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Lisa Smulyan '76 - Baccalaureate

I am having a little difficulty today standing here in front of you as a representative of an institution that feels like it sometimes struggles to hear and see all of its students. So I want to start today by saying, I see you, in all of your complexities. I hear you, in your celebrations, your pleas for justice, and your concerns about equity for all. And I want to celebrate you, your accomplishments, your passion and your willingness to engage in the hard work of the world. I choose to celebrate you today. And I speak to you today as myself, sharing my reflections on this space we share and the work we have done and have yet to do.


One of the best aspects of Baccalaureate is its quietness. I don’t lead a very quiet life, and the chance to stand here and take a few moments to talk with you about our time at Swarthmore feels like a gift. You and I are both leaving Swarthmore, you because you probably can’t afford to stay even if you wanted to, and me because I have decided to retire this year. Given that Baccalaureate is meant to be a time of reflection, and because I am an educator, I want to take this time to think with you about our shared roles as learners and teachers, both here at Swarthmore and as we move into these next phases of our lives.

When I left public school teaching to take this position at Swarthmore, I felt guilty for leaving public education. I had entered the field of education to change the world, but I wasn’t sure I could change anything from Swarthmore. As I think back over my years here, I realize how much I have learned about education, where I have and have not contributed to change, and how much there still is to do. I have often had students come in to my office wanting to take a particular course that isn’t offered, or offered the semester they will be away, or more frequently, offered Tuesday/Thursday 11:20, when every other course they want to take happens. I always promise them that this is not the last time they will have an opportunity to learn – about this topic or any other. One of the authors I’ll talk about today is Robin Wall Kimmerer, and I hadn’t read her book Braiding Sweetgrass until last summer. And I can also tell you that I have learned a great deal in teaching my Comparative Education class this semester. For better or worse, you don’t stop learning once you leave Swarthmore; we are all, always, teachers and learners. So I will share some of my thoughts about teaching and learning today and invite you to reflect on some of your own experiences as we look back over our last several years and ahead to what is next.

I’m going to talk today about 4 essential elements of teaching and learning that I have grown into over the years with the help of readings, colleagues, and students. I will frame each of these strands with a particular writer whose words have guided me through my work as an educator and then share some examples to illustrate each. The four elements of teaching and learning that I will consider today are gratitude, joy, purpose and politics. Although I present the strands as separate here, I hope you will begin to see how they weave together – how together they encompass much of what I think is important in education.

The first element is Gratitude

Robin Wall Kimmerer, in Braiding Sweetgrass, explains that it is her tradition, and the tradition of the Potowatomi Nation, to open a talk with gratitude for “all of the gifts with which we are showered every day.” Kimmerer says,

For much of humans’ time on the planet ... we lived in cultures that understood the covenant of reciprocity—that for the Earth to stay in balance, for the gifts to continue to flow, we must give back in equal measure for what we are given. Our first responsibility, the most potent offering we possess, is gratitude.   

(Kimmerer, 2013b)

There is no question that, as I reflect on our time at Swarthmore, I am grateful for the people, places, and structures that allow us to be learners and teachers in this space. I am grateful to the Lenape people who stewarded this land throughout the generations and yet were driven from it by European and American colonizers. I am grateful for the current keepers of this land – the folks at the arboretum and our groundskeepers, staff and volunteers who make it a beautiful place to live and work.

If you have taken any education courses at Swarthmore – and even if you have not – you know that learning occurs in relationship. It is through interaction with others that, as Vygotsky would tell you, our learning is scaffolded to new levels of understanding, or, as Niobe Way would explain, we learn both ourselves and the world. So my gratitude extends to those people who have made it possible for us to be learners. In my case, that is my parents and sisters, who, by allowing me to be who I am have encouraged me to grow into that person. It is also my colleagues from whom I have learned so much, my daughter Amanda, and my partner Michael, and my two grandchildren, Colton and Dakota. In relationship with them I have learned a great deal – everything from how to get medallions in Fortnite to how to take the steps needed to examine my own positionality.

I want you to take a minute – and reflect on what you are grateful for in the context of your education to this moment. Then share w/ person on one side of you.

