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Brodhead to the Class of 2011: Engage the World as You Engaged Duke
Editor's Note: The following speech was delivered by Duke President Richard H. Brodhead during the Baccalaureate services May 13 and 14 in Duke Chapel.
Durham, NC - I remember standing here four years back when you had just arrived. Looking out at that great mass of anxiety about the new life you were entering, I said: little as you may believe it, Duke will become home for each of you, the single place on earth where you feel most at home. And lo, it came to pass! For years you have walked around as if you own the place. Four years of contact have done nothing to slake your appetite for the company of other Dukies. Look at your wardrobes; what does every garment you own say? Duke! Duke! Duke! Duke!
You're at home all right. But that happy state is now about to end. As a euphemism we call this your commencement, but you know the emotional truth of this weekend. Class of 2011, Duke is about to eject you, evict you, expel you, exile you -- to close the gates and banish you to the cold, hard world outside.
And since I'm enjoying the role of prophet of doom, I'll go further. Let's face facts: the world you are being sent out into is a hideous mess. You arrived here in jolly times. In fall 2007 we were still cranking through the longest growth of prosperity in recorded history, with few signs that the good times would cease to roll. Well, we got that wrong: you got to hide out at Duke from the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression. And now that the blackest clouds have begun to clear, the prospects are not exactly rosy. In 2011, the accumulated debt of the United States will pass 15 trillion dollars and will exceed 100 percent of GDP for the first time since World War Two, with obligations set to rise and rise. Have you seen the graphs this spring, with the bright red deficit line zooming upward for the rest of your adult lives? Thanks a lot! Through a combination of idealistic choices and self-indulgent habits, your elders of both parties have handed you an enterprise that's mortgaged to the hilt, with no evident margin for new investment, that still has not solved elementary problems of how to deliver quality health care, quality education, or steady employment for those willing and eager to work.
Then to cap it all, you, the inheritors of this mess, are apparently history's greatest generation of incompetents. This winter the national press gave extensive coverage to a study suggesting that many students today learn absolutely nothing from their time in college. Another set of books, surveying the cognitive effects of the new media you are the first generation to inhabit, assure us that not a single one of you is capable of paying attention to anything for longer than (say) forty-five seconds, or communicating thoughts more than 140 characters in length.
Are we feeling suicidal yet? But you're right: this picture is way too gloomy. Let's take it part by part.
First, while I don't minimize the challenges, I wouldn't have excessive confidence in the dire predictions of this time. There's no such thing as a good time to graduate, in the sense that all indicators are positive and guaranteed to stay that way. When that has seemed to be the case, history's threats and changes were only temporarily hidden. Spring 2001 seemed a lovely time to graduate -- the government was about to run a surplus and the world was substantially at peace; but the surprise of 9/11 was only four months away. In any case, given the variables at play, historical predictions never stay "true" for long. The one scenario I bet you will never face 10 or 20 years from now is the one most confidently advanced today.
As for those who revel in the thought that you and your contemporaries are mindless nincompoops, they have not met you, and they have not thought enough about how education works. These days, universities are under pressure to articulate the "learning outcomes" each course and program is meant to deliver and to document that these outcomes were actually achieved. Given the number of students in this country who have never mastered fundamental skills, and given the lifelong price people have to pay when the foundations of learning aren't strongly laid, I don't doubt that some such metrics are needed in earlier stages of schooling. But the approach is singularly ill equipped to catch the value of what happens at a school like Duke.
We did indeed set requirements for you, and we did assess how well you reached them, course by course, term after term. But we could never compute the worth of your Duke education by taking those parts and summing the results. For one thing, when this place was really working, your academic experience did not consist of a set of separate pieces. The things you studied collided with one another, rebounded off one another, led you to see connections no single course could provide on its own. Plus your learning was never a function of formal coursework alone. Duke makes a specialty of having students put classroom study to the test of real-world experience. Your work in health clinics in DukeEngage or clean water projects in Engineers Without Borders, or research labs, or public policy internships, or financial literacy clinics offered to people in this city, will leave no mark on your transcript, but they will leave a mark on your mind, a deepened human knowledge of what classes can only teach abstractly.
