Commencement Speech by
William R. Brody, JHU President
Thursday, May 24, 2001
Garland Field | 9:30 a.m.
[Prepared text; checked against delivery.]
To our honorary degree recipients and our new members of the Society of Scholars, to our Trustees and alumni, our faculty and staff, to our parents, family members and friends, but most of all, to our brand new graduates, I offer greetings on behalf of all of Johns Hopkins University.
Any commencement ceremony is an occasion for jubilation. But this morning we have special cause to celebrate, in recognition of the university's 125th year. We are here today honoring not only the accomplishments of the men and women before us, but also those who came before them, stretching back in an uninterrupted line for a century and a quarter.
Already this morning we have awarded honorary degrees to four individuals for their outstanding accomplishments in science, medicine, health policy and business. These degree holders also are part of a great tradition, one of honoring individuals whose accomplishments serve to keep us humble.
In 1888, just 12 years after the university was founded, Mark Twain wrote about this university in a letter to a friend. He said: "A few months ago I was told that the Johns Hopkins University had given me a degree. I naturally supposed this constituted me a Member of the Faculty, and so I started in to help as I could there.
I told them I believed they were perfectly competent to run a college as far as the higher branches of education are concerned, but what they needed was a little help here and there from a practical commercial man. I said the public is sensitive to little things, and they wouldn't have full confidence in a college that didn't know how to spell the name 'John.'"
More than a century later, we continue to bestow our diplomas only upon individuals of outstanding capabilities and great talent. And we continue to spell Johns with an 's.'
For a university, of course, 125 years is but the blink of an eye. It is worth remembering that when Johns Hopkins was founded, Harvard was already four decades into its third century. In 1876, the other Cambridge -- the one in England -- had been home to a university for more than 600 years. And the University of Bologna, adjacent to which today we operate one of Europe's foremost centers for graduate studies in International Relations, was already more than 800 years old.
So our cause for celebration in this 125th anniversary year is not our longevity. Rather, it is our accomplishments we commemorate. And they are many. We are proud of our heritage as the first research university in America. Hopkins innovations range from the introduction of the system of water chlorination that provides families the world over with safe, dependable drinking water, to the discovery of restriction enzymes, which have unleashed the power of genetic medicine.
They range from the discovery of saccharine to the invention of CPR; the founding of the discipline of the History of Ideas to the verification of the authenticity of the Dead Sea Scrolls; from the composition of great symphonies and operas, to the eradication of smallpox.
But of all our accomplishments, none may be greater than this class of graduates assembled here today.
I say "may" because, of course, we don't know yet what your achievements will be. That will be up to you.
No doubt, they will be as many and as varied as the course of your studies and the uniquely individual education each of you have gained from them. And while it is traditional on a day like today to talk and think in terms of sweeping horizons and grand accomplishments, this morning I would like to do something different.
Instead of speaking of achievements, I ask you to consider one of the smallest details in your personal life. Not your IQ, but your CQ, your civility quotient: the measure that indicates not where your journey will take you, but rather, what kind of voyage you'll have along the way. These days, the word 'civility' is generally taken to be synonymous with manners -- observing social niceties such a please and thank you. But Hopkins professor Pier Massimo Forni, who has received national recognition for his work in this field, points out that civility is more than simply good manners.
Civility has its root in the Latin word civitas meaning city. The concept of civility is inseparable from the vital notion of good citizenship. "The civil person," says Dr. Forni, "is the good citizen, the good neighbor." In ancient times, when the city could aptly represent the body politic, civility was understood to mean the ability to live with others in the city; not merely to peacefully co- exist, but to participate in the life of the community and to contribute to that community. Citizenship was a privilege. But it was also understood to carry an obligation, the obligation of civility.
This morning I want to suggest to you that this obligation of civility, far from being a burden, may be the key to your future success. To illustrate my point, let me pose a question: Who was William Dawes, and why don't we know his name?
The answer may surprise you. But I'll get to that in a minute.
Dr. Francis Fukuyama is one of our newest faculty members at the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. An astute observer of modern life, professor Fukuyama has written extensively about the changes that have occurred in our society as we have moved from an industrial economy to an information economy. He notes that societies built around information tend to provide their citizens with two interrelated benefits in unparalleled abundance: freedom and equality.
Increasing equality comes from an information society's relentless assaults on hierarchies of all kinds.
The Internet is one of many great equalizers in our modern lives. Almost effortlessly, patients can learn as much or more about their illness than their doctors; customers can find the wholesale price of a new car and what the dealer is trying to make in profit; university students can locate the world's foremost expert in their field, the list goes on and on.
Freedom too, has been expanded enormously, as we witnessed at the end of the last century when an iron curtain proved incapable of withstanding an electronic assault of information. In America, greater freedom has primarily meant expanded freedom of choice, from how we choose to compose our domestic living arrangements, to the number of cable channels available, to where we work and how we select our circle of friends. Consequently, many of the social constraints of the past have collapsed.
Perhaps that's why there is so much discomfort in our current arrangements. Today, the social norms that provided a moral bedrock 50 years ago are often thought to be outmoded -- or even worse, irrelevant. We seem to have lost -- or given up -- the broadly-accepted code of civil behavior that served to delineate expectations and define codes of reciprocity. Yet we continue to recognize their value. As Yogi Berra so succinctly put it, "Always go to other people's funerals, otherwise they won't go to yours."
