A few weekends ago, I experienced a moving and very timely concert on the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh campus. Performed by the UW Oshkosh Wind Ensemble and Symphonic Band and directed by Dr. Rob McWilliams, the concert, entitled “Tribute,” included a program of music written to honor and commemorate major events in the United States—events such as the Challenger tragedy, Hurricane Katrina, the 1960s civil rights movement and the assassination of JFK. No political statements were made. No one pointed fingers. The concert was simply a time to sit, reflect and be guided by the power of music where we have been and where we are headed.
If nothing else, recent events in our state have more than ever heightened awareness and solidified the consensus regarding the precious value of education. We at the University do not try to teach students what to think; rather we strive at every turn to teach them how to think. We use the power of the arts, the humanities, the sciences and the social sciences to present students with the knowledge and skills to navigate through these complicated and uncertain times. No one wants to leave our children and grandchildren in debt. Simply leaving them debt free, however, with no means to think critically, problem solve and learn is a short-sighted goal, one that may make us feel better now but leaves the future population unequipped to deal with issues that seem eternal.
Over the past couple of weeks, I also enjoyed watching over 100 students from UW Oshkosh perform in several events on campus. Among these was the comic opera Gianni Schicchi, composed by Giacomo Puccini in 1917. The audience was amused by the reaction of family members as they learn that a rich relative has died and he has bequeathed his wealth to the local church. To stop this, they work openly together and secretly alone. They collectively employ a schemer to manipulate the system to change the will. In the end, everyone gets something, but no one gets enough. No one sincerely commits to working collaboratively. I laughed at their greed and discontent, but sadly realized how real life is reflected in this fictional, exaggerated tale.
I am enormously proud of the work our art, theatre and music students accomplish on this campus. I invite the Oshkosh community to join us for the many exhibits, productions and concerts they present. Our students are our future. Certainly, we must shoulder the responsibility to pass on to them a fiscally healthy state. Equally important is our responsibility to provide them with the best opportunities to become educated, well-rounded individuals who have had the chance to critically examine the human condition through the study of cultures, science and art. And through wise foresight, we can take steps now so they don’t become the models for comic characters 100 years down the road.
John Koker, Ph.D., is dean of the College of Letters and Science at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh.