Delivered at Notre Dame Graduate School Commencement Ceremony, held May 18, 2013 in the Compton Family Ice Arena
It is a double honor to return to this place, which so profoundly nurtured my own sense of calling as a teacher, scholar, and administrator. I arrived here in the fall of 1975 as a newly minted historian of early America. I found the History Department and the College of Arts and Letters an ideal academic home: impeccable intellectual standards, great commitment to teaching, and creative thought about what kind of discourse should animate a distinct place like Notre Dame. I remember fondly the intimidating intellectual presence of Father Marvin O’Connell, the powerful intellects of Marshall Smelser and Fred Pike, the good cheer of Vincent DeSantis, the wisdom of Philip Gleason, who seems to have read every book about any subject, the great teaching of Father Tom Blantz, the
stimulation of other new young colleagues like Jay Dolan, John Van Engen, Tom Kselman, and Diane Murray.
I also remember the fateful day, when Mike Loux, a new dean of Arts and Letters, called two weeks before classes began in the fall to see if I would stop what I was doing to take on a job in administration. Mike was a brilliant leader and, under his tutelage, I became intrigued with the challenges of working, on behalf of one’s colleagues, to strengthen this university. It was a distinct privilege to work with Provost Tim O’Meara and Father Ted Hesburgh. Father Monk Malloy gave me the enormous privilege of serving as Provost here and I learned a tremendous amount from him as well as from colleagues in the Provost office: Carol Mooney, Father Tim Scully, John AffleckGraves,Father John Jenkins, Chris Maziar, and Dennis Jacobs. My debts here are many and large, indeed.
It is also an honor to be here on this special day for those of you receiving graduate degrees from Notre Dame. Let me salute your signal accomplishments. This is a day to celebrate, to take note of all that your newly minted degree represents, and to give thanks to family and colleagues who helped make possible your course of study.
One thing I can promise those of you who are being awarded degrees today. The value of your graduate diploma from this place has never been higher. Notre Dame has been in the business of graduate education for a long time, for over 75 years, but the University’s ascendency as a research university and its commitment to graduate education has been marked in recent years. I was privileged to have a small hand in these efforts some twenty years ago. But the progress in recent years has been remarkable: investment in graduate support, in laboratories, in the library, and, most importantly, in bringing to Notre Dame faculty of the first rank.
Let me congratulate Father John Jenkins, Provost Tom Burish and especially Vice President and Senior Associate Provost Chris Maziar, who is also serving as Interim Dean of the Graduate School. Also, let me acknowledge the deans of the colleges, and so many faculty who have been responsible for making Notre Dame a truly distinguished university in the Catholic tradition. This sterling quality is certainly being recognized nationally and it will serve you graduates well as you move out from this place and begin to apply what you have learned here.
This morning I want to leave you with two simple messages, the first about intellectual curiosity and the importance of learning as an end in itself; the second, about what scholars are now calling “grit.” or resilience. Curiosity and Grit.
I trust your graduate education at Notre Dame offered one gift above all: to whet your appetite for understanding. The very reason a university exists—its heart and soul—is to inspire passion to learn, to explore, to discover, to understand. In these walls, I trust you have been gripped by the power of a great novel, or dazzled by hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe, or the intricacies of the human genome, or stirred by a play or concert, or amazed by a brilliant analysis of comparative politics. Most of all, I hope that your intellectual grounding in your respective discipline here has generated questions, and methods of inquiry, that will animate your work for years to come.
Professor Nancy Hopkins, who teaches at MIT, remembers her own moment of intellectual awakening. She does so in frankly romantic terms, describing her “crush on DNA.” After hearing a lecture by James Watson on the wonder of DNA, she admits she suddenly fell in love with a subject that promised to unravel the very mysteries of life. I hope that you have experienced such moments of awakening—and that their memory will be a continuing inspiration.
