"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Monday, August 27, 2012

Neil Armstrong Commencement Speech on Learning

Neil Armstrong, the first man to set his foot on the moon, died on August 25, 2012. He will always be remembered with the words, "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind". But Armstrong had other words that are worth remembering. His ideas about education likewise demonstrate his modesty and clear understanding of what learning really is. Here are excerpts of a commencement speech he delivered at the University of Southern California in 2005. I have emphasized some phrases.
"...A few words to the new graduates: for each of  you, this is a very special day, a day for which  you have labored for seemingly unending eons. You will be the proud possessor of a diploma.  It will affirm that you have demonstrated the ability to learn. You have learned the importance of fact and opinion, but, more importantly, you have learned the difference between them. I would hope that you have come to appreciate the elegance of simplicity. A simple explanation is often the best, but even more often the most difficult to recognize. 
I hope you have become comfortable with the use of logic, without being deceived into concluding that logic will inevitably lead to the correct conclusion.   
In essence, you have embraced thinking. Robert Frost famously remarked: “Thinking isn’t to agree or disagree, that’s voting”. Thinking and a willingness to learn have brought you to this day.   
Students of my vintage did not have calculators, cell phones, credit cards, personal computers, Internet or reality TV. Some might say they were very fortunate. At the time of my college graduation, airliners were propelled by propellers. A few military jets existed, and rocket engines were primitive. Had a faculty member at that time suggested preparation for a career in spacecraft operations, he or she would have been ridiculed. The most serious proposals for space flight were found on a Sunday evening television program, “The Wonderful World of Disney.” But within just three years, the Soviet Union launched the first Earth satellite and the space age was born. Within a decade, satellites were being used for a variety of scientific and commercial purposes. Probes had been sent to nearby planets and humans were frequently flying into space. That suggests that you can’t imagine the change and related opportunity that will arise for you in the years ahead. Hopefully, the things you have learned here will help you be ready for them. And you will not stop learning - learning is a lifelong process - and you have a great start. 
Custom dictates that a commencement speaker give a word of advice to the new graduates. And I feel a sense of discomfort in that responsibility as it requires more confidence than I possess to assume that my personal convictions merit your attention. The single observation I would offer for your consideration is that some things are beyond your control. You can lose your health to illness or accident. You can lose your wealth to all manner of unpredictable sources. What are not easily stolen from you without your cooperation are your principles and your values. They are your most important possessions and, if carefully selected and nurtured, will well serve you and your fellow man. Society’s future will depend on a continuous improvement program for the human character. And what will that future bring? I do not know, but it will be exciting.
The author of “The Little Prince,” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, was a pilot in World War II, which, unfortunately, he did not survive. Fortunately, his writings did survive, and I will pass along one piece of his advice. In Saint-Exupéry’s “Wisdom of the Sands,” he wrote: “As for the future, your task is not to foresee it, but to enable it.” And so it is. Congratulations and good luck."

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