Speeches & Writings

December Recognition Ceremony for Graduates

by Martha E. Pollack, President

As prepared for presentation
Sunday, Dec. 17, 2023

Thank you, Provost Kotlikoff.

Good morning families, good morning friends, and good morning graduates!


Before I say another word, I want to do what I always do at graduation, and ask our graduates to stand up.

Now turn around.

And wave and say thank you.

Major advantage of December graduation—you can all see each other!

For all of you—our graduates, and the family and friends who love you so much they came to Ithaca in December—today is truly a day to celebrate.

A Cornell education is rigorous, and a Cornell degree is a tremendous achievement. Whatever your degree or course of study; whether you’re finishing early, or transferred, or took some extra time; whatever path brought you to Barton Hall on a Sunday morning in December and today’s celebration, it’s been a path of determination and hard work, tenacity, curiosity, and success.

Your Cornell diplomas are a testament not only to what you achieved here, but also to how much you’re capable of achieving in the years ahead: because a Cornell education is designed to continue on, long after you pass your last exams, turn in your last assignments, and head out to your next adventures.

It’s designed to prepare you for rewarding and productive careers, but also, and as importantly, for rewarding and productive lives, enabling you to contribute to your communities and your world.

And how does a Cornell education do that?

By equipping you with the skills and the habits of mind to continue, throughout your lives, to learn from, and better understand, a rapidly changing world.

As a university president, I might be a little bit biased—but I believe that a life that is spent in learning and discovery, and in active exploration of the world, is one that enables you to understand and relate to your world and everything in it in ways that are deeper, more meaningful, and, yes, also more fun.

One of Cornell’s core values is “exploration across boundaries”: the very Cornellian trait of following one’s curiosity without much regard for what is, or isn’t, supposed to be part of one’s chosen discipline.

Cornell’s ninth president, Frank H.T. Rhodes, was particularly famous for this. There’s a story I love about an unusually hot summer day in Ithaca, when the air conditioning in President Rhodes’ house went on the fritz just a few hours before he was supposed to host a reception.

President Rhodes called the company that had installed the system, and asked if someone could come out to fix it—explaining that the system was actually up on the roof, but he had a ladder that was long enough to reach.

When the technician showed up, President Rhodes showed him the ladder and explained the problem, and the technician went back to his truck to get his tools—coming back to the ladder to find that President Rhodes had, apparently, gone back into the house.

(Some of you have probably already guessed where this is going.)

When the technician got to the top of the ladder, standing on the roof was—President Rhodes.

Eager to learn everything he could about his house’s HVAC system—and ready to hand over every tool as needed.

The technician said later that President Rhodes—who was, by the way, a geologist by training—was the most overqualified assistant he’d ever had.

But he’d have hired him in a heartbeat.

Human beings come wired to learn, and our learning begins the moment our lives do. Our actions have effects; the things we drop fall down. We learn to look for patterns and order, to predict from our experiments and our experience. Sounds become language, which becomes its own tool for seeking knowledge: for asking what, and how, and why. (I have an almost 3-year-old grandson, and I can tell you that urge to ask “why” is deeply instinctual.)

Formal education, from its earliest levels to the PhDs some of you are receiving today, gives us the tools to deepen and organize our knowledge: to navigate, and make sense of the world. We learn, as all of you at Cornell have learned, the pleasures and rewards of intellectual stimulation: the feeling of wrestling a concept to the ground, and coming away victorious.

We learn, as well, how to keep pushing forward, when we don’t understand; when things are frustrating or just don’t make sense.

There has to be a page missing from the lab manual, because this is definitely not going to work;

There’s no way I can translate that cuneiform, there’s not enough to go on;

Or, that code I just wrote absolutely should be working, and I have no idea why it’s not.

Every one of you, in different ways, has had that experience: of gradually making sense of things that, at first, made no sense at all to you. Those experiences are also a key part of an education, at every level. Because learning to engage deeply with difficulty, learning to use all the resources at your disposal to find answers to difficult questions—these are the experiences that strengthen our intellectual capacity and our intellectual humility.

And at each stage of our education, as our competence builds, we add more layers of complexity to our understanding—each step deepening our comprehension a layer beyond what we perceived before. The fractions we could see in slices of pizza in third and fourth grade give way to the abstractions of geometry and calculus, and then, perhaps, differential equations and dynamical systems. The books we read as children, in their simplicity and moral clarity, invite us into other lives. And then literature invites us into other worlds, showing us the sweep of humanity, its color and light, through the eyes of others—teaching us that humanity is incredibly diverse; that every human being is formed by different forces, and driven by different motivations and values; and that very few of us fall neatly into simple categories.

With each new idea, with each new layer of understanding achieved, the world comes a bit more into our grasp. But, at the same time, with each new layer of understanding, we come to see more layers, and so to appreciate the vast scope of human knowledge and experience—and our own limitations.

We learn to tackle problems with multiple solutions, and to assess the quality of those solutions against one another; and we discover problems so complicated that they could potentially take the lifetime of the universe to solve.

We learn, in short, that the world is endlessly complex;

that grappling with complexity demands hard work, patience, determination, and sometimes even courage;

and we learn that the effort we invest in understanding our one, beautiful, yet imperfect world is deeply meaningful, and deeply worthwhile.

Dr. Tara Westover, who chronicled her own intellectual awakening in her memoir, “Educated,” was asked a few years ago how being educated changes us as people. She answered, “I don’t think education is so much a state of certainty as it is a process of inquiry. … I don’t think [an educated person] is someone who can recite an army of facts… but someone who has some flexibility of mind, who’s willing to examine their own prejudice, who has acquired a depth of understanding that allows them to see the world from another point of view.”

That’s what your Cornell education has given you: not just concrete skills and knowledge, not just tools for examining and considering evidence, not just the ability to clearly make an argument.

All that: yes. But here at Cornell you’ve also developed the intellectual capacity and integrity to change your mind and to amend your beliefs when faced with new information. And you’ve learned, I hope, to communicate across difference: to seek and value diverse opinions, and to appreciate that not everyone interacts in the same ways, holds the same values, or sees the world in the ways that you do. The same problem can look very different when examined from a different angle; the same facts can form many different stories.

So as you leave Cornell and go out into the wider world, I hope that you, too, will view being educated, not as a state you’ve achieved, but as an ongoing process to always engage in;

and that you resist the temptations of easy answers and simple narratives, recognizing that a world of endless beauty and complexity will never fit fully into familiar patterns, with predictable results—and what a joy that is.

May you always follow your curiosity, wherever it takes you—even when it’s up a ladder to the roof.

Congratulations, graduates. Cornell will always be a part of you, just as you will always be a part of Cornell.