But gratitude is not just about saying thank you. It is a process of give and take or, in Kimmerer’s terms reciprocity. We take from the earth, we take from others, and we must give in return. Gratitude is a stance in the world, one that implies a willingness to learn and to take action that assures the wellbeing of others. Kimmerer tells us,

This, too, is a gift, for when we fall in love with the living world, we cannot be bystanders to its destruction. Attention becomes intention, which coalesces itself to action. (Kimmerer, 2013b)

So gratitude invites, perhaps demands, that other aspects of teaching and learning be brought into the conversation.


My second strand of teaching and learning is joy. It has taken me a while to get a handle on this concept in relation to education. Joy isn’t a word I have used a lot; it certainly wasn’t a word included in my own education or in my doctoral work in the field. But Kimmerer and Gholdy Muhammad have helped me understand the meaning of joy and explore how to bring it into my world as a teacher and learner. Both of these authors recognize the profound pain, inequities and wrongs in this world, and yet both talk about the need to experience joy in our own lives and share those opportunities with others. Kimmerer explains:

Even a wounded world is feeding us. Even a wounded world holds us, giving us moments of wonder and joy. I choose joy over despair. Not because I have my head in the sand, but because joy is what the earth gives me daily and I must return the gift.   

(Kimmerer, 2013a p. 328)

In her book, Cultivating Genius, Gholdy Muhammad develops an approach to education that she calls culturally and historically responsive teaching and learning. Her study of Black literary societies and anti-slavery and abolitionist organizations of the 19th century show us that learning encompasses a commitment to 4 aspects of every person: identity, intellect, skills and criticality. Engaging in this kind of teaching and learning allows us to cultivate the genius in all of us. In her most recent book, Unearthing Joy, Muhammad adds a fifth commitment – the cultivation of joy. Muhammad tells us that:

Joy is fun and celebratory, yet it is not only about having fun and celebrating in schools and classrooms (although that is important). It is also the embodiment of, learning of, and practice of love of self and humanity, and care for ...humanity and the earth. Joy encompasses happiness/smiles, truth, beauty, aesthetics, art, wonder, personal fulfillment, and solutions to the social problems of the world. ...When we center truths about and understandings of the sociopolitical world, students can see themselves fully, and joy can enter their lives.

(Muhammad, 2023)

My joy as a teacher and learner has come from you, in our shared moments of laughter, appreciation, and in the examination of entrenched social problems and potential solutions. When Lucia chooses as her comparative education research topic South-South partnerships in international development and education, an emerging approach for both identifying and responding to imperialistic and neoliberal trends in comparative education, I learn from her and we both grow. When Yosué tells me, “I’m going to be a dean,” I know that he has found a way to see himself as an educator in an admittedly flawed system of higher education. When Fatima and I talk over four years about her interests and passions, and I watch her move from a pre-medical program to medical anthropology and a deep concern about the well-being of south Asian women, to the decision to study law, I know that we have engaged together in a process of learning that incorporates Muhammad’s self fulfillment and understanding of the socio-political world. When DaCia creates the Swarthmore Fellows for Philly Schools program, and when Caleb ties what we are doing in class to the kind of teacher he wants to be, I know that our mutual learning emerges from the relationships we have forged and the shared creation of a context within which we can learn and generate ideas. When Gavin presents a senior project that connects his own development as a person and an activist to the history of protest at Swarthmore, I see the possibilities that can emerge from shared struggle. I have experienced joy as a teacher as I have shared moments of life with you, learned from all of you about comparative education, about adolescence, about passion, about protest, and about how to be a deeply engaged learner and teacher.

So now take a minute – and think about what brings you joy in the context of your education to this moment?- And now share that joy with person on your other side or in front or back of you.

To me, the value of joy, and of gratitude, in teaching and learning is that they give us the strength, the confidence, and the well-being that allow us to persevere, and to take on the world, as messed up as it is. So I now turn to Dewey – you knew I would – because to make the best use of this strength, we need to have a purpose, which is my third strand. Dewey provides an understanding of the value of purpose in teaching and learning.


