Commencement, Spring 2011

April 29, 2011

Good afternoon, graduates.  On behalf of my faculty colleagues it is my honor to offer you a few parting words that I hope you might reflect upon as you think back upon your experience at UNF and forward to whatever lies ahead.


I have of late been reading a book called The Black Swan (not to be confused with the movie of the same name).  The title of the book derives from the fact that, until the existence of black swans in Australia was made known to them, residents of old world Europe believed that all swans were white.  The revelatory discovery of the black swan has been invoked by the author of the book, Nassim Taleb, as a metaphor for the disproportionate impact of unanticipated, disruptive events on the course of natural and human history.  On a global level, instances of Black Swans include the attack on the World Trade Towers on September 11, 2001 and the recent earthquake and resulting tsunami that had such a devastating effect on Japan and subsequently upon the world economy.  As is true of all Black Swan events, both 9-11 and the Japanese disaster certainly can be explained retroactively but were literally and figuratively shocking when they occurred.  On a more personal and individual level, Taleb offers the example of the unpredictability of spousal selection:  the spouse we end up with, according to Taleb, more often than not doesn’t quite coincide with the ideal or Platonic image of the spouse we thought we would end up with.   Calculating as we might be, what many people discover is that it is not they who control circumstances but circumstances that control them.  Or as folk wisdom would have it, life is what happens when you are busy making other plans.


The reason Black Swan events have the shocking impact that they do, according to Taleb, is because we are trained to anticipate continuity and a cause and effect relationship between the past, the present, and the future.  Like the Thanksgiving turkey that has been handsomely fed for the first thousand days of his life, there is no reason to expect that on the next day it will have its head chopped off rather than receive another portion of grain.  Similarly, our entire educational apparatus tends to focus, for obvious reasons, on what is well known and replicable rather than on what is as yet unthinkable or utterly unique.  Whether we are physicists, engineers, sociologists, accountants, epidemiologists, art historians, special education teachers, or students of any of the dozens of other fields included within UNF’s broad curriculum, what is common across all these fields of inquiry is the strategy of explaining new data based upon prevailing principles of understanding.  Again, as folk wisdom would have it, we typically store new wine in old bottles.


If this is indeed the case—that we are equipped to understand emergent data only to the extent that it conforms to existing paradigms of knowledge—then would we not be better off if we ditched education as not only a poor foundation for but, even worse, an actual detriment to grasping the truly momentous events that will occur unpredictably but inevitably at one point or another in everyone’s life?  Has the education the completion of which you are here to celebrate today actually been a waste of time and money?  Am I here to tell you, as UNF’s chief academic officer, to reject before it is too late the diplomas you have worked so earnestly to obtain? 


I trust you will not be surprised to hear that the answer to those questions is, absolutely not.  For while it is true that Black Swan events will jolt you out of intellectual complacency, they also will test the full range of your resources for making sense of the apparently inexplicable.  As I observed before, the fact is that events like 9-11 and the recent earthquake in Japan can indeed be comprehended in retrospect even if doing so requires us to rethink and revise the ways in which we make sense of the world.  What such events reaffirm, therefore, is that the most intellectually resilient people are not those who know nothing but those who are able to modify what they already know in order to accommodate new and sometimes radically contradictory facts.  What your diplomas will attest to is that you have cultivated your imagination, cultivated your civility, cultivated your expertise, cultivated your discernment, cultivated your ethical disposition, and cultivated your worldliness so that as much as you might be surprised by whatever it is that might come next, you will use that occurrence to develop more powerful tools of comprehension and to extend your humanity to those who might test it the most.  Had it been passed over as too skinny on Thanksgiving morning, the surviving turkey whose head was spared might well have come to recognize the need to include the farmer’s view of the world as a critical component of his own newly expanded knowledge.  But you are not turkeys.  Rather, you are Ospreys, and since you are now proficient in the language of birds, I am confident that you will be able to transform every Black Swan into its white equivalent.


Congratulations and good luck.