• August 30, 2014

On Forming Connections, Succeeding for Others, and Being Bold in Thought and Spirit: Excerpts From Graduation Speeches

Natalie Angier, science writer, at Washington and Jefferson College: In May of 1959, the physicist and novelist C.P. Snow delivered his famous lecture at the University of Cambridge on the subject of what he called "the two cultures," which was soon turned into a book of the same name. In it, Snow decried what he saw as a growing gulf between the sciences and the humanities, and their inability to speak each other's language and appreciate each other's worldview. He saw this trend as dangerous to society as well as tragically limiting to the individual mind. Snow was on target then, and remained so for the rest of the 20th century. …

When I was a college student, in the mid- to late 1970s, I studied English, physics, astronomy, and computers, too, because it was clear to me back then that computers were the future. Quite frankly, people thought I was weird, or worse yet, a dilettante. You like Chaucer and calculus? No, no, you have to choose, they said. But as far as I was concerned, science and art were equally compelling, equally valid ways of knowing, and I wanted a piece of both. …

Not only didn't art and science talk to each other, but different departments within the two warring camps didn't talk to each other. Biologists didn't talk to geologists, historians didn't talk to literary scholars. Everybody had to be a specialist. Everybody had to choose, and choose narrowly. Now, I believe, the tide is turning, and washing away the artificial boundaries between disciplines. …

If the 20th century was the century of the specialist, I argue that the 21st century has ushered in the age of the integrationist, of people who can synthesize information and insights from across many fields. … Driving this need for integrationists and intellectual emulsifiers is the nature of the problems we face, problems that have few boundaries of their own, that are, indeed, global in scope. …

Everywhere the call is out for the crossover dreamers —judges and lawyers who understand genetics to help sort through DNA evidence, policy makers who have a grasp of physics to help set guidelines for the storage of nuclear waste. I believe that the newfound fashionableness of intellectual ambidexterity bodes well for the coming decades, and for you who are about to jump into them.

After all, many of the most glorious times in history have been times of cultural synthesis. The ancient Greeks had muses for poetry, song, astronomy, and math, and those muses were all sisters. The Renaissance was a time of deep connectedness between art and science. Michelangelo was a spectacularly good anatomist, and Leonardo da Vinci devoted at least as much time to the study of optics, mathematics, and mechanics as he did to painting. The fathers of our country … were all renaissance men, who patented their own inventions and designed their own houses and drank a lot of great French wine and never stopped learning.

You, too, must never stop learning, and while you're at it, why not try reaching far afield? If you majored in business, learn something about ecology. If you studied engineering, try your hand at economics. Do it for your career, to win yourself a place in the situation room. But above all, do it for yourself.

Joseph R. Biden Jr., vice president of the United States, at Wake Forest University: Throughout the span of history … only a handful of us have been alive at times when we can truly shape history. Without question, this is one of those times, for there's not a single solitary decision confronting your generation now that doesn't yield a change from nonaction as well as action. We're either going to fundamentally revive our economy and lead the way to the 21st century, or we're going to fall behind and no longer be the leader of the free world in the 21st century. We're either going to fundamentally revamp our education system, or remain 17th in the world of graduates from college, and in the process lose our competitive edge and find it difficult to have it restored. We're either going to fundamentally change our energy policy or remain beholden to those who pose the biggest threats to our security. We're either going to revive and reverse climate change, or literally drown in our indifference. …

There's a great line in one of Yeats's poems about the first rising in Ireland. It's called "Easter Sunday, 1916." And the line is more applicable to your generation than it was to his Ireland. … And he said: "All changed, changed utterly. A terrible beauty has been born."

When I graduated, all had not changed utterly yet. Today it has. And in the last 12 to 15 years, a terrible beauty has been born. It's a different world out there than it has been at any time in the last millennium. But we have an opportunity to make it beautiful, because it is in motion. We have an opportunity to change it. But absent our leadership, it will continue to careen down the path we're going now. And that could be terrible. …

As corny as it sounds, this really is your moment. History is yours to bend.

