Speeches

Remarks at University Graduate Exercises

 

May 3, 2013

Good morning!

This is such a special day.

For our graduates, this is a morning to celebrate ... to walk across the stage and out into the world as the holder of an advanced degree from one of the world's great universities.

Your achievements as master's and doctoral graduates are the latest in careers I know will be extraordinary.

For our faculty, this is a day of accomplishment, of knowing you have mentored tomorrow's scholars and furthered the legacy of exceptional graduate education at Michigan.

And for the families gathered here, this is a moment of great pride. These graduates are your sons and daughters, your husbands and wives, your sisters and brothers. And you have been a vital part of their lives throughout their rigorous academic journey.

It is a day for all of us to celebrate a love of learning and the power of creating and sharing knowledge.

Graduates, your final days at Michigan have coincided with one of the most painful episodes in recent history, and that is the bombing in Boston.

All of us felt this attack. Our speaker today, Professor Rosabeth Kanter, teaches at Harvard and thoughtfully tweeted, "Cry for the victims yet vow to not let terrorism stop us."

I suspect that years from now, when you reflect on the conclusion of your graduate work, the events of Boston will be part of those memories. And that is not necessarily a bad connection.

What does higher learning have to do with the terrible destruction wrought by disturbed individuals?

Everything.

It is a powerful reminder that the continuous pursuit of knowledge is more indispensable than ever. That critical thinking is the antidote for conjecture and prejudice. And that you, as the newest members of the community of scholars, play a critical role in explaining that which, at times, may seem inexplicable.

Knowledge makes this possible. Chasing ideas, testing theories, building answers - all address the myriad challenges facing society today.

Our continuous pursuit of ideas is society's best hope for answering the question so many of us asked that terrible week: Why?

This constant pursuit of new knowledge is why we should applaud an equally significant story that unfolded in Boston in the days following the bombing.

Understandably, it did not receive much attention, and a celebration marking its arrival was rightfully cancelled. But its impact will resonate far deeper than the cowardice of any terrorist ever will.

This other Boston story was the opening of a library. The Digital Public Library of America, to be precise, which threw open its virtual doors to the world.

The Digital Public Library of America has the daring goal of making the treasures of America's libraries, archives, and museums available to the world. To quote, "It strives to contain the full breadth of human expression, from the written word, to works of art and culture, to records of America's heritage, to the efforts and data of science."

If the terror in Boston caused people to question the darkness of society, the Digital Public Library answers with the free, open sharing of knowledge that can enlighten and transform.

Our own University Librarian and dean of libraries, Paul Courant, is helping shape this vast initiative as a member of its board.

It's hard to believe, but in the early days of our university library, students needed permission to simply touch a book. It took more than 50 years to liberalize access, and that came after the University librarian and the University president at that time, James Angell, all but begged the Board of Regents to allow books to be circulated.

"We have to remember," President Angell said, "that the library is the great central power in the instruction given in the University, and that the books are here not to be locked up and kept away from readers, but to be placed at their disposal with the utmost freedom..."

Placed at their disposal with the utmost freedom.

Sharing knowledge with abandon.

That is the hallmark of great libraries, great universities and the graduates they produce. That knowledge is to be created, shared and celebrated, because it brings meaning and sense to the world.

One of the great champions of higher learning and critical thinking was the philosopher John Dewey.

He was a member of the Michigan faculty, having come here after receiving his doctorate, and he spent a decade in Ann Arbor shaping both students and ideas. I don't want to scare our Ph.D. recipients today, but his starting teaching salary was $900 a year.

It was here where Professor Dewey met his wife, wrote his first book, gained a reputation as challenging but fair teacher, and rose through the ranks to chair the Department of Philosophy.

One year, the students of Michigan asked him to ponder a question: What should I expect of a college education?

His answer had many facets, as you might expect from a philosophy professor.

He stressed the importance and value of losing one's provincialism and exploring different thoughts and cultures. Equally important, he said, is learning to set aside partisan ideas; he felt it essential to exercise patience before jumping to conclusions or taking sides.

There is nothing weak, he said, in suspending judgment and collecting the facts.

But the most critical component of a higher education, he wrote, is to take all you have learned and find ways to apply that knowledge to being an ethical human being.

An ethical human being.

Without connecting your studies to the very essence of human nature - emphasis on human - your work as a student is simply a random collection of intellectual bits and pieces.

What a tremendous lesson for students of the 21st century. John Dewey is saying your education should provide the tools to be open-minded, flexible, and interconnected with your fellow citizens.

Those connections are more critical than ever as our world grows smaller and smaller. We are in dire need of great minds eager to collaborate and create. Great minds to develop solutions to problems that sometimes seem overwhelming - crises like disease, hunger, and wanton acts of violence.

And there is nothing more powerful than a worthy idea.

The vast resources of a library, the thoughtfulness of a professor and the promise of an idea have surely been part of your graduate student experience.

I hope your experience has also included a nighttime walk to the steps of the Rackham Building.

The Rackham Building has, of course, supported your education as the home of the School of Graduate Studies.

But it also offers a magnificent view of the Central Campus, made all the more striking when night falls.

Because is then, as you look down Ingalls Mall, past the Michigan League and bell tower, when the Graduate Library radiates with light.

This is the living, breathing lamp of knowledge, one that has guided your work and that you will now carry forward as the newest members of our community of scholars. We could not be more proud.

Knowledge will always shatter the darkness of ignorance, vengeance and terror. Now do good, in the world and for the world.