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Earl Lewis: ‘Never Confuse the Attainment Of An Education With What It Means To Be Educated’

14 minute read

We gather this Sunday morning to salute you, the Carnegie Mellon University Class of 2016, for staying the course, overcoming challenges, setting aside failures, appropriately accepting success and graduating. This is an awesome achievement, and I’m honored to share in the moment. In fact, I would like to thank Subra Suresh, president of CMU, and Provost Farnam Jahanian, as well as the Carnegie Mellon University Board of Trustees for this wonderful opportunity to receive an honorary degree from this spectacular institution. My personal relationship with Carnegie Mellon began over three decades ago, with my good friend Joe Trotter. Dr. Joe Trotter invited me to speak about my research on African-American migrants. Inevitably, that opportunity yielded the privilege of serving on a CMU humanities and social sciences college review panel, chairing an external review committee for the History Department, and having the chance to assist Dr. Trotter in funding and launching CAUSE, the Center for African-American Urban Studies and the Economy, which has just recently celebrated its 20th anniversary.

Yes. That’s great.

I am both humbled and delighted to speak on behalf of this year’s very diverse and distinguished class of honorary degree recipients. A group that includes, as you’ve heard, an acclaimed stage and screen star, who counts among her accomplishments an Academy Award, a Golden Globe and two Emmys; a television icon and Emmy Award-winning writer and actress who has influenced the lives of millions of children; a prolific innovator with over 1,100 patents worldwide; and one of the most successful venture capitalists in the world. Graduates, make a note to yourself. Learn more about these folks.

It is also an honor to be standing here before a group of students that has been vetted by the vigorous academic standards and requirements of one of the world’s finest universities. You have been given the Carnegie Mellon stamp of approval. And with it comes a certain level of attainment and responsibility.

Now, many years ago, as you’ve heard, I walked across a similar stage at a small liberal arts college in Minnesota to accept my diploma. Like many of you, I was able to join the ranks of the newly educated because someone believed in me. In my case, it was started with my maternal grandmother. While her dream was deferred, she strategized to ensure that my dream would not be denied.

It was the early 20th century, and my grandmother had saved money, twice, to attend St. Augustine College in Raleigh, North Carolina. Each time she did, her father asked her for the money to save an older brother from losing his home. And the sad truth is, he lost that home during the Great Depression. A domestic in the segregated South for most of her working days, my grandmother preserved her dream of being educated by passing it along. When it came time for her daughter, my mother, to graduate from high school, my grandmother sent her first to the Norfolk division of Virginia State, today’s Norfolk State University. But my grandmother feared the demands of living at home would distract my mother from her studies. So this God-fearing, churchgoing woman played the daily number. Or what was referred to back then as the poor person’s lottery. And she won.

Even though my grandmother could’ve used that money to ease the burdens of her own life, she chose instead to send my mother to St. Augustine College. Because she believed just that fervently in the transformative power of education. When I came along, the only question I was allowed to entertain was, “Which college will you attend?” So I stand before you today because of my grandmother’s determination to pay a dream forward. My mother and I inherited the belief that the educated have a responsibility to pay back the faith invested in them by working to, in some way, improve the world. Let’s see. Let’s see a show of hands. How many of you have family, friends and teachers who backed and supported you through your higher education experience?

Thank you. Please join me in recognizing these special individuals with a rocking round of applause.

Their job is done. In fact, if you listen closely, you’ll hear some sighs of relief coming from parents in the audience.

Now your job, like mine when I graduated, is to never confuse the attainment of an education with what it means to be educated. Graduation marks a moment in time when you have assembled the necessary credits to earn a degree. But being educated, being educated requires you to deploy the discipline of mind that comes with the pursuit of knowledge, for the betterment not only of yourself and your family, but also the greater society.

I graduated in the post-Vietnam era of gas lines, student protests and racial desegregation. I knew what had been and what was happening at the time, but I had no idea what to expect in the years and decades to come. For example, in 1978, it was nearly impossible to conceive of desktop computers, much less a world so completely integrated with powerful personal computing ability that resides in the phone. Just think about that. It hasn’t been that long ago. Back then, when I imagined a future, I pictured a world akin to The Jetsons.