Nonetheless, the currency of civility has been devalued, and the result, perhaps not surprisingly, has been a marked decline in trust, both in institutions and in our fellow citizens. When asked, "Do you think people in general today lead lives as good -- as honest and moral -- as they used to?" about half of Americans in 1952 said they thought they did. When that same question was asked in 1998, Americans by a margin of three-to-one thought society today is less moral and trustworthy.
These numbers are disturbing in and of themselves; but they become even more disheartening when you break them down by age category. Then it becomes evident that the decline in trust is due largely to generational succession.
Younger people today are far more distrustful than their elders. When, for instance, you ask the question "Are most people honest?" about three-quarters of the people born before 1930 will say yes. But jump down a couple generations, and slightly fewer than half of those born after 1960 will agree. In other words, for our students graduating today, you are, on average, much less likely to be trusting than the grandparents who may be seated somewhere in the audience behind you. And as that generation leaves us, society as a whole loses that additional reservoir of trust.
Sociologists who have examined this trend note that trust itself has not disappeared. Young people today, for instance, seem to trust family members and friends just as much as their parents and grandparents did.
What has changed is the radius of the circle of trust, and how far it extends beyond families and friends to encompass strangers, political leaders and civic institutions. And this is where William Dawes -- the man most of you have never heard about -- becomes important.
William Dawes is a name from American history. In the 1994 book, Paul Revere's Ride, historian David Hackett Fischer made a point that had been long overlooked by most students of the American revolution: Paul Revere did not ride alone. On that fateful night in April, 1775, there were actually two American patriots who set out on horseback to sound the alarm: Paul Revere and William Dawes. Their purpose was to warn the citizens of Lexington and Concord that the British -- who hoped to seize arms and arrest Revolutionary leaders John Hancock and Samuel Adam -- were on the march.
Both riders set out from Boston at the same time. Both arrived in Lexington in time to warn Hancock and Adams to flee. Revere approached Lexington, which is located 11 miles to the northwest of Boston, by a northerly route through the Middlesex villages. Dawes went first slightly south and towards the west, through towns like Roxbury, Brookline, Watertown and Waltham.
Presumably, both men knocked on doors, shouted in the streets, and did whatever they could to alert the citizenry that British soldiers were coming.
But the next day, when the patriots confronted the British first at Lexington and then at Concord, almost all of them were from the Middlesex villages areas where Paul Revere had sounded the alarm. So conspicuously absent were the militias from the areas in which William Dawes rode that for many years historians mistakenly concluded that Waltham and its environs were hotbeds of Tory support.
But they were not. The reason the citizens of Waltham and nearby villages failed to appear is much more interesting than that. And, I think, much more instructive.
Paul Revere and William Dawes were both respected and reliable citizens. Both were merchant craftsmen: Revere was a silversmith and Dawes a tanner. Both were fervent patriots who early on embraced the cause of liberty and independence. Both rode that same night to warn that the British were coming. Yet only one of the two is enshrined in American folk mythology and memorialized in verse. Why is this?
David Fischer suggests the answer lies in the scope of Paul Revere's circle of trust. He writes:
When Boston imported its first streetlights in 1774, Paul Revere was asked to serve on the committee that made the arrangement. When the Boston market required regulation, Paul Revere was appointed its clerk. After the Revolution, in a time of epidemics, he was chosen health officer of Boston, and coroner of Suffolk County. When a major fire ravaged the old wooden town, he helped to found the Massachusetts Mutual Fire Insurance Company, and his name was first to appear on its charter of incorporation. As poverty became a growing problem in the new republic, he called the meeting that organized the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association, and was elected its first president. When the community of Boston was shattered by the most sensational murder trial of his generation, Paul Revere was chosen foreman of the jury. **In other words, Paul Revere recognized, and lived, a fundamental truth I want to suggest to you this morning. No matter how intelligent, or gifted, or educated or capable you may be, in the real world, it is partnership and working with others that is most often the key to our success. Paul Revere had a very high CQ: his civility quotient reflected the many ways in which he contributed to the life of the community.
Paul Revere's ride succeeded because the rider had a lifetime of civic engagement upon which to draw in his hour of need. When he came to towns he knew just whose door to knock upon -- and they knew him. Paul Revere was known and respected, and so, people not only listened, they trusted and therefore believed what he had to say. He truly did not ride alone. As a result, he arrived in Lexington at the head of a legend.
William Dawes, on the other hand, had no such base of support, and so was just a man on horseback, yelling in the night. He arrived in Lexington with little else to show than saddle sores.
The phase of your lives you are today completing has emphasized personal achievement, individual initiative, and the pervasive drive to become number one. You may even be ranked within your school or your department for your efforts. That model of achievement is the one we all learned in grade school, but it neglects the importance of connectedness and trust. Contrary to legend and with all due respect to the poet Longfellow, the midnight ride of Paul Revere is not the story of a single heroic individual changing the tide of history by virtue of solitary, unassisted actions. Rather, it is the culmination of trust and respect developed through years of personal interaction and support of others.
From this day forward, you will have many opportunities to involve yourself with neighbors, associates, and even total strangers. They will come in the guise of church groups, neighborhood associations, political campaigns, volunteer work, professional organizations, soccer coaching, and a thousand-and-one other worthwhile activities. My hope this morning is that you will recognize that there are others less fortunate than you for no reasons of will, intellect, education or desire. The obligation of civility extends no less to them than to your peers seated here with you this morning. And I hope that you will always remember this little bit of history: Paul Revere did not ride alone.
Members of the classes of 2001: Johns Hopkins University is immensely proud of your accomplishments, signified by your graduation here today. No doubt, even greater achievements lie ahead. Remember us, and come back to see us often. Good luck in the journey ahead.
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