Commencement Address, Phillips Academy 2016

Commencement Address
Phillips Academy, Andover
June 5, 2016
John Palfrey

Welcome, everyone – trustees, faculty, and staff; faculty Emeriti; alumni, families, friends, and – most of all – our beloved students.  Thank you for your presence with us today.

I would like to start with a note of gratitude to the adults in the Andover community.  Our community thrives as a direct result of individual and collective diligence, support, and love.  To all the adults who care for our students, who select our students in the admissions process, and who teach them all the way along: let us all express our thanks to these wonderful people this morning.  Please join me in a great big round of applause for the faculty, staff, and faculty Emeriti of Phillips Academy.

To the parents and grandparents, guardians and friends: thank you, too.  Thank you for the gift of time with the students you have sent to us.  I know, for many of you, that it felt like a great sacrifice to part with your children so early, for so many days out of the year – whether as boarding or day students.  For this gift of time, you have our enduring thanks.  The students you have shared with us have done you very proud.

And to the great Class of 2016: Theo Perez and Annette Bell, thank you for your inspiring words this morning.  Thank you for your exceptional leadership this year and all the years you have been with us.

To every member of the Class of 2016: thank you and congratulations.  You are a spirited group – a brilliant group – worthy of the honor we pay you today as we pronounce you graduates of Andover.  Your talent have been well on display these past few days, in our ceremonies and concerts.

I will always remember you.  You and I arrived at Andover together, four years ago.  You are the first class that I, as head of school, have been with all the way through.  It has been a delight to watch you grow and thrive here.  I remember you as you were when you arrived at Andover, whether that was four years ago – which seems quite a long time now – or this past Fall.  It is safe to say that every one of you has changed as a result of being at Andover – as a result of being with one another, in this very special place.

As we celebrate the great diversity in our community, I am struck by a wonderful combination in the Class of 2016.  Many of you are the first in your family to attend boarding school.  Though perhaps what is more noteworthy is that a significant number of you will be the first in your family to attend college.  We also have graduates whose families have been connected to Andover for literally hundreds of years – including one family with a graduate from the class of 1816, exactly 200 years ago, and a graduate today, in the class of 2016.

Whether your family is here at Andover for the first time, the second time, or the umpteenth time, you have brought much to this community.  You have done well at Andover; you have done Andover well; and we all have high hopes for what you will do with the goodness and knowledge that you have gained while you have been with us.  We are delighted to be connected with you from here on out.

My topic this morning has to do with the world beyond Andover, the world in which you enter, for good, this afternoon.  I hope that today, this Commencement – meaning, of course, a new beginning – is a chance for you to reflect upon where you have been over the past few years as well as how you might act, in the future, to make the world a better place.  How, in short, will you apply the knowledge and goodness that you have learned here when you get out there?

You leave us at a time of enormous transition in society.  The one thing I suspect we could all agree on – regardless of political persuasion – is that the rate of change is unprecedented in human history.  The problems that humanity will need to address together – and which will affect your generation for even longer than my own – make for a very long list.  We face these problems when some of our key political institutions are not in the best of shape.  The American political system, for one, is fractured – the United States Congress has a hard time reaching decisions on just about anything, candidates seem to be rewarded for making the most outrageous statements they can, and the common ground between American political parties appears to be microscopically small.

During your time at Andover, some of you have already focused on addressing the big social issues of our time.  Perhaps you agree with the economist Jeffrey Sachs, who wrote:

“[a]chieving sustainable development on our crowded, unequal, and degraded planet is the most important challenge facing our generation,”

and you were among those engaged with EcoAction in its work on climate change.  Perhaps your concern is global poverty and hunger, and you worked on a Real World Design Challenge to help feed the billions who are hungry.  Perhaps you traveled with a Learning in the World group to help bridge cultural gaps across nations and peoples.  Perhaps you led a Technovation challenge to imagine and start building the next big start-up to create jobs and solve social problems at the same time.