There are people in this audience old enough to remember The Jetsons.

A prime-time animated series that predated The Simpsons by almost 30 years. Its world was populated with space-age families, sassy robots and flying cars. Computers delivered both instant meals and instantaneous medical diagnosis. And cures for diseases were just one individually formulated pill away.

Flash forward to today. And flying cars are still a matter of fantasy, but we aren’t that far away from a semi-autonomous automobile. Gene mapping is almost commonplace in the development of customized treatment plans, robotics is now offered as part of the curriculum in many high schools across the United States. And artificial intelligence protocols such as IBM’s Watson regularly beat humans at games of knowledge and logic. It is said that at CMU, you do not imagine the future, you create it. But indulge me for a few seconds. Look ahead, graduates. Look ahead to 25 years from now. What do you see? Marriage? Children? Sadly maybe divorce? And success?

It’s true. But what about on the technology front? Will it be that the discipline of robotics has ushered in a new age of productivity and profitability? A world where artificial intelligence alters the makeup of a work, as well as the composition of a workforce. Today a single retailer can employ nearly 100,000 people around the nation, to move products from regional sites to consumer homes. There is, however, speculation that robots could replace these workers in short order. Not next year, but tomorrow. What happens then? Do we simply shrug and acknowledge that progress always comes at a price? Or do we examine the broader social and economic implications?

Graduates, many of you will certainly be the architects of the next technological revolution. But while you are developing devices and programs that enhance efficiency and perhaps even save lives, you must also simultaneously challenge yourself to solve for the impact of these advancements. As our economy shifts away from a human-based workforce to machine-driven labor, will you make accommodations for the newly technologically disenfranchised? Undoubtedly, CMU has prepared you to meet the exponentially increasing technological demands of a growing global economy in a more environmentally conscious manner. But what additional tools and insights might you need to be both successful contributors and successful global citizens?

Twenty-five years from now, will the courses that you took in history, philosophy and literature, your experimentation with theater and the arts, or your interdisciplinary courses and studies and study abroad prove just as useful as the work that made you a student of science, math and engineering? Or not.

For those of you in the arts and the humanities, will the value of your degree decrease in a technology-focused world or increase, because people with your background and training are suddenly in short supply? It is critical that all of you envision yourselves as part of the creative society, which produces creative solutions. Though historically we have looked to those coming out of the arts and the humanities to help us transform what we know and how we know it. Today engineering, math and computer science have truly evolved into creative disciplines.

More people worldwide are familiar with Siri than any book, play or essay written in the last 100 years. The engineers and technologists at Apple have created something that has infiltrated our consciousness like few other works of art ever have. And that’s actually important to think about and dwell on and think through the implications. Yet science, engineering and math alone are not enough. Case in point, 9/11. Despite the utilization of very sophisticated machinery and highly skilled technicians, we failed to intercept the terrorists, because 9/11 had more to do with religion and ideology than with probes, drones and surveillance devices. Similarly, engineers successfully built a well in a West African village not too long ago to ensure a ready supply of clean water, yet failed to take into consideration broader cultural implications. To their surprise, the women who haul the water continue to walk all the way to the river despite the risk. When questioned by anthropologists, the women explained that no one had asked them where to build a well.

You see, the hauling of the water had a social function, as well as a utilitarian one. The women used the time to socialize and get away from their children and the menfolk.

Both of these examples serve as a powerful reminder that studying a multiplicity of perspectives has real worth when we’re trying to solve real problems. Human interaction, as we all well know, is messy. It’s not always scientifically based or mathematically predictable. Nor is it linear. Sometimes you simply cannot get from Point A to Point B in a straight line.

