Choose Liberally from the Course Book of Life

An Address to the Graduates of Wyomissing Area High School · Wyomissing, Pennsylvania · June 7, 2013

By C. Thomas Work

Good evening to our graduates, their families and guests, and the administration and faculty of this school widely known for its excellence and the occasional superlative sports team!

Having been on the receiving end of a dozen or more graduation speeches, I must tell you that I don’t like them!  Graduation speakers are a particularly seedy bunch of visiting firemen who breathe scale into your community’s summer parade, only to be appreciated all the more when their exit at day’s end is speedy. This parade belongs to our graduates, whom I warmly congratulate and admire for their accomplishments.

Among the shortcomings of addresses like these is that they are often trite. With a tinge of irreverence, we’re going to dispose of the bland diet expeditiously! Please follow along with me: “Commencement means the ‘beginning.’ You will see your fellow graduates again, but less often than you think. Revere your parents and teachers who got you this far. When you travel, remember a toothbrush, laundry detergent, deodorant, an umbrella, and the chargers for the many electronic devices on which you rely. Speak softly and carry a stick only as big as you can carry the rest of your life, unassisted. Wherever you travel, remember that you learned it first here, at Wyomissing. And by all means, return for the July 4th parade!”  

I now turn to the graduates-in-waiting. My purpose this evening is to help you with your upcoming course selections. In doing so, I would like to address the value proposition applied to public and private education. Education is a close second to health care within consumers’ crosshairs. The real estate taxes your parents have been paying to support this world-class school district and its transcendent sports teams will soon be dwarfed by much larger levies. What of education is worth paying for?

There are three outcomes, or in today’s business consulting parlance, “deliverables,” worth paying for, I believe.  

Most primitive and essentially practical is a battery of knowledge and skills leading inexorably to gainful employment. Some might stop right here! Whether a bricklayer, a musician or a surgeon, whose skills are honed to produce reliable results, landing a job is a good outcome. Landing a fulfilling job is a great outcome!

But even the most impetuous and cynical among us might be tempted to look one step farther! I now welcome full audience participation!  By a show of hands, how many of you believe it conceivable that a typical graduate this evening will experience a half dozen or more jobs during a working lifetime? How many would not be surprised if a typical graduate were to have two or three different careers in the same period of time? So is it enough that education trains us with a single battery of knowledge and skills sufficient for a single job and a single career? I doubt it.

That leads us to a second outcome worth paying for, and that is the acquisition of skills to continue learning, and zeal to do so. We now tread on shaky ground: I conjure up the notion of learning for learning’s sake, and the image of curling up with a book, or a Kindle, for the sake of personal enlightenment and enjoyment. We could do much worse. But I don’t reach quite that far just yet. I reach just far enough to make the point that students who have not cultivated both the skills to learn a variety of new subjects and the motivation to do so will be at a loss to qualify for those half dozen jobs and three careers we just imagined. It is simply a matter of adaptability.

That brings me to the last, historically quiet, lone ranger that is worth its weight in gold: Captured under the rubric “liberal arts,” this approach to education clothes the skills and zeal to learn with the benefit of multiple disciplines, tolerance, and an appreciation of the synergistic value of teamwork. And its practical application is the capacity to make reasoned decisions in a highly complex world – essentially, the solving of complex problems.

Liberal arts colleges have done poorly in marketing this gem of their wares. At its best, a liberal arts education prepares students to look at their world through the eyes of philosopher, scientist, linguist, mathematician, artist, historian and occasionally, theologian. I’m going to illustrate this by sharing with you an event in the life of Albert Einstein that changed our world and, in our country, the relationship between science and government. Its heart is a two-page letter dated August 2, 1939, to President Franklin Roosevelt that Einstein signed.

Among the world’s most brilliant theoretical physicists, Albert Einstein earned the 1921 Nobel Prize in physics for illuminating the photoelectric effect in 1905, and not for his better known theories of special and general relativity, linking matter, energy, time, and gravity.  

