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Headlines at Hopkins
Commencement 2000

Commencement Speech by
William R. Brody, JHU President

Thursday, May 25, 2000

[Prepared text; checked against delivery.]

Good morning.

To our honorary degree recipients, new members of the Society of Scholars, to our Trustees and alumni, 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.

Recently, I had an opportunity to talk with the president of a renowned research university who is retiring after many years of celebrated achievement. Since I was anxious to know the reasons for his great success, I asked him a number of questions, finishing with what I considered to be the toughest question of them all: What is the right length for a commencement address?

Without pausing for a second, he answered "Eleven minutes."

I said, eleven minutes - how did you come up with that?

He said, it needs to be long enough for people to think they got their money's worth. But not so long that they have to pay attention to what you're saying.

Thus suitably humbled, I will try to respect the wisdom of his advice. In the next nine minutes and thirty seconds.

An interesting tidbit from a recent survey done by the Barna Research Group: fully a tenth of Christians and 14 percent of non-Christians report seeking their spiritual solace over the Internet. And while only 4 percent of teenagers currently turn to the World Wide Web for religious or spiritual guidance, more than 15 percent of teens polled said they expect that the Internet will take the place of their current church-based religious experience in the next five years.

Consider the implications in terms of national events. In the past week we've seen pictures and news stories of families whose homes have been entirely destroyed in an out-of-control fire near Los Alamos, New Mexico. Over the years, a certain ritual of activities has come to surround such natural and man-made disasters, whether it's a fire in the Southwest, a hurricane along the Eastern Seaboard, or a California mudslide.

For many of these disasters, a sophisticated system of weather forecasting, data tracking and alert civil defense authorities prevents a wide scale loss of life. Warnings are sounded, evacuations ordered, and soon we see the familiar spectacle of entire families, with some few of their possessions loaded into the family car, camping for days or even weeks in the gymnasium of the local high school.

Eventually the danger passes and the families are allowed to go back. Some are lucky and escape unscathed. But some go back to scenes of utter desolation, like the Los Alamos residents who have nothing left but a lone chimney and the cinders of a lifetime of photographs, family heirlooms, dreams, hopes and memories.

This is the difficult part of the public ritual of disaster, the moment of tears and disbelief and often, despair. But among the rubble of ruined lives there is always a small glimmer of hope. Often, it comes in the form of the ubiquitous Red Cross volunteer, the man or woman - usually a total stranger - who is on the scene with a cup of coffee and a sandwich, with donated clothing and temporary housing vouchers. It's the person who reaches out and touches the victims of catastrophe in the most meaningful way possible.

This is reaching out and touching, not with a long distance phone call, as we have so often been told is the way it's done, but in person, with hands and hearts, and sometimes, hugs. In an era when we are told we must "get connected" or perish, these are some of the most connected people on earth. And yet they do it without T1 connections, without ISDN, without VGA super graphics.

Another tidbit to consider: all across American one of the greatest challenges facing the community service organizations has been a steady and continuing decline in the number of available volunteers. More and more often, when a major disaster strikes, it is nearly impossible to find available disaster relief volunteers.

At the turn of the new century, we are wired, we are communicating, we are in some sense connected as never before. But the connections between us that are most meaningful, the everyday face-to-face human interactions that are the basis of community, have unmistakably eroded. How can a person with a pager, a cell phone and an e-mail address possibly feel isolated? It doesn't seem to make sense.

On the other hand, how can she or he avoid feeling like anything more than a bumper in a pinball game, lighting up for that brief nerve-jangling second when struck, but then just as quickly returning to the bump and jostle of everyday existence, where meaning is measured only by the highest score, or the longest game played. I don't know about you, but if I get jostled much more, my "tilt" light is about to be permanently illuminated.

Alan Marcus, history professor at the University of Iowa, suggests that our current state of disconnectedness is not the result of new technology. Computers and cell phones and the Internet are not the reasons we are losing community; rather, they are simply the means to that end, the tools that enable us to effect our isolation.

