In 1970, an American agronomist named Norman Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize. His research on improving crop yields, a central component to what is commonly called the “Green Revolution,” has been credited with saving as many as a billion lives. If this estimate is an exaggeration, it is not a large one — at the time of Borlaug’s effort, the conventional wisdom of pundits, epitomized by Paul Ehrlich’s “The Population Bomb,” was that without significant population control, mankind was on its way to mass starvation. Though he achieved little fame or monetary reward, Borlaug may be the greatest humanitarian of all time.
As you graduate, I offer you a hypothetical choice. If you were given the option of living a happy life doing something unproductive (imagine digging holes and filling them back in again, or helping a Wall Street firm execute trades twenty nanoseconds faster than their competitors), versus contributing to society on a level comparable to Borlaug’s, yet being fundamentally unhappy, which would you choose?
We are a nation obsessed with happiness. Over time, the enshrinement of the “pursuit of happiness” as one of our fundamental, self-evident rights has been transformed from something that the government is barred from infringing upon to the end-all-be-all of human existence — more a mission than a protected freedom.
The hope of MIT is not merely that you will come away with a technical education, but that you will also graduate with an ethos of self-sacrifice. We hope, against the zeitgeist of our times, that when offered the choice, you will place service to others over happiness.
As you take your diploma, look around you. On the towers overlooking Killian, we have engraved the names of great men: Newton, Faraday, Darwin, Da Vinci. We do not celebrate these men for living happy, fulfilled lives, for the contentedness of their existence — indeed, their personal satisfaction in life is little more than an afterthought in the historical record. We celebrate them for their accomplishments, for the advancement they provided to society. Inside Lobby 10, the walls are engraved with the names of MIT engineers who made the ultimate sacrifice, who died in wars to defend their country. These places, the most visible and hallowed of our institution, the departure point for each legion of engineers we send out into the world, are reserved for those who gave to their fellow man.
I ask that you continue the pattern of self-denial that you no doubt followed at MIT, and to live by a simple dictum: I shall produce for others more than I myself consume.
No one can force this dictum upon you. We live in a free society; you will not be drafted to serve, nor coerced into yielding your talents. But just because society does not (and indeed, should not) have the legal right to extort your labor does not mean that you do not have a personal moral obligation to offer it willingly. Mankind is engaged in a war — a war to expand the resources and capabilities of our species against natural constraints. Its casualties can be readily found in the under-developed world, dying of malaria and malnourishment. MIT has given you the weapons to wage this war and, hopefully, the courage to fight it.
If you decide to enlist in this struggle, there will be no clearly marked door for you to walk through, no bright path for you to follow. College life is multiple choice. Your major, your classes, your living quarters all came from a table of well-defined options. Gone are the structured days of semester-sized bites of education and advisor meetings. In the real world your decisions will be open-ended, ill-defined, and made with limited guidance. You will make mistakes. It is inevitable. Even Borlaug at one point incorrectly thought that his best contribution to society would be made as a soldier in WWII– fortunately for us, he was denied enlistment. But even if no one has the answers, it still stands that if you make bettering humanity your pursuit, you are more likely to do so than if you embarked upon another purpose.
I cannot promise anything in the way of your future happiness — each man’s psychology is different — but there is a good chance that you will find fulfillment through the accomplishment of great things, and that the hypothetical choice I offered between a happy, but unproductive life, and a productive, but unhappy life, is ultimately a false one. It is not hard to imagine Borlaug, stooped over a cornfield in a distant third-world nation, sunburned and lonely, quietly toiling away in obscurity and misery at the monotonous work of saving lives. And yet when asked directly if he was happy, Borlaug replied, “Yes, I think so.”
You do not need to ask Borlaug to know whether you yourself can find happiness in the midst of self-denial. For four years you have given yourself to this institute, pledging countless hours and long nights to obtain an education that will allow you to improve the world. You have sacrificed for the majority of your adult life, and now, as you graduate, you can ask yourself, which is greater? The promise of future days spent coasting through life upon the effort you gave as a student, or the pride of accomplishment at having survived this institution and bettered yourself? Do you feel relief, or self-worth?
Whatever the answer, and the path you choose — congratulations to the class of 2010. May you live happy, productive lives.