Einstein was also an ardent humanitarian and a pacifist who preached peace often and widely, beyond scientific circles. He was exceptionally well read in philosophy. A gifted musician, he claimed late in his lifetime that his most cherished possession was his violin.  Although he seldom practiced his faith, he was an outspoken Zionist who sought refuge for Jewish scholars and scientists threatened by the Third Reich. Einstein was a thoughtful, humble man whose exceptional, varied intellect would soon be put to a test having unimaginable stakes.

By 1939, many of the world’s most gifted nuclear physicists had emigrated from Europe to the United States in search of safety. Unsuccessful in convincing the United States government that atomic energy and a bomb were within reach here, in Germany and in Japan, they knew that only one man had the credibility to engage our government quickly in a research effort that would be unprecedented in its intensity, breadth, use of resources, and teamwork. Their go-between was Einstein’s close friend, the Hungarian physicist Leo Szilárd, who co-authored, with Einstein, a letter to President Roosevelt to alert the government to a threat and an opportunity. Einstein signed the letter on August 2, 1939, at his home in Princeton. It read, in part:

“[I]t … may become possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium, by which vast amounts of power and large quantities of new radium-like elements would be generated…. 

This new phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs, and it is conceivable – though much less certain – that extremely powerful bombs of a new type may thus be constructed.”

Alexander Sachs, an economist who had Roosevelt’s ear, hand-delivered the letter to Roosevelt two months later. Einstein’s letter began the chain reaction whose results you know. Without this pacifist’s letter, world history would have been quite different.

I want you to imagine the complexity of Einstein’s decision to take this step and the anguish he must have felt. The author of e=mc2 and among a handful of scientists who appreciated the magnitude of nuclear forces soon to be unleashed, he drew upon an extraordinarily well-honed wisdom forged by a multi-disciplinary education to take a step few would argue was both courageous and world-changing. Einstein the humanitarian envisioned the prospect of millions of unnecessary deaths worldwide, a hemorrhage of the world’s resources, and the long-term influence of evil, personified by the Third Reich he coldly detested.

And so, a humanitarian and pacifist steeped in theology who cherished his violin and the music he played determined a decision that brought the world’s bloodiest war to a speedy conclusion using a weapon whose destructive force perhaps he alone, among all mankind, then understood.

So what does the dropping of the first atomic bombs have to do with your graduation? Hopefully nothing, ever. It highlights the severity of the decisions that confront us in a troubled world whose problems don’t seem to get simpler to solve. That is the relevance to an education that equips us to think anew using the “old” of many different disciplines. If you believe that is worth paying for, then my counsel would be to regard most solemnly the education in many subjects you sampled here, at your alma mater soon-to-be, and to partake of a breadth of disciplines in your further education, whether structured and formal, or in the workplace. While it’s alright to major in physics, the philosophy, theology, humanities and art that enriched Albert Einstein’s life and equipped him to make one of this planet’s most riveting decisions aren’t bad spices to enrich your major! If you are not yet convinced, then consider this: Do you think the issues currently confronting our world are more or less difficult to solve than the decision confronting Einstein in 1939?

I encourage you to choose liberally from the course book of life. Cross disciplines at every turn, because the world’s most complex problems are tougher than Einstein’s to solve and their solutions will arise from thoughtful, multi-disciplinary teamwork. I hope you welcome being drawn out of your shells by teachers and mentors who are passionate about their work and leave you with just enough intellectual discomfort to make you think, think hard, and think always. A healthy skepticism is the enemy of propaganda, dogmatism and self-righteousness, and the guardian of truth.

And so we return. Commencement means the “beginning.” Remember a toothbrush, laundry detergent, deodorant, an umbrella, and the chargers for the many electronic devices on which you rely. Speak softly and carry a stick only as big as you can carry the rest of your life, unassisted. And above all else, return not for the July 4th parade, but for your own parade in a long life of intellectual inquiry accompanied by friends whose journey in common with yours will become your greatest treasure.

Thank you, good health, and good night!

C. Thomas Work (ΦBK, Dickinson College, 1974) is an estate planning lawyer with Stevens & Lee. He received the 2013 Thun Award in recognition of his dedicated service to organizations in Reading, Pennsylvania, the town he’s called home since 1977.