Skip to content ↓

President Vest's Charge to the Graduates

Thank you, Aileen. . . It is a moving experience to receive a gift from the class at a moment like this-after all we've put you through!

I like to think of it as an indication of the high regard that you all have for MIT-something that another visitor from Washington commented on a few years ago.

Several years ago, Walter Mondale came here to speak. He reported later that as his car was driving up Amherst Alley to Kresge, he was surrounded by a crowd of cheering students who really seemed to love this place. . . because, he said, they were all shouting "Tech is Swell!"

RitualOnce again we are gathered to celebrate accomplishment, heritage, and passage. It may, perhaps, seem odd that a community so dedicated to the future, and so permeated by scientific objectivity, comes together donning strange and colorful medieval regalia. But indeed it is fitting, and seemingly fulfilling of deep human needs, that such rituals take place.

This ritual reminds us of the continuity-through the ages of discovery and learning-of our role in an unbroken, centuries-old chain of human accomplishment . . . achievements of mind and of spirit.

But above all, it celebrates your accomplishments during your student years.

This is not to say that the accomplishment of graduation from MIT is yours alone, however! There are those parents, family, friends, spouses, and children who have supported and sustained you. You will recognize them today by their smiles, brought about by their great pride in your accomplishments . . . and also by a sense of great and immediate relief to their bank accounts.

Let us, then, express our deep appreciation to all who have come to Cambridge today to join in your commencement ceremony. Will you, the graduates, please rise and give them the applause they so richly deserve.

It is also especially wonderful to have all the babies and small children here to see their mothers and fathers graduate. They too are welcome. And as this ceremony stretches onward, I give them my special presidential approval to comment upon the proceedings. . . at any time and in any manner they see fit.

MilestonesI would like to take a moment to recognize some other special graduates of MIT who are with us today. They are the members of the Class of 1942-the fifty year class-and the Class of 1967, celebrating their twenty-fifth reunion. You will recognize them by the red or gray jackets they are wearing-along with a certain look of wonder that time has passed so quickly since they were in your shoes.

Time has passed quickly. . . and it has brought extraordinary change along with it.

Fifty years ago, in 1942, we were in the midst of the Second World War. MIT had been called to national service to help develop radar. . . and drew mathematicians, physicists, electrical engineers, and others from throughout the nation to the Radiation Laboratory. . . students moved through here in double time. . . it was a time of crisis for the country, and the world, and MIT responded.

Twenty-five years ago, MIT was still at the forefront of discovery and achievement, but it was facing difficult times of a different sort. How many members of the Class of 1967 remember Jerry Lettvin and Timothy Leary debating a person's right to "turn on, tune in, and drop out"? It was a time when young people were questioning the lifestyles and cultural values of their parents. . . a time when the country was divided over the Vietnam War. . . a time when riots rocked cities throughout the nation.

And what about today? We hear echoes of those earlier times, even though these times are different. The United States is no longer faced with a political enemy of mythic proportions. The USSR is, remarkably, dissolving, and its totalitarian and communist foundations are giving way to democracy and capitalism. . . the boundaries between the European nations are becoming semipermeable membranes. . . we are beginning to recognize that we live in a global community.

How strange it is that just as the world revolts against communism and moves toward democracy-a transition so dramatic that Francis Fukuyama refers to it somewhat hyperbolically as "the end of history"-we begin to fragment along almost every conceivable fault line in our society.

Diversity, Tolerance, and CivilityI can think of no greater goal to ask you to set for yourselves, and I for myself, than that of restoring some modicum of tolerance and civility in this country and world.

In the United States, we are losing the great goals of this nation of immigrants, of a society built to be an amalgamation of cultures and races that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Thomas Jefferson said "We hope to avail the nation of those talents which nature has sown as liberally among the poor as the rich, but which perish without use, if not sought for and cultivated." This thought is more important today than in the 18th century. And it must be extended to refer to the nation's need to avail itself of talents of black as well as white, female as well as male, immigrant as well as native, follower as well as leader.

We are far from that goal. Indeed, we seem to be in the midst of what Arthur Schlesinger calls the "disuniting of America."

You must help us to stem the centrifugal forces that would pull us apart. We need tolerance, not divisiveness; mutual respect, not disdain; love, not hate; civility, not revenge; hard work, not empty rhetoric; excellence, not mediocrity; grand strategies, not just tactics.

