It is a huge honor to be here. To the students, I have to tell you that you are already way ahead of me. I did not actually make my graduation. It was in the morning and — I guess you have something called Super Saturdays, right? Let’s just say I had a very super Saturday. I wasn’t quite at a sushi place, but it was tough to get up the next morning.
You know, I remember very well that moment of pride, of nostalgia, of regret but of anticipation, as you’re leaving this extraordinary place and this beautiful, beautiful campus. And I remember it so well, even though it was 30-odd years ago. And I remember that sense of apprehension that you have, wondering about what the world is going to look like. I had it all because for me, college wasn't just about college. It was about coming to America. I grew up in India, and I went through the Indian educational system and then came to college on a scholarship.
And I fell in love with America and college and a liberal education all at the same time. And so I know how special this liberal education that you have just gone through is, and how valuable it is.
And so when I hear attacks on it from people who worry about whether you’re going to get a job, who worry about the cost of it all, I understand it all, but I really think this is one of America’s greatest jewels and should be preserved.
Part of the attack, I’m convinced, is that people don’t understand what the word arts means in the “liberal arts.” It does not refer simply to the fine arts, to theater, to drama. In its origins, it really meant the arts in a sense as opposed to a specific craft, like farming or masonry in the Middle Ages. And when you studied the liberal arts, you were studying science, geometry, astronomy, rhetoric, logic.
Those things were seen as the acquisition, not simply of a specific set of skills, but a broader array of knowledge. A kind of wisdom that would take you through not just the first job but the second job and the third job. Let’s face it, you are all going to enter a world in which technology and globalization are so transforming life that it is quite possible in five years you will be working at a company that wasn’t founded yet. In 10 years, you may work in an industry that didn't exist today. So what exactly is the kind of training you need? It is that broad set of skills, wisdom, knowledge, that is imparted through a liberal education.
We live in an age of technology. The technological capacity you have at your fingertips, literally, is breathtaking. President Bravman and I were marveling at the fact that the iPhone 7, or the Samsung Galaxy equivalent, is actually more powerful than the three most powerful computers in the world in the 1980s. The Cray supercomputers owned by IBM and the United States government. And you have in your pocket a computer that is more powerful. Think about it — all you do with it is watch Netflix and Snapchat, right?
But the fact that we live in this extraordinary age of technology doesn't mean that you still don’t need these broader skills. Because one of the things I’ve noticed in reading and reporting and talking to the people who make this world is that the fundamental insight you still need to have to succeed in this world is not just about technology, it's about how human beings use technology.
So Steve Jobs understood that people wanted a computer to not simply be a machine that did back-office functions and adjusted payroll, but they wanted a personal helper that was in a sense something that they could not just use, but fall in love with. And the design and ease of use was very much a part of what made his creations so ubiquitous.
Mark Zuckerberg told me once that he thought that the most important insight he had that helped him found Facebook was psychological, not technological. That he realized that the world of the internet at that point was still a world of anonymity, or pseudonymous handles, and that people wanted a place where they could be themselves, where they could reveal their true identities.
That was one of the core inspirations behind Facebook , that you could actually be yourself and communicate with your friends as yourself. He planned to be a psychology major at Harvard before he dropped out.
If you listen to Dr. Jeff Bezos, he will tell you that he begins his senior strategy meetings with something called study hall, in which one person from a senior group is asked to write a memo in the form of an essay, five or six pages, outlining a proposed strategy. And for 20 minutes in this study hall, people have to sit and read that before the meeting begins, because as he says, “I don’t want anyone pretending they’ve read the memo.” One could actually adapt that for classes, I think sometimes. But the point is he wants it in that form because he thinks that writing a clean essay is still the most powerful way to think, it is the most powerful way to analyze, and it is the way in which this extraordinary technology company plots its future.