Casey Charles, chair of the department of English at the University of Montana, to graduating English majors at the university: While I admit a B.A. in English is not necessarily the easiest entree into the boardrooms and sky boxes of America, I want to argue for the value of that nontransferability. …

Just for a second, let's not ask what good an English major is in the real world, but ponder, instead, just for fun, what good a real world is without English majors. Indulge me for a moment to think what it would be like if we did cave in to the prevailing rhetoric and reduce the English major to a degree in technical writing with subspecialties in advertising copy and business letters. Imagine, if you can, a world without literature, without creative writing. …

Maybe we need to rethink what we mean by the quality of value in our world. It strikes me that English majors today have learned not just to perpetuate the Arts and Entertainment channel, but to think deeply and critically about the role of culture and its representation in our world. Some will create, some will critique—all will be able to write, think, and question where and who we are in the 21st century. … The English major teaches the broad reading and writing skills that employers are clamoring for in an increasingly overspecialized world. We have enough data to show that most of you here today will land on your feet economically and will make a good living. … Whether you find yourself in a classroom helping students discover exactly what Pip's great expectations really were, whether you develop closing arguments or open green businesses—most of you will do well, not because you had your heart set on the gold casket, I think, but rather because you have learned to understand the way books and films and language provide us with a deeper understanding of what really enriches us as a community. Go then into this mythical real world and in the inimitable way of the English major, be valuable.

Benjamin B. Dunlap, president of Wofford College, at the college: Under normal circumstances, I would urge you graduating seniors to set out today to "save the world." But the difficulty for us all in purported end times like these is not that our eagerness to change the world is in any way curtailed, but that our capacity to do so seems so strikingly diminished. Our country is currently demoralized and riven by factions. Cynicism and corruption are rife, both at home and abroad. Our institutions are beleaguered and short of cash. And we as individuals feel helpless to stem a tide that seems to be sweeping us all irresistibly towards disaster. …

On the other hand, when I attended the TED Conference out in Monterey year before last, one of its presenters was the inventor Dean Kamen. He described a trip he had made to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, visiting with those who'd returned from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan minus one or more limbs. …

He then went back to … his corporate headquarters, and, calling his top inventors and technicians together, described what he had seen. He told them he wanted to drop everything they were doing in order to develop a new prosthetic. He said he wanted the wearer of the artificial arm he had in mind to be able to reach out and pluck a grape from a plate, transferring it to his mouth without breaking its skin. "That'll be tough," said one of his technicians, "but we can probably do it."

"No, that's not the problem," Dean Kamen said. "I want him to feel the grape."

"But that's impossible!"

"Right," Kamen replied. "So let's get started."

At TED, he demonstrated his prototype. And, since that presentation, the new generation of prosthetics has become a reality, using nerve cells in the wearer's chest to generate an actual sense of touch.

That's a response to the sort of insoluble problems we face that makes me proud to be a human. If our species is doomed, let's go down with that sort of attitude. … I believe in what the indomitable spirit can achieve, even amidst disaster and certain defeat. …

My parting admonition … : "Whatsoever thou findest to thy hand, do it with all thy might." Do it because you want to. Do it because you can. Do it because, for whatever reason, you think it's worth doing. Do it because nobody lives forever. Do it because whatever you do is needed in this world. Do it because it makes you happy. Do it because one day, sooner or later, the world will come to an end, and what you did will be all you have left behind. Do it because you plan to save the world.

Herbie Hancock, jazz pianist and composer, at Bentley University's McCallum Graduate School of Business: The jazz community has prospered because of its strong bond between the master and the apprentice. The music has been passed down from one generation to the next, resulting in an intricately woven art form of inclusion. The respect I have for Miles Davis, my musical mentor, and his genius is profound. An unconventional individual, he had the most unusual talent of teaching almost exclusively through his horn and his actions. He rarely needed a lot of words to get his message across.