Why is it so important to have a purpose as we teach or learn? Why not just go where the spirit or discussion moves us and enjoy the process of learning or exploring something new? In education, knowing where you want to go – having a North Star, in the words of Harriet Tubman and Bettina Love – allows us as teachers and learners to listen to and include the multiple ways of knowing we each bring to the process. A purpose allows us to take detours, to explore the richness of a conversation, and still have destination in mind. But, I would argue, not just any destination.

Purpose holds several different meanings in Dewey’s work. First, he writes frequently about the purpose or aims of education. Dewey believed strongly in education for democracy, which he saw not as a perfect, static state of being in a society but a constantly evolving process in which thoughtful individuals worked in community for social change. Schooling is central for a democracy:

The superficial explanation is that a government resting upon popular suffrage cannot be successful unless those who elect and who obey their governors are educated.... But (Dewey says) there is a deeper explanation. A democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience.

(Dewey, 1916, p. 87).

So one key purpose of education, according to Dewey, is to engage us in work that allows us to live well together. In my grandson Colton’s 6th grade class, that includes exploring the history and people of the Holocaust and other acts of genocide in a curriculum developed by Ell Rose, Swarthmore Class of 2024. In my granddaughter Dakota’s 3rd grade class, that meant a deep dive into civil rights culminating in a group play. In Pedagogy and Power: Introduction to Education it means engaging with the concept of abolitionism, the call for a new approach to education in which everyone has a rightful presence. These examples all share the purpose of helping students become members of a democratic community focused on social justice.

Dewey also described purpose as the way in which we organize student experience when we teach. Purpose begins with the students’ interests, an outgrowth of existing conditions in the students’ world, which means that a teacher has to be an active observer of both learners and the larger society within which we live. While Dewey believes that students do need to learn existing bodies of knowledge, he argues that we help students reach those bodies of knowledge through a process that begins with students’ experience and engages them in a sequence that allows them to learn to question, to observe, to analyze, and to draw on that knowledge as they learn. The classroom, itself, must become a working microcosm of the society for which we aim; the practice of education in the moment must mirror the goals of the community we want in the future. If we want students to be problem solvers, to care about others, to work collaboratively when they leave school, we need to provide the opportunities to engage in those practices in each educational setting.

Dewey points out that while we must always teach with a purpose in mind, that purpose is never static. He says, “Every end becomes a means of carrying activity further as soon as it is achieved” (Dewey, 1916, p. 111). That is what, in my family, we call a yay-boo story. Yay – each accomplished purpose shows us the next set of steps. We can achieve more and more toward our ultimate goals and purpose. But, boo – we are never done learning and changing our society.

So what I continue to learn from Dewey about teaching and learning is that these are social acts, accomplished in a community of teachers and learners. The purpose of this work is to engage in the processes, first in the small scale of the classroom and sooner rather than later within the broader global society, of observing and acting on the conditions that need to be changed.

(Think about what your purposes have been as a learner? What new goals have emerged for you during your time at Swarthmore?)

Dewey, however, was a relatively well-positioned white man; in his world you had the luxury of “tinkering toward utopia.” To some extent, he assumed a just world in which democratic practice would allow us to achieve equality and freedom. But that isn’t always the case. Something I have always known about education, and want to leave you with today, is that all education is political. Gratitude, joy and purpose do not presume an acceptance of the status quo. Rather, engaging in teaching and learning is a political act, whether you acknowledge it or not. And acknowledging it is, I would argue, a responsibility and a power that we all share.

So my fourth key element in the field is the Political nature of education

When I left Swarthmore I became a middle and high school teacher, and, as I said, my goal was to change the world. Twenty years later, I did a longitudinal study of Swarthmore women, about half of whom chose to become doctors and the other half of whom entered education. Those teachers, too, wanted to change the world through teaching. Ten years after graduating, one told me:

...teaching is one of the most powerful things I can do. That is the way to change people. And to get people to change their world. And I think that that still continues to be my goal. And I still see education as one of the few ways - education even in the broader sense than what happens in schools, even though what I want to do is in school - I still see it is as that. I still see my goal as getting people to become more critically conscious, to create a space for rational critical discourse.

