May 11, 2018

Daniels to graduates: ‘Boilermakers aren’t made for tribes’

Purdue University President Mitch Daniels made these remarks during commencement ceremonies May 11-13, at the West Lafayette campus.

I look forward all year to this moment and this view. No sight all year comes close. All these excited, beaming faces, each realizing that a new world of freedom and opportunity is about to open.  Congratulations, parents, on that last tuition check.

And to our graduates to be, the stars of our show today, we extend the same, on this day of validation.  Around the nation today, too many diplomas are being handed to your peers by institutions where, studies tell us, little was expected or demanded of them. Soon many of those graduates will be “mugged by reality”, as employers inform them that they are not adequately prepared for the roles and the jobs they expected to take up.  

Not here. Each year’s data, and the constant feedback from the enterprises who welcome Boilers into their ranks, confirms that the hard work of a Purdue education is worth all the effort. That you are more than ready for the challenges ahead.

“Challenges” is one of those commencement clichés, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t fit the occasion.  In great research centers like Purdue we talk a lot about “grand challenges,” and properly so.  Conquering disease, world hunger, managing whatever climatic changes are on their way, continuing the breathtaking ascent from poverty that the world has achieved even in your short lifetimes – all these will provide many of you thrilling careers and opportunities for deeply rewarding service. And that’s just the beginning of the challenges you’ll confront.

Beyond these material hurdles lie moral and ethical questions the likes of which, and the rapid onset of which, humanity has never had to deal with. When we can genetically engineer perfect children, should we? When wealthy adults can radically enhance their own mental abilities and lifespans well beyond those less fortunate, should we let them? If and when robots, and a dwindling fraction of technologically gifted workers, are producing the majority of all the value and wealth in society, what will become of those who appear unnecessary? Will they be treated with respect, or as helpless dependents? If the latter, will the productive minority decide, as some have already begun to speculate, that the others no longer deserve an equal say in the society’s decisions? There will be dozens more such mind-bending dilemmas.

I don’t fear the inability of a world led by new leaders like you to overcome even our most daunting scientific and material problems. Again and again, the pessimists and doomsayers have been proven wrong by the unexpected, unpredictable power of human ingenuity.

I don’t even doubt your generation’s capacity to work through the tortuous ethical issues that astonishing technological breakthroughs are forcing on the world. Every day I see in Purdue students the innate decency and the ability to wrestle with complexity that it will take to work through these problems. 

Instead, I believe the biggest challenge you may face lies elsewhere. It will involve the repair and renewal of trust among ourselves as a people, and trust in the free institutions which alone can protect and nurture individual human dignity. If ever a challenge was “grand,” this one is.

The last few Mays, I’ve found myself issuing the same caution to each departing class. I’ve pointed out that, although you don’t think of yourselves this way and I hope never will, you are now aristocrats, members of a privileged elite. It’s not the kind we’ve known through history. It’s not based on a family name, or inherited wealth, or a father’s position in some ruling totalitarian party. It’s the new aristocracy of a knowledge economy, with membership conferred by unusual cognitive skills, augmented by a superior education like Purdue’s. 

I’ve noted that the people I’m describing have begun to cluster together – to work with each other, live near each other, socialize with each other, marry each other, have children just like each other’s children, starting the cycle over again. And unintentionally to segregate from their less blessed, less well educated fellow citizens. I’ve urged each set of graduates to resist this tendency, to make special efforts to connect with those who never made it to Purdue or a place like it. It’s a shame to go through life with a narrow range of human interactions, and all one can learn from those who are different.

But over these last few years this new self-segregation has taken on a much more worrisome dimension.  It’s no longer just a matter of Americans not knowing and understanding each other. We’ve seen these clusters deepen, and harden, until separation has led to anger, misunderstanding turned into hostility.  At the individual level, it’s a formula for bitterness and negativity. For a self-governing people, it’s poison. The grandest challenge for your leadership years may well be to reverse and surmount this threat.

Over your final year with us, people have begun to use the word “tribalism” to describe this phenomenon. To people who have only known freedom and self-government, it’s easy to forget that tribalism was the way of the world for most of history. Anthropologists long ago discovered that our humanoid ancestors formed tribes for survival and responded violently to the presence of outsiders. As one essayist wrote, “Tribalism … is the default human experience … The notion of living alongside people who do not look like us and treating them as our fellows was meaningless for most of human history.”

Suddenly, or so it seems, this nation has divided into tribes, made up of people with very different views of true and false, right and wrong. They seem deeply alienated from each other, and deeply distrustful.

Pollsters have even begun to use the term “hatred” to describe the degree of estrangement. They tell us that members of both tribes tend to belong mostly because of their animosity to the other side. In almost reciprocal numbers, they describe the other side as “closed-minded,” “dishonest,” “unintelligent,” even “immoral.”

