Tom Stephenson - Baccalaureate
Thank you, Patricia, for that very kind introduction. And thank you to President Smith for this opportunity to share some thoughts with you this afternoon.
As my good friend and colleague Patricia Reilly has already told you, I have just concluded my last semester on the faculty at Swarthmore, after 38 years as a teacher, mentor, researcher, and occasional administrator. In that sense, I, like the members of the Class of 2023 seated here, am in the midst of a significant life transition. Over the past weeks and months, I have found myself — perhaps not unlike the members of the Class of 2023 — asking questions both mundane and existential. What will it be like to have days not structured by the academic calendar at Swarthmore College? Delightful, I think. But in our society in which so much of who we are is defined by what we DO, who will I be, or become, if not a faculty member or, in your case, a student. Transitions are hard, but also present real opportunities, and I hope to spend a few minutes this afternoon challenging all of us to embrace the possibilities. Those of us who have spent even a few years — not to mention a few decades — at Swarthmore have come to appreciate the College’s commitment to social responsibility. It’s right there in the College’s mission statement:
Swarthmore College provides learners of diverse backgrounds a transformative liberal arts education grounded in rigorous intellectual inquiry and empowers all who share in our community to flourish and contribute to a better world.
I’ve been thinking about that statement in the context of my own transition, and would like to take some time here to share some of my thoughts, perhaps best expressed in the question: What kind of difference do you want to make in the world?
We’ve all grown accustomed to the idea that we should make a difference, but exactly what kind of a difference do we aspire to make? I want to argue that our shared Swarthmore legacy calls us to certain forms of engagement. And I am going to illustrate these ideas in three distinct spheres of life: the professional realm, the public sphere, and the world of ideas, using three different books that have been very much on my mind in the past few months.
First, the world of work and the professions. Here I will draw on a book that I first encountered some years ago, but have since returned to for thoughtful reflection. In 1996, Ruth Lewin Sime published her brilliant biography of a frequently overlooked, but highly consequential figure in 20th century physics, Lise Meitner. Meitner was born in 1878 in Vienna and by 1906 had completed her doctorate in physics, one of only a handful of women to do so at that time.
Shortly thereafter, she moved to Berlin, then the center of European science, and formed a collaboration with a German chemist, Otto Hahn. They worked together for 31 years. During this time, the team of Hahn and Meitner unraveled the mysteries of radioactivity and unlocked the secrets of nuclear fission. By the spring of 1938, however, Meitner’s Jewish heritage had caught the attention of the Nazi government in Germany, and her position became untenable. In July 1938, she fled Berlin and lived out the war years in safety in Sweden, where she continued her research. Hahn remained in Germany and continued to work alone on the problems that he and Meitner began, and was peripherally involved in the Nazi's attempt to develop atomic weapons. At the end of the war in Europe, Meitner wrote to Hahn, reflecting on her decision to flee Germany and her status as an outsider to the Nazi regime:
Perhaps you will remember that while I was still in Germany, I often said to you: as long as only we have the sleepless nights and not you, things will not get better in Germany. But you had no sleepless nights, you did not want to see, it was too uncomfortable.
The end of the war in Europe was not, of course, the end of the conflict. In August came the devastating news of the American attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki — attacks that were made possible by the scientific advances made by Meitner and Hahn in the decade prior. Meitner’s biographer describes the scene in Meitner’s home this way:
No one disturbed the long summer evenings by turning on the radio, and therefore Lise did not learn what had happened on 6 August until early the next day. ... Stunned, Lise escaped to open air. For five hours she walked ... alone. Later that day ... she recorded in detail the route she had taken, not whether she had wept or screamed or kept silent. ... Lise’s friends had never seen her so distraught. She knew nothing of the intricacies of bomb physics. ... She knew only that these things had been done and that she had been present at the beginning. She had split uranium nuclei ... recognized fission, explained it, and calculated the energy released. ... She knew the physics but could not comprehend what it had come to. Physics would never be the same; the world would never be the same.
In November 1945 came more troubling news: the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences announced that they had awarded, secretly, the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Otto Hahn, alone, for the work that he and Meitner had jointly produced in the 1930s. Much was written about the source of this injustice, and the scientific community quickly became aligned into competing camps, pro-Hahn and pro-Meitner. Meitner’s biographer titles this extensive discussion “Suppressing the Past.” Was the cause her Jewish heritage? Her status as a woman in a male-dominated field? The fact that she fled Germany at the climax of the work? Or her status as a physicist competing for a chemistry prize? What we know is that Hahn remained defensive and argumentative about the subject until his death, and that Meitner, while dismayed at the slight in private communications, rarely spoke publicly about the controversy.
What guidance might we all draw from the life and times of Lise Meitner as we address the question, “What kind of difference do you want to make in the world?” Few of us, certainly not me, will have the world-renown scientific career of Meitner. But I think that there are at least three lessons that we can all take from these snapshots into this remarkable life.
