photo of galapagos island

In one brief sentence, Ralph W. Sockman summarizes the goal of an MSU undergraduate education – Spartans Will.

“The larger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of wonder.”

-        Ralph W. Sockman

I recently ran across this quote from Ralph Sockman, who served as the host of the NBC radio program the National Radio Pulpit from 1928 through 1962. Sockman was well-known for creating pithy sayings, and I love what Sockman says here because it encompasses much of what we hope for our students at MSU.

Growing our “island of knowledge”: First, Sockman’s quote reminds us that we each have our own “island of knowledge” — and that this island can grow and become larger. Students come to MSU to gain the knowledge (and skills) to understand how the world works, how to make it better, and how to reach their personal and professional goals. Collectively, the islands of knowledge of our faculty, staff, and students at MSU are vast, and reach to the limits of human understanding in every direction.  At MSU, students learn both inside and outside the classroom, through the curriculum and in co-curricular activities, and through interactions with faculty, staff, and fellow students. Being at MSU enables each of our students to learn, and helps students become lifelong learners committed to making their “islands of knowledge” ever larger.

The “shoreline”: Next, Sockman draws our attention to the unknown – the “shoreline” of the island of knowledge. Here Sockman prompts us to remember that growth occurs not by remaining in the center of our individual island of knowledge, where we may be the most comfortable, but by exploring the edge of our understanding, interacting with those different than us, and striving to go further than we have in the past. The metaphor speaks to the need for every student to embrace the challenge of the unknown in each course and through every activity. It also speaks to the mission of a research university – the commitment of MSU to expand the horizons of human knowledge and to find new solutions to problems.

The boundary of understanding grows ever “longer”:  Here Sockman reminds us that the task of learning never ends. Just as the perimeter of an island gets longer as the size of the island grows, so too as we individually and collectively learn more, we also understand more, gain the capacity to ask more questions, and open entirely new areas of inquiry.

“Wonder”: Finally, beyond the island of knowledge is mystery. Those who fear the mystery of the unknown respond with dogma and certainty, and they are unable to critically examine their own beliefs and expand their islands of knowledge. We make progress in understanding the mystery by doing the opposite, by taking a curious, open-minded, and playful approach to the unknown – and by embracing the wonder of what we have left to learn individually and as a species. For our students, the wonder of the unknown can, sometimes, be obscured by the everyday challenges of homework, tests, and late-night studying sessions. However, I can think of no more important wish all of us at MSU have for our students than that they embrace the wonder of their own personal unknowns, and that we give them the tools to examine these unknowns for themselves.

In this one brief sentence, Sockman summarizes the goal of an MSU undergraduate education – Spartans Will.


Feedback and suggestions, especially from the MSU community, welcome: email sekhar@msu.edu.

R. Sekhar Chivukula is the Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education and Dean of Undergraduate Studies at Michigan State University.