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Bloomington Commencement Feature

Indiana University Bloomington Commencement Speech by Anne-Marie Slaughter, President and CEO, New America, Delivered Saturday, May 6, 2017

What is education for? When I was an undergraduate, a large part of the answer was the cultivation of reason and the suppression of emotion. Education was enlightenment, what the great economist Albert O. Hirschman described as the triumph of the interests over the passions. Pre-Enlightenment passions were unruly and destructive, driving duels of honor and wars of religion. Passion was hot. Reason was cool, tempered, dispassionate.

Education was reading, researching, compiling, computing, analyzing, writing and discussing: learning how to put aside our intuitions and instincts to enter the land of reasoned argument.  When I got to law school, legal reasoning meant learning the distinction between the logic of law and the emotion of justice. Cases in which a child died because of a defective product had to be analyzed not in terms of empathy and loss but of where to place the cost of remedying that defect in a way that would maximize welfare across society.

Let me certainly not be heard to denounce reason! But today we are learning far more about the nature and importance of emotion.

Growing up as a girl in Virginia in the 1960s and 1970s, I heard loud and clear that women were emotional and men were rational. Woe betide the woman who allowed herself to get emotional or passionate in an argument. She was reinforcing the reigning stereotype of her sex. Equally dangerous was to rely on gut feeling – – or women's intuition. Indeed, I often did just that to reach a conclusion – – what Nobel laureate psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls thinking fast – – but learned to express it with a logical argument.

40 years later, moral psychologist Jonathan Haight argues that the entire model of cognition and emotion as separate processes is wrong. Emotions, he writes, are themselves a “kind of information processing,” honed over millions of years of evolution. The real distinction is between two kinds of cognition:  intuition – “the dozens or hundreds of rapid, effortless moral judgments and decisions that we all make every day,” and reasoning; between automatic processes of perception, intuition, and emotion and controlled processes of conscious thought. Moreover, these automatic processes are the elephant – driving most of what we do. Reason is merely the rider, typically rationalizing decisions made by the elephant after the fact.

So let us revise our views of strength and weakness, higher and lower, and men and women. Women have simply been more honest about where their views come from for all these centuries, while men were clothing those same intuitions in the rational robes of logic.

The Enlightenment, however had a point, for all that it was the product of a set of relatively affluent European men. They were fighting for a world of knowledge, trade, meritocracy and the middle class. The tools of reason do not depend on rank, fortune, or even birth. They depend on education and an opening of the mind to people unlike ourselves and perspectives unlike our own.

That is why educated people are often called "worldly." And indeed, right here on this campus, I studied Russian in the Summer Language Workshop during the summer of 1980. I learned a new alphabet, unfamiliar sounds that twisted my tongue, and impossible verb tenses. And I came to appreciate the great global tradition that this University has nurtured and expanded, from President Herman B Wells to President McRobbie today.

That tradition of openness, broadmindedness, and reasoned debate seems under threat today on many of our campuses, swept aside by tides of passion, outrage and moral injury. For many observers, reason and emotion are clearly at odds, and reason must prevail. Yet here again, we need a deeper understanding of how reason and emotion combine and intertwine.

Words can hurt, long and deep. As many of our philosophers and legal scholars have reasoned, language upholds and indeed entrenches entire structures of power.
In the end, however, words hurt less and less finally than bullets. When I taught Civil Procedure at Harvard Law School, I would begin my class with a quote from a legal scholar: “civil procedure is the etiquette of ritualized battle.”  Argument and reason are the weapons we choose and use to avoid physical violence. Those of us who study foreign affairs, following in the tradition of great Indianans like Lee Hamilton and Richard Lugar, know that the peoples of the world who suffer death and destruction in war and civil strife long for a world in which the pen IS mightier than the sword.

Yet emotion plays a critical role here as well. Reason works much better when the underlying emotion is acknowledged and accepted. Seeing, hearing, and feeling the anguish of Americans who live in communities where they fear the guns of authority as much as the denizens of war-torn societies do must come first. Imagining YOUR child shot for a misdemeanor, for being impulsive and stupid and making poor decisions – in short, for being a teenager – is just as essential to moving forward as a society as open debate about causes and solutions. Politics and policy require both reason and emotion.

The members of the Class of 2017 sitting before me may be thinking, “What does this have to do with us?” We’re off to launch our careers. Reflections on reason and emotion are luxuries of the classroom and college quad, the world that we leave behind today. Yet what will those careers be? Where and how will you work and what skills will you need to be employed and stay employed? (NOW you’re listening – and so are your parents!)

You have been bombarded with messages about STEM, the value of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. STEM, we are told, is the path of power, the only way to understand and master the machines that will soon rule our lives, machines that will think for us and increasingly, somewhat frighteningly, for themselves. The parents in the audience who prevailed on their children to follow the techie path are smiling. They know their children are set.

 I, however, am the mother of two college-aged sons: an actor and a jazz pianist. And I myself spent as much time reading Russian novels and immersing myself in European Cultural Studies in college as studying international relations. Thus I was very relieved recently to read an advance copy of a new book by Scott Hartley, a venture capitalist and global startup advisor who is deeply familiar with Silicon Valley. The book is called The Fuzzy and the Techie: Why the Liberal Arts Will Rule the Digital World.  Hartley makes the case not only for techies but for “fuzzies,” which is the term used at Stanford to describe humanities and social science majors. According to a 2015 study by LinkedIn, “liberal arts grads are joining the tech workforce more rapidly than technical grads.”

Why would tech CEOs want fuzzies? As Hartley puts it, “Students who pursue degrees in the liberal arts disciplines tend to be particularly motivated to investigate what makes us human: how we behave and why we behave as we do.” Only if we understand human nature can we solve human problems. Human nature, once again, is about emotion as much as reason, about empathy and anger, hope and despair. About the desire to connect as much as to compete, to invest in others as much as to invest in ourselves. About imagination and insight as much as computation and analysis.

So fuzzies in the audience should take heart! Moreover, Dean Acharya of IU’s School of Informatics and Computing is certainly on the right track when he plans to educate “renaissance engineers,” well grounded in the liberal arts. And all of you, fuzzies and techies together, uniting the humanities and the sciences, will engineer a larger American renaissance.

What is education for? Today we have a different answer. To grow and flourish as human beings, to cultivate the gardens of our minds, hearts, and souls. To learn not only to reason, but also to feel, to tap and acknowledge our emotions, with all their component parts, and give them the room and respect they deserve. As we come to understand the fullness of our own humanity, we are better able to see and connect to the humanity of others. Together, a world of infinite possibility awaits.

Thank you.

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