Commencement 2012

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Maggie ShiffrarToday I’m going to let you in on a secret.  Just ask your professors what they are most proud of.  Surprisingly, almost all of them will give you exactly the same answer.  That’s a miracle because (and trust me on this), there is very little that all professors can agree on. You might expect your professors to say that they are most proud of their own scholarly discoveries or accolades.  But they won’t.  The secret is that your professors will all tell you that their greatest accomplishment…is you, their students.  Not their discoveries.  Not their awards.  Not the number of their publications.  But you.  Why?

Well, for one thing, we’ve been in your shoes.  We know that graduate school is tough.  Nation-wide, 40 to 50% of the people who start doctoral programs never finish them.  A graduate education requires you to transform yourself from being a consumer of knowledge to a producer of knowledge.  As an undergraduate, you read books.  As a graduate student, you wrote them.  As an undergraduate, you studied classic experiments.  As a graduate student, you designed and conducted your own experiments.  That’s a huge difference.  It is the difference between driving a car and building one. 

Your professors know from first hand experience how challenging that transformation is. And we know what it’s like to watch your debts mount and to hear your loved ones complain of feeling ignored.  We know what it’s like, when on a beautiful day, while all of your friends are headed to the shore, you are headed to a dreary lab or library.  We get it.  We have empathy for your journey.  But it’s a lot more than empathy that makes us feel so proud of you.

The expertise you have acquired, whether in the arts, humanities, administration, or sciences, makes us all stronger.  Graduate studies are a key component of the global economy. Your discoveries allow our societies to respond more effectively to challenges, to build stronger, more competitive economies, and to expand employment opportunities.  Your discoveries enable us to better understand who we are as societies and as individuals.  You are helping us to raise happier children, to cure diseases, to foster more peaceful international relations, and to build smarter technologies.  Your innovations are the engine that drives our economy and drives the evolution of our humanity.  Not surprisingly, leading financial experts agree, graduate education is one of the very best investments that a society can make in it’s own prosperity. 

But your professors are also enormously proud of you for the lessons that you have learned along with the expertise that you’ve achieved in your fields of study.

For starters, during your graduate education, you have learned that complex, real world problems can only be solved through the study of differing viewpoints.  It is not enough to tolerate differing viewpoints, you must examine them deeply enough to understand why they differ from yours.  A classic Indian tale provides a beautiful illustration of this.[1]  Imagine an elephant surrounded by six blind men.  Each man reaches out and touches one part of the elephant.  One man feels only a tusk. Another man feels a toe. Yet another feels an ear.  Individually, no man can identify the elephant.  Instead, the moral of this tale is that all viewpoints must be considered.  You have mastered this lesson.  You wouldn’t be here today if you hadn’t, because scholarship cannot advance, our society’s problems cannot be solved, unless we work together.

You might think that mastering such a basic lesson isn’t a big deal.  But consider the sentiments expressed in a popular bumper sticker that reads: “You are entitled to your wrong opinions!”  Ok, it’s a silly bumper sticker.  But sadly, people act as if they actually believe it.  As recently as 20 years ago, people generally worked from a common set of facts because everyone obtained information from the same sources.  Paradoxically, in our increasingly interconnected world, we now increasingly live in parallel universes.  For example, if your political views are on the left, then you probably get your news from sources such as The Huffington Post or MSNBC—sources that present news and analyses in ways that you already agree with.  If your political views are on the right, then you probably get your news from sources such as The Wall Street Journal or Fox news, and you hear news and analyses presented in ways that you already agree with.[2]

People tend to search out and pay attention to information that agrees with what they already believe.  As a result, when we hear facts and opinions that differ from our own, we tend to dismiss them because everyone we know believes the same things we do.  If we dismiss information and ideas that challenge our assumptions, then we, as a society, are never going to solve our problems. We will never discover that we are all touching the same elephant.

