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Vol 40  No 5
November 1, 2007


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Address to convocation
by Dr. Shirley Tilghman

Friday, Oct. 19, 2007

It is an honour to wear the colors of Memorial University and a pleasure to be with you today. Although I was born and raised in Canada, and was educated in four of its provinces, this is my first visit to Newfoundland. I grew up studying your history and culture in school, which left me with a yearning to visit the sweeping natural beauty of this very special place. Thank you for giving me this occasion to experience your warm hospitality and for the honorary degree you have conferred on me.

I recognize, of course, that I must earn this degree by sharing with you words of wisdom and inspiration, and to do so in under 10 minutes. The time for 50-minute lectures is clearly past! So, let me cut to the chase and begin by reflecting for a moment on the world you are about to enter.

Charles Dickens began A Tale of Two Cities with the iconic sentence: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity.” I believe that we live in a similar time of stark contrasts. On the one hand, we have never known so much about the natural world – from the sequence of the human genome to the behaviour of ocean currents to the beginnings of the cosmos – or about ourselves, thanks to immense advances in the social sciences, and the continued vitality of the arts and humanities. The Internet and the computational firepower that underpins it have placed a mind-boggling amount of information at our fingertips, transforming the way we work and play. Engineers are designing products that continue to improve our quality of life in ways our grandparents could scarcely have imagined; international travel is binding us closer together than ever before, with the promise of greater understanding across languages, religions, and cultures.

And yet, despite this enormous expansion of what is possible, my generation is, regretfully, leaving your own with truly daunting problems of global dimensions. Last week former U.S. Vice-president Al Gore and the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change were recognized by the Nobel Peace Prize committee for documenting the terrible impact that the burning of fossil fuels is having on the global climate. It will be your task as citizens of this nation and other nations to develop new technologies that will replace our diminishing supply of fossil fuels, and to hold the next generation of government and business leaders responsible for stewarding the planet in a more responsible way. Moreover, not everyone has benefited from the increase in economic prosperity that we witnessed during the 20th century. Indeed, the gap between the rich and the poor has been steadily growing, not diminishing, in many parts of the world, leaving behind an underclass who struggle every day just to feed, house and clothe their families. Finally, the breakdown in civil discourse, effective global governance and the subsequent rise of intolerance within and across nations has led too many to adopt violence as a way to achieve political goals.

In short, this is the best and worst of times; a time of unparalleled possibility, exciting opportunity and yet enormous challenge. Your education at Memorial has well prepared you to assume the mantle we bequeath to you and to make the world a better place. To be sure, you will eagerly call upon your newly acquired expertise in science, engineering and applied science, medicine, nursing, pharmacy, maritime studies, and social psychology to effect needed change. However, universities like Memorial see their mission far more expansively than technical preparation for a profession. One of my predecessors as Princeton’s president, Woodrow Wilson, got into hot water with parents by describing the goal of a liberal arts education as making sons as different from their fathers as possible. While I would not go that far, for sons or daughters, I believe that the most lasting benefit you will take from this privileged place is not technical knowledge, which, after all, will have changed by the time you leave this auditorium, but the ability to think for yourself and to adapt to change. For universities are first and foremost about sharpening and honing your minds. The qualities we aspire to inculcate include the willingness to ask an unorthodox question and pursue its solution relentlessly; to see what lies between black and white; to reject knee-jerk reactions to ideas and ideologies; to recognize nuance and complexity in an argument; to differentiate between knowledge and belief; to be prepared to be surprised; to appreciate that changing your mind is a sign not of weakness but of strength; to shun the superficial trends of popular culture in favour of careful analysis; and to recognize propaganda, ignorance, and baseless revisionism when you see it. That is the essence of a liberal education.

These qualities of mind are especially important today. Never has the world seemed so deeply polarized to me, with the clarion call of “you’re either with us or against us” so fraught with peril for the cause of global understanding and cooperation. It is especially evident in my adopted country, the United States, but even in Canada, which prides itself on its spirit of community, there seems to be a hardening of positions, an erosion of the sense of mutual responsibility that for me has always defined the Canadian character. Serious inquiry, thoughtful and civil debate, a willingness to change one’s mind – even the simple act of listening – are increasingly endangered in a world that seems preoccupied with what divides rather than unites us.

You, the graduates of Memorial University, are now vital members of the local, national and world community of the 21st century, and the resolution of our global problems requires your willingness to think for yourself, occasionally completely out of the box. Whether your destiny is local, national or global, you will be called upon to exercise the expertise and qualities of mind you have acquired at Memorial in your professions, your communities and your daily lives. Let me conclude by wishing you great success, and to exhort you, as I do each graduating class at Princeton, to aim high and be bold.

Thank you and good luck!


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