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Purdue president to graduates: ‘Stay humble’ (Spring 2017)

The intimidating challenge for every commencement speaker is to say something even remotely interesting or original. And the sobering reality is that if even if you do no one will remember it for very long. But there are some words that however overused are appropriate, even essential on these occasions. Phrases like is this hat on straight and say cheese. And one more that is probably the most common of all. We are so proud of you. You’ll be hearing those words all day long and rightly so. In a few minutes you will be a recipient of one of the proudest emblems of achievement possible at this stage of your life – a degree from Purdue University. In a way not all college degrees cannote the world will know you earned it. As you know, here we aren’t into “participation trophies.” You’re in [Applause] Year in year out, good grades are hard to earn at Purdue. Year in year out, our graduates surpassed those of other institutions in the eyes of employers graduate schools and their future colleagues in life. So a Purdue commencement – this day of great pride –
may seem an odd place to talk about humility. But that’s the word that kept coming to mind as I thought ahead to this event. Because if there is a single quality that one associates with your University and one quality that will assist you in earning other emblems of achievement later in life, it’s the inverse of pride. It’s the trait we call humility. I know I’m not the first person to bring this to your attention. You may have first heard it at church. Almost all the religious traditions admonished their adherents to guard against excessive pride. The proverbs are full of warnings about it. Pride goeth before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall. Confucius taught, a wise man has dignity without pride. A fool has pride without dignity. The Buddha cautioned against letting praise affect the poise of the mind. He said follow the calmness the absence of pride. The ancients came to similar conclusions. In mythology one of the most powerful images is that of Icarus whose pride let him fatally to believe he could fly near the Sun. Marcus Aurelius wrote short-lived or both the praiser and the praised. These days advice like that is out of fashion. Everywhere one looks it’s a showboat, look at me, dance in the end zone world. The age of the pseudo-celebrity where people of no apparent talent or character famous only for being famous, people who probably couldn’t have passed English 106 or math 153, preen and strut and spout off on subjects they know little or nothing about. So maybe all those ancient admonitions just don’t apply anymore. Maybe they apply more than ever. Maybe humility – the awareness that one’s own ideas, values and attitudes may just not be superior or perfect – is the quality that makes a person wiser and more effective. A better learner in an era of unending education. A better teammate in a project team world. Drafting history’s first constitution restricting a government to the consent of its people, Ben Franklin suggested to his fellow delegates that they all resolve to doubt just a little, their own infallibility. The modern world is full of self-styled experts not nearly as smart as all Ben, for whom a little self doubt might have come in handy. On the first Earth Day, confident scholars from places like Harvard and Stanford predicted worldwide famine and starvation, a universal need for gasmasks in urban areas, the complete exhaustion of crude oil and a host of other raw materials, and the coming of a new ice age all well before now. Your first years of life were filled with predictions of collapsed electric grids, planes falling from the sky, and revolutions worldwide from the failure of software programs to handle the change of centuries. The economic forecasters of our federal government just completed what one could call a perfect reason eight years out of eight, they predicted substantially faster economic growth than the nation experienced. You’d think that the election year just passed would have boosted the national humility index a little. We discovered that most talking heads were talking nonsense. Highly paid pundits wrote reams of what turned out to be rubbished. An entire industry, public opinion surveying, is in crisis after its readings turned out to be grossly inaccurate and based more on flawed assumptions than statistically valid methodology. Well they’re worse forms of hubris than overconfident forecasting. History is replete with the cruel arrogance of those who believe they had the genius to reorder society and the lives of their fellow humans. In their most benign and well-intentioned form they produce short-lived failures like the New Harmony colony here in Indiana. But this same proud presumption also gave rise to the worst monsters of history. The totalitarians of the last century who murdered millions in the unshakable belief that it was their right to tell others how to live, even to reshape human nature itself. I bothered you with all this because