December 18, 2004
Now, as you graduate from Cornell, you join a vibrant worldwide community over 200,000 strong. Your identity as Cornellians within that community means that you share certain intellectual qualities. And none of those qualities will be more important to your future lives than your curiosity.
During the Call to Engagement process, I received comments from many Cornell graduates about what one needs to prepare oneself for a life of satisfaction and contribution. For a surprisingly large number of those comments, the first word was “curiosity.” One comment used two terms to expand on what he meant by curiosity: “an inquiring mind” and “an open mind.” This morning, I thought I would borrow those terms and spend a few minutes reflecting with you about what your Cornell experience might have to say about those two aspects of curiosity.
Let me begin with the “inquiring mind.” I am using the term in a slightly different sense from the way it is used by a popular tabloid. But maybe not entirely different. For what I want you to remember today is that having an inquiring mind implies that you must be determined to cherish your ignorance.
Think back, if you will, to the day you first set foot on the Cornell campus. Recall how ignorant you were, relative to your current state of knowledge. You knew so much less about science and literature and economics. And you knew so little about Cornell.
Remember your psychological state. Everything was new and fresh. It was at least a little bit frightening. But you were excited. You felt thrill that we all feel when we sense the possibility that we are about to escape ignorance. And that feeling motivated your behavior. You seized on every bit of information or advice or wisdom that you could get, from anywhere you could get it. Strangers became acquaintances and friends. And your ignorance receded. And now, at the end of your time as a Cornell student, you have acquired expertise.
So here is my first point. As valuable as your expertise is, it has come at a price. When you know something, when it is familiar, you experience it differently. More comfortably. With less fear. But there is a risk that you will also experience it with less excitement, and with less focused attention.
To have an inquiring mind is to remember the thrill of your beginnings at Cornell. It is to recognize your ignorance and appreciate its potential. Appreciating your ignorance does not mean working to preserve it. Rather it means being grateful for the unique opportunities that are only yours when you understand yourself to be in a state of ignorance.
In your adult lives, you will find that it takes more and more work to keep putting yourself back into an ignorant frame of mind. Social pressures, both subtle and not-so-subtle, conspire to tell you that you should be more expert and less ignorant every year. Your goal must be to allow yourself to become more expert, without allowing that process to diminish your opportunities to appreciate your ignorance.
How to do that? You will need to find your own balance between breadth and depth. One dimension of your need to inquire will be satisfied by broadening your horizons — meeting new people, taking up new hobbies, reading in new areas. And a second dimension will be satisfied by recognizing the limits of your expertise — how the knowledge you have can always be extended, and how the answers you have accumulated over time enable you to ask new and more challenging questions.
So an appreciation for ignorance is essential to the inquiring mind. It will take work to maintain that appreciation. But it will take even more work to maintain the second aspect of curiosity: an open mind.
A moment ago, I said that having an inquiring mind means that you should not allow your growing expertise in some areas to diminish your opportunities to appreciate your ignorance. Well, having an open mind means that, even in those areas where you are expert, you should not develop too great an emotional attachment to your knowledge. Your knowledge is important to you. It is hard earned. But it is not you.
Your open mind entails an active, fervent readiness to change your mind in the face of a new argument or new evidence. And this quality is every bit as vital to your future happiness as your inquiring mind.
Why is that? It is because your intellectual integrity, your sense that you have a well assembled world-view, demands that you be able to tell yourself that you are intellectually fair. Fair in considering all evidence and ideas. And you know that in the long run your sense of your own intellectual fairness will be far more important to your sense of self than whether you win or lose any particular argument.
I know that for each and every one of you, an essential part of the Cornell experience involved cultivating an open minded receptivity to anything and everything you encountered. It manifested itself whenever you revised your opinions in response to comments you heard in class, or changed your hypothesis as your research progressed, or modified your views on current events as the result of a late night discussion with friends. It also manifested itself when you held to your prior views after developing a coherent response to the new evidence or ideas that you just heard. In each case, you saw that defensiveness and complacency are counterproductive, and that serious, open, self-criticism contribute to your sense of power and efficacy.