And it must begin by each of us answering "Yes" to that self-conscious but strangely articulate voice that called out to us from Los Angeles saying "People, can't we all get along?"

Because if we can `just get along,' that can be the starting point to make us more than the sum of our parts. Just as Elizabethan England flowered by melding the tongues and cultures of the inhabitants of the British Isles and their Norman invaders to create the language and imagery of Shakespeare; just as the English, the Irish, the Italians and the Germans came together in New England to create the America that Walt Whitman heard singing; so too must we again come together with diverse races and cultures but with common goals, values, and aspirations.

One hundred years ago, at the 1892 commencement, MIT awarded a degree to our first African-American graduate, Robert Robinson Taylor. He went on to become a distinguished architect who designed, among other things, most of the buildings at Tuskegee Institute. And MIT has gone on to become a university of the world, one that continually evolves to meet important needs of society while pushing out the envelope of human knowledge and understanding.

MIT was founded on the belief that a new kind of educational institution was needed-one that would be engaged, passionately and practically, in human affairs, one that was designed to further the welfare of a rapidly growing and changing society. And so I would ask that we take this centennial occasion to recommit ourselves to those founding principles by working to better reflect the changing face of America among our students, faculty and staff, and in the work that we do.

Leadership and ServiceAnd I would ask you-on the occasion of your graduation-to help us build a nation and a world community that embraces and values different cultures and heritage. . . that respects the individual. . . that works toward the betterment of all its people, and that takes pride in being part of the greater world community.

There is fulfillment in such service. For as Albert Schweitzer stated it, "I don't know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: the ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve."

You are in a very good position to serve and to lead. For you have acquired an outstanding education here at MIT. It has not been a gift-you have worked, and worked hard, for your knowledge and skills. But still, it has been a privilege. Now you have a responsibility to use your education-to use it wisely, and to use it well. You have been schooled in the application of science and technology to meet the needs of society, and you therefore can influence the circumstances of your lives and those of your fellow human beings.

It will be the destiny of most of you to lead through science and technology. For despite our ever increasing breadth of interests and activities, MIT-the institution in which we have lived and worked and learned together-remains largely focused on science and technology. We were founded on a belief in the "dignity of useful work," and we have a continuing, indeed increasing, commitment to interaction with the worlds of industry, commerce and government. At this time, when our nation must increase its economic competitiveness and the world must improve the efficiency of its production systems, this is a very important element of our mission.

Yet we must not take too narrow and utilitarian a view of science. We must not forget the importance and the joy of science as a search for understanding the unknown. The deep mysteries and great questions must be explored, and the iconoclastic scholar must be valued.

As you leave here, then, I would hope that you will take with you more than the knowledge you have gained. Take with you the sense of wonder that both drives science and is instilled by science. Recognize the promise that is held in the exploration of nature and the quest for new knowledge. Recognize that the courage that you have learned through scientific and technological exploration will hold you in good stead in all aspects of your life. And recognize the value of the intellectual heritage on which you build.

Our intellectual heritage is like the lawns of Oxford. A visitor to Oxford cannot help but admire the beauty of its lawns, interspersed among the gothic towers. In the absence of the Tru-Green service and other manifestations of over-zealous modernity, an American tourist might well wonder how they are so beautifully kept. Indeed, one visitor once spotted a groundskeeper in one of the Oxford colleges and asked how he managed to keep the lawn so beautiful.

The groundskeeper thought for a few moments. Then he said, "It's really quite simple. You just mow it, water it and roll it-for 800 years."

You will need to do your share of "tending the lawns"-that is, of maintaining our underlying strengths and values and of contributing to the evolution of human knowledge. But your greater task will be to shape the future.

This is a task that will require more than the knowledge and skills that you have gained here. For, in the words of the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, "It is the business of the future to be dangerous."

So you will need to be more than smart, you will need to be courageous. And if the world you invent is the world we would wish for, you will need to be creative and compassionate as well. We expect no less of you. Indeed, we are counting on you.

Men and women of MIT, I wish you godspeed and the best of good fortune.

A version of this article appeared in the June 3, 1992 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 36, Number 33).

Related Topics

More MIT News