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Bloomington Commencement Feature

Indiana University Bloomington Commencement Speech by Pauline Yu, President, American Council of Learned Societies
Delivered Friday, May 5, 2017

I thank you, President McRobbie, and the faculty and university trustees for allowing me to share with the graduate students here the honor of receiving a degree from IU. But I know that they are the ones who feel like they’ve really earned it—and they have! Students: congratulations on the persistence and determination that have brought you here today. You’ve achieved something that is both difficult and maybe even unfashionable: the experience of disciplined study and a commitment to reason as the route to knowledge. We live in an age that values abundant information but too often discounts thought, reflection, and analysis. Politicians and pundits question the value of entire fields of knowledge. Subjects that don’t seem to be obviously “job-ready,” like anthropology, art history, or French, are pushed to the margins or regarded as optional luxury goods. The sciences are no longer prized as the endless frontier of discovery and progress, but considered mere opinions, and possibly subversive ones at that.

I congratulate you for having swum against this tide and for having reached the shore where your accomplished learning can be recognized and celebrated.

This ceremony is a commencement. But of what? You must each have your own answer to that question. This could mark the beginning of your career beyond the classroom, or one in the classroom on the other side of the desk, or the next stage of advanced study for another degree. Perhaps a short interlude of riotous festivity is in your plans. But today I ask you also to remember the commitment your studies have entailed. Today begins your life-long responsibility to vindicate the hope that brought you to graduate school, and that is the hope—the expectation—that knowledge liberates, it’s what makes us free.  

The university is one of humanity’s most durable institutions, stretching back to the 11th and 12th centuries in Europe, when new communities of learning were established in Bologna, Paris and other cities that are the direct ancestors of Indiana University.

What caused this big bang of learning at that moment in time? Many forces made it possible, but the essential precondition to the origin of the university was the catalytic force of knowledge itself. As the historian Charles Homer Haskins recounts, this period witnessed “a great revival of learning . . . a great influx of new knowledge into Western Europe . . . chiefly through the Arab scholars of Spain [who transmitted] the works of Aristotle, Euclid, Ptolemy, and the Greek physicians, the new arithmetic.” Incidentally, this last enabled the Middle Ages’ own digital transformation, for geometry and mathematics became possible when the use of Arabic digits dispelled the burden of calculating in cumbersome Roman numerals. And it’s worth noting that even at this early point, the pursuit of knowledge was essentially a transnational enterprise, as it remains today.

Haskins identifies some other essential elements of the first universities that have persisted until our time. First is the formal association of scholars and students in a “common life of learning.” Second is “the notion of a curriculum of study, tested by examination and leading to a degree.” Third are faculties defined by their expertise and brought together under deans, chancellors, and rectors (now presidents). All these venerable elements will be inscribed on the diplomas you shortly will receive. And to be sure that we recall their medieval origins, we have donned peculiar regalia symbolizing that earlier time: gowns, caps, and hoods that would have kept us warm us in the drafty cloisters of long ago. And we have the Indiana Mace.

Do all of these gestures to history mean that the content of university learning is antique and useless in modernity? How loudly can I say “NO”? The briefest glance over this afternoon’s program reveals domains of knowledge unknown to our medieval forebears. Science, one of the greatest works of human creativity, is a cornerstone of the modern university but was absent from the medieval curriculum. The study of the arts is today an essential component of the university’s mission but was left outside of its ancient walls.

But how should a university design a curriculum that keeps knowledge dynamic, that channels and doesn’t forestall new ideas and methods? We find one answer to that question in a voice from this campus.

When measured from the perspective of the Middle Ages, Indiana University is relatively young. The state was only four years old when the legislature created in 1820 what became this great institution. When the University celebrates its bicentennial, much attention will be given to the legacy of Herman B Wells, its transformative president and chancellor. Wells had much to say during his remarkable 62-year tenure, but on the subject of curricular innovation, he was quite concise. He advised university leaders to, “Provide for the esoteric, exotic and impractical in the curriculum; the practical and pedestrian will take care of itself. If it does not, you have not lost much anyway; so I think that impractical things are the most practical in the long run.” 

My friend Robert Dijkgraaf, the director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, has recently expanded on this theme. He has reissued, with a companion essay of his own, the article “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge,” originally published in 1939 by Abraham Flexner, the Institute’s first director. Together, Dijkgraaf and Flexner marshal examples of purely theoretical, curiosity-driven discoveries and theories whose utility became manifest only many years later. These include probability theory, which mathematicians hoped would help them gamble but in fact laid the basis for mass-market insurance. Or Einstein’s famous theory of relativity, once purely theoretical but now critical to the proper operation of global positioning systems or GPS. As Flexner wrote, “[C]uriosity, which may or may not eventuate in something useful, is probably the outstanding characteristic of modern thinking.” Unfettered inquiry is not just about possible inventions, but is essential to an ecology of thought that is essential for “spiritual and intellectual freedom.” And what is true of science, Flexner asserted, is equally true of the humanities, or “music and art and of every other expression of untrammeled human spirit.” “A poem, a symphony, a painting, a mathematical truth, a new scientific fact,” he wrote, “bring satisfaction to an individual soul” and set it free; they thus “bear in themselves all the justification that universities . . . need or require.” The pursuit of knowledge is something that one undertakes for the long term, and for its own sake. And it yet may pay off in quite unexpected ways.

Fortunately for you, my remarks are not for the long term, and I’ll conclude with just one bit of advice. You probably won’t want to answer the question “What did you study in graduate school at IU?” with the response, “Well, I’m proud to have a degree in useless knowledge.” But I do hope that you’ll see yourself as part of the community of learning that has honored you with a degree today. That community is Indiana University, to be sure, but it is also a lineage of centuries of institutions dedicated to sustained inquiry and free-ranging curiosity. I hope that you’ll continue the dedication to learning that has brought you to this happy day, and that you’ll uphold the conviction that deep understanding of the world’s complexities is necessary, often hard-won, sometimes confusing, but never optional. Knowledge is always incomplete, but it is constantly on the move. That is why we have universities, and that is why we applaud each new class of graduates as exemplars of and advocates for learning. I wish you much success in that role, wherever it may take you. Congratulations again and thank you.

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