We have home offices not because faxes and phone lines enable us to do so, but because we want to work at home. We shop on the Internet because we'd rather be in cyberspace than human space, standing in line or confronting an unhelpful salesperson. It's all about increasing our autonomy and reducing our dependence on others, says Professor Marcus, a preference for temporary associations renegotiated periodically - or even daily - as opposed to long-term relationships requiring patience and compromise and work.

Consider employment in the twenty first century. Or marriage. What was once thought to be perpetual, enduring and permanent, has become transitory, ephemeral and all-too-often, short-lived. We plug in. We get connected. But just as quickly and just as easily, we seem ready to pull the plug. Perhaps this is the appeal of religion over the Internet. If moral strictures become too confining and personal obligation too onerous, the next Messiah may be only a mouse click away.

Hopkins Anthropology Professor Sidney Mintz has cited the fast food restaurant as yet another symbol of our society's interest in fostering autonomous behavior. Fifty years ago, a family not only had to eat together, the menu was the same for each family member. Not so with McDonalds, where junior can have a Big Mac, Mom a salad, and Dad a chicken fajita. Eat and run; or perhaps, eat while running.

Impermanence is the legacy of this new hyper culture, a society in which, we are oppressed by urgency. As more than one social critic has decried, we are witnessing the death of permanence.

Or are we? Charles Handy, in his book, The Age of Unreason, notes the typical marriage in America today lasts about 15 years and ends in divorce. But, he goes on to point out, the typical Victorian marriage, which usually ended with the death of one partner, lasted about, you guessed it, 15 years. Which of the two was more permanent?

One hundred and seventy years ago, de Tocqueville noted that personal autonomy was an American preoccupation. "The Americans are wont carefully to separate into small distinct circles," he wrote, "in order to indulge themselves the enjoyments of private life." In fact, so pronounced was this tendency that de Tocqueville coined a new word - individualism - that he defined as the feeling "which disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his fellow-creatures, and to draw apart with his family and friends."

From de Tocqueville's perspective, individualism was a good thing, the inevitable consequence of democracy. In Europe, associations were of necessity made by class, which provided a permanent and inescapable network of peers. In a democracy, where each person considers herself no more or less worthy than any other, associations are made by choice, not birth. And so to some extent the need to withdraw from the civic sphere, to nurture "unum" at the expense of "pluribus," has a sound basis in practical reality. If your friends and associates are not chosen for you, then you have to pick them yourself.

But even though de Tocqueville felt that the advent of democracy was "universal and irresistible," he was observant enough to recognize that not all its features were equally laudable. Withdrawal into the private sphere is commendable only insofar as it nurtures self-reliance, integrity and humility. When it instead becomes an incubator of narcissism, contempt and self-aggrandizement, then it quickly threatens not only the individual, but the society comprising such individuals as well.

Is this the path we are following? And in particular, have the highly educated, the wealthy and successful, opted out of civic life? The symbol of this new disconnection is the gated community, an enclave of the highly affluent who seem to have shut themselves off from all others less fortunate than themselves. In the words of former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, we are witnessing "the succession of the successful" from civic responsibility.

We cannot treat this accusation lightly, for we know it is we who are being discussed. This is about the graduates of a prestigious university like Johns Hopkins. You will earn more, accomplish more, and have more opportunities in the years ahead than the great majority of your fellow citizens. The question I ask you to ponder today is, will you give more as well? Will the privileges afforded by your education at an elite institution, by being counted the best of the best, become an opportunity for taking or for giving? For avoiding or embracing?

Despite our prosperity, in the face of this new economy, there is still unconscionable poverty. There is want amidst plenty; need crying in the shadows of extravagance. This is the world you face.

I have no doubt you will be wired, you will be plugged in, you will be Internet accessible at almost every waking moment. But will you be truly connected? In the years ahead, there will be more fires like the one at Los Alamos, more hurricanes and floods and other natural disasters. But will there continue to be strangers there the next day, offering a sandwich, and a cup of coffee, and most importantly, the touch of another human hand?

I hope so. I think so. And my fondest wish is that you will be among them. Godspeed graduates, and may all of you fare well on the journey ahead.

Thank you.

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