Columbia College and Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science Convocation 

August 2004

There is no moment in the cycle of the academic calendar that better represents the highest role of the university than the welcoming of new students to our community. A distinguished university like Columbia— with which I have to say we are all enormously privileged to be associated—is an ongoing effort of its individual members, its faculty and students. Indeed, our mission has been ongoing for 250 years, making Columbia the fifth oldest university in the United States, and marking a milestone you arrive just in time to help us celebrate. All of us are completely, and I would even say uniquely, dedicated to answering one simple question. And that question is: How did the world (or the universe) get to be what it is today, where is it all heading, and what should we be doing to shape the future?

In this little part of the world, which you now join, we want to understand all that the human mind can grasp of the baffling complexity of the world we both inhabit and create. We want to play our small part in the noble history of human effort to unlock the mystery of it all and to help make things better, maybe just a little better, than they otherwise would be. You, therefore, as the newest members of our community, affirm by your presence here today and for the next several years both the shared sense of importance of these efforts and a guarantee that the efforts will continue beyond us. For that, we are both grateful and happy that you are here.

You have now heard several different speakers welcome you to Columbia and to the new life you will be taking up here. I hope you heard, perhaps in the subtext and tone as well as in the words themselves, the most important message we can deliver to you at the beginning. That message is that we really do care about your well-being—your personal as well as intellectual well-being—while you are here with us (and, of course, after you leave as alumna and alumni). At Columbia we believe that the whole institution—all we do as educators, scholars, and in public service—is only as good or as strong as how we treat our newest and youngest members. This is a core belief of ours, and we want you and your parents to know on the day you begin that it is a core belief.

Now, it is hard to overstate the importance of this moment of transition in your life. For nearly all of you, this is the beginning of a new stage of life, one especially notable for the new independence and freedom you will experience. All of us who are here today and older than you remember very well that shift in personal freedom. Now there is no one to awaken you in the morning; no one to tell you what to eat, what not to drink, or that it’s time to study; and no one to tell you to get some sleep. I expect you to figure out rather quickly that this kind of freedom is a lot less than it’s cracked up to be, and to find moderation the better part of freedom.

I am concerned about the intellectual approach you will take to your studies here at Columbia, and I’d like to offer just a few suggestions, which I personally have found helpful in my life. First, I would like to say something simple and seemingly obvious: Don’t waste these years. Everyone, I’m sure, has told you or will tell you that these years of college are unique and special and that you’re extremely fortunate. It’s true. This is a time in your lives that in all probability will never occur again. Ordinary adult life is so full of other matters—having relationships and raising children (so they can go to Columbia), building a career, and so on—some wonderful and pleasant, others not so.

Here, on the other hand, you have the rare opportunity to focus almost exclusively, or at least primarily, on learning and developing your mind. Moreover, you are surrounded by people whose job it is to help you do those things. They are committed to helping you explore knowledge. Think of it this way: You have all the things of a pretty good resort (decent accommodations, reasonable food, fitness centers, social centers, surrounded by people your own age), in one of the greatest city cities in the world. You also have an abundance of courses on fascinating subjects with every conceivable support service, including one of the greatest libraries in the world. You have all of this for approximately $158 a day, not much more than a Holiday Inn (ok, in New York City). Finally, I guarantee that you will never have as much energy to experience all of this as you do right now.

My second suggestion is that you try as hard as you can to be open to different understandings of the world. Some will tell you that college is a time to figure out what you believe—or to find your identity, which includes what you believe. I think it would be a mistake for you to approach these years of study in that fashion. Having your own viewpoints is at some level fine and good. But when you cross that psychologically significant threshold of wondering about the world to “this is what I believe,” you inevitably close yourself off from meaningful and exhilarating encounters with perspectives that will stay with you for a lifetime and give you insight and pleasure. So, commit yourself to mastering the art of suspending your beliefs while you approach this special time of learning.

The third suggestion is that you think about your time here as providing a framework for learning that should take place over a lifetime. I’m not talking about things like habits of reading and reflection, important as those are. Rather I’m speaking of doing something along the lines of seeking answers to what at the outset I suggested is the profound question with which we here are concerned with: How did the world get to be the way it is, where is it headed, and what can be done to make it better? All that you learn can be attached to that general question. And I would suggest that you will be better off if you have a general question you are pursuing, as you learn bits and pieces about the world, than you will be if you see things you are studying as isolated and discrete. So, have a general intellectual goal in mind.

Fourth, and lastly, I want to say just a little something about your education in the context of the broader world. I think most of us share the sense that the world is taking on a new shape, posing new questions and raising profound issues. America’s role in the world, the extraordinary spread of the human organizing principles of democratic government and a market economy, the widespread resistance to those principles, the problem of figuring out what norms will guide us in the distribution of global wealth, the fact that over a billion people live in hunger, the ominous reality of global diseases, and the wondrous variety of cultures and human achievements across societies: all of these questions, phenomenal, while not entirely new, are now at least more pressing in their own ways. There is so much still to learn. There are thousands of species we have yet to classify, natural environments to explore, and celestial bodies we only dimly understand. The United States and the world have never been more in need of inquiring and intelligent minds. Never more in need of people like you.

So, I hope you have a sense of why we genuinely take pleasure and hope in welcoming you as the newest kids on the Columbia block. Your presence affirms our enterprise and is critical to the health of all we do. We know something of what this moment means to you, especially your newly acquired freedom, which we expect you to exercise moderately. We urge you to take full advantage of this unique time in your lives, to open your being by suspending your beliefs, to see this as the beginning of a lifetime of learning, and to waste no time getting to work on the extraordinarily important and vexing issues of our time.

Welcome and Good Luck.