Obama on higher eduction and anti-intellectualism

It is graduation season which means politicians hitting the trail giving commencement addresses. Most of these aren’t particularly interesting and are often quite stupefying.  I thought President Obama’s speech at Rutgers University was an exception to this rule. I’ve been thinking a great deal about anti-intellectualism in our country and thought that the President addressed the issue quite well.  So for today’s post, I want to share a few key sections from his speech that I think should inspire and convict those of us working in the inherently intellectual business of higher education.

Photo credit: Mandel Ngan / AFP

Two hundred and fifty years ago, when America was still just an idea, a charter from the Royal Governor — Ben Franklin’s son — established Queen’s College.

A few years later, a handful of students gathered in a converted tavern for the first class.  And from that first class in a pub, Rutgers has evolved into one of the finest research institutions in America.

This is a place where you 3D-print prosthetic hands for children, and devise rooftop wind arrays that can power entire office buildings with clean, renewable energy.  Every day, tens of thousands of students come here, to this intellectual melting pot, where ideas and cultures flow together among what might just be America’s most diverse student body.

America converges here.  And in so many ways, the history of Rutgers mirrors the evolution of America — the course by which we became bigger, stronger, and richer and more dynamic, and a more inclusive nation.

But America’s progress has never been smooth or steady.

Progress doesn’t travel in a straight line.  It zigs and zags in fits and starts.

Progress in America has been hard and contentious, and sometimes bloody.  It remains uneven and at times, for every two steps forward, it feels like we take one step back.

Now, for some of you, this may sound like your college career.

It sounds like mine, anyway.

Which makes sense, because measured against the whole of human history, America remains a very young nation — younger, even, than this university.

But progress is bumpy.  It always has been.

But because of dreamers and innovators and strivers and activists, progress has been this nation’s hallmark.

I’m fond of quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

It bends towards justice.  I believe that.

But I also believe that the arc of our nation, the arc of the world does not bend towards justice, or freedom, or equality, or prosperity on its own.

It depends on us, on the choices we make, particularly at certain inflection points in history; particularly when big changes are happening and everything seems up for grabs.

And, Class of 2016, you are graduating at such an inflection point.

Since the start of this new millennium, you’ve already witnessed horrific terrorist attacks, and war, and a Great Recession.

You’ve seen economic and technological and cultural shifts that are profoundly altering how we work and how we communicate, how we live, how we form families.

The pace of change is not subsiding; it is accelerating.

And these changes offer not only great opportunity, but also great peril.

Fortunately, your generation has everything it takes to lead this country toward a brighter future.

I’m confident that you can make the right choices — away from fear and division and paralysis, and toward cooperation and innovation and hope.

Now, partly, I’m confident because, on average, you’re smarter and better educated than my generation — although we probably had better penmanship and were certainly better spellers.

We did not have spell-check back in my day.

You’re not only better educated, you’ve been more exposed to the world, more exposed to other cultures.  You’re more diverse.  You’re more environmentally conscious.  You have a healthy skepticism for conventional wisdom.

So you’ve got the tools to lead us.  And precisely because I have so much confidence in you, I’m not going to spend the remainder of my time telling you exactly how you’re going to make the world better.

You’ll figure it out.

You’ll look at things with fresher eyes, unencumbered by the biases and blind spots and inertia and general crankiness of your parents and grandparents and old heads like me.

But I do have a couple of suggestions that you may find useful as you go out there and conquer the world.

Point number one:  When you hear someone longing for the “good old days,” take it with a grain of salt.

Take it with a grain of salt.

We live in a great nation and we are rightly proud of our history.

We are beneficiaries of the labor and the grit and the courage of generations who came before.

But I guess it’s part of human nature, especially in times of change and uncertainty, to want to look backwards and long for some imaginary past when everything worked, and the economy hummed, and all politicians were wise, and every kid was well-mannered, and America pretty much did whatever it wanted around the world.

Guess what.  It ain’t so.

The “good old days” weren’t that great.

Yes, there have been some stretches in our history where the economy grew much faster, or when government ran more smoothly.

There were moments when, immediately after World War II, for example, or the end of the Cold War, when the world bent more easily to our will.

But those are sporadic, those moments, those episodes.

In fact, by almost every measure, America is better, and the world is better, than it was 50 years ago, or 30 years ago, or even eight years ago.

And by the way, I’m not — set aside 150 years ago, pre-Civil War — there’s a whole bunch of stuff there we could talk about.  Set aside life in the ‘50s, when women and people of color were systematically excluded from big chunks of American life.

Since I graduated, in 1983 — which isn’t that long ago — I’m just saying.  Since I graduated, crime rates, teenage pregnancy, the share of Americans living in poverty — they’re all down.

