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May 2014

Daniels to graduates: 'You are ready for a world of constant change'

Purdue President Mitch Daniels made these remarks during spring 2014 commencement ceremonies on the university's West Lafayette campus.

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Commencement week is an occasion for joy, as a new chapter in life opens, but simultaneously a time of wistfulness, as some things happen for the last time: the last class, the last exam, the last party. Of course, not all endings are sad; those parents who have now written their last tuition check are all smiles, and deservedly so. Can we salute all those family members who have played such a big role in the successes we are about to celebrate?

Here's something else for us all to celebrate. For much of history, these ceremonies, including speeches like this one, were conducted in Latin. I love tradition, but that's one you and I can both be glad has seen its day. Of course, there were ways to work around it. Andrew Jackson, the common man's president, was ambushed at Harvard by a pompous dean who challenged him to accept his honorary degree in Latin. Jackson was up to the moment: "E pluribus unum, my friends," he said. "Sine qua non."[1] And sat down.

I won't detain you much longer than that today. But I am thrilled at the chance to offer congratulations to the Class of 2014. The history students among us may already have noticed a small coincidence about the year of your graduation. In each of the last two centuries, this particular year ushered in a period of monumental and unforeseen change. In a world in which often life varied very little during centuries of time, both 1814 and 1914 happened to be rare hinges between one era and the next.[2]

In 1814, the allied powers defeated Napoleon and sent him into exile. Soon, French domination of Europe and decades of constant warfare came to an end. In North America, the Battle of New Orleans ended British pretensions to authority over their former colonies, solidifying the Louisiana Purchase and eventual American development of the frontier. Wisely constructed peace treaties ushered in an era of relative order and prosperity on both continents and, in one historian's phrase, gave "birth to the modern."[3]

Within the next fifteen years, more people acquired more land more cheaply than at any time in human history. Much of that was in the new state of Indiana, where the Ice Age's Wisconsin Drift and its retreating glaciers had deposited topsoil of immense fertility. The population of the nineteenth U.S. state multiplied 14 times between 1810 and 1830. Similar to the Moore's Law of our computer era, the number of travelers and the number of letters carried began doubling every 5 years.

The biggest leaps forward came, as they almost always do, from technology. An explosion of interest in science led to revolutionary, life-saving inventions like the coal mine safety lamp and the stethoscope. It was then that Charles Babbage designed the first mechanical calculating machine. In what some historians designate the single most important innovation of them all, the steam engine appeared shortly thereafter, bringing swiftly the sweeping transformation we now call the Industrial Revolution. Between 1814 and 1830, patents per million people doubled; in New England, they quadrupled.[4]

Unlike today, universities played no part in any of this progress. They were still principally in the business of preparing young men for the clergy, or educating the children of the elite.  Innovation at the time, such as the first shoes made differently for left and right feet, was the output of what one writer called "clever young men," self-taught tinkerers out to make a buck and a name for themselves.

That, too, changed in the period after 1814, most importantly when Michael Faraday, approaching the matter of electricity from a scientific vantage point, insisting on experimental verification of his theories, provided "the first clear demonstration of the central relevance of scientific research to material progress."[5] His work laid the foundation for the telegraph, described now as "the first important invention based on the application of advanced scientific knowledge rather than the know-how of skilled mechanics."[6] It inaugurated the modern epoch of science-driven progress, in which Purdue and Boilermakers now occupy such a prominent place. There was no Purdue yet, so no commencement, but the fortunate young people who came of age in 1814 lived their adulthood in a time of revolutionary progress and positive change.

Fast-forward a century, halfway to today, and the year brought change of an equally profound but tragically different character. By then, Purdue was a well-established 45 years old. The Class of 1914 gathered in the first Fowler Hall, where Stewart Center is today, doubtless full of the hope that makes these occasions so inspiring. They had been born into an upbeat age of material progress, scientific achievement, and globalized trade and commerce that everyone believed would make armed conflict a thing of the past. From the evidence we have, they had no foreboding that, just eight weeks later, the world would plunge into the disastrous catastrophe we remember as World War I. It was arguably the most senseless and avoidable of all the atrocities that humankind has inflicted on itself over the centuries. Technologies like the tank and the machine gun had advanced ahead of men's capacity to manage them, with tragic results in stupidly wasted lives.

By 1918, the whole world was totally different, this time not for the better. Millions were dead and millions more maimed. Four members of that Purdue class had been killed serving their country. Six of every ten French men between the ages of 18 and 28 had perished, and with them the whole idea that history is a linear march upward.  In the historian Paul Fussell's phrase, the war "reversed the idea of Progress."[7]  Compounded by an unwisely punitive peace treaty, World War I led more or less directly to a second global conflict just twenty years later, and to the totalitarian regimes, which, while they lasted, enslaved and murdered countless millions more. 