This fall, the open and inquiring nature of our student body was in full display when the students on the Mock Election Steering Committee brought speakers from across the political and ideological spectrum in the run-up to the November election. They sponsored nearly a score of events during the semester, including debates among political candidates and debates among ideological partisans. Thousands and thousands of students attended the various events, and the atmosphere of civility and serious engagement was a testament to the genuine intellectual curiosity of this generation of students.
To be sure, that kind of intellectual curiosity did not begin with your generation of students. E. B. White, Cornell Class of 1921, was perhaps the greatest essayist of the twentieth century, and in his New Yorker essays and other writings, he had occasion to write about his experiences at Cornell. He wrote about how much he learned about writing from his English Professor William Strunk. And he wrote about how much he learned about the importance of intellectual freedom from his professor of medieval history, George Lincoln Burr.
And this learning revealed itself in some of E.B. White’s fiction as well. Stuart Little is the story of the youngest member of the Little family, who in all respects looked remarkably like a mouse. I would like to read to you a few paragraphs from the conclusion of that book.
In the final chapter, Stuart has set off in his car to find the bird Margalo, who had flown away. And in a few elegant, efficient sentences, E.B. White pauses to signal the importance of an open and inquiring mind.
At the edge of the town [Stuart] found a filling station and stopped to take on some gas.
“Five, please,” said Stuart to the attendant.
The man looked at the tiny automobile in amazement.
“Five what?” he asked.
“Five drops,” said Stuart. But the man shook his head and said that he couldn’t sell such a small amount of gas.
“Why can’t you?” demanded Stuart. “You need the money and I need the gas. Why can’t we work something out between us?”
The filling station man went inside and came back with a medicine dropper. Stewart unscrewed the cap of the tank and the man put in five drops of gasoline. “I’ve never done anything like this before,” he said.
Next Stuart meets a telephone line repairman and explains that he is heading north, a place where he has never been before.
“Following a broken telephone line north, I have come upon some wonderful places,” [said] the repairman. “Swamps where cedars grow and turtles wait on logs but not for anything in particular; fields bordered by crooked fences broken by years of standing still; orchards so old they have forgotten where the farmhouse is. In the north I have eaten my lunch in pastures rank with ferns and junipers, all under fair skies with a wind blowing. My business has taken me into spruce woods on winter nights where the snow lay deep and soft, a perfect place for a carnival of rabbits. … I know all these places well. They are a long way from here. … And a person who is looking for something doesn’t travel very fast.”
“That’s perfectly true,” said Stuart. [He] climbed into his car, and started up the road that led toward the north. The sun was just coming up over the hills on his right. As he peered ahead into the great land that stretched before him, the way seemed long. But the sky was bright, and he somehow felt he was headed in the right direction.
The gas station attendant’s open mind. Stuart Little’s inquiring mind. E.B. White’s masterful writing. I know of no better way to celebrate the completion of your Cornell education.
January 2005 graduates of Cornell, you are about to embark on lives of service to a society that desperately needs you. As you go, let me conclude by sharing a few hopes that we, your teachers, hold for you:
May you enjoy the special pleasures of craft — the private satisfaction of doing a task as well as it can be done.
May you enjoy the special pleasures of profession — the added satisfaction of knowing that your efforts promote a larger public good.
May you be blessed with good luck, and also with the wisdom to appreciate when you have been lucky rather than skillful.
May you find ways to help others under circumstances where they cannot possibly know that you have done so.
May you be patient, and gentle, and tolerant, without becoming smug, self-satisfied, and arrogant.
May you know enough bad weather that you never take sunshine for granted, and enough good weather that your faith in the coming of spring is never shaken.
May you always be able to confess ignorance, doubt, vulnerability, and uncertainty.
May you frequently travel beyond the places that are comfortable and familiar, the better to appreciate the miraculous diversity of life.
May you always be curious, inquiring, and open, welcoming the new opportunities for learning that come with expertise, as well as those that come with ignorance.
And may your steps lead you often back to Ithaca. Back to East Hill. For you will always be Cornellians. And we will always be happy to welcome you home.