life will soon invite you to overindulge the pride you so justifiably feel today. Few if any of you were raised to see yourselves as an aristocrat, but in a real sense that is what you now are. Today’s aristocracy is of a new and very different type. It’s based not on title or land or inherited wealth, but on intellect and learning. The kind that claims almost all the best jobs in our economy. The kind that in fact puts less educated folks out of work. The kind that made a handful of kids at Snapchat richer in their 20s then George Eastman was when Eastman Kodak dominated the photographic world and employed a quarter of a million workers. Some of you will invent the next round of productive tools that will eliminate somebody’s jobs. That’s progress and it’s inevitable. But will others of you create new businesses with new opportunities for those displaced, or new ways of learning that enable them to find new work and with it the dignity that comes only from earning ones own success. Just as important, will you recognize that your degree doesn’t mean that you know what’s best for those without one or that even if you did it’s not your right to make the decisions of life for them. A lot of damage has been done by people who in their well-educated superiority saw those around them not as creatures of dignity but as objects of therapy. Too much pride may annoy those around you but what’s worse is the growth it can prevent within you. When you’re too self-assured to accept the greater wisdom of others you deny yourself a lot of continuing education. Lord Maynard Keynes’ economic theories haven’t worked out too well, but I’ve always admired his rule. When I find I’m wrong I change my mind. What do you do? The stubborn refusal to admit a mistake and absorb its lessons can be the biggest mistake of all. I’ve never found “Oops” a difficult word to say, and what follows saying it is often a great learning opportunity. At one especially low a moment when I felt I had let down a cause and in fact the President of the United States, then Secretary of Commerce Malcolm Baldridge snapped me out of it with some simple but sage advice. He said “Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.” Don’t be too proud to face up to your goofs and improve your future judgment. Starting when you leave campus today it will become all too natural for you to slip into your new status in the knowledge elite and the drift away from the millions of your contemporaries who didn’t make it to Purdue or someplace of comparable opportunity. You’ll likely work with people much like yourself; socialize with them; one day probably marry somebody similarly well-educated. Without meaning to or even thinking about it you may find yourself living in a social class apart from far too many of your fellow citizens.Tthat will disserve them and limit you. Try not to let it happen. There’s one good reason I doubt you will. It’s because you attended this particular University. Because just as high achievement is a Purdue hallmark so is humility. Maybe it’s in the DNA so many Boilermakers arrived with, from families that taught them all this years ago. Or maybe as our biologists might say it’s epigenetic, a trait their time at Purdue helped embed in their characters. All I know is that over and over, your greatest predecessors have been as authentically humbled as they were accomplished. Captain Chesley Sullenberger awash in adulation for his piloting skills that saved 155 lives, subject of a movie bearing his name, has yet to utter a conceited word. Neil Armstrong in an elevator with an oblivious starstruck matron who was telling everyone around her, that the famous astronaut was staying in their hotel, got off without ever identifying himself. The father of Purdue computer science Dr. Alan Perlis famous for his “Perlisisms” used to say in programming as in everything else to be in error is to be reborn. It’s not just the old-timers the ethic of humility is alive today. Akshay Kothari who created the news scan company Pulse and sold it to LinkedIn for 90 million dollars now runs LinkedIn 750 person affiliate in India at the ripe old age of 30. When asked by our Indian alumni newsletter for one piece of advice for today’s students he said – can you guess? “Stay humble.” Maybe I should have just quoted Akshay and sat down. Class of 2017, I’ve been waiting for you and this day. You were the first class I welcome to campus after taking up my official duties at Purdue. I hope you don’t mind that I think of you as my classmates. I just know you were bound for exciting places, great achievements, thrilling moments and that when those moments come you will meet them with the quiet grace that the world has come to associate with the word Boilermaker. Oh in case I forgot to mention it – we’re so very very proud of you. Hail Purdue, and each of you.

Reader Comments

  1. They screwed me. Instead of submitting my paperwork for my GI BILL. Instead filed for student aid. So now I owe money for something that should have been paid for by my military service. Find another school

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