As we trust each other less, trust in the institutions of our society has eroded in parallel. Almost no sector – government, business, the media, higher education – has escaped a steep drop in public confidence. Some constant vigilance and skepticism about centers of authority is a healthy, all-American instinct. But ultimately, to function effectively as a free and self-governing people, we must maintain some degree of faith that our institutions and those leading them have our best interests at heart, and are performing their duties with sincerity and integrity. And today, we plainly lack such faith.

There are plenty of culprits here, starting with too many who have misused positions of authority. The so-called social media – I have come to think of it as “antisocial media” – enables and encourages hostility from the insulated enclave of a smartphone or a laptop. People say things to and about each other that they would never say face to face, or maybe even think, if they knew each other personally. 

Our various modern media lead us to, and feed us from information sources that reinforce our existing biases. They put us in contact with other tribe members, but rarely those who see things differently.  We’re starting to resemble ominously our primitive forbearers, trusting no one outside the tribe.      

That’s a very dangerous development. The freedoms we take for granted, the “blessings of liberty” of which our Constitution speaks, are the gross exception in history. Almost all of history has belonged to the tyrants, the warlords, the autocrats, the totalitarians. And tribes always gravitate toward tyrants.

Here’s why I’m still an optimist, and here’s where you come in. In addition to all the professional and career achievements I know await you, and the great personal and family lives I’m confident you will build, Boilermakers as a group are exactly the kind of citizens this fractured, hostile, tribal country needs to heal and repair itself. The best way to do it is take a piece of Purdue with you.

Here, you have lived in daily close contact with people of all faces, races, and places. If you kept your ears open, you heard viewpoints very different from your own, in an environment that safeguards the right for every such viewpoint to be heard. You heard arguments that made sense, and some that were absurd. And you became better at telling which was which.

And, no matter how addicted you were to your smartphone, you experienced the fulfillment that only life in a genuine community can furnish. 

Before you know it, you’ll be a big part of one of those institutions people today say they can’t trust.   You’ll be running a business, writing the news stories, maybe making public decisions that have a big effect on the lives of others. We look to you to do so with the integrity of the Purdue Honor Code you created during your years here. To set examples that promote confidence, not cynicism. To excel not only in your competence but even more so in your character. And to live your personal and vocational lives without becoming trapped in any echo chamber, drifting into any tribe. To not merely sympathize but to actively empathize with your fellow citizens, and the values they hold dear. Just the way I have witnessed you treating each other during your time in this special community.

Wherever you’re headed, you can be a part of reawakening that sense of community among those you meet and live among. It’s not just our civil engineers we need to be bridge builders; every Boilermaker can build bridges, to those who lead different lives. Bridges between those who today reside on opposite banks of our cultural ravine. 

Barring a manmade cataclysm, you are destined to live to an age unimaginable until the last couple decades. Medical science and unprecedented wealth will see to that. I’m excited for you. But when I bring up your life expectancy, I’m not referring to longevity. I’m talking about what we expect of you as citizens.

Just as Purdue has expected more from you than another school might have, so does democracy. To survive and succeed, it requires its members to know its workings, participate in its operations, accept the reality of each other’s different outlooks, and the need to reconcile them by meeting in the middle. 

Life in a tribe is easy, in all the wrong ways. You don’t have to think. Whatever the tribe thinks is right, whatever the other side thinks is wrong. There’s no real responsibility; just follow what the tribe, and whoever speaks for it, says to do. Boilermakers aren’t made for tribes.

Renewing the covenants and the confidence of a free society is a lot to load on you on the first day of your new life. I recognize that you have a few things to attend to first. But, if our democracy is to be rejuvenated, I believe it is the younger generations who will pull it off. Your elders have had their chance, and most are too dug in to change.

Like Purdue grads before you, you won’t be just talkers, you’ll be makers – of new products, services, companies, opportunity for others.  Look for chances to be peacemakers now and then along the way.

 A friend once told me about watching his 8-year-old son play a Little League game. When he arrived, the scoreboard behind him in right field read, 18-0, against his team, but Robbie had the biggest smile on his face.  He yelled “Robbie, how can you look so happy?” The boy hollered back, “No worries, Dad, we haven’t been up to bat yet!”

You haven’t been to life’s home plate yet, but you’re in the on-deck circle. The bases are loaded with opportunities. To continue the stunning growth of knowledge and global wealth; to tackle successfully the grand challenges facing our nation and world; and to breathe new life into the greatest system ever devised for promoting human dignity, prosperity, and happiness. 

Our first wish, of course, is for your own happiness. It’s been said we are given memory so we can have roses in December. I trust your years here were full of memorable roses. But I hope they are just the first of many more you will plant: for yourselves and your loved ones, and for an American society in need of Boilermakers to make the wealth, the moral choices, and the rebuilt civic life this great nation deserves.

Hail Purdue, and each of you.

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