Today, I want to focus your mind on a particular challenge and opportunity that lies before you.  As we rush to solve these huge problems, we often reach to technology to help us do that.  As you know, I am, myself, very excited about what our use of technology can bring.  On this campus, we have used technology in new and exciting ways in our classrooms; and we have been finding ways to use technology to share what we have at Andover with others far from here.

At the same time, I fear that the unfettered use of technology will bring with it bigger problems than it solves.

Your time at Andover has been marked by the rise of many different technologies.  Consider the sharp rise in the use of drones over the past four years.  That Real World Design Challenge team from Andover that won the Massachusetts challenge?  This team proposed the use of a drone to aid farmers in their efforts to grow crops more efficiently and healthfully.  The United States relies increasingly on drones for important combat and intelligence missions.  Less profound, but more likely to affect you directly: Amazon.com announced earlier this year that it is testing the use of drones to deliver your packages – perhaps those who follow you at Andover will get their packages directly at their dorms, instead of at Central Services in GW.   These drones can save lives, improve the economy, and help feed the hungry.

The same goes for self-driving cars.  If Andover were in San Francisco or Silicon Valley, we’d already see Google’s self-driving cars making their way around town.  These autonomous cars are well on track to come into mainstream use before long, with the promise of reducing traffic fatalities, saving tens of thousands of lives in the United States alone each year.

The list of things that are in the process of being transformed is growing with enormous speed.  Artificial intelligence – derived, as you probably know, from the work of Marvin Minsky, Phillips Academy Class of 1945, who visited us this past year and who passed away recently – is behind these many changes.  These changes are coming to our kitchens – through the Internet of Things – and into every workplace.  These innovations are automating language translation, transforming industrial production, and altering our economy in radical ways.

What do these profound changes mean for you, soon-to-be graduates?

One might draw the conclusion that the important thing is for graduates to know how to master this array of automated systems.  To some extent, that is surely true.  There are jobs to be had in programming, security, and marketing of new technologies.  The government, of any nation you come from, needs you to help secure systems and borders – in cyberspace.  The private sector needs you, to grow and to expand our economy, in the United States and around the globe.  That is all true – and I do hope some of you pursue these kinds of occupations.  I know you will be quite successful in these pursuits if so.

The bigger conclusion that I draw, though, is that we also need the humanists.  I hope that all of you, with your newly-minted Andover diplomas, will take full advantage of the liberal arts experience you have had here.

To solve the problems that come along with advanced technology, society will need people with expertise that is deeper than the technical.  Increasingly, companies and governments are finding that the people needed to tackle computing problems have not just technical expertise, but the kind of imagination that comes from a liberal arts background.

Think ahead, beyond the immediate.  Imagine the kinds of thorny issues that we can expect from a world that is more automated than it is today.  With more computers making more decisions, including life-and-death decisions on the roads and in the air, in our waterways and in all imaginable form of transit, we need ethicists who will set sensible rules ahead of time.

Two self-driving cars, for instance, find themselves on a collision course.  What answer?  Perhaps imagine a drone in the mix.  Though tricky, this problem turns out not to be a new one.

There is a long philosophical tradition of the Trolleyologists, who have considered such problems for roughly half a century.  The Trolleyologists were a group of moral philosophers who took up a series of questions that may sound quaint today.  While there are variants on the problem, the classic version goes something like this:

A trolley – in our parlance, a train – goes out of control.  It is speeding toward a crowd of people.  The people in the crowd face certain death if the train hits them.  You are standing nearby.  You realize that you could save them: by flipping a switch, you could send the train in another direction, onto a spur.  In doing so, you would divert the train and surely save their lives.  Here’s the rub: a man is chained to the tracks on the spur.  That man would be surely killed if you divert the trolley away from the other group.

The Trolleyologists spent their time wondering: should you flick the switch to save the group of lives and kill the one man?  Though the language sounds old-fashioned, the topics that the Trolleyologists took up long ago are about to explode with frequency and importance.

