Ponder the Unthinkable, Create What Could Be

President Charles M. Vest's Charge to the Graduates presented at the 138th Commencement Ceremonies of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Friday, 4 June 2004.

© Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2004. To reprint or excerpt for publication, please contact Laura Mersky at mersk@mit.edu.
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And so, here we are – gathered once again in Killian Court to celebrate accomplishment, heritage, and passage.  It is a major life passage for you, and it is a major life passage for me.  Together we end an important phase of our lives and education, and commence a new chapter.

It may, perhaps, seem odd that a community so dedicated to the future gathers here wearing strange and colorful medieval regalia.  But it is fitting, and seemingly fulfilling of deep human needs, that such rituals take place.  This ritual reminds us of the continuity – through the ages  – of our role in an unbroken, centuries-old chain of human discovery and accomplishment.

But above all, it celebrates your accomplishments during your student years.

This is not to say that you have accomplished the remarkable feat of graduating from MIT all on your own, however!  We are surrounded by parents, family, friends, spouses, and children who have supported and sustained you through the years.  You will recognize them today by their smiles, 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.                                   

It is also especially wonderful to see the babies and small children who come to see their mothers and fathers graduate.  They too are welcome.  And as this ceremony stretches onward, I give them special presidential approval to comment upon the proceedings... at any time and in any manner they see fit.                                   


Each of the last 13 years, I have had the honor of briefly addressing those gathered for MIT’s commencement ceremony.  And each year I have concluded with the same charge – the same brief statement of advice and challenge to our graduates.

Before I do so yet again, I want to explain what the elements of that charge mean to me, and why I think they are important for you as graduates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Ponder the Unthinkable

First, you should ponder the unthinkable.

You each have completed an intense, rigorous education, with a strong scientific and quantitative basis.  This is true, regardless of the intellectual field in which you concentrated, and regardless of the level of degree you are receiving today. 

Armed with this education and experience, you have an opportunity and a capability to ponder ancient questions in new ways, and also to think about new challenges in new ways. 

The world, in all of its dimensions, is evolving at an ever-increasing rate.  You have an

unprecedented opportunity to expand knowledge and to create wealth and jobs. At the same time, there is a tragic expansion of misery, inhumanity, and illness in this world.  And it will take new vision, new thinking and new levels of determination to alleviate these problems and create a more civil and humane society

In other words, to make a difference in the condition of the world, you must ponder the seemingly unthinkable.

Is it unthinkable that we might truly be dedicated to sustainable development — that is, to using our energy and material resources in a way that not only respects our natural environment, but offers the developing world a chance to reach the levels of health and well being that we enjoy?  

Is it unthinkable that we find ways of cutting through the increasing clash of multiple, unmovable fundamentalist views, and get to the core of humanity beneath them?

Is it unthinkable that we could, at last, truly bridge the racial divide in this country – and see that our best hopes for the future rest in pulling together rather than pulling apart?

Question the Status Quo

That’s the first challenge:  think the unthinkable.  A corollary to that is to question the status quo.

If we are to advance the condition of societyto create what could be … we first must question what is.  By definition, “advancing” means changing and moving in more positive, more productive directions.

The status quo will not correct the inequities and ineffectiveness that are rampant in so many of America’s primary and secondary schools.

The status quo will not stem the tide of AIDS in Africa, or vanquish the now constant threat of terrorism in every corner of the world … including our corner.

But as MIT graduates, as educated men and women, you have a responsibility to question the status quo in an informed, fact-based manner.  It is your passion and compassion that will drive you, but to make a difference you also need clear eyes and heads, and the ability to objectively analyze the problems you care about.

That is what can set you apart.

That is what gives you the opportunity not only to ponder, but also to act – to dedicate your lives and work to important, worthwhile things.

Live in the World as well as your own Nation

And when you think about the things you want to do – consider the entire world as your field of opportunity.  You are citizens of the world, as well as citizens of the United States, or China, or Iran, or Italy, or wherever you were born or gained citizenship.  Each of you shares the earth with every other human being.

In this troubled time, there is a continual tension between fragmentation and integration. 

The very electronic communication that we develop here at MIT connects us to each other as never before in human history.  But, simultaneously, we seem to be fragmenting into increasingly more isolated geographical, economic, political, religious, or cultural enclaves.

We stare at each other with suspicion rather than welcoming.  We accuse rather than enlighten.  We raise walls rather than open doors and minds.

Integration, mutual respect, and mutual understanding must, in the end, win out over fragmentation and isolation.    But that will not happen by default.

That will happen onlyif we use our minds and actions to create a spirit and a reality of openness.  The cornerstone on which great American research universities are built is openness – openness of our national boundaries and openness of our campuses to immigrants, visitors, students, faculty, and scholarly colleagues from other countries.

MIT stands as a prime example.  Our MIT Nobel laureates were born in the United States, Mexico, Germany, Italy, Japan, and India.

Even our responsibility to protect those who live and learn and work on our campus and in the United States from the reality of terrorism, must not undermine this enriching and empowering openness.

MIT will continue to work aggressively and effectively with the federal government to develop and implement sound policies that will keep our colleges and universities open to international students and scholars and that will allow open and productive scientific communication and collaboration among international colleagues.

I ask that you join us in this important mission.

But world citizenship extends beyond these important concerns.  It extends to a deep understanding of the fact that we all inhabit the same earth … that our every action affects people in far flung parts of the world … and that their actions, in turn, affect us.

We must not be blind to evil or real threats, and they must be countered.  But they are best countered by making common cause.  Force has its place, but so do humility, and the forging of collective efforts based on shared values and cultural reality.

Share your Talents

And the best way to forge collective efforts is to share your talents. Your talents are legion. And you have honed many of them in important ways during your days at MIT.

But they are not yours alone.  Society is entrusted to talented people such as you.  There is a world to feed …energy to be provided … natural resources to be used efficiently and wisely … human communication and learning to be improved.  Good health and security need to be spread across the lands.

This can only happen by sharing your talents.

Commune with all People

And sharing is both easier – and more effective – if you can see yourself as part of the greater world community – embracing all the variety and richness that different cultures have to offer.

Every survey we make of MIT students and graduates shows that you greatly value the diversity of friends and colleagues you got to know here.  By diversity, you mean geographical, economic, cultural, racial, and national.  You also mean diversity of worldviews, experiences, values, knowledge, and aspirations.

Your experiences here and throughout other aspects of your lives and experiences, have equipped you well to commune with, and understand the perspectives of, many other people.  You must take advantage of this in pursuing your goals and solving the important problems you will face.

Be Steady Friends and Bold Companions

And in all that you do, you should be steady friends and bold companions.  Friendship, in both the personal and global sense, cannot come and go in the wisp of a moment.

There is both beauty and practicality in enduring companionship and dialogue.  It is on such enduring friendships that productive societies are built.  And it is from such relationships as they continue through the changes of time and events that wisdom comes.

But be bold companions as well.  Progress comes from such boldness, in the context of common values and aspirations.


And now, as you embark on the next stage of your journey, I offer this charge to you, the graduates of MIT:

Ponder 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 steady friends and bold companions.  Address the truly important issues of your times.  Be honest in all that you do.

Take your education, your talent, and your energy, and build a nation and a world community that consider knowledge a gift to be shared, a healthy planet a place to be cherished, and human dignity and opportunity fundamental conditions to be enjoyed by all people.

Men and Women of MIT, I wish you God’s speed and the very best of good fortune.


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