Dear fellow graduating students: Congratulations! Alumni from this institute have unique leverage in shaping how people think. This capital has been earned, over almost a century and a half, by the hard work, integrity, and accomplishments of the women and men who have passed through these corridors. So how will you spend this precious currency?
The Institute has always risen to the outstanding challenges of the day. Many technologies forged here in the tragic crucible of the Second World War today give life. But the senseless loss of perhaps as many as 70 million people didn’t end in the summer of 1945. Tuberculosis alone may have claimed 40–50 million lives since the armistice. If we add up all preventable deaths — famine, maternal and infant mortality, common diseases with penny cures — the numbers are devastating. And those who survived these calamities were often prevented from realizing their gifts due to prejudice — women, people of color, immigrants, and gays.
This is not to say we have not made great strides. Perhaps injustices of this magnitude require historic amounts of time to be fully redressed. We agree with all of this and are sympathetic, but what does it have to do with us? As engineers, our work will improve the quality of life, and we hope that some of this prosperity will trickle down to the neediest.
But that is only one way in which we will remake the world. Three billion people live in destitution, not because we lack the economic resources — the global GDP is nearly 70 trillion dollars at parity — but because alleviating poverty and ending disease would be great challenges even for a very determined people, which we are not. This is not because of some grand flaw in our design. It is natural that personal trials trump impersonal ones, and there is a great benefit to society that free people pursue diverse vocations. How much poorer would we be if that great blind seer did not compose the epic of man’s fall from grace, or that young patent clerk not uncloak the mysteries of the universe!
But to choose a calling other than service does not absolve us of our greater duties. The duty to recognize the burden of our blessings, to recognize the great capriciousness of a world in which who you are born to, and where and when, continues to shackle destinies. Despite this, in my work in rural health in India, I have been moved to see the resources and the gifts of a people in trying conditions. Life refuses to be measured by its circumstance and demands instead to be measured by its potential.
This institute is made great not by its size or splendor or wealth, or by the intellect of its occupants, but by the greater truths uncovered in its passages — truths born of an irrepressible curiosity to understand reality and our place in it. In merely acknowledging that our greatest challenges lie not only at the frontiers of technology or commerce, but also in eradicating the grave reality of inequity, indignity, and prejudice, you will subtly shape the thinking of those who listen to you and look up to you. Perhaps, person by person and over time, you will imperceptibly but surely strengthen our collective will to ensure a life of dignity for all. Perhaps, in this way, you will participate in the great, unending task of remaking the world’s conscience.
I often imagine one of our younger patients, restored to health, who is woken one morning by the susurration of the falling rain, and who runs outside to behold the enthralling sight that is the monsoon — the ocean itself being poured through a giant sieve. I imagine her, free of the fog of disease, experiencing a joy known only to beings born long ago of distant stars, beings molded painstakingly, trait by trait, over millennia, in fecund plains and thirsty deserts, beings too splendid to perish without reaching their full measure.
Manish Bhardwaj is a graduating Course VI graduate student.