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Faculty Forum Papers



Gordon Matzke
OSU Faculty Senate

September 2000
This is a slightly revised version of an address presented University Day, September 18, 2000. It was highly acclaimed by those present and has been widely requested by members of the University community.

University Day Address


"All I Really Need to Know I Did Not Learn in Kindergarten"

Gordon Matzke, Faculty Senate President

Every once in awhile, my imagination is aroused by an author's clever choice of book title. Robert Fulghum's 1993 title "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten" helped me organize my thoughts for today.

It must be the title that got me started, because I've never read the book. Rather than read the book, I borrowed a technique from the 21st Century student and "surfed the web" in search of a "Cliff notes version" of the book's content. At AMAZON.COM, I found a description of the book that read:

"Most of what I really need to know about how to live and what to do and how to be, I learned in kindergarten. Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate school mountain, but there in the sand pile at Sunday School."

(As the major professor of 53 completed graduate students, I was starting to see this book as a threat to my career – but I persevered nevertheless.) The author continued:

"These are the things I learned:

Share everything. Play fair. Don't hit people.
Put things back where you found them.
Clean up your own mess. Don't take things that aren't yours.
Say you're sorry when you hurt somebody. Wash your hands before you eat.
Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
Live a balanced life. Take a nap every afternoon.
When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together."

As a professor, I have a vested interest in suggesting that this book's author must have missed something. After all, he just buried the entire enterprise of higher education in the sandpile at Sunday School. Needing help with my critique of Fulghum's thesis, I turned to the readers' book reviews published on

At first I found nothing but rave reviews filled with comments like:
"This book is a necessity for anyone's life."
"It made me laugh, cry, and think."
"This book cheers me up when I am blue... brings me back to earth when I am off in space."

Suspecting there would be a few cynics somewhere, I pursued my quest until they emerged from the digital darkness. The first critic was somewhat equivocal when he said:
"Some people need more intellectual stimulation, and if you're that type, pick up Kant, Nietsche, or Carlyle. For those of you who want a simple, easy laugh, grab this book."

A series of critiques were notable for their nastiness:
"Sheep would be insulted by this stupidity."
"Ugh. Drivel. (It's ...) much like watching your neighbor's Nebraska vacation slide show."
"Fulghum was quite correct in stating that all he needed to know he learned in kindergarten. From his writing I would wonder if he made it past 3rd grade."
One reviewer took exception to Fulghum's basic content by writing: "During the twelve minutes it took me to read this in the thrift shop, I found several statements that are of dubious worth.
Milk and cookies are not good for the large number of people who suffer from lactose intolerance and struggle with obesity.
Flushing five valuable gallons of potable water each time you use a toilet is not necessary or recommended in every situation.
Taking naps in the afternoon can disrupt one's sleep pattern at night and is hardly recommended for young, healthy adults."
After reading these criticisms, I was tempted to borrow a phrase from a colleague who summed up his evaluation of a particularly disappointing student thesis with the comment: "Another good title -- wasted!"

It is not my purpose to provide additional critique of a book I haven't read. Rather, I'd like to change the title with the addition of a single word and use it as a mirror against which to examine a few snippets from my personal life history. Drawing from this personal history, I hope to demonstrate the importance of higher education's unique role in the transformation of student lives. Finally, I'd like to suggest there is an important message for our collective decision making here at OSU because "All I Really Need to Know I Did Not Learn in Kindergarten".

Each of us has a personal life history encapsulating individually unique intellectual pilgrimages from birth to the present. To help you understand my message for today, I'm going to ask you to remember a few elements of my personal circumstances. They are as follows:
A. I'm the Faculty Senate President; that's why I'm up here, rather than out there. But that's not important.

B. More important is that I'm a Professor of Geography, and an Africanist.

C. I was born and raised in a small town in Minnesota that we viewed at the time as both ethnically diverse, and sometimes polarized. Germans on the west end, Poles on the east end, with Swedes and Norwegians scattered about the landscape of surrounding farmlands. People of non-European ancestry were nowhere to be seen.

D. In my direct ancestral lineage, no one had graduated from college.
1. My parents started a family as teenagers and supported their five kids with a small concrete business, so when I was in kindergarten, and in the sand pile at Sunday School my role models were White people wearing blue collars who worked in the construction trades.

2. My oldest brother was a truck driver delivering concrete blocks;

3. My second brother was a carpenter;

4. My lone sister was a telephone operator until she eloped with a tool and die maker from the wrong end of town and escaped to Texas to avoid condemnation.

5. While toying with the idea of becoming a brick mason, Matzke child number four (Gordon) was called into the kitchen one day to hear his father say: "I think a Matzke can graduate from college and I've decided that you are the one to do it."
E. From that day to the present, I joined many thousands of laboratory rats used in college psychology experiments aimed at assessing the hypothesis that behavior can change through directed learning. I'd like to suggest some learning is possible, even for postdoctoral kindergarten graduates such as me.
My learning took a huge leap forward when I checked into a university dormitory and found myself alone in an elevator staring face-to-face at a guy who clearly didn't come from the west end of my hometown, nor did he come from the east end, nor even the surrounding farmlands populated by Swedes and Norwegians. Wearing clothes unlike anything I'd ever seen before, his funny looking hat exposed tightly kinked black hair melding into black skin.

Having just returned from a trip to the cowboy West, I thought I'd make the first move by saying: "Howdy" and was surprised to get a strange reply: "Karibu". Now, all of the Swahili speakers in the audience (wherever they are) will immediately recognize this as a friendly exchange commonly heard in East Africa. As one approaches someone else's private quarters, the interloper says: "Hodi" (Hello -- I'm here!) and the resident responds "Karibu" (Come closer – you're welcome!")

