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President Vest's charge to the graduates

President Charles M. Vest's charge to the graduates at MIT's Commencement ceremonies on June 9, 2003, in Cambridge, Mass.
In his charge to          the graduates, MIT president Charles Vest asks them to "take your          education, your talent, and your energy, and build a nation and a world          community that considers knowledge a gift to be shared, a healthy planet          a place to be cherished, and human dignity and opportunity fundamental          conditions to be enjoyed by all people."
In his charge to the graduates, MIT president Charles Vest asks them to "take your education, your talent, and your energy, and build a nation and a world community that considers knowledge a gift to be shared, a healthy planet a place to be cherished, and human dignity and opportunity fundamental conditions to be enjoyed by all people."
Photo / L. Barry Hetherington

Tribute to the Fifty Year Class

At this time, I want to take particular note of a group of remarkable individuals here today - the members of the Class of 1953.

You can recognize them by their red jackets and - I suspect - by a certain aura of experience they carry with them.

The world has changed greatly since their own graduation, and with all they have witnessed in the intervening years, I am sure they could tell us much about what is truly valuable in life.

And they could also tell us about one thing that never changes: the pride you can take in knowing that you have earned a degree from MIT.

To the Class of 1953: Welcome!

A Comment on Ritual

And so, here we are - gathered once again in Killian Court to celebrate accomplishment, heritage, and passage.

It may, perhaps, seem odd that a community so dedicated to the future 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.

One of our MIT poets, Professor Steven Tapscott has reminded us, however, that the solemnity of such elegant scenes is sometimes broken by the faculty themselves - when, as he once wrote - "from deep in the drooping sleeves of their robes, surreptitiously they bring out peanut-butter sandwiches" to sustain them during a long ceremony.

Be that as it may, this ritual reminds us of the continuity - through the ages - of our role in an unbroken, centuries-old chain of human discovery and accomplishment.

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

This is not to say that you have accomplished this remarkable feat of graduating from MIT all on your own!

You are surrounded by parents, family, friends, spouses, and children who have supported and sustained you through the years. You will recognize them today by their smiles, brought about by their great pride in your accomplishments ... and, no doubt, by a sense of great relief to their bank accounts! We are very grateful that they are here.

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


And now - some thoughts for our students. You are soon to become graduates of one of the world's most prestigious universities. We celebrate your journey to this graduation. But more importantly, we look forward to the continuation of that journey as you dedicate your talents and scholarship to the service of your nations and the world.

The world we share today is one of enormous complexity. At the dawn of this new century, we have unprecedented capabilities and opportunities in science and engineering to explore and improve the human condition.

Indeed, this is the most exciting period in science and its applications in all of history. We have before us the ability to come ever closer to understanding the origins of our universe and the life within it. We can learn the evasive facts of dark energy and dark matter that may pervade our cosmos. We are accelerating our understanding of the human brain and mind. We have mapped the human genome and now begins the task of relating this knowledge to the origins and resolution of disease. We have the ability to improve human learning and communication. We can now build materials and devices at the molecular level and can mimic more closely the beautiful and efficient designs found in nature. We can dramatically improve our use of energy and materials and learn to better steward our earth's environment. We can learn to feed and shelter the peoples of our planet.

Behind the advances in each of these areas of knowledge and of challenge lie some common features. They all require work at the highest levels of complexity. They all cross traditional boundaries -- boundaries between academic disciplines; between academia, industry, and government; and between nations and peoples around the globe. Many of these advances originate in the ability to think more holistically - to think more in terms of systems - to combine and integrate as well as to apply reductionist concepts.

The advance of knowledge increasingly comes from combining and pulling together, rather than breaking down into finer and finer elements.

As graduates of MIT, you of all people stand ready to drive these advances and lead their wise applications. You can make a better future.

Gerard O'Neil once discussed the work of those who had made serious attempts, at various stages of history, to predict the future. He analyzed whether those predictions had come true.

What he learned was that we invariably underestimate the rate of scientific and technological progress, and we invariably and dramatically overestimate the rate of social progress.

So you should strive to change this situation ... to bring better harmony to technology and society.

As you work to advance scientific and engineering knowledge or to apply it, you must increasingly understand the social, political, economic, artistic and historical contexts in which you work.

And when you do so, I think that in these realms you too will find a familiar tension.

Because our social and political world also is subject to two opposing forces. One force is that of fragmentation -- pulling us apart. The other force is that of integration and connection -- bringing us together.

We are increasingly fragmented by politics, poverty, hatred, absolutism and fear.

Yet we are pulled together by information technology; by the challenges of the earth's environment that we all share; by the globalization of trade, economies, and education; and by hope.

Fragmentation stems from our worst tendencies. Integration stems from the best of our shared aspirations.

And today we have many new opportunities to apply our skills in science and engineering in a way that advances these shared human aspirations.


I have spoken of the opportunities before you. But as has just been said, with great opportunities come great responsibilities.

As you leave MIT, I hope that you will take with you more than the knowledge you have gained. Take with you the sense of wonder and joy that drives science and that science instills in us. Recognize the promise that is held in the exploration of nature and the quest for new knowledge and new understanding. And recognize the value of the intellectual heritage on which you build.

But your task is to shape the future. This will require more than the knowledge and skills that you have gained here. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said, "It is the business of the future to be dangerous."

And so, you will need to be more than smart and knowledgeable: you will need to be courageous. You will need to be creative and compassionate as well.

We expect no less of you. And indeed, we are counting on you. I urge you to help us build a world community that embraces and values different cultures and heritage, that respects individuals and works toward the betterment of all people.

There is fulfillment in such service. In the words of Albert Schweitzer: "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."

As graduates of MIT, you are in a unique position to serve and to lead. You have acquired an outstanding education. It has not been a gift -- you have worked for it, and worked hard. Nonetheless, your education has been a privilege. Now you have a responsibility to use your education -- to use it wisely, and use it well.

My Path

Today we celebrate with joy your journey to this graduation ceremony, and look forward with hope and optimism to your journey into the future. But as we do so, I would like to share with you a brief personal reflection - because I had an experience this spring that brought this issue of fragmentation versus integration home to me in a very personal way.

I was invited to give the Commencement address at the University of Tokyo.

Now, to put this in perspective, you need to know that when I was a young boy growing up in a small town in West Virginia, the United States and Japan were at war with each other. We were separated by cultural, historical, and political differences vastly greater than the geographic distance that separated us. At that time, it would have been inconceivable to me that I might someday serve as president of MIT. And it would have been far more inconceivable that I might someday stand to address the graduating class of the University of Tokyo.

Yet there I was - having crossed a bridge made possible by the conviction of leaders and of ordinary citizens in both countries that we had more in common than we had differences.

And while I was halfway around the globe from Cambridge, I was speaking at a university that has much in common with MIT: a commitment to advance human knowledge, and to work toward a world in which all people can develop their talents, economies, health, security, freedom, and opportunities.

What better ambition could there be for any institution - or individual - in our world today?

Charge to the Graduates

And now, as you embark on the next stage of your journey, I offer this charge to you, the graduates of MIT:

Ponder the unthinkable. Question the status quo. Live in the world as well as in your own nation. Dream of a better future, but contribute to the present. Share your talents. Commune with all people. Be steady friends and bold companions. Address the truly important issues of your time. Be honest in all that you do.

Take your education, your talent, and your energy, and build a nation and a world community that considers knowledge a gift to be shared, a healthy planet a place to be cherished, and human dignity and opportunity fundamental conditions to be enjoyed by all people.

Men and Women of MIT, I wish you God's speed and the very best of good fortune.

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