So, in 1814, a great war ends and an era of marvelous improvement begins. 1914, a great war starts, and humanity takes a long step backwards. Neither of these sharp turns could have been foreseen in those years; maybe life would drift on without much change in any one lifetime, the way it had for most of our species' existence.

That possibility no longer exists. In 2014, we know for certain that massive change lies ahead. It is now the rule and not the exception it has historically been. There is no prospect that, like most generations before you, your world will look more or less the same in your older years as it does today. Rapid, unexpected, and often disruptive change, most of it driven by the accelerating advance of technology, is a constant fact of modern life. 

The only questions for this century's fourteenth class are, what kind of changes will you see?  Will you manage them well and humanely, or recklessly? Will their benefits be widely shared, or increasingly concentrated among the technically gifted?

It's easy, as it always is, to find things to worry about. Maybe the jobs lost to automation and robotics will not be replaced this time with new, family-supporting occupations. Maybe a society with increasing numbers of chronically idle men and women will fall prey to disorder and civil unrest. Maybe, as some now fear, the artificial intelligence now being devised will hit an inflection point at which the machines we have created take off beyond our control. I could name a dozen more.

When a new grandfather permits himself to worry about such things, it's helpful to recall that, over the long haul, the pessimists have always been wrong. 

Within the short lifetimes of you graduates, more people have been lifted out of true, sub-subsistence poverty than in all of previous human history. In just the last twenty years, global infant mortality rates, and the percent of humanity living on less than $1.25 per day were both cut in half.  Life expectancy rose five full years in that historical blink. We live in the safest, wealthiest society ever, where average people routinely own things that the richest people on earth did not when you were born, because those things had not been invented yet.

But what keeps me on the optimist's side of all these questions is not the past record, but the future promise, the promise I see before me right now. You have successfully earned one of the most valued emblems of achievement available anywhere, a degree from Purdue University. I say "earned" with emphasis, because as you know, this school has never joined the trend to softer curriculum or lenient grading. You got these diplomas the old-fashioned way, and everyone here is very proud of you for it.

By now I've met thousands of you, and I know you are ready for a world of constant change.   I know you will make much of it yourselves, through your innovations and creativity and initiative.  But I know you'll also help your fellow citizens adjust to and manage that change, through your leadership and active citizenship. So I'm not fearful, I'm excited for my grandchildren; they'll get to grow up in a world that Boilermakers help build.

What to make of this little coincidence of the "'14s"? Only that there are no guarantees, that history presents opportunities and dangers. That the choices men and women make, the uses to which they put the products of their ingenuity, are what matters. That will be a test less of your content mastery, which you have now demonstrated, than of your character, which you will spend the rest of your lives demonstrating.

In a few minutes, it will be my honor to read the induction oath that confers your degrees.  It's easy to zone out listening to somewhat arcane, stilted language like that the oath comprises. But I hope you'll pay some attention to the part near the end. It talks about the "rights, privileges, duties and responsibilities" that come with your degree.

We live in an age when people are quick to demand what they think are their rights and privileges, but not always so ready to live up to the duties and responsibilities of life in a free, self-governing country. Citizens in full, highly productive yes, but also dutiful, responsible leaders of others, are what Purdue University and its land-grant counterparts were created to produce. Our nation never needed such citizens more than today; it's so uplifting to know that the Class of 2014 is chock full of them.

Hail Purdue, and each of you.


Related website:

President Mitch Daniels: http://www.purdue.edu/president/index.html

[1] Brands, H. W.. Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times. New York: Anchor Books, 2006.

[2] I hope the reader will indulge as permissible three minor licenses I took in order to maintain the parallelism of the "14s":  1) I recognize that, after his defeat and exile in 1814, Napoleon escaped and had to be defeated again at Waterloo the next year; 2) Similarly, that the War of 1812 ended in late 1814 with the Treaty of Ghent but, the news not yet having reached the American continent, the Battle of New Orleans occurred in the first days of 1815; and 3) that the majority view would take the year 2000 as the first of a new century and therefore count this year's class as the fifteenth and not the fourteenth.

[3] Johnson, Paul. The Birth of the Modern: World Society, 1815-1830. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1992.

[4] Johnson

[5] Johnson

[6] Howe, Daniel Walker. What Hath God Wrought: the Transformation of America, 1815-1848. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

[7] Fussell, Paul. The Great War and Modern Memory. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975