Beyond this, there was the teeming world of the extracurricular, a zone of experience that was not formally graded but that was certainly not lesson-free. Wherever three or four Dukies gather together, they organize a dance ensemble, or a Quidditch team, or a relief effort after an earthquake, or a library party for two thousand with bizarrely talented Sinatra impersonators. Assembling groups with varied talents to visualize an activity, execute it, and accomplish together what no single person could accomplish alone is a profound form of learning, and can pay rich dividends for "serious" work.
Add these up and a key something is still left out: the learning that took place just by inhabiting this community. The most interesting book I read this spring is Edward Glaeser's excellent Triumph of the City. (If I were nice like Oprah I would put a copy under each of your seats in Wallace Wade.) Its point is that when varied populations of talented humans are brought into sufficiently close proximity, the result is transformational. Bike riders ride faster when they ride in a pack with a faster rider; grocery clerks do checkouts faster when a high-performing clerk works on their shift. From ancient Athens to Renaissance Florence to the great global metropolises of our time, humans have always been most productive and creative when they shared densely-packed space with a multitude of others, encountering each other in random, unprogrammed ways.
That's the secret of a great university campus. For without meaning to or being much aware of it, the members of a community like Duke swap masses of information, strike sparks from each other, sharpen each other's wits, and raise each other's game, through their encounters every day. Four years with all these forms of education swirling together in indistinguishable combination and you are changed: you're smarter, more thoughtful, more capable, more confident. This new you -- this far more empowered self -- is the real "learning outcome" you will take from Duke.
What will you do with it? Where will it take you? As of today, no one can say. The deep goods of education can't be measured at the finish line. They reveal themselves over time, as you translate your powers into an emerging life. Your parents want you to march straight from success at Duke to some career haven that will guarantee security and prosperity for the rest of life. But I have the privilege of meeting uncountable alums of this university, people of all ages doing every imaginable thing, and scarcely one of them is doing anything they could have envisioned at their graduation.
I know a graduate who went to law school who then, rather than going into practice, went to work at the Federal Reserve during the great inflation crisis of the late 1970s. When he went back into law, he had new opportunities thanks to his expertise in finance. Over time, this knowledge led him to be asked to work on the privatization of state-owned companies in China. That opened a new career doing business across Asia's emerging economies, which scarcely existed on the day he left Duke.
I know an alum who helped mount arts productions as a Duke undergraduate, after which he went to business school. He then went to work for a famous consulting firm but at age 32, quit it, with no other certain prospects, to wait out an opportunity in the land of his dreams, Hollywood. Many moves later, he ended up as the chairman of a major film studio and deviser of a new financial model for the film industry -- with many chapters still to go, since he's still in his forties now.
I know an alum who had two children in the days when the lack of childcare made it extraordinarily challenging for women to return to work. She co-founded the company that became the national leader in creating quality childcare opportunities; later, she became Commissioner of Human Services for the state of Tennessee; later still, she became the director of a foundation addressing children's needs and the dropout crisis across this land.
I know an alum (a onetime member of the field hockey team) who went to work for the then-virtual-startup Microsoft, talked the firm into creating its education practice and became its first director, then left to launch a series of entrepreneurial ventures, some for profit, some not for profit. Six months ago she agreed to take a new job directing entrepreneurial activities at Duke.
Each of my examples used Duke as a springboard; but not a single one of them could foresee the life that awaited them when they sat where you sit now. They found their chances by applying their intelligence and creative energy to the emerging needs and opportunities of their times, and having the courage to follow their talents, and take some risks.
Their turn then. Your turn now.
Men and Women of the Class of 2011, I told you you were about to lose your home. I'm sorry; the eviction notice can't be revoked. But how did Duke become your home? You made this place yours by engaging it: the more you invested Duke with your energies, the more you made it yours. Through the sum of your involvements, you have developed every aspect of your whole person. As a result, you are now capable of deeper engagements with the world, through which you will make new homes -- and on and on, through a long life of learning and involvement. At Duke you became the person who can write the next chapters of a significant life. Go write it now. You can.
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