I’ve been banging this drum for a few years, but now people are catching on, and so I see on Amazon books that are doing well with names like The Fuzzy and the Techie: Why the Liberal Arts Will Rule the Digital World, or You Can Do Anything: The Surprising Power of a “Useless” Liberal Arts Education. “Useless,” I should point out, in quotation marks.
I want to make clear I see in your future, and in everyone’s future, the importance of technology and science. I’m an Asian parent. my 9-year-old daughter Sophia is in the audience here, and she has to take extra math on the weekends that her dad makes her do. So I’m true to form in that sense.
But I do think you will still always need to marry those scientific technological skills with a basic understanding of human beings. And that understanding of human beings is something you can get from a novel or a poem or a work of history, just as much as you can get it from an engineering class.
So try to think deeply and broadly, and don’t worry. There’s a good study out, by the way, by the Brookings and Hamilton institutes that points out that while liberal arts majors start out with lower salaries, by the end of their lives they more than catch up. You could even kind of imagine a Bucknell study where we take the schools of engineering and management and the liberal arts and keep track of you guys for the next 10, 20 or 30 years, and we’d get some interesting results out of that.
But I wanted to talk today about another sense in which the liberal arts are under threat. This is really the other word in liberal arts that is under threat — liberal. Liberal, by the way does not refer in any sense to the modern political notion of liberal. It refers to liberal in the original Latin sense, pertaining to liberty.
The entire purpose of a liberal arts education was to prepare you to exercise those skills of citizenship and wisdom, public wisdom, that would allow you to live as free men and women
And I worry about it because in some ways this is at the heart of the Western tradition. This is at the heart of what made the West unique and special for so many years — that ability to preserve, protect and defend liberty, and at the heart of that idea of liberty was the liberty to think, speak, believe, act, but perhaps above all to speak.
In that sense, the liberty of talk, freedom of speech, does strike me as under some considerable strain in the United States, from all kinds of sources, but one source that’s very important is on college campuses.
You all have heard and read about the various places where people have been disinvited or have been invited and then booed or shunned or not allowed to complete their talks — the protests that have taken place. These strike me as fundamentally illiberal, if not un-American. The whole purpose of the liberal tradition, the whole purpose of the liberal arts, has been to hear people out, to listen to opposing views.
At the start of the Enlightenment, Voltaire famously said, “I disagree with every word that you have said, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Now, this is one of those quotes in journalism which we call too good to check. Unfortunately, I did have to check it for this speech. He never said that. It does accurately capture his views, but he never actually said those specific words. But let’s imagine Voltaire said that.
But what I will tell you, what people have said, and these are important words, is Oliver Wendell Holmes, who said, when we protect freedom of thought, we are protecting freedom for the thought that we hate. This is very important. Freedom of speech, freedom of thought, is not freedom for people we like, for warm, fuzzy ideas that we find comfortable. It is for ideas that you find offensive. Not just wrong, but offensive.
Perhaps the greatest exponent of the freedom of speech, and of freedom in general, is John Stuart Mill, the great philosopher of the 19th century who in some ways articulated the idea behind the Western tradition of liberty best. And he says, however unwillingly the person who has a strong opinion may admit the possibility that his opinion may be false, he ought to be moved by the consideration that however true it may be, if it is not fully and frequently and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not living truth.
And that is sometimes what I feel when I walk around college campuses, that you all believe things passionately but as dead dogmas, not as living truths, because you don’t argue about them enough. You don’t confront people who argue against you. You turn your back to them. And I don’t want you to turn your back to people; I want you to turn your face, your mind. Debate with them. Argue with them. Explain to them why you think you’re right, why you’re wrong. And guess what? You will discover in that that no matter who you’re talking to, there’s something you learn from that exchange. That there’s some way in which they are addressing a concern that is real. There is some argument that they have that you might have overlooked.
That’s why Mill said if opponents of all-important truths do not exist, it is indispensable to imagine them, and supply them with the strongest arguments, which the most skillful devil’s advocate could conjure up. You don’t need to imagine these people; just invite them to your campuses. Just allow them to speak, and then argue with them. And in that contestation of ideas we have always held, somehow a greater truth emerges.
