2006 Commencement

Thursday, June 8, 2006 - 12:06
Honorary Degree Address
By Eugenie C. Scott
May 28, 2006

Graduates, parents, distinguished faculty, and guests ...

... but especially, graduates. Because today is all about you.

It is traditional in a commencement speech to give graduates advice: how to live your lives, what sort of people you should be, and so on.

Of course, this is the height of presumption, but we anthropologists understand ritual, so I"m going to do it anyway.

In 1997, the author Kurt Vonnegut gave MIT graduates excellent advice at their commencement. If you Google "Vonnegut" "Wear Sunscreen", it'll pop right up. In addition to the admonition to wear sunscreen, the essay had lots of other good advice, like

Do one thing every day that scares you.

It was funny, but wise at the same time. Lots of Vonnegutian touches, like:

Don't expect anyone else to support you. Maybe you have a trust fund. Maybe you'll have a wealthy spouse. But you never know when either one might run out.

Some of you are saying "Oh, oh. Should we tell her?"

And yes, I know. Vonnegut never gave that speech to MIT graduates. It was written by journalist Mary Schmich as a fantasy commencement address for her Chicago Tribune newspaper column. It was relabeled by persons unknown as Vonnegut's work, and it has had an Internet life of its own.

Not the first time a man has gotten credit for a woman's work, but that's not the point I want to make here.

There was, by the way, a more or less happy ending: Mary Schmich got much more publicity, acclaim, and appreciation for the piece resulting from the Internet circulation than from the original publication in a regional newspaper. I recently got a copy from my sister in law that said, "Vonnegut didn't really write this but it's so good I sent it anyway!"

And indeed, the essay stands on its own, whoever wrote it. It is funny, and wise.

So why am I telling you this story? Because--as you heard--I'm a scientist, and I believe strongly that reason, facts, and empirical evidence are essential for making not just scientific decisions, but for other decisions as well: like who to vote for. Many Americans vote for a candidate because they think he/she is a "nice guy"--without taking the time to examine the candidate's actual policies and opinions.

Bad idea. That's going with your gut, not with your brains.

Some women decide to vote for a candidate "because she's a woman" as if chromosomal count correlates to political wisdom.

Bad idea. That's going with your heart, not with your brains.

So I'm pretty big on fact and reason. Yet, I'll certainly agree that, as with the Vonnegut commencement story, sometimes facts don't have to come first, and you should go with your heart or gut, rather than your brain. Knowing Vonnegut didn't write the essay didn't detract from the meaning of the essay, nor from my enjoyment of it.

And yet, knowing the facts around the article's writing actually enhances the meaning of the article. Certainly any line could have been written by a man, but if you know they were written by a woman you discover a nuance to the meaning that wasn't there before. Listen to this section again:

Don't expect anyone else to support you. Maybe you have a trust fund. Maybe you'll have a wealthy spouse. But you never know when either one might run out.

or:

Do not read beauty magazines. They will only make you feel ugly.

And I think any woman can relate to:

Don't be reckless with other people's hearts. Don't put up with people who are reckless with yours.

So yes, sometimes the meaning of things may depend more on what is in your heart or gut than what is in your brain, but keep a place for logic and facts in your life, even in situations where you might not think them relevant.

You have a brain as well as a heart and a gut. You'll be a better functioning organism if you use all three!

And that is my presumptuous advice to you on this most happy day of your graduation, which I am highly honored to share!

Related Links:
Honorary Degree Citation

Eugenie C. Scott

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