“Never lose a holy curiosity,” advised Albert Einstein. Be relentlessly inquisitive, every day, about the world around, its promises and mysteries. I make this point for two reasons. First, it is crucial for the vitality of your own sense of calling longterm. Whether you will be spending time teaching, or in research, in public service, or in management, keeping alive a flame of curiosity will give motivation and meaning to what you do. Thomas Jefferson once said that the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing. Your work will continue to seem worth doing if it is animated by sustained inquiry. How can things be understood better?
What new insights have others developed in a given field? How can human interactions be structured more positively? Any job can become routine without this kind of intellectual vitality. I also want to make this point about continuous learning because today the ideal of learning for its own sake is under steady assault. In the context of a constrained economy, and scarce public resources, we are hearing a drumbeat that the primary purpose of higher education should be its economic utility. The most pressing question today seems to be how much does college cost in relation to the salary that a college graduate can command. These themes resonate not just from nervous parents but also from Congressional Committees, from the Education Department itself, and from dominant influences like the Gates and Lumina Foundations. In states like Florida, Texas, and North Carolina there have been open discussion that suggest the value of higher education should be evaluated strictly in terms of return on investment. And Virginia has begun a statelevel data collection to link graduates’ salaries back to their colleges and majors. This kind of accountability may have its place, but it also brings into question the value of learning itself and the vital importance of a liberal arts education—in a time when in Andrew Delbanco’s eloquent rendering, the liberal arts are becoming marginal or merely ornamental.
We need intellectual curiosity on all fronts. We need it desperately in the so-called STEM disciplines. We need it in the social sciences, in the arts, and in professional fields of law, medicine, business, and divinity. While all of learning for its own sake is questioned, the greatest threat is to humanistic inquiry, which has been at the heart and soul of a place like Notre Dame. Literature, philosophy, history, the Classics—these fields are the ones most easily targeted as irrelevant or unnecessary. Michael Malone, in a recent article in The Wall Street Journal defending the Humanities, states the point bluntly: for the humanities “to image that they have anything approaching the significance or influence of technical fields smacks of a kind of sad, lastditch desperation. Science merely nods and says, ‘I see your Jane Austen monographs and deconstructions of ‘The Tempest’ and raise you stem cell research and the iPhone’—and then pockets all of the chips on the table.” (This does not mean to disparage science and technology in any way; only to suggest the comparative vulnerability of disciplines that have less economic utility.)
All of us need to redouble our efforts to defend the “higher” purposes of a college education despite our economic woes, just as C.S. Lewis did in his address during World War II, “Learning in Wartime:” In that address he defended the importance of the life of the mind even when civilization was literally crumbling. “Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure the search would never have begun.” Andrew Delbanco’s book College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be is an eloquent reminder of the real, higher aims of colleges and universities. Learn, keep learning, and inspire others to learn. That is my first piece of advice. The second is far more practical and addresses how you approach the jobs you will now undertake: in colleges, in research labs, in NGO’s, in government, in museums, in libraries. This is advice for any kind of position that you pursue.
I want to talk with you about some surprising studies about what make people successful. Those of us in the academy are particularly prone to believe that intelligence is the key to success: the spoils, we think, generally go to those who are brilliant, to those who analyze and write well, to those who are quick on their feet. This morning I am going to suggest an entirely different theory of success, one that offers both encouragement and challenge to us all.
My theme today is a character strength called “grit.” Before she taught psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, Angela Duckworth taught math in middle and high school. She spent a lot of time thinking about something that seemed obvious: students who tried hardest did the best and students who didn’t try very hard
didn’t do so well. Duckworth wanted to know: what is the role of effort in a person’s success. Duckworth’s research focuses on a personality trait she calls “grit.” Grit is “sticking with things over the very long term until you master them.” She writes that “the gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina.”
