June 10, 2016

2016 Commencement Speech

Graduates, in the course of time you will reflect on many different aspects of these years: the time you spent with friends; the classes, professors, and experiences that helped you better understand important questions, or that deepened your sense of purpose, or that triggered new passions.

You will remember having the best mascot of any college or university; overnights at the Gateway Center; boba on Ring Road.

Even after you leave our classrooms and say farewell to your professors, I hope you will continue to carry inside you, not only these memories, but also the lingering essence of our world of inquiry and discovery.

You have earned your degree, but your education has just begun. 

As William Yeats put it, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Or on the words of the great American philosopher John Dewey, “Education is not a preparation for life; education is life itself.”

Keep learning – not for the grade, or for credits toward a degree, or for the career, but for yourself, for the sheer pleasure of it. 

Our natural world, our human societies and cultures, our individual experiences, are endlessly fascinating. Beyond that, the challenges we face in our own society, and as a global community, are urgent and complex, and thus require serious and thoughtful attention – not just from professionals, but from all free human beings who have a stake in the future. 

From our extraordinary faculty you have learned the difference between having feelings and opinions about what is true and good, and having beliefs and convictions that have been earned through critical thinking, a review of evidence, and all the many processes of rigorous scholarly assessment. 

Understanding what it takes to have an educated opinion is the entire point of coming to a great university. And so as you commence into the world please keep in mind that the world still needs as many people as possible who understand the difference between any ol’ half-baked opinion and a well-earned one. 

The world needs one other thing that I hope you will carry into all your future endeavors, and that is a certain way of orienting yourself to your fellow human beings.

Universities are places where talented people come together to think with others about important and interesting questions. Many of the topics we work on are among the most complex and consequential matters facing the world, and among the most enduring questions facing humankind. 

When we see that we have different views, what do we do? We decide we will work through our disagreements using the norms of a scholarly community. 

When others are not persuaded to our views, we try improve our arguments or marshal more evidence, but we also keep an open mind, because we are willing to change our views when others have better arguments and evidence. 

At universities, we don’t decide whether light is a particle or a wave by shouting each other down. We keep talking and listening to each other, and improving the quality of the ongoing conversation.

I mention this today because this frame of mind is not only essential to the workings of a university. It is also essential to the workings of any free, diverse, democratic society.

Just as a university cannot exist unless we encourage diversity of opinion and debate, one cannot maintain a democracy on the assumption that all of those with whom we disagree are enemies to be vanguished, or silenced, or shouted down, or perpetually mocked.

On this happy and extraordinary day in your lives and in the lives of your family and loved ones, I recommend to you the following: as you make your way through life, settle differences of viewpoint with your fellow human beings, not through coercion, harassment, mockery, intimidation, and violence, but with ideas, arguments, and (in politics) votes. 

Democracy, freedom, and diversity cannot thrive in the world unless people take this advice – and the world especially relies on the participation of those who understand the difference between any ol’ half-baked opinion and a well-earned one. 

It is my sincere hope that you will think of UCI as having cultivated and enriched your mind and spirit, as having prepared you for your ongoing development as a free and educated human being, and as having empowered you to push the world a little more toward the light – for as you know, the great motto of the University of California is Fiat Lux, Let There Be Light. You are the light and the hope of the world. We are counting on you.

As you reach new heights of accomplishment, I hope you will stay in touch, so that we can share in your ongoing successes. In other words, join the Alumni Association! Special rates for you!

On behalf of all of us on the faculty let me say to you, the class of 2016, that you have enriched us immeasurably, and we are grateful for the honor of having you as our students. With great pride we congratulate you, and we salute everyone who cares about you, on your outstanding achievement that is represented by today’s ceremony.