Richard H. Brodhead: Repairing the Broken World

President addresses graduating students in Baccalaureate

Last month, during the Duke reunions, the small child of visiting alumni was heard to exclaim: "How beautiful is this place Duke." I thought: that's what the Class of 2012 must be feeling. Once upon a time, when you did not know any people here, you must have fallen in love with the look of this school, which is so beautiful, so everything a college should be. Over these four years, you've filled this space with so many joys and friendships, so many challenges faced and met, that this physical setting has ripened into something more profound: a visual image of your personal growth. Now, just when the place couldn't get any more beautiful or full of personal meaning, we have a nasty surprise for you. This beautiful place Duke is about to throw you out. Come back in three months and you'll find that we've replaced you with another. Like your famous ancestors Adam and Eve, whose departure from Eden is pictured in these stained glass windows, your days in the earthly paradise are over. Next, exile and the Great Unknown.

Friends: are you sure you want to go through with this graduation? Because in your case, the Great Unknown has some pretty scary features. The class of 2012 has the historical distinction of having settled into college in late August 2008, less than a month before the meltdown of the global financial markets. That was very smart of you: you got to sit out the greatest recession since the Great Depression in the comfy, secure world of college. Three years is usually ample time for a recovery, so that too seemed like good planning on your part -- but this time, the familiar cycle has not worked quite right. This time, the recovery has proved anemic and fragile, and the trauma we passed through has cast deep doubt on the strength and even functionality of the underlying system.

This nation has emerged from the recession laden with debt, with so many fixed expenditures as to virtually paralyze the discretionary spending by which we invest in building the future, and with entitlement obligations guaranteed to drive this debt higher and higher as far as the eye can see. This winter Duke had a memorable visit from Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, co-chairs of the bipartisan commission that proposed a plan to rein in future deficits and secure a margin for investment. But as you'll remember, their plan was not enacted or even seriously engaged. Instead, we got to watch our government square up to the crisis of an endangered future only to fall into partisan deadlock and an astonishing failure to act. We've always been proud of the superiority of our form of government -- but last summer we presented the world with the spectacle of an almost total inability to engage in complex problem-solving and long-term planning. Pundits have a name for this: Washington is Broken.

A CNN poll this February revealed that 86 percent of Americans believe the system of government is broken. But of course that's only the start. Haven't you heard? Health care now makes up nearly 20 percent of the US economy while producing health results inferior to many other developed countries. In short, health care is broken. K-12 education is definitely broken; people have been saying that for years. Colleges and universities used to be accorded some measure of respect, but within the past year, at least two hundred people have hastened to assure me that higher education is broken. Bad luck, Class of 2012: the world is all before you but its institutions no longer work.

I wonder if I'm the only one who thinks that our culture's way of talking about our problems might be part of the problem. Washington is Broken: it's a bold, decisive phrase and certainly easy to remember, but the thousandth time we hear the formula, it might dawn on us that we are in the presence of a massive cliche. And we need to ask ourselves, how healthy can it be for a culture when bombastic cliches supply our principal means for thinking about social issues? The "X is Broken" mantra bespeaks a mindset with a number of related features. First, it promotes aggressive, melodramatic simplifications in place of shaded or complex analysis. Second, it combines vast pessimism with a tone of smug self-satisfaction. (You're broken, it implies, but I am not.) And third, it offers no hint of how broken things might be put right, indeed suggests no feeling of responsibility either for the existence of the problem or for envisioning a solution. Hard to see how any of this will be of much help.

But there would be another way of standing toward all the same contemporary facts that puts them in a completely different light. Instead of standing apart from problems and denouncing them, what if you engaged them, took an active role in them, brought your best energies to bear on them? Instead of accepting reductive slogans posing as profundities, what if you used your independent powers of mind to try to understand the complex histories of those challenges and their multiple dimensions and plural causes? And instead of washing your hands of problems thought beyond hope or help, what if you mobilized others, pulled together their different forms of talent and intelligence, and found what you could accomplish together? The litany of problems would not go away, but they would reappear as challenges to our collective imagination and collective action, not shameful failures or dead ends.

Fortunately, these are skills you have been building every day the last four years. The deep beauty of this place isn't the architecture: it's the way Duke draws gifted men and women together in a space of engagement where they unleash each other's creative powers. A month ago I watched the production of Ragtime with 41 students onstage and over 120 involved overall. What was this: people who could have been sitting around complaining that life was empty of meaning who instead got together to fill it through their collective creativity. Pure Duke. I recently had dinner with varsity athletes in the senior class and, by chance, chatted with two who had worked on a DukeEngage project improving childhood health and education in Chile. One form of engagement sliding effortlessly into another: how beautiful is this place Duke. Last summer I visited a rural township in Tanzania that had a medical clinic filled with broken medical devices. In this faraway place I encountered two Duke students, living with a host family without electricity or hot water, who were using their engineering knowhow to fix broken equipment and teach others how to keep it working. Pure Duke: classroom education being carried out in service to real-world challenges. Closer to home, we've been planning the massive redesign of West Union, which will soon reopen as the center of community, connectivity and engagement it was always meant to be. (In case you didn't notice, West Union is Broken.) Members of your class have been active at every stage of the process and have supplied many of the best ideas: making this place better rather than bemoaning what it lacks.

You may be familiar from Judaic tradition with the concept of tikkun olam, the Hebrew words for repairing the world. In this concept, the world is broken not because of anything Barack Obama or John Boehner did, but fundamentally: the essence of reality as it is given us to live is that it is fragmentary, disrupted, incomplete. The human obligation, in this concept, is to struggle against the brokenness we can never finally cure: to use our human powers to help create the better world we imagine but do not see. This phrase is a useful reminder that if today's challenges have their specificity and urgency, we're not the first people in history who have faced difficulty. And it's a reminder that it makes a world of difference whether we meet our problems with negativism and passivity or engage them through an active, constructive approach.

Men and women of Duke, we have a great hope for you: that in whatever career or sequence of careers awaits you, you will be repairers of a broken world. The world needs this; you have this capacity; and your education has fortified this power. But there is one thing more you will need, and neither you nor we can be certain at this time that you will have it: namely, the will to use your powers for this larger good. I say this because we live at a time when education and trained intelligence are more vital than ever to delivering all the things our society needs, from a vibrant economy to skilled workers to quality health care and schooling to sustainable practices, international understanding and all the rest. But this is also a time when the best educated have shown more and more of a tendency to shut themselves in with one another, in a bubble of smartness and success. In a world where higher education and the culture of success are so highly correlated, there's no way you can fight entirely free of this temptation. So it will matter, over time, that you feel some internal prod reminding that your gifts and your opportunities gave you a higher calling than personal success alone. That's what Duke could be for you when you leave it: the image of the place where you first took the measure of what you could be, and a summons to live up to that high mark.

A few years back I was taught a saying that I'll share with you as my parting gift. Here it is: Discovering the Use of Knowledge is Education. D-U-K-E. It's an interesting thought. Taken seriously, it would mean that education isn't complete when you finish acquiring knowledge, but only when you find the use of knowledge, learn what you can do with it, learn what you can make happen. That can't be taught; you have to discover it. And how to discover it except through experience and trial, a long life attempting to use your intelligence in active, productive ways. I was not kidding when I said you are now departing for the Great Unknown. But the unknown could be this space of discovery, the place to learn the use you could make of your training and your powers.

College is over; time to start your education. Make it a great one. It has been a joy to share this place with you.