Duckworth has developed a “Grit Scale.” You rate yourself ona series of about 10 items such as “I have overcome setbacks to conquer an important challenge” and “Setback don’t discourage me.” She has found in a variety of settings that a grit score was the best predictor of success: She found that among West Point cadets, at Ivy League institutions, at the National Spelling Bee competition, and among underprivileged students seeking to complete college. People with less talent often compensate by working harder and with more determination. The grittiest students, not the smartest ones, often do the best. Similar themes are evident in the work of Paul Tough whose books “How Children Succeed” and “Whatever it Takes” challenges the so-called cognitive hypothesis that success depends primarily on cognitive skills. The thesis of these books might be called the character hypothesis: the notion that noncognitive skills, like persistence, selfcontrol, curiosity, resilience, and grit are more crucial than sheer brainpower to achieving success. “Character is created by encountering and overcoming failure,” Paul Tough suggests. One of his articles is entitled “What if the Secret of Success is Failure?” This kind of “grit,” or staying power, is important for two reasons. Your generation tends to have interests many and varied. In college many of you doubled majored and in graduate school, your interest has ranged widely. Even within your own discipline, you may be intrigued by very different sets of questions and approaches. Your enthusiasms are worthy and intense, but sometimes fleeting. Your have not been known for persistence: sticking to something until you really master it.
My advice to you, as young professionals, is to become really good at something. It is better to master one discrete thing than dabble in ten interesting projects. Being the faithful steward of a small responsibility will convince others you can be entrusted with larger things. Publishing one firstrate academic article will carry more weight than a slew of second-tier work. This is not to say that, over time, you won’t branch out, and that you will not take on many different assignments. You will. But when you have a challenge, learn to master it, no matter how difficult. Don’t retreat to something easier, more interesting, or more familiar. Don’t dream about what might be. Learn to sprint up the hills. Your generation also needs to cultivate a second quality of “Grit:” to understand the how to cope with disappointment and failure. The timeless, if uncomfortable, truth is that true strength of character is almost always forged by encountering and overcoming failure.
On this bright and auspicious day, I wish I could promise you graduates the road would always rise up to meet you, that the wind would always be at your back, that the sun would always shine warm on your face. There will be many of those days, I am confident. But there will also be hard days when schooling, or job, or family, or your own sense of selfworth seems to crumble around you. “Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick,” Steve Jobs noted in his famous 10 commencement speech at Stanford in 2005. Jobs had revolutionized the world of personal computers in 1984 with the MacIntosh, but then the project faltered, and he was fired from the very company he had founded. “It was awful tasting medicine,” he said, “but I guess the patient needed it.” Jobs concluded that getting fired was actually the best thing that could have happened to him. Why? Because it drove him to reassess everything, to rekindle his creative fire, and to redouble his effort and commitment. It made him resilient.
Why is coming to terms with failure important? Because all of us encounter turns that seem to go nowhere, launch projects that fizzle, or get caught in organizations into which we do not fit. Particularly in this day and age, no one is exempt from the school of hard knocks. The key is how we respond to such setbacks. Do we lose heart, or do we learn things about ourselves? Do we blame others or do we change our approach? Do we become more skittish or find a way to bounce back, to get back into the saddle? In this day, the biggest problem with a fear of failure is that we will not take risks. And in this economy, as traditional jobs and careers disappear, and as some academic fields wax and others wane, you will have to take more risks, become more entrepreneurial. As Thomas Friedman recently stated: “Need a job? Invent it.” You cannot make big bets, experiment early and often, if you are terrified of failure.
Thomas J. Watson, the legendary leader of IBM counseled: “If you want to succeed, double your failure rate.” The point is to lean into disappointment and setback. Become more gritty. This morning you may think I have taken you in two entirely different directions. I have extolled inspiration, the joys of learning, the importance of thinking and understanding as ends in themselves. And I have said, as a young professional you need perspiration, to be more gritty; focused, tough, able to overcome setbacks and disappointment. I have spoken about inspiration and perspiration, traits that may seem opposite or contradictory. Actually, I do think they are linked more tightly than one might think. No one was more relentlessly curious than Thomas Edison, yet he regularly related his insights to a relentless work ethic: “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Accordingly a genius is often merely a talented person who has done all of his or her homework.” Another brilliant inventor, Louis Pasteur, put it this way: “Let me tell you the secret that has led me to my goals: my strength lies solely in my tenacity.”
This morning, I extend the heartiest congratulations on this special day. And I commend to you the conjoined virtues of relentless curiosity and sustained focus and hard work.