Baccalaureate Address to the Class of 2017
School of Environmental and Biological Sciences
It is not often that a scientist is asked to speak on matters outside his specialty. For the honor you have done me, therefore, in asking that I speak to you tonight I do thank you. The class of 1993 also asked me to speak to them for their Baccalaureate. When I reread that talk I realized with some updating it would apply more strongly now than it did then.
When you leave here some days from now, you will have spent sixteen years or more in school. While many of you will go on to professional training, your formal academic education is complete. The rest of your education now begins. What do you take from here that will be of use “out there?” And what will you find “out there?”
You all entered college with some appreciation for the natural world, an appreciation which has probably grown in your time here. You all know something of agriculture and the environment, and many of you know something of economics and other fields. A few - bless you - know a little biochemistry. If you reflect on what you know today, however, you’ll realize you knew more about the subjects you studied when you studied them than you do now. Many of the specifics have already fled, and you are not even out the door! You might think to yourselves, “If I had had better study habits or if I had worked harder, I might know more today.” There may be a few people in the room for whom that is true.... Even so, however good your habits and however hard you worked, much specific knowledge will have gone from you. It is the sort of knowledge which becomes engraved in the mind only if you use it regularly, and many of you will not have the need to do that, for your work and your lives will take you in other - and unexpected - directions.
Why, then, did you go to all that effort? One answer is that it was necessary to earn a bachelor’s degree. What is a degree? To many people who hire college graduates it certifies you have survived four years in a large bureaucratic institution with your sanity more or less intact. You are therefore likely to function well in another large bureaucratic institution. In other words you are certified for your ability to become docile cogs in the political and economic machinery of the country. It means also that the ability to think clearly and to say what you think may make relations with the people around you uncomfortable and may even jeopardize your job, a point to which we’ll return.
There is another answer to the question of why you made the effort to learn material you will forget. We, the faculty, made you do it. Now why on earth would we do that? Some of you may think to yourselves, “They’re Sadists! They had to do it, so they made us do the same.” In this school of thought, college is a rite of passage with some hazing thrown in as in a fraternity initiation. Related to this idea is that we want to produce clones of ourselves who will eventually replace us and to whom we pass on our sacred knowledge in the manner of an ancient priesthood. While it must be admitted that there is some truth in this, there must be something more.
There is. Underlying all the curricula of college and, in fact, at the root of the whole idea of education is the desire of society acting through the faculty to teach you how to think clearly and to say what you think. The courses we offer and the work you did here were but the tools we use. In order to learn to think you must have something about which to think; hence the need for learning. Our tools are imperfect as are we and as is the institution of the University, which sets limits on you and on us. Thus the thinking sometimes gets lost in the learning, but the inadequacy of the process should not be allowed to conceal its aim.
But if our true aim is to teach you to think and to say what you think, does this not conflict with certifying your ability to hold a job or enter a profession, which comes to the same thing? In the best of worlds it would not, for employers and professional school admissions committees would seek those who think well and who have the courage to act. There are employers and professional schools which do, but this is not the best of worlds, and many do not, nor do they reward mental independence or moral courage thereafter. Many of the economic and social problems of the country can be traced to this narrowness of outlook. Is the fundamental aim of your education, then, really subversive of your future comfort?
Many believe it is. Gilbert Highet, the philosopher, once wrote a book called, Teaching as a Subversive Activity. In a sense true teaching and genuine education are subversive, for they lead people to question the established order both in day to day working life and on a larger scale. Strong institutions and strong people can withstand such questioning and become stronger in response. Weak institutions and weak people fear it; “subversives” are seldom treated kindly. Thus you will encounter people who will attempt to take credit for your work to advance themselves and who may attack you to prevent the truth from coming out. You may see good ideas suppressed to the detriment of the organization because they conflict with someone’s preconceived notions and you will see bad ideas put into practice because they solidify someone’s power. All manner of wretched behavior will pass before you in your time on this earth.
How to live in such a world? One way is “Go along to get along.” At times we must all do that, for one cannot fight all battles. Too much of it, though, and one’s core erodes, one becomes weak and ineffective. Ultimately a restless, unfocused discontent settles upon the soul. Without realizing it one becomes mean spirited and prey to demagogues and charlatans who promise moral restoration, a release from moral pain, and certainty in an uncertain world, often through the suppression of another group. Look around the country and the world, and you will see this process at work. There must be something better.
