President-elect Ryan talks about life’s essential questions at Virginia Festival of the Book

James E. Ryan talked about his New York Times Bestseller, “Wait, What? And Life's Other Essential Questions”


Ryan's book celebrates the art of asking good questions, which spark curiosity and generate deeper understandings between people.

Xieyang Qiao | Cavalier Daily

President-elect James E. Ryan had an open conversation with the Charlottesville community Saturday at the Paramount Theater about his New York Times Bestseller, “Wait, What? And Life's Other Essential Questions.” The event was a part of the 2018 Virginia Festival of the Book which is organized by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities to promote literature and reading and bring together writers and readers.

Ryan will succeed Teresa Sullivan as the University's ninth president in August. Ryan earned his law degree from the University in 1992 at the top of his class and served on the School of Law faculty for 15 years. He is currently dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

“Wait What? And Life's Other Essential Questions” is based on Ryan’s popular commencement address to the 2016 graduates of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The book celebrates the art of asking good questions, which spark curiosity and generate deeper understandings between people.

During his speech, Ryan talked about his experiences writing the book and how it differed from his previous academic practices.

“The hardest part was to think about what kind of book it would be,” Ryan said. “I have written academic books, which took me four to five years to complete. I asked the editor if the book is going to be a standard conversation at a dinner party and he said yes. Then I just started to think about stories and the writing turned out to be easy and joyful.”

After writing the book, Ryan said he received emails and letters from people across all walks of life, telling him how the book had positively impacted them in one way or another. 

“Teachers talked about how they used the book in class,” Ryan said. “I have received emails from pulpits who talked about how they used the book in sermons. Business executives used the book to organize retreats. An educational test service asked me if they could use a passage from the book for a standard test. I am heartily grateful to have the opportunity to do that. It made me realize that there are all sorts of ways to help people.”

Ryan also talked about his vision for the University and the value of communication and creative thinking skills as technology advances and replaces certain careers. He emphasized the importance of combining liberal arts education with a career-driven focus.

“Communication skills and the creativity of being able to think outside the box are the kind of skills that are difficult to replicate through automation and are unlikely to become irrelevant,” Ryan said. “I am a huge believer in liberal arts education but I also think that it is not incompatible with a focus on business education, for example.”

Like all communities, Charlottesville has its low points and high points, Ryan said. Considering the tragic event that happened in August when white nationalists hosted the fatal Unite the Right rally in downtown Charlottesville, Ryan said it is important for the University to collaborate with the larger Charlottesville community through honest conversations and direct collaborations.

“When I think about U.Va. in its surrounding community, it seems to me that we should be honest about both the past and the present, recognize where there have been great gains and where there haven’t and think about how U.Va. can make Charlottesville a better place and Charlottesville can make U.Va. a better place,” Ryan said.

Meg Gould, project coordinator at the University Division of Student Affairs who attended the event, said she was excited by Ryan’s academic perspectives. 

“I am thrilled that Jim Ryan is enthusiastic about liberal arts education and the benefits of that to the future career choices across a broad spectrum,” Gould said. “I was also encouraged that he is an athlete and [takes] physical education seriously.”  

First-year College student Charles Hurt said he appreciated how Ryan will live on the Lawn in Pavilion VIII for the beginning of his term while Carr’s Hill, the University president’s traditional residence, undergoes a renovation.

“I am excited to see what changes President Ryan will bring to the community,” Hurt said. “Today’s event was a great way to get to know President Ryan a little bit and his vision for the University going forward.”   

The 2018 Virginia Festival of the Book focused in particular on the topics of social and racial justice, which sparked debates locally and nationally. Sarah Lawson, assistant director for the Virginia Center for the Book, said in an email to The Cavalier Daily this year’s festival also stressed inclusiveness by featuring award-winning guest speakers from all over the world, regardless of ethnicity, gender and sexuality.

“This year marks the 24th annual Virginia Festival of the Book, which takes place over five days each March in Charlottesville and Albemarle County,” Lawson said. “Each year's Festival features hundreds of authors, illustrators, and publishing professionals in free programs for 

readers of all ages and reading interests.”

Lawson said Ryan’s book encouraged the reader to question the assumptions that each of us make everyday. These self-inquiries are more important now than ever before, Lawson said, especially in regards to the violence happened in Charlottesville last year.

“Even before James Ryan was announced as the incoming President of UVA, we knew that we wanted to find a way to feature his inspiring book in this year's Festival,” Lawson said. 

Matthew Gibson, executive director of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, said the Saturday event also allowed the public to become more familiar with the president-elect of the University. 

“It is a great way for President Ryan to introduce himself to the community,” Gibson said. “It is his first public event within the Charlottesville community.”

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