First, value and appreciate collaboration. None of us succeed on our own. The myth of the self-made person is just that — a myth. So when we think about making a difference in the world, seek out opportunities to form meaningful, generative professional relationships, and then acknowledge them at every appropriate opportunity. I stand before you as the product of a family that valued my education, a public school system that provided opportunities to excel, and a college and graduate programs that nurtured intellectual development. But most importantly, a Swarthmore College environment that nurtured junior faculty, sustained a vibrant intellectual life, and provided opportunities for leadership. Yes, I worked hard, and I had individual accomplishments. But I stand on the shoulders of generations of teachers and scholars, friends, family members, and colleagues who made my career possible and this institution great.
As do you. And I hope going forward, we will all find ourselves in supportive environments. Nurture those possibilities, and acknowledge them.
Second, be attentive to the consequences of your accomplishments. Not all — or even any — will be as monumental as those of Lise Meitner, but some will have impacts on the lives and aspirations of others. We cannot be frozen by anxiety about how we might be perceived in the future, but we can and should do honest risk assessments. Not all risks can be foreseen, but when the unexpected occurs, it is incumbent on us to take responsibility and work to find solutions.
Throughout history there are many excellent examples. Some of the most thoughtful and persuasive spokespersons for nuclear disarmament were the scientists who facilitated the development of those first weapons. And today, some of the leaders in the movement to develop artificial intelligence and machine learning tools are raising the most pressing concerns about the future of that technology. Responsible leadership does not require that one has the foresight to anticipate every negative consequence, but rather that one has the strength of character to act when those consequences become clear.
Third — and I think most difficult — I suggest that we should honor and be attentive to our sleepless nights. They are a symptom of our anxiety, our uncertainty, our doubts. As such, sleepless nights are a natural by-product of an ethical conscience working through the dilemmas that we all face from time to time in our professional and personal lives. I’ve frankly been a little amazed and somewhat disturbed by those who claim to “sleep like a baby” through times of personal or professional turmoil. So, in those sleepless moments of darkness, take some time to examine the causes, and celebrate your ability to live through the discomfort and ambiguity of the well-considered life.
So, what kind of difference can we make through our work and professional life? We collaborate, appreciate, and recognize the work of others, reflect on and accept the consequences of our work, and be attentive to situations that cause or ought to cause us anxiety and turmoil.
Now I would like to turn to how we might relate in our lives to the public sphere. What kind of difference do we want to make when we volunteer, join a civic organization, donate funds, or vote? To answer these sorts of questions, I am inspired by the 2018 book by former New York Times columnist Anand Giridharadass, Winners Take All - The Elite Charade of Changing the World. This is a devastating portrayal of how, in the author’s view, income inequality has brought about a concentration of wealth and power in an elite that is setting the terms of both government policy and the social change initiatives designed to remediate the negative effects of those same government policies. I’ll describe one particularly vibrant example.
In many, if not most jurisdictions, there is widespread belief that public education is in crisis: facing chronic underfunding, low teacher morale, teacher shortages, labor/management strife, and many more seemingly intractable issues.
The solutions, proposed by those with the resources and the power to impose them — the “winners,” the elites in our current economic climate — tend to be capitalist-focused, market-driven initiatives that validate the status of these elites.
These solutions also have the effect of masking the responsibility of the elites for creating the conditions that generated the crisis in the first place. Specifically, public voucher programs, school choice movements, charter schools, private academies are all generously funded with a mix of public and private wealth derived from a charitably generous elite that is quite socially active, and frequently socially liberal. At the same time, some of these same individuals are often responsible for the institution of regressive tax policies that caused underfunding of truly community-based public education. The result is the degradation of democratic norms with respect to public education and the shift of control to a much smaller group of private entities.
Giridharadass sees similar trends in other facets of American political culture: market-driven anti-poverty and nutrition support programs being other prominent examples. In essence, public problems are no longer addressed through public, collective, governmental action, but rather through markets and public-private partnerships. What is lost is a diverse, community-based commitment to the common good in favor of a top-down approach dictated by an unelected elite.
Here then the form of our question for our future lives is in stark relief: not will we make a difference in the world, but what kind of difference will we make?
Will we collaborate with all members of our communities in the search for social justice, or will we seek to define the terms of social justice ourselves and then ask others to accept our terms? Either is arguably the cause of justice. But only one respects every individual as capable of equal contribution and therefore truly free.
One of the protagonists in the vignettes of Anand Giridharadass is an adherent of the Baha’i faith and draws inspiration from the following instruction from the Baha’i Universal House of Justice. It summarizes many of my points:
Justice demands universal participation. Thus, while social action may involve the provision of goods and services in some form, its primary concern must be to build capacity within a given population to participate in creating a better world. Social change is not a project that one group of people carries out for the benefit of another.
