June 19, 2017

2017 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 setbacks that you pushed through; 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.”

Our natural world, our human societies and cultures, our individual experiences, are endlessly fascinating, and they reward careful, life-long study. 

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.  

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 actually takes to have an educated and defensible opinion is the entire point of coming to a great university. 

And so as you commence into the world I urge you to remember the criteria for serious understanding that you have learned at UCI and apply them to all matters of importance in your community.  The world needs serious viewpoints on important matters, especially those that cannot be reduced to 140 characters.

The world needs one other thing that I hope you learned during your time at UCI, and that is a certain way of orienting yourself to your fellow human beings when you confront differences of viewpoint and belief.

History has taught us that truth flourishes, not within a culture dominated by disciples who hunt heretics, but instead within a culture that values the testing and re-testing of an endless series of tentative hypotheses, that welcomes challenges to prevailing wisdom, and that responds to diversity of viewpoint by deepening conversations rather than shutting them down. 

Sustaining such a culture is not only necessary for universities to exist.  It is also necessary for free, diverse, and democratic societies to remain free, diverse, and democratic.

And so, I urge you to avoid trapping yourself in information bubbles and idea echo-chambers that merely flatter your existing beliefs and shield you from those who would would do you the favor of exposing your mistaken opinions, and most importantly, I urge you to settle differences with your fellow human beings, not by resorting to mockery, intimidation, and violence—there is much too much of this in the world—but as we do here when we are at our best:  by offering relationships of mutual respect, by exhibiting a willingness to listen to others, by responding to disagreement with better arguments, by accepting differences of opinion as legitimate and not as a reason to declare someone an enemy, and (when appropriate) by admitting you were wrong.

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 hopeful for the future because we know we can count on you.

On behalf of all of us on the faculty let me say to you, the class of 2017, 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.