September 29, 2014

Convocation Remarks

To the Class of 2018 and our new transfer students:

After all your efforts, all those countless hours in school, all the SAT prep, all the conversations about where to attend, filling out the applications, writing the personal statements, campus visits, the final weighing of options, the decision – and then all the effort that you have spent these past few months making the transition, last-minute advice from family and friends, orientation, moving in, starting to get settled, figuring out all the logistics of where things are and what you need to do to get started … after all that, finally, the time has come, at this convocation, right now, we mark the moment: 

You are now a college student at one of the world’s greatest universities, the University of California, Irvine!

Congratulations.  You should be tremendously proud.  We know how hard you worked to get here.

We started with 83,000 applications, and we worked very hard to find exactly the right people to join this remarkable university.  We learned your story, we learned about your accomplishments, we heard about your ambitions, and in the end, over tens of thousands of others we decided – yes, you.

You have the qualities, you have the talent, you have the drive, you have the character … you are who we want, you, each and every one of you, we are absolutely certain that you have what it takes to take full advantage of the opportunity to join one of the world’s most outstanding and accomplished academic communities.

We chose you, you chose us, here we are – our partnership has officially begun.

Now begins one of the great adventures of your life.  It is going to be exciting, unforgettable in the best possible way, it’s going to be great – great, but not easy, not without its challenges.  If it was easy anybody could do it, and we wouldn’t have to spend the time to pick the very best students. 

We pick the best students so that we can do the serious and important work that brings us together: provide you with an education that is worthy of your talent and your promise, an immersive experience of inquiry, discovery, creative expression, and community engagement that enriches your mind and spirit, empowers you to achieve at the highest level of your potential, and allows you to have the most meaningful and rich life possible, so that you can be a knowledgeable, thoughtful and discerning citizen and contributor to your communities, so that you can be a force for good in the world. 

Getting an education worthy of your talent and promise will require effort and dedication, but you can do it – because you wouldn’t be sitting here if we didn’t know you were capable, but also because you are not expected to do it on your own.  We are here to support you on this journey:  the faculty, your advisors, your classmates, everyone at UCI is here to promote the success of everyone else.  If you need a helping hand – that’s fine, to be expected, just reach out and someone will reach back, just as you will do when someone reaches out to you. 

An education worthy of your talent and your promise. 

I hope you will reflect on that sentiment, and what it means for how you will approach the next 26,000 hours of your life.

What is an education worthy of your talents and your promise?

First, let me say what it is not. 

If you listen to a lot of the current public discourse about higher education you will have a very cramped view of the point of it all.  We know you, and your families, live in a time when you are correct to worry about your employability and the practical opportunities provided to you by this experience. 

We understand.  It is still the case that the best investment you can ever make, even from the vantage point of simply maximizing your earning potential, is a degree from an outstanding university or college.  So, that’s going to be taken care of.  In fact, Money magazine ranked us #2 in the country for the “value added” we provided all of you, which focuses on colleges whose graduates exceed the averages for their peer groups on measures such as earnings after college.

Being #2 on that metric is very flattering, and so you might think that I would be praising that way of thinking about what we have to offer.

Well, I’m not.

That measure, along with the focus on the practical opportunities provided to you by this experience, sells us short, and more importantly, it sells you short.

The point of higher education is not just to get you a credential – there are plenty of credentials you can acquire – and it is not just to let you develop a discrete set of useful skills, which is also easy enough to do, even on your own. 

We will give you a valuable credential and a lot of very useful skill.  But if that is all we had to offer we would not need to construct this expansive and extraordinary campus for you, with amazing learning spaces, great labs, studios, libraries, beautiful grounds. 

More importantly, to give you a credential and some skills we would not need to recruit for you a faculty comprised of women and men who are the very best in the world in their fields, who have devoted their lives to understanding the breadth and depth of every question or issue worthy of deeper understanding, reflection, and engagement, women and men who are making fundamental contributions to new knowledge, creative expression, clinical and professional practice. 

No, we have built this campus, and assembled this amazing, dedicated faculty, because human beings only reach their full potential when they are broadly educated, and when they are exposed to the best that has ever been thought, created, or discovered.

We have built this campus and assembled this faculty because to be broadly educated is to be a more interesting person and to have more opportunities to encounter issues or experiences that engage your passions.  Becoming an educated person allows you to interact with broader and more diverse groups of people, which is value enough – but also, don’t forget that you have to live within your head for a long time, and so you might as well make that head as interesting a place to be as possible.