Finally, I’ll turn to some thoughts on making a difference in the world of ideas. Here I am particularly interested in the 2017 book by professor Daniel Drezner of Tufts University, entitled The Ideas Industry. Drezner is a political scientist, a specialist in international relations, and in his book he laments the decline in the quality of discourse in American society around foreign affairs. But I want to extend some of Drezner’s language and concepts somewhat more broadly and think with you about how we might all contribute to the world of ideas going forward.
Daniel Drezner draws a distinction between two types of individuals involved in the exchange of ideas: the “public intellectual,” a concept for which he has great admiration, and the “thought leader,” a construct that causes him considerable discomfort. Here’s how Drezner describes the difference:
Public intellectuals [are] experts who are well versed and trained enough to be able to comment on a wide range of ... issues. The public intellectual serves a vital purpose ..: exposing shibboleths masquerading as accepted wisdom. A thought leader is an intellectual evangelist. Thought leaders develop their own singular lens to explain the world, and then proselytize that worldview to anyone within earshot. Both public intellectuals and thought leaders engage in acts of intellectual creation, but their style and purpose are different. Public intellectuals know enough about many things to be able to point out intellectual charlatans.
Thought leaders know one big thing and believe that their important idea will change the world.
In Drezner’s view, the defining characteristic of the way that ideas are communicated today has shifted, caused by a loss of confidence in traditional sources of authority, the segmentation of audiences, and especially, economic inequality that allows well-funded elites to pick and choose winners and losers among competing ideas. The result is the rise of what he characterizes the "ideas industry," in which a premium is placed, stylistically, on discourse that espouses confidence. Subtlety and nuance are not valued characteristics in the "ideas industry," nor are arguments based on probabilities. The Ideas Industry plays to the strengths of thought leaders and downplays those of public intellectuals.
Let’s think a bit about these concepts in the context of the educational experience here at Swarthmore. Is a broad-based, self-critical liberal arts education more consistent with the characteristics of a public intellectual or a thought leader? I think that the question, posed as a question, answers itself.
Our education — your education — with an emphasis on both breadth and depth fits hand and glove with the Drezner’s definition of a public intellectual. Perhaps you have seen our faculty-approved institutional goals for student learning, or more likely not. In the preamble, these goals state, in part:
“The experience we offer our students is intended to nurture the confidence, curiosity, and humility to be challenged intellectually. ...”
It’s the juxtaposition of confidence and humility that interests me in the context of thinking about a contribution to the world of ideas.
Confidence, yes, to project what you know, and believe. Confidence, yes, to not shrink from an honest and forthright exchange of views. But humility, yes, to understand the limits of one's own understanding and perspective. I hope that you have had that experience here at Swarthmore. It has certainly been a consistent feature of my approach to the classroom. My experience is that students ask the best questions. I hope I have modeled humility by being willing to admit that I don’t always know the answer to every one of those questions, but that I try to address them, eventually.
So, what kind of difference do you want to make in the world of ideas? Not all of us, or any of us, will be famous public intellectuals. But we can all make contributions in our own communities, our families, among our peers, or among those that we interact with on a daily basis. And I would hope that we will do so with the same spirit that drove us to spend time at this remarkable place a few years ago or a few decades ago. I hope that we will carry forward with us the spirit of the liberal arts trained public intellectual, open to confident engagement with others, to meaningful collaborative work, to addressing critical issues in the public sphere, but also humble about our own limitations. And not overly confident, like a thought leader, about having all the answers through one big idea that will change the world.
In August 2011 I had the opportunity to serve as the faculty speaker at the First Gathering for the entering Class of 2015. On that occasion I provided that class with a “scavenger hunt” of sorts that I hoped would provide them with a guide to the Swarthmore curriculum. In preparation for today’s remarks, I looked back at those thoughts to see if any ideas might be transferable. What I found was an overall theme that I think can serve us all well as we move forward on new paths. It is this: despite all the tremendous pain and dislocation of the past few years, I challenge us to be guided in our decisions by a spirit of hope and not fear.
If I could distill what the Swarthmore experience should engender, that would be it. The whole notion that on this campus in suburban Philadelphia we can shape minds, educate for a lifetime of learning, and ultimately make a difference in the world reflects an attitude of hope that is at the same time humble and ambitious.
And it is definitely not the cynical, short-term thinking that we see all around us in our politics, our media, our economy.
I see hope, and not fear, in the example of the life and career of Lise Meitner — her courage, her conscience, and her quiet determination. I see hope and not fear in those who seek to make a difference in the world through inclusive, democratic social action. And I see hope and not fear in everyone who promotes the open, honest exchange of ideas, and resists the commodification of discourse to meet narrow goals.
What kind of difference will we make in the world? I believe that our years at Swarthmore have provided all of us with the ability to make ethical, confident, humble, and ultimately, hopeful choices.
Congratulations, Class of 2023. Godspeed on all of your future paths.