When I was living in New York City in the early 1960s, I had tunnel vision about jazz, as well as classical music, and did not and would not listen to any other musical art form. After joining up with Miles, I was fortunate to spend quality time at his house, and one fortuitous afternoon I saw several album jackets strewn around—James Brown, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, and even a flamenco record— and realized that Miles was open-minded about music and therefore exposed to new levels of musical possibilities, which in retrospect had a profound effect on the music I have composed until this very day. …

With this spirit, those of us hired to play in his band learned the value of our own individuality and discovered the personal gifts each of us could contribute to the ensemble. Miles demonstrated that creativity was an endless process, that each performance was a new beginning—and, of great importance to you today, what seemed like an egregious mistake at the time could actually be the germ of an inspired new piece of art, a composition often stronger than the original. However, to make that work, we had to be attuned to one another as individuals. It took patience, concentration, cooperation, and respect among the band members to make the music that changed the course of jazz and create the brilliant sounds of a team working in harmony. …

Your future depends on what you create, and my greatest hope is that over time, you will develop lives of ever-increasing value to yourself and to others. I have discovered that this is the real path toward extraordinary fulfillment and immense satisfaction in life. And it is not too soon for you to start thinking about the kind of mentor you want to become, because this will begin a journey that will influence your actions towards others and form a solid foundation for the rest of your life. …

Steven K. Katona, former president of College of the Atlantic, at the college: The entire human population outside of Africa may originally have descended from one small, restless group of African wanderers, who must have been fairly closely related genetically and culturally. About three thousand generations have passed since then. …

Those three thousand generations haven't always had a smooth trip. Volcanoes, ice ages, droughts, plagues, lions, crocodiles, and a thousand other extrinsic challenges, pests, and annoyances challenged us, but altogether we've had the chance to grow up in a garden that is beautiful, prolific, and, for the most part, hospitable.

Our journey has brought out the worst and best in us. Thanks to advances in technology, health care, and food production, the human population has increased very quickly during recent centuries and is now on the way to seven billion. Our worldwide activities and effects are so pervasive that the fate of nearly all species, domestic or wild, now depends on us. In essence, we've brought nearly every species from a state of wildness to commensalism—feeding at our table through our tolerance for them or whatever habitats we leave for them. But lately we've begun to feel the resulting ecological pushback and to realize its seriousness and extent. …

On the other hand, as advances allowed some of us to devote more time to study, play, and experimentation, we've developed a most astonishing range of skills and achievements, pushing the envelope of what it means to be human. We've learned to fly, visit the moon and nearby planets, map the universe and see traces of its beginning, manipulate individual photons and atoms, convert matter to energy through nuclear fission, share information and ideas instantly around the world, compute at blinding speed, help the blind to see, repair and transplant genes and organs, map genomes, and even create primitive life itself. …

Now it is time to put skills like these to use in the largest and most far-reaching human project ever intentionally undertaken: repairing Earth. It is time to put the garden back together again. It won't be mitochondrial Eve's or Y-chromosomal Adam's garden, for it will lack the giant ground sloth, the moas, the dodo, Stellar's sea cow, the great auk, the passenger pigeon, Tasmanian wolf, Yangtze River dolphin, and other species of animals and plants whose extinction at our hands cannot be reversed. But the sooner we start, the more complete the garden will be. …

Competition, self-defense, and even aggression will always have their roles, but in the end, our individual and collective success will depend on how well we share, whether it be space for nature, individual opportunity, information, energy, water, or stem cells. And the key to sharing is cultivating the sense of relationship and common purpose. We've routinely highlighted the differences that create cultural and biological diversity, but now we must also celebrate the interdependency and close relationships between all people and all life on Earth. Honoring those relationships is the only path to a beneficial future. …

Barack Obama, president of the United States, at Arizona State University: Find somebody to be successful for. Raise their hopes. Rise to their needs. As you think about life after graduation, as you look into the mirror tonight after the partying is done, … you may look in the mirror tonight and you may see somebody who's not really sure what to do with their lives. That's what you may see—but a troubled child might look at you and see a mentor. A homebound senior citizen might see a lifeline. The folks at your local homeless shelter might see a friend. None of them care how much money is in your bank account, or whether you're important at work, or whether you're famous around town—they just know that you're somebody who cares, somebody who makes a difference in their lives. …

That's what building a body of work is all about—it's about the daily labor, the many individual acts, the choices large and small that add up over time, over a lifetime, to a lasting legacy. That's what you want on your tombstone. It's about not being satisfied with the latest achievement, the latest gold star—because the one thing I know about a body of work is that it's never finished. It's cumulative; it deepens and expands with each day that you give your best, each day that you give back and contribute to the life of your community and your nation. You may have setbacks, and you may have failures, but you're not done—you're not even getting started, not by a long shot.