It turns out, you have huge advantages when it comes to tackling hard problems like this one, and the others you will face – problems that have eluded those of us who are a bit older than you are.  At Andover, you have learned much along these lines.  You have devoted yourself to the study of a broad and deep set of materials and topics.  You have all engaged in the arts, in the sciences, in the study of languages, in English, in history, and in philosophy and religious studies.

You have learned, in a long and grand tradition, how to make good decisions.  Sound human judgment is an essential element of a strong society.  Especially as we head into a more and more automated world, the decisions that humans make – often up front, or “ex ante,” before the problems occur – will only take on a greater importance.

This liberal arts tradition is not new; nor is it by chance that you are well-prepared for these hard issues.  In his inaugural address as headmaster of Andover, John Mason Kemper took up a similar theme:

“There must be faith that in every human being there is a generosity of spirit which will respond to decent treatment and the stimulus of selfless leadership. Tolerance, sympathy, respect must inevitably result in team work. Team work, in turn, can solve many community problems far beyond the capacity of any individual to solve.”

Kemper also said, that day, that:

“[…] knowledge of many fields, a wide range of interests, will enhance the understanding of the interrelation of events and activities.”

The Andover of today – your Andover – is not far different from the Andover of 1948 in these essential respects – no matter how many drones may swirl overhead.

You have a second essential advantage.  You are bridge-builders.  We have asked you, in many ways and in many contexts, to spend time with other youth from every quarter.

You will bring to these essential, emerging problems your ability to get along with one another and to listen to one another.  I know that we have not been perfect at that these past four years.  (We have not been perfect at that these past four weeks, for that matter.)  But I put great stock in the fact that you’ve had a lot of practice.  You have lived, worked, argued, and played alongside an extraordinarily diverse group of peers and faculty.  You have disagreed with one another, quite vociferously at times.  You have hurt one another’s feelings and you have struggled through hard days and long nights.  But here you all are.  You come together today as a class, the Class of 2016, graduating together.

I can’t possibly say what the biggest problems of tomorrow will be, exactly.  But to solve the problems that face society today and will face society going forward, I am certain that we will need people who can listen to one another; people who can appreciate other points of view; people who cherish diversity in all its forms; and people who can work across difference, turning the other cheek, setting aside hate and anger – choosing, instead, empathy and love.

The founders of Phillips Academy and Abbot Academy were devout Christians.  Though today we do not invoke religion as often as 238 years ago, I am reminded of a passage from Isaiah 1:18: “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord.”

Those who have gone before us have also urged us to do so in the spirit of making a difference.  In the words of former Abbot Academy principal Phebe McKeen:

“Girls are urged to consider their education incomplete till they have learned to do some one thing that the world will count it worth paying for.”

We seek, at Andover, for our work to be connected to the world at large – just as the Abbot women of the past urged their graduates.  We talk of an Andover Bubble, but we aspire to be more than a place of isolation.  Through our work on campus and in off-campus community engagement, we aspire to make a difference in the world.  Mostly, thought, we aspire to do that through you – our graduates.  What you go on to do is the source of our greatest hope and our greatest pride.

You may have thought your work at Andover has just concluded; I am here today to tell you that your work at Andover is just about to begin.  That work is not about exams or races or concerts or plays or art installations on campus – it’s about how you will act in a world that needs your care, your support, your leadership, and your good human judgment.  As we bid you adieu, we have enormous faith in what you, the class of 2016, will do – in all your humanity, with all your grace.  Congratulations, and Godspeed.  Thank you.

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2 thoughts on “Commencement Address, Phillips Academy 2016

  1. An extraordinary, relevant, and important speech for Andover graduates to hear. I especially enjoyed your remarks about the importance of the liberal arts dimension of the graduates’ education. It is that which will ultimately save them in their long, maddening, difficult days ahead as post-secondary students and later as adults. I can only hope that schools like Andover will continue to urge their students towards seeing that living a good and virtuous life is more important than prestige and accolade. The liberal arts continually remind its students of that essential truth.

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