Saturday, May 20, 2017

Graduation



"It's up to you to save the world.  Our generation messed up." said an older person to no one in particular.

I graduated in 1982 with a degree in Chemistry.  As is tradition at Cornell, there were no hired inspirational speakers.  The send-off was given -- more appropriately, I think -- by the then university president Frank H.T. Rhodes.   The economy was in rough shape, but President Rhodes nevertheless emphasized the importance of setting great goals and finding meaning in service and leadership.

I found a portion of his speech in the NY Times

My graduating class had 4,200 students, and President Rhodes was a distant figure.  Yet, we were separated by one degree.

One summer, I had a job at Uris Library doing general inventory, cataloging, and shelving.  I learned this library was steward to a very special collection: all the issues, from number one with Marilyn Monroe on the cover, to the present, of Playboy Magazine.  I got the plumb assignment of checking the collection for damage and missing pages, and I was to be thorough and examine every issue.

Also working at the library was another student named Lawrence.  A bit of a mischief maker, a provocateur, he volunteered to assist me.  He reasoned that it was a large collection and that I would need help.  So we worked on it from 9am to noon, and progress was... slow.

Carol, the head librarian and our boss, took us off the assignment, replacing us with another student named Penny.  Penny completed the job in perhaps an hour, no more than two.  Here, we have proof that a woman can do the work of two men, and probably twice as fast.  I also applaud Carol for at least giving the boys a chance; I suppose we met expectations.

It wasn't till the end of the summer that we -- the student workers -- learned Penny was President Rhodes' daughter.  She was kind and soft spoken.  We wouldn't have treated her any differently had we known, but I understand her wish for privacy.

A graduating class of 4,200 students sounds large, indeed is large, but with each passing summer, Cornell felt smaller and smaller.

Today, three decades later, the world feels smaller but not from personal growth as I experienced at Cornell, but from the growth of technology.  The world feels a lot less private too.  I love technology, but my answer to the question "Why technology?" has always been "Only if it solves more problems than it creates."

Few would disagree the world today is a more convenient place.  But is it a better place?

Given the various states of technology and changing cultural sensitivities,  each generation faces unique challenges whether war, recession, climate change, or an intractable political environment.  It's tempting to believe the previous generation had it harder than the next, and to do so would be to misunderstand the world.  Thus, it is now my turn to say, to no one in particular, "It's up to you to save the world.  Our generation messed up."