And if you ever forget that, just look to history. Thomas Paine was a failed corset maker, a failed teacher, and a failed tax collector before he made his mark on history with a little book called Common Sense that helped ignite a revolution. Julia Child didn't publish her first cookbook until she was almost 50. Colonel Sanders didn't open up his first Kentucky Fried Chicken until he was in his 60s. Winston Churchill was dismissed as little more than a has-been, who enjoyed Scotch a little bit too much, before he took over as prime minister and saw Great Britain through its finest hour. …

Your body of work is never done.

Each of them, at one point in their life, didn't have any title or much status to speak of. But they had passion, a commitment to following that passion wherever it would lead, and to working hard every step along the way.

Robert Rodriguez, filmmaker, at the University of Texas at Austin: You've heard that knowing is half the battle. So then what's the other half? Not knowing! … There's something about not knowing that gives you an advantage when you're young enough and you're smart enough and you've got gut instincts and it hasn't been beaten into you yet.

I'm going to give you an example from my first movie of how that worked for me. I made it while I was still here, a student at UT. I didn't know that it was impossible to go make a movie for such a low budget with no film crew. …

I had to substitute money with creativity, and that's what made all the difference. I had to make a movie in a way that broke the traditional mold and learn not to be a slave to tradition. Traditional thinking will hold you back. …

Something [else] that has helped me tremendously is to surround myself with mentors. And that's what you need to do. That's going to define who you become. I can tell you it absolutely gets your game up really fast to be surrounded by people who are a lot better than you. … You learned this already when you were here in school. When you wanted to get better grades, who did you hang out with? You found people who were more motivated than you, who were smarter than you, and you tried to keep up with them and learn from them and find those study groups. What you do out there in real life is you go out there and you find better study groups.

So this university has been great preparation for what's to come. Don't forget what you've learned here. It all applies. … You've already learned how to be a student. That's the main thing. Don't ever stop being a student. …

There's a story about going to a class of young children and asking these young kids, "Who can write an opera? A symphony? Be a high-ranking leader, a politician, an astronaut, a doctor, a president?" And what happens? The whole class, they put their hands up because they don't know what can't be done. They haven't learned that yet. It's all possible. Ask the same questions of that same class five years later, 10 years later, 20 years later, and what happens? The hands start going down. Why is that? Because they've been poisoned by this thing called "I can't." They think they already know what's not possible—and that's the killer.

I've always tried to be that little kid with his hand in the air. It really works to be that naïve, to really think you can do anything. I've risked signing myself up for jobs I've had no qualifications for whatsoever, but just had passion for them. And you figure out a way to do it, and before I knew it, for example, I was writing my own movie scores for a 100-piece orchestra, and I can't even read or write music. It's like there's always a way. You just have to keep your hand up. It's really that simple.

Roger Rosenblatt, writer, at Kenyon College: Be good writers. To do that, I urge you to read Harold and the Purple Crayon, by Crockett Johnson. … [It] is a first-rate primer on how to write, and, not incidentally, on how to live.

You may recall that Harold's adventure begins with his deciding to take a walk in the moonlight, nothing more. He needs a moon, so he draws it. He needs a path. He draws a straight one, so he won't be lost, but he doesn't get anywhere on the straight path, so he cuts to a forest, which he makes small and safe at first, as he did the path. His forest consists of only one tree. But then he deliberately frightens himself by creating a dragon to guard his tree. He switches gears, heads out to sea. He lands, draws pictures of pies, draws a moose eating the pies, draws and climbs a mountain, but he falls off, which is when he draws a balloon to rescue him and realizes he wants to go home. And he identifies his home by the window of his room.