There is. Surprisingly, we return to all the other courses, tutorials, seminars and laboratories whose details you no longer remember. There is yet another reason why we, the faculty, put you to the effort of study. Consider how the knowledge which you have sampled was gained. In science one makes a hypothesis about how some part of nature works. One formulates tests by means of which the hypothesis can be verified or not, and if it is not, one modifies or abandons it for another idea. Gradually and perhaps with false starts and dead ends a coherent picture emerges which has been tested for its correspondence with observable phenomena.
To be sure, being human, we as scientists sometimes develop strong attachments to our own ideas, and we sometimes cling to them in the face of evidence to the contrary. Ultimately, though, we subject our ideas to the external discipline of testing, and we are conditioned to consider the possibility that we may be wrong. Every experimental control which we do to demonstrate that an effect is real is, in fact, an attempt to prove an idea - our own idea - wrong. We all know that in testing a drug, it is given to one group of people and a placebo to another. If the two groups have the same outcome, our idea, that the drug is useful, is wrong, and we accept that.
Thus a personal attack on someone with whom we disagree is unacceptable, for it denies the possibility that we may be wrong. Such an attack, called ad hominem, or against the person, undermines the central pillar of the scientific method. If you have not encountered them already, you will meet people who use ad hominem attacks to deflect attention from serious consideration of ideas they don’t like. Watch out, for power or money or both are usually at stake!
Consider what has happened to our argument. From reflections on the scientific method - the necessity of experimental controls and the acceptance that we might be wrong - we arrive at the notion that ideas are to be tested by careful consideration of their consequences. Not all ideas are scientific and not all consequences are quantifiable, but the notion remains true nonetheless. Thus the single most important rule of scientific inquiry is also the single most important rule of all inquiry, scientific or otherwise, and, indeed of all life. Substance counts, and people whose personal attacks on others deflect us from substance are not to be trusted.
The urge to self-aggrandizement has no role here. Any time I encounter someone who disagrees with me, I have met someone from whom I may learn something, and if that person is correct, I profit, for I exchange the darkness of error for light, and I may well avoid an even worse error in the future. An attack eliminates this possibility, and it certainly precludes future cooperation, for why should I help someone who may well attack me again or why should anyone whom I have treated shabbily help me? It follows also that the person of someone with whom I disagree is sacred, even the person of a scoundrel or a bigot. The ideas may be detestable, but it is the ideas which are to be fought, not the holder of them.
In a way, a life in science is a religious life, for the everyday practice of the profession develops at its best an outlook which adds nobility and warmth to human relations of a profoundly religious kind. That outlook is not restricted to science, though, as we have seen, and it is open to you. The pleasures of a life based on it are deep, the rewards great, and it is just plain fun! Bleak times will come to you, to be sure. Some will be visited upon you, and some will come from inside. Most of us are strong at times and weak at others; we sometimes fail to live up to the best that is in us. One of the hardest lessons to learn is how to recover from a failure of one’s own or from an outside attack, learning from it, and going on in life. Nevertheless, the lesson can be learned, the bleakness dissolved, and the fun restored. Learning it is part of the education which awaits you.
The choices you make in the process will have all sorts of personal and professional consequences. That is hardly surprising. The consequences don’t stop there, though. If you tolerate those who engage in ad hominem attacks, who refuse to contemplate the possibility of being wrong, who avoid matters of substance and refuse to consider the consequences of their actions, you will permit the continued erosion of our public and private institutions and our economy. Our national life and that of the rest of the world will slide into barbarism. It needn’t be that way, for the choices which lead to a joyful and satisfying life, whatever the bumps and losses which come with it, will heal the nation and help the world. Therefore be careful how you choose; you choose not just for yourselves but for all of us.
You may not have realized it at the time, but all this was inherent in virtually every course you took here. If you carry both it and a growing respect for the natural world away with you, you need carry no more, for you will have all you require to continue your education, and we who have taught you will have done our job.
Peter C. Kahn
May 12, 2017