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Historical Perspective and Commencement

Julia C. Lipman

Ladies and gentlemen of the class of ’99:

Keep some historical perspective. If I could only offer you one tip for the future, this would be it. The long-term benefits of historical perspective have been proven by generals and world leaders. Sadly, MIT doesn’t seem to see it that way, as evidenced by this year’s choice of commencement speaker.

The choice of a commencement speaker makes a statement. This year, the statement is that MIT is sick of politics, that its students just want to be entertained and remain oblivious to world affairs. The selection of brothers Thomas L. Magliozzi ’58 and Raymond F. Magliozzi ’72, also known as “Click and Clack” of National Public Radio’s Car Talk, was explained by pointing out that many seniors specifically said they didn’t want any politicians. While that’s a perfectly understandable post-Lewinsky reaction, it’s an attitude that the administration should be trying to change, not encouraging.

Of course, the Magliozzi brothers sometimes use the topic of cars as a vehicle (get it?) for social commentary. Ray Magliozzi has a history of volunteer work in community organizing and education. But anyone who listens to Car Talk knows that it’s mostly, well, talk about cars. It’s about whether that ’87 Dodge Ram is going to make it to Alaska, or whether SUVs are taking over our roads. It’s funny, knowledgeable talk about cars, but talk about cars nonetheless.

So would some stuffy politician be a better choice than these wild and crazy MIT grads who know what it’s like to take 8.01 four times? Well, probably. Even more than graduates at other schools, MIT graduates need to understand their work in a sociopolitical context. Technology with no regard to public policy can be very destructive. Yet we seem to be moving away from such an understanding. For example, Technology Review, a magazine once devoted to examining scientific issues in relation to public policy, has become a Wired clone in looks and, in the words of one reader, “a cheerleader for innovation” in content. The choice of “Click and Clack” is one more indication that we’re losing perspective.

But politicians don’t really understand technology, right? I mean, is that a blink tag I see on Jesse Helms’ home page? Why should we have a Commencement speaker who has no idea what we do at MIT? Actually, there are many political figures whose grasp of scientific issues goes beyond the rudimentary. An excellent choice for commencement speaker would have been the statesmenlike Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, whose E-Privacy Act would bring about encryption legislation reform, and who was active in opposing the Communications Decency Act. Or how about Jimmy Carter, who has not only been a voice for human rights but also done graduate work in nuclear physics?

It’s often important for a Commencement address to engage in some manner with the history that’s being made that year. Recent Commencement addresses at MIT have been successful in this regard. President Carlos Salinas of Mexico discussed the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993. In 1989, Senator Paul Tsongas reflected on Tiananmen Square and the end of the Cold War. University of Chicago president Hanna Gray remarked on the campus culture wars dividing academia in 1995. And in 1996, Al Gore talked about a “schism between science and the rest of society,” something we would do well to think about with regards to this year’s commencement. Politicians are natural choices because of their speechmaking and history-making ability, but they are by no means the only people who can discuss cultural issues with intelligence and gravity, as Gray and David Ho, who discussed research funding and immigration, show. However, making or analyzing history in some way makes a speaker much better at discussing it.

Last year might have been a good year for “Click and Clack” if there ever was one. With much of the country on Monica overload and few substantial history-making events in the news other than impeachment, the history-engaging aspects may have been less important to a Commencement speech than at other times. But these are serious times we are entering into. Kosovo and the Y2K problem have created a very somber mood at the end of this millennium. Instead of choosing a graduation speaker to reflect this mood, MIT has decided to tune out the outside world.

No Commencement address, by itself, is going to change dramatically the way that MIT students think about science and public policy, or anything else. But a Commencement in which the major issues of the day are discussed would send a message to MIT students that these issues are important, that they can’t be written off as “just humanities.” By not holding such a Commencement, MIT sends the opposite message. But trust me on the historical perspective.