The turning point of Harold and the Purple Crayon comes here, when Harold realizes he wants to return to the window of his room at home. … He seeks his window—not his bed or his chair or security blanket. A window is to look out of, a glass that is the opposite of a looking glass. Harold identifies his goal as a place to look out of, away from himself.

Between his decision to take a walk in the moonlight and his return to his room, is life. Harold's, yours, mine, everyone's. Harold discovers the verities: The world is not in his control; courage begins at free fall; the best path is not the straight path. But the most useful thing he learns is that what may have seemed in passing to be the incidentals of his life, were, in fact, his life. All that was outside him was inside him —a moose, a dragon, a pie, a mountain, a balloon. He had to look outside himself to see those things. …

On this day, some will tell you to follow your dreams. Not I. Dreams are untrustworthy. Some will say to you, be yourself. I wouldn't necessarily advise it. Be someone else, if that person is superior to you. But to look out your window toward a world which cries out to you—now, that is worth a life.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, governor of California and actor, at the University of Southern California: Some people say it is scary to leave the comfort of the university and to go out into the cold, hard world. But I have to tell you something; I think this is a bunch of nonsense because after all, this is America. … It is one thing if you were born in Afghanistan or in Swat Valley, in Pakistan, where you'd be forced to join the Taliban or be killed. Now, then, I would say yes, that is a little bit scary. But this, this is going to be a piece of cake for you. …

Today I'm going to give you the six rules of success. … I think that they can apply to anyone, but that is for you to decide. There are some people that just like to kick back and coast through life, and others want to be very intense and want to be No. 1 and want to be successful. And that's like me. … When I started with bodybuilding, I didn't want to just be a bodybuilding champion; I wanted to be the best bodybuilder of all time. The same was in the movies. I didn't want to just be a movie star; I wanted to be a great movie star that is the highest-paid movie star and have above-the-title billing. And so this intensity always paid off for me, this commitment always paid off for me.

The first rule is: Trust yourself. So many young people are getting so much advice from their parents and from their teachers and from everyone. But what is most important is that you have to dig deep down and ask yourselves, Who do you want to be? Not what, but who. …

I was lucky growing up because I did not have television or telephones, I didn't have the computers and the iPods. And, of course, twitter was then something that birds did outside the window. I didn't have all these distractions and all this. I spent a lot of time by myself, so I could figure out and listen to what is inside my heart and inside my head. … I wanted to be different; I was determined to be unique. I was driven to think big and to dream big. Everyone else thought that I was crazy. …

Rule No. 2 is: Break the rules. … What is the point of being on this earth if all you want to do is be liked by everyone and avoid trouble? … After I was finished with my bodybuilding career, I wanted to get into acting, and I wanted to be a star in films. You can imagine what the agents said: … "You have this huge, monstrous body, overly developed." … And they complained about my accent. … So this is the kind of negative attitude they had. … But I didn't listen to all this. Those were their rules, not my rules. …

I started taking acting classes. I took English classes, took speech classes, dialogue classes. Accent-removal classes I even took. I remember running around saying, "A fine wine grows on the vine," because Germans have difficulties with the F and the W and V. I know what some of you are now saying is, I hope that Arnold got his money back. But let me tell you something, I had a good time doing those things, and it really helped me. And finally I broke through. … The things that the agents said would be totally a detriment and would make it impossible for me to get a job, all of a sudden became an asset for me. …

Rule No. 3: Don't be afraid to fail. You can't always win, but don't be afraid of making decisions. … You keep pushing because you believe in yourself and in your vision, and you know that it is the right thing to do, and success will come. …

Rule No. 4: Don't listen to the naysayers. How many times have you heard that you can't do this and you can't do that and it's never been done before? … When my mother-in-law, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, started Special Olympics, in 1968, people said that it would not work. The experts, the doctors that specialized in mental disabilities and mental retardation, said: "It can't be done. You can't bring people out of their institutions. You can't make them participate in sports, in jumping and swimming and in running. They will hurt themselves, they will hurt each other, they will drown in the pool." Now, 40 years later, Special Olympics is one of the greatest organizations, in 164 countries, dedicated to people with mental disabilities and that are intellectually challenged. And she did not take no for an answer. And the same is when you look at Barack Obama. I mean, imagine, if he would have listened. …

Rule No. 5, which is the most important rule of all: Work your butt off. You never want to fail because you didn't work hard enough. … It is important to have fun in life, of course. But when you're out there partying, horsing around, someone out there at the same time is working hard. Someone is getting smarter and someone is winning. Just remember that.

