Campus News

Baccalaureate Speech: Dr. Kenneth Paigen

Story posted May 31, 2002

When I was thinking about today and trying to prepare for what to say this afternoon, I was particularly impressed by Bowdoin's statement of its mission "to engage students of uncommon promise in an intense full-time education of their minds, exploration of their creative faculties and development of their social and leadership abilities."

That particularly impressed me because over the coming years, our society will have very great need for the very people Bowdoin attempts to educate. The world is in a series of major historical transitions, the kind of transitions that come only once in many decades; alone each would be enough to cope with; cumulatively they will have huge impact. And that if this is true of the world, then it is absolutely true of the United States.

Let me clarify. Are we really in a time of such great transition? It does appear so. And even a cursory look at the world would suggest it. Let me refer to a few things.

First, with respect to global affairs. The system of world power that we have lived under for nearly two centuries is undergoing a drastic revision. It's not simply the end of the Cold War. If we accept the premise that military power derives from economic power, and we recognize that the economic hegemony of the West in general, and the U.S. in particular, is very, very great, that poses a correspondingly great danger. Being the world's only super power invites indulgence, and I believe we are seeing it. But in the coming years world politics will come to include powers, like China whose cultural moves, and whose values, are not derived from our traditional Western thought, and Islam, where a massive internal conflict is being waged between tradition and modernity. That doesn't automatically mean that the world will be better or it will be worse; Western ideas have not done a spectacularly good job of preserving world peace. Only that the world may well be very different, and absolutely - certainly - we, the United States of America, cannot remain the dominant world power indefinitely. We truly need to think about how we use our present power to foster the kind of world we want to live in when we are no longer top dog. No one stays on top forever.

Another thing that has become apparent is the extraordinary intensity and impact of religious and ethnic identities. One only has to raise questions of Yugoslavia or India/Pakistan or Israelis and Palestinians or Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda - feelings amongst people that go back many centuries, long before the Industrial Revolution was even thought of; feelings that for many centuries were repressed by authoritarian governments, whether they were aristocratic governments or dictatorships. The issue is whether democratic societies can cope with these differences. This presents an extraordinary challenge to the concept of democracy. As much as we would like to think so, our firm belief in democracy as the best form of government we know does not automatically give it the ability to deal with every crisis and every circumstance. And I think it is an enormous challenge to know, whether in fact, democracy can deal with those sorts of ethnic hatreds and racial divergences.

And the world as a whole faces at least two imminent, great natural disasters. One is the degradation of the global environment as third world economies grow and as the west, especially the United States, continues its environmental degradation. We can't even impose mileage standards on SUVs. The environmental consequences of the economic expansion of the third world in Africa and especially in Asia could easily become overwhelming, devastating and irreversible.

And the other disaster we face is AIDS. Current estimates are that, worldwide, 40 million people are infected with the AIDS virus, and the number is growing. There are areas of the world in which more than half of the adult population will be dying. As a species, we are in a terrible race to find either a vaccine, or a cure, or more ideally both, and if we lose that race we are facing something worse than the Black Death in the Middle Ages.

These challenges mean that we cannot do what we did so often in the past, which was simply to grow out of many of our problems. In fact, we're actually going to have to face them. We're also going to have to face the transition to a multicultural society. Our country has lived its entire existence with a white, European, male-derived power structure. That's eroding. We can argue with each other about exactly how fast it's eroding, but it's certainly changing. And in the next generation, much of that will disappear.

Now, pluralism may be highly desirable - in our hearts we believe in it - but it does bring new political and social problems. How does a country that will then have very heterogeneous cultures reach the kinds of societal consensus that are necessary to keep it stable and moving ahead? Again, the answers are not obvious.

I would add that the country, this country, and the industrialized nations of the world, are in fact living through a second Industrial Revolution which has just started. The first Industrial Revolution involved engineering skills and the conversion of power and machinery to replace raw manpower. The second Industrial Revolution really involves information. The ability to acquire it, to store it, to process it and to use it. We don't understand how that will change our society. But we know one obvious thing: it means that the dominant sources of wealth will no longer exclusively be the processing of raw materials, taking raw materials and converting them into manufactured products, or even growing food and fiber. There will be other sources of wealth; they will impact the way our society is organized. I don't know anyone who really understands the implications of this transition beyond the simple fact that it is exacerbating the difference between have and have not countries.