Your graduate education has also given you an extended opportunity to learn humility. Let me give you one example of why scholars need to be humble.  As a graduate student, I took a class in neuroanatomy, the study of the brain’s structure.  I will never forget the opening lecture.  The professor, a powerful and internationally respected scientist, started by pounding the podium while his deep baritone voice bellowed out, if there is one thing that we know for sure in neuroanatomy, it’s that you can not grow new nerve cells. Well, that one sure thing didn’t stay true for very long. Now, neuroscientists routinely study how neurons grow, because you can grow new nerve cells.  And if you want to know how important it was to correct that mistake, just ask Rutgers football player Eric LeGrand.  That’s what I mean when I say that graduate education make us humble.  As Thomas Jefferson put it, “The wise know their weaknesses too well to assume infallibility.” 

 Consider the metaphor of candlelight in the darkness.  Light often symbolizes knowledge.  As a candle’s flame gets brighter, the area of light gets larger, and the area of darkness that is illuminated also expands.  In other words, the more you can see, the more darkness is revealed, and the more there is to discover.  People who lack humility have forgotten how much they don’t know.  Sure, they can generate high ratings on talk shows.  But their lack of humility stifles our ability to solve real world problems.  And so, one of the reasons that your professors are so proud of you is because your scholarly journey has made you humble, and your humility is a much-needed antidote to many of today’s societal problems.

Your graduate education is also important because it has taught you the power of delayed gratification.  Now I know, in this world of instant gratification, with apps that can fulfill just about any need and the widespread availability of your favorite beverage, no matter how obscure, say a grande half-caf mochaccino with extra low fat foam and 2 pumps of vanilla, iced…in such a “now is better” world, the idea of deferred gratification sounds pretty old fashioned. So why is it important?  Well, it turns out that the ability to postpone gratification is the single best predictor of future success. You might have assumed that aptitude tests like the GRE or the SAT or maybe your IQ score would be the best predictor.  But, they’re not. The best measure of your future success is this, a marshmallow.  Seriously.  Measuring someone’s future prospects with a marshmallow is simple.  You bring a child into an uninteresting room, sit the child down at a table, and place the marshmallow on the table.  Explain to the child that they can eat this 1 marshmallow right now, or wait 15 minutes and get 2 marshmallows. The kids who can wait 15 minutes to get that second marshmallow, those kids who can defer gratification, 10 years later they score almost 200 points higher on their SAT tests than the kids who couldn’t wait.  

And I don’t have to tell you that graduate school is a giant exercise in learning to delay gratification.  It’s a multi-year marshmallow study.  Because solving complex problems takes enormous personal sacrifice over a very long period of time. When you’d rather raft down the Delaware River or hang out with Snooki in Hoboken, graduate school requires instead, that you head back to the lab or back to your computer.  And what’s particularly impressive about graduate students is that you often make this long term personal sacrifice, sure, for personal gain, but also for something bigger and more durable: to learn the tools needed to solve our society’s problems.  It is no wonder that we are so proud of you.

Finally, if you are still not convinced that your graduate degree is enormously important, then let me try one last approach.  Let’s focus on your feelings.  As you graduate today, please, let yourself take in the emotional power of this moment.  Many of you are like me: the first in your family to earn a graduate degree.  Maybe your family had to work the land, or work the line.  Maybe your loved ones labored for years bent over a sewing machine or a washboard.  Just imagine one of them, stopping for a moment, and wondering…would their efforts and sacrifices, eventually, someday, enable their children, or maybe their children’s children, to succeed?  And if that person isn’t here, then just imagine that they could see you today…that they could see your tremendous achievement and know that their descendents had excelled, had made it.  

For many of you, this will be a powerful image.  It certainly is for me.  None of my grandparents made it past the eighth grade.  So I imagine my grandfather, working out in the fields as a farmer, and maybe stopping under an old oak tree to wonder whether his labors would ever bear fruit.  When I imagine him, and then I consider my own graduate education, I can’t help but choke up.  And it’s my hope that you will give yourself the opportunity today to feel a little choked up, too.  That you can open your heart to the deep satisfaction of knowing that your education is profoundly important to you, to your loved ones, to your society, and to your very proud professors.    


Thank you very much.



[1] Adapted from Saxe, J. G. (1855). Poems by John Godfrey Saxe. Boston: Ticknor and Fields

[2] Adapted from Senator Frank’s comments to New York magazine, April 15, 2012 issue

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