Rule No. 6: It's about giving back. Whatever path that you take in your lives, you must always find time to give something back, something back to your community, give something back to your state or to your country. … Reaching out and helping people will bring you more satisfaction than anything else you have ever done. …

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, president emeritus and university professor of public service at George Washington University, at Kent State University and Southwestern University (Tex.):

Life is not tidy.

Neither are we. We have mixed emotions, which are sometimes beyond our control, and doubts, which are always beyond our control. We hesitate and fudge. More than once in a while we come face to face with our own ignorance. We try to bring as much order to our lives as we can. And we learn that we have to put up with some litter here and there, which is another way of saying we need to tolerate our own failures or shortcomings. But we don't have to live in chaos. That's why we study and learn, why we find work, have families, participate in our communities, pray, and do all the things that make a life. This sounds to me very much like a usable, working definition of success—not so much the results of study and work and prayer, for example, but the process of engaging in them.

Results are important, but don't sell process short, either—process is the main business of life, day in and out. Consider Moses. He climbed Mount Sinai and talked with God. He came down from the mountain and gave us the Commandments. He stood up to pharaoh and led his people out of slavery. And still he was, as Scripture tells us, the humblest of men. What hero of the Old Testament is greater, more commanding, more powerful? Yet Moses never arrived in the Promised Land. He could see it in the distance across the water, but it was not for him ever to get there. Was Moses a failure? Was he a success? Neither one nor the other. He was like all of us, which is why he is such a compelling figure everywhere from Sunday-school classes to the debates of theologians.

In this sense … we are equals. Not the same, but subject to the same forces, which we handle as we can, each in our own way. Whatever success and failure may be, we will always have a measure of both. But more important than tallying up the wins and the losses and weighing them one against the other is to understand that both are inevitable and good, because they are what make us human and alive. And more than the accounting or the scorekeeping, the best we can have is a life lived well.

Elie Wiesel, Nobel laureate and philanthropist, at Bucknell University: Do something with your learning. … [It] has become your baggage. Remember, don't leave it in your bag. Open it from time to time.

Whatever you have learned here with Romeo and Juliet will help you, and then you will realize that Romeo and Juliet was not the story of love, but of hate. Two families hated one another, and the children died. Learn that, and then you will learn that usually at war, adults wage war, often for stupid reasons, and children die.

Second, you will learn that you can do something. You can, even for one person. There must be on this planet at least one person who needs you. One person you can help. Don't turn away; help. Because those who suffer, often suffer not because of the person or the group that inflicts the suffering; they seem to suffer because nobody cares. …

Life is not made of years, but of moments. Some are great moments, others are sad moments. But at the end, the weight of those moments could actually be a reflection of what you have done with your lives, of what has been done to you. …

Whatever you do, remember the moral dimension. If you study engineering or architecture or the arts or music, literature, whatever you do in your life, remember always that there must be a moral dimension. … With all the knowledge which is available to us, and we know so much —we know that we can see the galaxies, my God, we know how the brain works—do we know what, really, life is? Or death? Love?

Some humility is important. But curiosity is important. Eagerness to know is important. And we can always learn from one another. We can learn also hope. Only another person could move me to despair. But also only another person could remove that despair and replace it with hope.

So just a few words in conclusion. … Information is not enough. It must be turned into knowledge, which is not the same thing. Knowledge must be transformed into commitment and sensitivity. … You are here on this planet, in this place. Surrounding you are certain people that you love, others that may become better thanks to you. And remember, always: Think higher and feel deeper.

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