In spite of an entire year spent in Kindergarten, and many more years of religious training in the sand pile at Sunday School, it wasn't until I climbed into the elevator of higher education that I, quite by accident, started "speaking in other tongues" and learning of other cultures. The benefits to my personal and professional life of this first "diversity experience" have been incalculable.

During college, my new found friend from Africa was a regular guest in my parents' home, and even now, forty years later, visits to my boyhood home will elicit inquiries from relatives about the man who came from the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro to touch their lives via the route of postKindergarten education.

This man encouraged me to come to Africa, met me as I stepped onto African soil for the first time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Tanzania, hosted my parents when they visited his country, and helped guide me through the intricacies of the bureaucracy when I was doing a doctoral dissertation in Tanzania. It's no accident that my first child, Nicholas Joseph, carries the names of the man I met in the elevator – Nicholas Joseph Marinyo Maro.

My learning didn't stop with that first elevator ride in college. It continued when I joined a student research team examining aspects of changing neighborhoods in Detroit, Michigan. The student team members had ample opportunity to interact as we worked and lived together for an entire summer.

One of those students, Eiddie, an African-American from Los Angeles, had a profound influence on my education. I remember to this day the decidedly different lenses that Eiddie and I brought to the dinner table discussions. Whereas my travel experiences were constrained by time, money and interest, Eiddie introduced me to her family history of traveling "by the book". Although she grew up in Los Angeles, Eiddie's grandparents were in Alabama. When the family drove across the country to visit grandparents, they carried "the book" – an African-American travel guide. As she told it, this was not a guide to sights to be seen along the way. Rather, it was a guide that identified those few establishments permitting people of color to eat, sleep, or even use the restroom.

If my first college elevator ride introduced me to the educational value of international students on campus, Eiddie's travel stories taught me the importance of assembling a diversity of domestic students as well. Neither in kindergarten, nor in the sand pile at Sunday School, had I met people who shared Eiddie's experiences. Within a few weeks of meeting Eiddie, the entire cadre of internship students was marching down Detroit's Woodward Avenue behind Martin Luther King. For this group of students, the diversity among us was a life-transforming circumstance.

The experience of diversity on campus is not only important for students. From my perspective, it's equally important to faculty. Once again, I'll cite several personal examples for illustration.

Even as the pillars of legally sanctioned racial discrimination eroded in the U.S., they persisted in South Africa under a system of racial separation known to the world as apartheid. As the evils of apartheid drew increasing condemnation from the world community, South African sports teams were commonly denied access to world competitions.

Some U.S. universities took advantage of these circumstances by recruiting South African student athletes and thereby providing a backdoor route to international competition. As a new assistant professor teaching African geography at one of those backdoor universities, I found in my class two newly arrived white South Africans with firmly held views about the intellectual inferiority of nonwhites – something they had undoubtedly learned in both Kindergarten and the sandpiles at Sunday School. It was fascinating to watch their views change as an African-American pre-dental student emerged not only as the highest scoring student, but the clear intellectual leader, of the class. Their first encounter with student diversity in an American classroom challenged the very basis of everything they had been taught in Kindergarten in a much more profound way than a series of lectures from the class professor ever could. Diversity was the professor in that classroom.

The classroom diversity experience does more than just help the professor teach. It also teaches the professor. Soon after arriving at OSU, I was teaching a large introductory course. During my office hours, a very Asian looking student showed up for a visit. Being a geographer, I often try to guess students' countries of origin by looking for clues in peoples' names, accents, dress, or physical features. In this case, I was puzzled. Her name and physical features pointed straight to Japan, but her clothes and speech patterns provided no confirmation of my initial assessment. When I asked her where she came from, she said she was raised on an onion farm near Ontario, Oregon. This piqued my curiosity and forced me to learn more about Oregon history and geography.

My kindergarten experience had taught me that there were Americans here and Asians over there. It hadn't taught me that there was an Asian-American history that predated the arrival of my great grandparents on this continent. It was because of this diversity encounter at OSU that I started learning about the sad history of the American government's internment of its Japanese ancestry citizens in eastern Oregon and elsewhere in the Western U.S.

I've shared a few vignettes of my personal history for a purpose. That purpose is to illustrate some lessons I've learned that are important for O.S.U. today. For me, the lessons are as follows:

Lesson # 1. Many, if not most, students arriving on our campus will have no more experience with diverse people than I did when I left Kindergarten. We must not claim to have advanced their education if we send them home four years later in the same condition.

Lesson #2. International students, not just domestic students, contribute greatly to our ability to provide diverse educational experiences. For this reason, I view with great sadness the decade long decline in international student numbers on this campus. Today, fewer than 3 out of every 100 undergraduate students come from overseas. We need to reinvigorate our conversations about the importance of international perspectives on this campus.

Lesson #3. The benefits of a diverse campus accrue disproportionately to the majority students, not the minority. Let's not be distracted by arguments about preferential treatment of group X or Y by Affirmative Action or its surrogates. As my experience illustrates, I've benefited enormously from whatever practices were in place that brought an African to the elevator, Eiddie to Detroit, the pre-dental student to my classroom, and the onion farmer's daughter from Ontario.
These people were not with me in my Kindergarten, they weren't with me in the sandpile at Sunday School, but they came to me through the vehicle of higher education. We owe it to our students to show them : "All They Really Need to Know They Did Not Learn in Kindergarten".
Opinions expressed by authors of Faculty Forum articles are not necessarily those of the OSU Faculty or Faculty Senate.