We have built this campus and assembled this faculty because exposure to this world will lead you to develop habits of mind that last a lifetime: a deepened capacity for reflective thought, an appreciation for the persistent questions of human existence, the ability to communicate your ideas with clarity and power. You will come to understand that defensible positions are hard to come by, but when you do the hard work necessary to think through challenging questions the satisfactions are tremendous.

We live in an age where minds must be nimble, creative, adaptive, and rigorous.  Depending on whose study you cite, your generation will likely have 3 or 4 completely different professions in a lifetime: not jobs, professions.  Some of the industries in which you will find yourself working one day haven’t even been invented yet.  Some of the professions you may be planning to enter may not exist 10 years from now.  If you allow yourself to get the most out of this experience you will become the kind of person who can keep up with a rapidly changing world.  If you have an overly narrow, vocational view of what you want to do over the next four years, you may be setting yourself up for obsolescence. 

And finally – and most importantly, from my point of view – we have built this campus and assembled this faculty because this is the path to freedom, justice, and democracy. 

Education empowers you to think for yourself.  Without it, you are at the mercy of those in politics, business, and culture whose job is to bend your mind in the direction of their interests. 

Democracy assumes that the people know enough about government, public policy, economics, history, human values, culture, and the natural order of things to evaluate the behavior of their representatives and steer the community in the direction of the general welfare.  As Thomas Jefferson put it, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free … it expects what never was and never will be.” 

If you do this right – if you make choices over the next four years that allow you to get the most out of this opportunity – the rewards will be life-long.  Once you get in the habit of engaging these questions at a serious level it is nearly impossible to go back to thinking or saying any ol’ damn thing. 

Once you get in the habit of seeking out alternative points of view it is nearly impossible to go back to staying within the echo chamber of your twitter feed or preferred cable news network. 

Once you get in the habit of reading careful and systematic works of scholarship it is nearly impossible to go back to listening to arguments that are heavy on name calling and light on evidence, logic, rationality, balance, fair-mindedness. 

It is good that you are going to learn that the best, most respected thinkers tend to emphasize uncertainty and complexity, and often the least trustworthy are the ones who speak the loudest and with the greatest certitude, and are mocking of all contrary considerations. 

Also, if you do this right, you will be made uncomfortable.  Some of your cherished views may be challenged.  The point of a great university is not to keep you in a bubble of familiar views.  Deepening your commitment to a preexisting faith is what seminaries and other institutions of religious, ideological, or political instruction are for.  We are in the business of challenging inherited wisdom, breaking through the crust of convention, testing what we think is true, and then testing again.  We seek to set in motion an endless loop of curiosity, inquiry, discovery, and skepticism … curiosity, inquiry, discovery, skepticism … repeat this loop over the centuries, and the research university will remain the most important institution ever invented for the promotion of social progress and human enlightenment.

These four years will go by faster than you can imagine right now.  And so I urge you to take seriously the question of what role you are going to play in ensuring that you get an education worthy of your talent and promise. 

The biggest regret people make after they graduate is that they did not take full advantage of the opportunity presented by being surrounded by unbelievably talented people with expertise on every imaginable topic.  They never took a Shakespeare class, or learned about Renaissance art, or astronomy, or the basics of economics, or what philosophers have to say about ethics or justice. 

And so anticipate that regret and work to avoid it.  Don’t just stay within the comfortable confines of a particular field of study.  Embrace a spirit of exploration.  If you think of yourself as inclined toward math and science then make it a point to take courses in the humanities and arts; if you have a passion for dance, literature, or art history, be sure to get some real exposure to the scientific method and contemporary understandings of the workings of the natural world.

I end these remarks by referencing the official motto of the University of California.  Does anyone know the official motto?

It’s a Latin phrase:  Fiat lux.  Do you know what that means?  That’s right.  “Let there be light.”

I think it is a wonderful motto for one of the world’s great institutions of higher education.  I hope it will inspire you.

Pursue that which is illuminating.  Be a vessel through which enlightenment eradicates the darkness – the darkness of ignorance, of intolerance.  Shine brightly.

Again, welcome to one of the great adventures of your life.  A vast landscape of inquiry and discovery lies before you.  We are all looking forward to walking this path with you.

Fiat Lux.