yet everyone knew intuitively it was right. Because that revolutionary new model for education that I described in so much detail has existed in the arts for decades, and in some of its aspects, for centuries.


Graduates, more than ever you are now the future. The world that thought it was doing right by pushing every student toward exceptionalism in the STEM fields and relegating the arts to whatever extracurricular activities could be managed by a family, now understands that the only immutable quality, the one that will remain relevant no matter what, is creativity. Your education, above all others, has made you impervious to obsolescence or trends. The drastic disruptions to many fields and industries, and the almost complete disappearance of others has served as a wake-up call for education. Jobs that used to be the envy of every college graduate are now outsourced digitally or directly handled by advanced technologies, and the rate of change in what we think we know, and therefore what it is reasonable to teach toward, is impossible to predict. Only one thing is certain: the ability to have and implement a great idea, and through that, to drive positive change, will never be obsolete.


For the first time since the Industrial Revolution, the world is acknowledging that it desperately needs artists, designers, makers, builders, and all that we bring to society at its core. Like nothing else, our vision, and our inherently human and humane approach to what we do, provides a basis for communication and for connection that is capable of bridging even the greatest of philosophical and cultural divides. Social practice, civic engagement, activist art – the terms are superfluous to the fact that the creative arts have served as an emblem for humanity since their beginnings, and a reminder that everything we do affects someone else. And, that we can choose to make those things that we do meaningful, and right.


In describing the power of the artist to change perception, early 20th-century painter Paul Klee said, “Art does not reproduce what we see. It makes us see.” Personally, I like even better the aphoristic warning made by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who simply said, “No artist tolerates reality.” Taken for the full scope of its meaning, that statement both attempts to explain the inherent nature of creativity, while simultaneously reminding the artists themselves of the responsibility that rests with them, precisely because of that ability to make us see.


Last night I heard USC’s Baccalaureate speaker, Dr. Deepak Chopra, say, “You can have anything you want, as long as you are willing to commit to a higher purpose.” He then illustrated his point with stories about Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela. Each of those extraordinary men gave their lives over to a higher purpose, and certainly theirs are examples to aspire to. But we can also aim much closer to Earth. A higher purpose can simply mean refusing to walk by on the other side, and stopping and reaching out your hand to help someone up.


Art can do this. Your art can do this. Your art can reach out, expose, enlighten, educate, infuriate — and make us see. As you make this final transition today from student to graduate, take a deep breath, embrace that responsibility, and fully own the strength of what you have learned, and who you have become. And, as always, continue to Fight On!