As I think about my own goals, and the goals alums like Katie who continue to choose to teach, I wonder: who do we think we are? What makes us think we have this power to change the world through education?

We know, those of us who choose to teach and those of us who learn with our eyes and ears opened through gratitude, joy and purpose, we know, that every act within the field of education is a political act. What we do and don’t choose to teach, how we organize our classroom processes, where we do and do not hold our class meetings – every decision we make in teaching and learning represents a choice that has resonance and impact. But as Freire, my fourth and final author of the day, tells us, we need to go beyond understanding that education is a political act to understanding that education is inherently political. Why else would people close universities and bomb schools around the world?

Freire was a Brazilian educator and philosopher who believed in education as a potentially revolutionary process through which those who are oppressed in society can learn to understand, question, and fight against their own oppression. Through a process of problem posing education, teachers and students work together as equals to examine and respond to social, political and economic injustice. Because of this belief in the power inherent in learning and teaching, Freire points out that all education is political, and so it is important for each of us to know for what and for whom we are working. Freire tells us:

The comprehension of the limits of educational practice absolutely requires political clarity on the part of educators in relation to their project. It demands that the educator assumes the political nature of his/her practice. I cannot consider myself progressive if I understand school space to be something neutral ... in which students are seen only as learners of limited domains of knowledge which I will imbue with magic power. I cannot recognize the limits of the political-educative practice in which I am involved if ... I am not clear about in whose favor I work. Clarifying the question of in whose favor I practice, puts me in a ... position ... [to know] ... for what reasons I practice – that is, the dream, the type of societyon whose behalf I would like to intervene, act, and participate.

(Freire, 1998, p. 31)

Let me give you one example of Friere’s theories in action. This example operates on two different levels. One of our alums, Frances Kvietok, teaches in a university program in Peru for teachers preparing to be intercultural bilingual educators.

Many of these rising teachers have not had the opportunity to learn to speak fluently or read and write the Indigenous languages used by their own families, the languages of the students who they will soon teach. So Frances developed a program that engages these teachers in learning more about their own indigenous language and culture even as it teaches them how to teach it. That’s the first level. In one class, Francis asked the teachers to describe a word that guided their work going forward. One of the teachers explained what the Quechua word, yachay, directly translated as knowledge, means to her. She said, “I feel that learning is not only innate in us, but that we can, we have... the capacity to be able to direct it to our objectives, to those struggles that we have. Because it is necessary to hold close why we fight, with whom, for whom, and we do that through learning.” Freire helps us understand that all of us as teachers and learners must know for what and for whom we fight, and direct our learning to those ends.

I have learned from Robin Kimmerer that gratitude leads to attention, which leads to responsibility and action. I have learned from Gholdy Muhammad to incorporate joy into my teaching and learning, knowing that when we do so, we encourage the wholeness and wellness that help us have the strength we need to move ahead in our purposes. Dewey explains that having a purpose grounds us both in the moment of teaching and learning and in our larger sense of the potential role of education in our communities and societies. And Freire helps us see that assuming the political nature of our work, and knowing in whose favor and for what reasons we teach and learn, makes us aware of how we are always, consciously or unconsciously, embedded in a movement toward the type of society we want to see. Gratitude, joy, purpose and politics weave together to create an approach to teaching and learning, a framework for education, that has characterized my own journey before and during my time at Swarthmore, and I hope will continue to guide me going forward.

I hope that Swarthmore has helped you find gratitude, joy, purpose, and a political stance. We will all change the world in different ways, but we are all, always, teachers and learners. And, as Gholdy Muhammad said to us, “I want to give you flowers every day. I want to sing and dance with you. And rejoice in your genius and joy.”



Dewey, J. (1916) Democracy and Education. NY: Free Press.

Freire, P. (1985) The Politics of Education. Massachusetts: Bergin and Garvey.

Kimmerer, R. W. (2013a) Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions.

Kimmerer, R. W. (2013b) Returning the Gift. Center for Humans and Nature.

Muhammad, Gholdy. (2023) Unearthing Joy : A Guide to Culturally and Historically Responsive Teaching and Learning. New York, NY: Scholastic Inc.