And then there is the fragility that comes to any society with a complex organizational structure - a society where there are critical nodes on which we depend for function: airports, seaports, power plants, computers. And symbols that represent our cultural nodes: the White House, the Statue of Liberty, the World Trade Center. All of which makes it disturbingly easy for the few at the very fringes to disrupt society out of all proportion to their numbers or power, whether it is the creator of the Love Bug virus in the Philippines or the terrorists of September 11.

And, finally, in an area that's particularly close to my own understanding, which is medical science or genetics, we're going to come to understand ourselves - the physical basis of our existence - in ways that we never did before. We will come to understand more about what our birth heritage is, and how that interacts with the world around us. One of the things we will have to face is that it will present us with the challenge of coming to live with, at least in part, the knowledge of our individual fate. We are simply going to understand more clearly and more accurately when and how we're likely to die.

All these things are enormous problems and enormous challenges. For them to come together in time means the demands that are placed on us, on our society and our culture, are greater than they have been for a very long time. And there are no simple solutions, there is no panacea that will solve all of those problems. I have no new religion to offer. Our best hope is a generation of dedicated people, each of whom will be trying to make their own contribution, and each of whom has been prepared by an education that follows the ideals of this college. Each of whom has learned to think, not to memorize. To put it very simply, there is a very special need for exactly the things that Bowdoin, and schools like it, can do particularly well.

This seems like an appropriate moment for me to indulge in a few thoughts as a scientist about what is important about that education.

The first is the basic tenet that knowledge or wisdom should not be compartmentalized into the kinds of artificial divisions of subjects that universities or governments are likely to create. Bureaucratizing knowledge is a sure way to make a broader view of the world difficult if not impossible. We need education that is organized around our societal challenges and issues.

A second thing that a college should be tremendously proud of is teaching students to examine critically what they're told. Particularly in a transitional world, we are very susceptible to the persuasions of the professional, whether it's the scientific professional, the religious professional, the political professional or the philosophical professional - I'm sure there are more varieties. We need citizens who are skeptical. I have a sign on my door that says "question assumptions." Not question authority, but assumptions. They are more dangerous.

For the United States, the greatest political and military debacle of the 20th century was Viet Nam. It was a tragic waste of humanity and corroded our faith in government. As it was based on the assumption that if Viet Nam became communist, all of Southeast Asia would, then India would fall, and the existence of the entire Western World was threatened. In the event, Viet Nam fell, and the "domino" theory proved false. That is a lesson in the power of assumptions.

Related to that is the understanding that knowledge is not wisdom‚ that technical expertise does not make one wise. I hope I am a good geneticist, but that does not mean I know better than any person in this room whether aborting a fetus with a birth defect is a moral or an immoral act. Those are decisions that belong to everyone, and the people who can help us with those decisions are those with wisdom. And a whole person, a wise person, is someone who includes issues of morals and esthetics, feelings and sensibilities; someone who can bring compassion as well as logic to our concerns. Facts and theories alone don't make wisdom.

And finally, I think that the ultimate commitment is teaching students to learn for themselves. It's difficult enough under the best of circumstances to know what is going to be important to someone twenty years from now. In our world, it's absolutely impossible. By far the most powerful thing that we can do is to help students learn how to learn for themselves, so that they can go on growing the rest of their lives.

Over the coming years, we will all have to make choices, whether we graduated over 50 years ago as I did, or we graduate tomorrow, as you will.

To what extent do we have a moral responsibility for what happens in the rest of the world? Do our concerns go beyond political or economic self-interest? Do we have a concern for humanity?

We know that free and unfettered market capitalism can lead to massive exploitation. On the other hand, command and control societies, however altruistic their aims, are remarkably inefficient at delivering the necessities of life. What values do we choose in finding a middle way.

Many, perhaps all of us, crave a sense of belonging, of identity, based on religion or culture. But we are a pluralistic society. What kinds of political and social structures do we need for our country, our society, to function reasonably amicably?

And looking at our society, it is a simple fact that the haves derive their wealth from the have-nots. Total equity has never been achieved in any industrialized society. So how much inequity is required in achieving a desirable society? Is it 3 fold, 10 fold, 100 fold? How much of an underclass are we willing to tolerate, should we tolerate? What are our responsibilities to that underclass?

I've spent my time trying to raise difficult issues and define awkward choices, but I have no answers, no certainties. I don't want to offer a political persuasion or a moral certainty. I ask only that when you do come to make your choices that you look at reality as objectively as possible, setting aside the dogmas of the left or right, that you bring to bear the accumulated knowledge and wisdom you've learned here and will again later, and that you always feel compelled by a sense what it would be like to be in that other person's shoes.

Thank you.

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