Gathered here in Killian Court, we feel the deep currents of history. The majestic architecture of the Main Group recalls our MIT predecessors who, in 1916, erected these buildings. In their grandeur, these buildings expressed a vision for the technological century that was about to unfold. And in the names carved above us — those ancestral geniuses of science and engineering, who encourage our work every day — these buildings also remind us of all those who came before: our compatriots in the search for truth. These great thinkers and doers laid, stone by stone, the intellectual foundations upon which all of our contributions now rise. We gather here, in this iconic space, humbled and inspired by our past, to celebrate the extraordinary success of the 2,484 young people graduating today from MIT.
MIT graduates of 2012: This is your day. You have earned your degrees in a wide range of disciplines — but you are united in having distinguished yourselves in courses of study that stand among the most demanding in the world. For all that you have accomplished, we congratulate you.
You can tell by the podium and my funny robe that I have my usual presidential part to play in today’s festivities. But you graduates and I have more in common than I have shared with previous classes I have graduated — because this year, I’m graduating, too. As you and I, together, prepare to leave MIT, I expect that we share a good number of thoughts and emotions. We likely share the bizarre dual sense of time — how could our years here have gone by so quickly? — when we can also recall more difficult weeks that seemed to stretch out as long as a freshman physics exam. All of us likely look forward to commencing our next chapter with a sense of breathless excitement. But at the same time, we may feel a bit of reluctance, not entirely sure that we can maintain MIT’s exhilarating pace on our own.
And I’m certain that you are, as I am, exceedingly grateful to have our families and friends here to join in today’s celebration — and keenly aware how their encouragement, their support and their faith in us fueled our success here. Graduates of MIT — please stand and join me in thanking the families and friends whose confidence in us became our own.
I often say that one of the delights of being a member of a great academic institution is that we are all, all of us, all the time, both teachers and students. We came to MIT to learn — so let me offer three of the many lessons I learned here, in hopes that they were part of your curriculum, too.
The first is that there are simply no more brilliant, provocative or inspiring companions on the road to truth and understanding than the faculty of MIT. They set a standard of excellence that kept us all up at night — and that truly lights the world. Please join me in thanking them.
The second MIT lesson is that the only thing conventional wisdom is good for is target practice. Every day, MIT faculty, students, postdocs, staff and alumni take a sharp look at the way things are — and find a way to make them better.
It would be hard to find a more compelling example than our Commencement speaker, Sal Khan. He felt the simple, ancient impulse to help someone younger understand something difficult — and he turned that age-old, universal dynamic into a brand-new catalyst for transforming how, when, and how well people everywhere learn online. In that same spirit, MIT, in collaboration with our colleagues at Harvard, recently launched edX, a new platform for online education that we hope will revolutionize teaching here on campus, will offer outstanding educational experiences to a worldwide community of online learners, and will dramatically advance our learning about learning itself. In their purpose, technological nimbleness and bold disregard for the status quo, the Khan Academy and edX both express the fearless, problem-solving spirit of MIT.
Now, I don’t have to tell you that this is a time when many people fear the future. Through the great alchemy of MIT — which turns the lead weight of unsolved problems into golden opportunities for progress — this community is not afraid. As we leave this campus, we must share with the world that sense of fearlessness and passion. I have no doubt that each of you leaves here with the essential elements to bring that passion into your chosen path. But, I further hope that you also leave embracing the power of bringing compassion into your life and your life’s work.
My exhortation to compassion brings me to a third, related lesson that I hope you learned, as I did, at MIT — that there are two things that transform raw talent into something of true value: a sense of service and a sense of community.
You’re graduating at a time of growing skepticism about the value of higher education. At MIT, I’m proud that, through edX and other initiatives, we’ve joined with Sal Kahn and others to explore bold strategies for making education more accessible and more effective, through the power of the web. But I’m convinced that there will always be some things that human beings learn best and do best together, in person: if not always the “what” of a subject, then certainly the “why”: the values, motivations and sense of shared purpose that lead to a meaningful life.
Whether you have spent a year at MIT, or four, or, like me, almost eight — because you have been here, in person, I know you will leave with the deep imprint of this community’s profound commitment to service. And you will find that there is no more important lesson we could teach.
The program lists this little speech as my “charge” to the graduates. But given all that you’ve learned at MIT — of rigor and boldness, passion and compassion, service and mission — I know that you will leave this place with an electrical intensity that requires no amplification from me. But I hope — as you join the 120,000 MIT alumni around the planet — that you will remember to come back to campus whenever you may need to recharge.
Now is the moment for us to send you forth from Killian Court to put MIT’s spirit and principles to work around the globe. For all that you have created, invented, explored and mastered at MIT, congratulations, MIT graduates of 2012.