There is, we all know, a kind of anti-intellectualism on the right these days – the denial of facts, of reason, of science. But there is also an anti-intellectualism on the left. An attitude of righteousness that says we are so pure, we are so morally superior, we cannot bear to hear an idea that we don’t like or disagree with. There is no such idea. There is no idea that is beyond the pale. Everything should be within the arena, and should be worth contesting.
I talk about liberals because campuses are invariably more liberal than conservative. And it is a real problem to have this kind of silencing of conservative voices. Michael Rock, the president of Wesleyan, points out that at this point on college campuses, you perhaps need an affirmative action program for conservatives, just to be able to hear what they’re saying. I doubt very much that conservatives would like that idea, but I think the spirit is one that is entirely right.
We want to celebrate every kind of diversity these days except intellectual diversity.
It’s important to just remember some facts here. In 2016 a Pew study found that while Democrats were more likely to view Republicans as close-minded, when you actually do the analysis, each side is about the same in terms of closed-mindedness and hostility to hearing views that they don’t agree with. Let me tell you the simple, practical reason for why you should fight actively against this.
When you go on in your lives and you find yourselves in positions of some authority or decision-making, the most dangerous thing you will find is the ability to not imagine that things could go wrong. That your course of action could be the wrong one. And so the most important skill you need is to ask yourself, what am I not seeing? What is the best argument against what I am doing? If you look back at the crises that this country has faced, that businesses have faced, almost always, if the CEO or the president had asked, what could go wrong? What am I missing, what is the best, strongest case against what I am doing? — things would have worked out better.
It is the greatest danger I think you will face over the course of your lives – this ability to close yourselves off into some kind of bubble where you don’t contemplate the possibility that you are wrong.
There’s a broader political challenge it creates, I think, which is as a society, we need that ability to understand each other. You know, we’re living in times as I was describing. Technology, capitalism, globalization — all of these things are powerful, but they are all driving us apart. They are segregating us, in terms of education, in terms of the cities versus the rural areas, in terms of the people who are able to surf this world of globalization and technology and those who aren’t.
All these forces are pulling us apart. And perhaps it is this extraordinary force of a liberal education that can try to bring us together, to bring us together by at least having a common conversation. By talking about the things that we agree with, by talking about the things that we don’t agree with, so that we can together find a way to come together at least in our understanding that we do actually have a common destiny.
That is the greatest gif that a liberal education can give you as a person, in your lives, in your careers, in your personal lives, but also in your public lives as citizens. That is in many ways the point of a liberal education from the start. It was invented in that way by the Greeks, when they invented democracy. They decided that we need to train people not just to hunt and farm and fish, but we need to train them to be citizens. And I think this is even more important today as we find ourselves in a world where we in many ways don’t think we are citizens of the same republic, citizens of the same common space.
So I plead with you, not just on college campuses but through life, keep yourselves open, keep yourselves able to listen to, to argue with, to engage with people of wildly different perspectives, even the ones that you cannot abide.
Let me close with one final thought. There’s wisdom that you gain from books, and from learning, and from history, from a great liberal education. But there’s also a certain kind of wisdom you gain just from living life. And let me give you this one piece of advice that I’ve given students in your position before, but I really do think it’s very important.
You cannot know until you have gone through the experience what it is like to be a parent. Until you have children of your own, you will never know how much your parents love you. Right now, you look at them with a mixed feeling, I know. Yeah, you love them, I know, but there’s the crazy phone calls, the constant pestering, the trying to get you to do things, the worrying about you — it will all makes sense once you have kids. Trust me, because you will do exactly the same things. But here’s what I’m giving you. I’m giving you a 20-year head start. Don’t wait that long. Today of all days, make sure you thank your parents for having helped you get to this point in life.
Congratulations to all the graduates, and godspeed.