The share of Americans with college educations have gone way up.  Our life expectancy has, as well.  Blacks and Latinos have risen up the ranks in business and politics.

More women are in the workforce.  They’re earning more money — although it’s long past time that we passed laws to make sure that women are getting the same pay for the same work as men.

Meanwhile, in the eight years since most of you started high school, we’re also better off.  You and your fellow graduates are entering the job market with better prospects than any time since 2007.

Twenty million more Americans know the financial security of health insurance.  We’re less dependent on foreign oil.  We’ve doubled the production of clean energy.  We have cut the high school dropout rate.  We’ve cut the deficit by two-thirds.  Marriage equality is the law of the land.

And just as America is better, the world is better than when I graduated.

Since I graduated, an Iron Curtain fell, apartheid ended.  There’s more democracy.  We virtually eliminated certain diseases like polio.  We’ve cut extreme poverty drastically.  We’ve cut infant mortality by an enormous amount.

Now, I say all these things not to make you complacent.  We’ve got a bunch of big problems to solve.

But I say it to point out that change has been a constant in our history.

And the reason America is better is because we didn’t look backwards we didn’t fear the future.

We seized the future and made it our own.  And that’s exactly why it’s always been young people like you that have brought about big change — because you don’t fear the future.

That leads me to my second point:  The world is more interconnected than ever before, and it’s becoming more connected every day.

Building walls won’t change that.

Look, as President, my first responsibility is always the security and prosperity of the United States.

And as citizens, we all rightly put our country first.

But if the past two decades have taught us anything, it’s that the biggest challenges we face cannot be solved in isolation.

When overseas states start falling apart, they become breeding grounds for terrorists and ideologies of nihilism and despair that ultimately can reach our shores.  When developing countries don’t have functioning health systems, epidemics like Zika or Ebola can spread and threaten Americans, too.

And a wall won’t stop that.

(Skipping later in the text)

Which brings me to my third point:  Facts, evidence, reason, logic, an understanding of science — these are good things.

These are qualities you want in people making policy.  These are qualities you want to continue to cultivate in yourselves as citizens.

That might seem obvious.

That’s why we honor Bill Moyers or Dr. Burnell.

We traditionally have valued those things.

But if you were listening to today’s political debate, you might wonder where this strain of anti-intellectualism came from.

So, Class of 2016, let me be as clear as I can be.

In politics and in life, ignorance is not a virtue.

It’s not cool to not know what you’re talking about.

That’s not keeping it real, or telling it like it is.

That’s not challenging political correctness.

That’s just not knowing what you’re talking about.

And yet, we’ve become confused about this.

Look, our nation’s Founders — Franklin, Madison, Hamilton, Jefferson — they were born of the Enlightenment.

They sought to escape superstition, and sectarianism, and tribalism, and no-nothingness.

They believed in rational thought and experimentation, and the capacity of informed citizens to master our own fates.

That is embedded in our constitutional design.

That spirit informed our inventors and our explorers, the Edisons and the Wright Brothers, and the George Washington Carvers and the Grace Hoppers, and the Norman Borlaugs and the Steve Jobses.

That’s what built this country.

And today, in every phone in one of your pockets — we have access to more information than at any time in human history, at a touch of a button.

But, ironically, the flood of information hasn’t made us more discerning of the truth. In some ways, it’s just made us more confident in our ignorance.

We assume whatever is on the web must be true.

We search for sites that just reinforce our own predispositions. Opinions masquerade as facts.

The wildest conspiracy theories are taken for gospel.

Now, understand, I am sure you’ve learned during your years of college — and if not, you will learn soon — that there are a whole lot of folks who are book smart and have no common sense.

That’s the truth.  You’ll meet them if you haven’t already.

So the fact that they’ve got a fancy degree — you got to talk to them to see whether they know what they’re talking about.

Qualities like kindness and compassion, honesty, hard work — they often matter more than technical skills or know-how.

But when our leaders express a disdain for facts, when they’re not held accountable for repeating falsehoods and just making stuff up, while actual experts are dismissed as elitists, then we’ve got a problem.

You know, it’s interesting that if we get sick, we actually want to make sure the doctors have gone to medical school, they know what they’re talking about.

If we get on a plane, we say we really want a pilot to be able to pilot the plane.

And yet, in our public lives, we certainly think, “I don’t want somebody who’s done it before.”

The rejection of facts, the rejection of reason and science — that is the path to decline.

It calls to mind the words of Carl Sagan, who graduated high school here in New Jersey — he said:

“We can judge our progress by the courage of our questions and the depths of our answers, our willingness to embrace what is true rather than what feels good.”