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Commencements

Provosts go to many commencement ceremonies. It’s an attribute not shared by most faculty members or most students. Because the role is one of giving a short welcoming to each set of guests and students, there’s plenty of time to observe and reflect.

The events are filled with joy. It’s heartwarming to see parents and grandparents shouting and cheering when their graduate is announced. It’s fascinating to see the various emotions of the graduates as they walked across the stage – some just beaming with full smiles, others approaching a dean or president with clear trepidation.

The metaphor that stuck in my head over the many ceremonies I witnessed was an agricultural one. Academics are a little like farmers. They plant their seeds early in the scholarly life of a student; for many programs it takes years for the seeds to sprout, be fertilized and pruned. The harvest is the graduation. (The metaphor doesn’t really work because we plant seeds with the first year students, but later that year harvest a different set of students.) The cycle of new student orientation and graduation provides bookends to the year and a predictable sense of accomplishment.

Of course, it’s also a treat to listen to commencement speeches and observe how the speaker handles the temptation to drift into clichés about the ending that is a beginning. This year I observed a surprising uniformity in the themes of the speakers. I could count maybe six different honorary degree recipients and alumni speakers who offered very similar comments:

First, we need to search for people who are different from us or, said by some, find people who disagree with us. We should engage them, actively trying to understand how they view the world.

Second, groups that contain diverse people are more productive. Even if you’re the best decision maker in a unit, better decisions come from you with a group, instead of you alone. Homogeneous groups tend to be unusually swayed by small biases. Freely given input from many folks with different perspectives yields better decisions.

Third, cooperation is a multiplier. When conflicts among different groups can be overcome, and they begin to cooperate, they can achieve much more than each group singly. Cooperation often requires compromise.

It was notable to me that different speakers completely independently chose the same messages to the graduates.

We are all reminded almost daily of the growing wealth inequality in our country, the extreme language inhabiting public discourse, the segmentation of media communities, and the fear of others different from us. Even then, I didn’t expect so many of our commencement speakers to focus on inter-group dialogue as a key challenge to the graduates.

3 thoughts on “Commencements

  1. Most revealing indeed ! For many years now, I too have been concerned by the temptation and dangers of tunnel vision, a strongly self-referential tendency among individuals and groups to reject the increasing complexities imposed by the greater heterogeneity of social interaction in our contemporary world. The tenor of those commencement speeches mentioned in this post is therefore the welcome recognition of a general need as we move forward.

  2. The agricultural metaphor does work, if thinking of students as tree crops (according to this agricultural economist : – )

  3. Reflecting upon the various commencement speeches given at Georgetown last week, Provost Groves urges that we “find people who disagree with us” and “try to understand how they view the world.” Because when “conflicts between different groups can be overcome, they can achieve much more than each group singly.” And “cooperation often requires compromise.”

    Provost Groves is onto something very important. For what he describes is nothing less than the formula for e pluribus unum, the concept at the very heart of the American Experiment.

    Citing commencement incidents at Notre Dame and Bethune-Cookman, Fareed Zakaria opined on CNN this weekend that “American universities seem committed to every kind of diversity except intellectual diversity. Conservative voices and views are being silenced entirely.”

    Whether or not one agrees with Zakaria’s characterization, we can’t let that happen at Georgetown. As much as many of us (including me) disapprove of some of those in our current national leadership and certain of their policies, we have to keep Georgetown operating within the framework Provost Groves describes. It is our particular responsibility to the American Experiment.

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