The Odysseys Ahead

President Charles M. Vest's Charge to the Graduates presented at the 135th Commencement Ceremonies of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Friday, June 8, 2001.


© Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2005. To reprint or excerpt for publication, please contact Laura Mersky at mersk@mit.edu.


GREETINGS

And so, here we are—gathered once again in Killian Court to celebrate accomplishment, heritage, and passage. We are surrounded by your parents, family, friends, spouses, and children who have supported and sustained you through the years.  

You will recognize them today by their smiles Ů brought about by their great pride in your accomplishments...and, no doubt, by a sense of great relief to their bank accounts. Let us, then, express our deep appreciation to all who have come to Cambridge today to join in your commencement ceremony. Will you, the graduates, please rise, turn to your audience, and give them the applause they so richly deserve.

I am proud today to be sitting on the stage next to my friend Dan Goldin. He is a patriot, a visionary and an accomplished leader. But I am reminded of what the famous Washington hostess Alice Roosevelt Longworth is purported to have said to a guest at a dinner party. žIf you cannot say anything nice about someone÷come sit here next to me.Ó

Well, I'm not actually going to say anything bad about the space program, because I believe it is very important.   In fact, I believe that the exploration of outer space is a great human endeavor of fundamental importance that has barely begun. But I am going to say that there are other spaces to explore that are of even greater importance.

ODYSSEYS

If ever there was a commencement and a class full of symbolism and opportunity it surely is this one—the commencement of the MIT Class of 2001.

In your time here, you have spanned the change of the century.

And you are the true Millennial Class—the first to graduate within this new millennium.

When we first assembled in Kresge Auditorium four years ago, you were greeted—predictably—and as you have been this morning—by a foreboding and inspiring movement from Richard Strauss' Thus Spake Zarathustra .  

To anyone in the courtyard, of course, that evokes only one thing—the opening segment of Stanley Kubrick's film 2001 Ů A Space Odyssey .

Indeed, on that August morning in 1997 you—and we—were setting forth on an odyssey.

But it has not been—and will not be—an odyssey only to Outer Space.

It has been and will be an odyssey to Inner Space.

And an odyssey to Common Space as well.

And, as in Homer's epic poem, it is an odyssey that is ultimately a return to our homes and families—to the people surrounding you on this day, and to the ideas and things that make us human and give sustenance to our lives.

During these past several years, we have journeyed to Inner Space.   Along the way, I am sure that you have learned that the most profound challenges of learning lie within yourselves.

This is true of most of life's great challenges.

If we are to summon strength and courage; to know something deeply; to find resolution to conflict, we must always draw on the inner summation of what genetic heritage, nurturing, learning and experience have brought us.

But I want to talk to you primarily about our journey to Common Space—to the places we inhabit together—physically, intellectually, socially and spiritually.

This is where we must go.   Perhaps this is where the challenges have always been.

And as we travel there, I see a great tension—a tension between the forces of integration and fragmentation.

We inhabit an earth together.   True to the spirit of odyssey, that was never made so clear as when spacefarers surveying the moon turned their cameras back to photograph the earth—and we saw ourselves as never before, not as masters of the universe but as inhabitants of a tiny, shimmering, fragile sphere.

Yet even with that remarkable sight, or insight, we remain very tentative about making choices and taking actions to protect that fragile environment Ů the physical and spiritual conditions upon which the quality of our lives, and indeed our very existence, depend.

True, we have made great progress in developing technologies for communication and networking that can serve our Common Space.   Indeed, we are able to tie together our knowledge, thoughts and actions as never before.

Yet even as this has happened, our world is fragmenting in countless ways:

We see rising religious and ethnic conflicts in every continent.

We find growing disparities of income, with hunger and disease flourishing amidst a world of plenty.

We find ignorance and lack of education within even the most advanced societies.

And we find it difficult to determine whether the Internet is living up to its potential as a force for empowerment and democratization, or whether it is simply providing a medium for bringing together more and more people with ever-narrower common interests.  

CHARGE TO THE GRADUATES

It will be up to you as leaders of a technological age to be the explorers and builders of Common Space—to resolve these conflicts and to improve our world and the quality of life within it.

Do not let us realize the terrible vision set down in the familiar phrases of William Butler Yeats:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer.
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Do not let those forces prevail.   Rather, seek the best that is found within your Inner Space and bring it to bear on what confronts us in common with all humanity.

Build us a world that can feed and shelter all of its citizens, and keep them well.

A world that prizes clean air and water, even as it builds strong industries and strengthens economies.

A world that honors the wisdom of the ages and the aged, but offers opportunity to the young.

A world with a sense of wonder that has the courage to explore the universe of mysteries around, within and beyond us.   

A world that conquers hate and treasures peace.

A world that knows—and lives—the meaning of community.

Aspire to this, and you indeed will have an odyssey worthy of a new millennium.

And now, as you embark on the next stage of your journey, I place this charge before you:

Dare to think the unthinkable.
Question the status quo.
Live in the world as well as in your own nation.
Dream of a better future, but contribute to the present.
Share your talents.
Commune with all people.
Be competent friends and bold companions.
Address the truly important issues of your times.
Be honest in all that you do.

Men and Women of MIT, I wish you Godspeed and the very best of good fortune.


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