This is to suggest that the world is complex and the issues that we face are indeed complex. And it requires that technologists consult with social scientists, that humanists work with engineers and that scientists and artists collaborate to solve problems and try new possibilities. Graduates, as we move forward in life, and as you move forward in life, you must strive to be in conversations across lines of difference, exchanging insights and ideas in a profound and noble way with people of different racial, academic and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Luckily, today’s technologies eclipse time and distance, making it possible for you to connect in real-time with people in different geographic zones across the United States and around the world. You will also need to recognize the importance of being embedded in community and actively working to improve the American form of democracy. That’s not just about voting. It’s about the ways in which we think about the opportunity for all. And actually being able to gather information across a broad spectrum of media that will allow you to fashion your understanding of the world. Or to put it bluntly, to be able to tell the difference between garbage and the real stuff. Now, if this election cycle is a harbinger of things to come, successfully sorting in the garbage from the real stuff will become the hallmark of an enlightened citizen.

Yeah. We can think about that for a second.

And this would be true whether you were in Berlin, Beijing or Birmingham. You must remember to ask why, to research independently, to pursue truth, and to affirm your commitment to honesty, integrity and the common good. Now, look to the future once more to your 25th reunion. This time, what do you see?

More changes in the technological landscape, greater diversity? How about improved connectedness? Hopefully you see your future selves as inextricably linked to America and the world. Both the opportunities and the challenges. Because you haven’t shrunk from either. Keep looking. Are you a key player in the creation of a new and technologically responsible golden age? Are you balancing your desire to create bigger, better, faster with the need to sustain a healthy and vibrant economy in which all members have a stake? More specifically, are you the leader that Carnegie Mellon has prepared you to become? Or are you merely participating in the creation of cool, new stuff? I challenge you. I challenge you because you’re the best and the brightest, as you’ve heard, and you will hear no doubt many more times over the course of this day and the next few days. So, Graduates of 2016, stand up.

Read more: Vivek Murthy: ‘Live a Connected Life’

And I would ask that you repeat after me. We, the 2016 graduating class of Carnegie Mellon…

[We, the 2016 graduating class of Carnegie Mellon…]

Will do the unimagined.

[Will do the unimagined.]

We will discover the undiscoverable.

[We will discover the undiscoverable.]

We will change the world.

[We will change the world.]



Let’s try that one more time.

We will change the world responsibly.

[We will change the world responsibly.]

And then one more time. We will change the world responsibly.

[We will change the world responsibly.]

Thank you. You may sit down. If you remain faithful to this moment in time, you will have done far more than earn a degree. You will have used your skills, talents and intellect for the benefit of all. I am confident that you understand the significance, and I am grateful to have had this opportunity to see you off on your journey. I’m truly excited for you. I’m excited for the world. And I extend my sincerest congratulations. Do well, graduates, and do good. Because you can. Thank you.

Read more 2016 commencement speeches:



Anne-Marie Slaughter: ‘Care Is as Important as Career’

Barack Obama: ‘Passion Is Vital, But You’ve Got to Have a Strategy’

Condoleezza Rice to Grads: ‘Don’t Let Anyone Else Define Your Passion’

Cory Booker to Grads: ‘Tell Your Truth’

Darren Walker to Grads: ‘Stand For Something’

Eboo Patel to Wake Forest Grads: ‘The Only Shame Is in Stagnation’

Hoda Kotb: ‘You’re the Sum Total of the Five People You Spend the Most Time With’

J.K. Simmons to Grads: ‘Live in the Moment’

Jane Goodall to Grads: ‘Remember to Live to Your True Human Potential’

Jill Bolte Taylor: ‘We Have the Power to Choose Who We Want to Be’

Lin-Manuel Miranda to Grads: ‘Your Stories Are Essential’

Madeleine Albright: ‘Everyone Must Participate in Solving Shared Problems’

Michael Bloomberg: ‘An Open Mind Is the Most Valuable Asset You Can Possess’

Michelle Obama to Grads: ‘Excellence Is the Most Powerful Answer You Can Give’

Obama to Grads: Building Walls Is ‘A Betrayal of Who We Are’

Russell Wilson: ‘Go Make It Happen’

Sheryl Sandberg: ‘Finding Gratitude and Appreciation Is Key to Resilience’

Vivek Murthy: ‘Live a Connected Life’

William Foege to Grads: ‘Every Day We Edit Our Obituaries’

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