Vest: Learn the value of cooperation, teamwork


Thank you, Ms. Patel. It is a moving experience to receive a gift from the class at a moment like this-especially recognizing all we've put you through in the last four years!

Your gift speaks directly to the importance of taking stewardship of our environment-and we are most grateful for your generosity and your foresight. When your class returns five years hence for its first major reunion, I hope we can demonstrate to you that we have achieved both lower waste and higher consciousness on this important issue. Thank you very much.

Once again we are gathered in Killian Court-the Great Court of MIT-to celebrate accomplishment, heritage, and passage. It may, perhaps, seem odd that a community so dedicated to the future, so permeated by scientific objectivity, comes together donning strange and colorful medieval regalia. But indeed it is fitting, and seemingly fulfilling of deep human needs, that such ritual takes place.

One of our MIT poets, Steven Tapscott, has reminded us , however, that the solemnity of even such an elegant scene as this is sometimes broken by the faculty themselves-when, as our poet says, "from deep in the drooping sleeves of their robes, surreptitiously they bring out peanut-butter sandwiches" to sustain them during a long ceremony.

Be that as it may, this ritual reminds us of the continuity through the ages of discovery and learning-of our role in an unbroken, centuries-old chain of human accomplishment...achievements of mind and of spirit.

But above all, it celebrates your accomplishments during your student years.

This is not to say that you have accomplished the remarkable feat of graduating from MIT all on your own, however! For today we are surrounded by parents, family, friends, spouses, loved ones and children who have supported and sustained you through the years. You will recognize them today by their smiles, brought about by their great pride in your accomplishments...and, no doubt, by a sense of great relief to their bank accounts.

Let us, then, express our deep appreciation to all who have come to Cambridge today to join in your commencement ceremony. Will you, our graduates, please rise, turn to your audience, and give them the applause they so richly deserve.

It is also especially wonderful to see the babies and small children who come to see their mothers and fathers graduate. They too are welcome. And as this ceremony stretches onward, I give them special presidential approval to comment upon these proceedings...at any time and in any manner they see fit.

President Salinas-our good neighbor-your presence here today, and the thoughts you have shared with us, remind us that we live and work in a rapidly changing and increasingly interdependent world society.

This is the world that you, our graduates, are entering. It is a world in transition. It is a world in which new balances must be struck. We must resolve the tensions between competition and cooperation, between fragmentation and integration, between nation and world.

We have learned the value of competition. We know the value of the rugged individual and of the iconoclast. But we are just beginning to learn the value of cooperation and of teamwork.

Let me give you a few examples of how we have learned, and how much we still have to learn, about the right balance between competition and cooperation.

Just a few years ago, the United States was declared to have lost all hope of competing in the world marketplace as a manufacturer of silicon computer chips. The prediction of our demise, to paraphrase Mark Twain, was premature, however. The creation of [companies] like the Semitech Corporation, while respecting the basic tenets of the marketplace, enabled the companies of the semiconductor industry to work together, with each other and with universities, on generic research and on the development of sophisticated and expensive equipment. This represented a shift in attitude and operation that allowed us to regain leadership in this field.

On the other hand, we still live with antiquated regulatory structures that stand in the way of easily and quickly implementing a national information infrastructure that would bring the powerful tools of modern communication and computing to a broad cross section of America. And then there is this curious juxtaposition of anti-trust regulations and financial aid policies. Anti-trust laws, as fundamentally important as they are, have become so distorted as to allow a bizarre suit by the federal government to stop MIT from working with our sister institutions to insure that financial aid goes to those students who, together with their families, most need it.

Such roadblocks to cooperation are all around us. I could give more examples, but the message is a simple one. Economically, socially, politically-if you want to shape a vibrant and just future, you must learn to cooperate as well as to compete.

The message of cooperation is simple, but its implementation is not. For we seem to have fragmented along every conceivable fault line-fragmented by intellectual discipline, fragmented by race, fragmented by gender, fragmented by geography. With every such division, we lose more of our sense of common culture, common humanity, and common destiny.

In order to reverse this trend, we must resolve a great many differences and tensions. It will not be easy. But I gained some solace regarding the resolution of difficult issues three weeks ago when I heard the distinguished columnist William Raspberry tell another graduating class that in 20 years of writing political columns, the main thing that he had learned was that in any public controversy, most thoughtful people secretly believe both sides. Be that as it may, if we are to build the future we want for ourselves and our children, we must build it together. We must have a sense of common purpose. We must have an integrated, inclusive view of history. We must have community. We must have mutual respect. We must hold common values at the deepest level.

Now I do not suggest that we sweep aside all differences. To the contrary, we thrive on differences of experience, culture, and perspective. As Alfred North Whitehead said in his 1925 lectures on Science and the Modern World, "Other nations of different habits are not enemies: they are godsends." This is true whether we speak of societies, professions, or single institutions. The electrical engineer and the mechanical engineer are able to build systems together that neither can build alone. Men and women come together to create a balanced discourse and world view. Black and white...brown and yellow...red and tan...create a campus and a nation far more meaningful and creative than any alone. As you shape the future, you must respect and cherish differences, but you must build common purpose and values.

We in the United States have a proud heritage and place in the world, despite the relative youth of our country. But now, at the end of the twentieth century, we face an enormous challenge to regain leadership and economic competitiveness. You will have great responsibility in this regard. But I fear that in our search to regain competitiveness, we run the risk of turning inward too much. We blame too many of our current problems on other nations. Isolationism and protectionism do not work in the long run. Despite our intense competition with Japan; despite the repugnant and morally outrageous nature of the disintegration of Yugoslavia; despite the growing gap between North and South, I am confident that the true historical trend is now one of communication, of interaction, of cooperation.

Our MIT is an American institution, and each of you is a citizen of some nation-for most of you, that nation is the United States of America. But beyond that MIT is also an institution of the world, and its greatness derives in large measure from its cosmopolitan nature and its worldwide connections. The same must be true of you. Be proud and committed to your nation, but also look beyond it. To shape a future of greatness, you must be citizens of the world.

The early decades of your professional lives will be sharply differentiated from mine by the end of the Cold War. The cold peace that we have won has somehow brought a surprisingly hollow sense of victory. And somewhere along the line, it seems to me, we have lost our will to excel. You, and we, must regain that will to excel.

A few weeks ago here in Boston the British novelist John LeCarre gave a remarkable speech that clarified many of these points for me, and perhaps it will for you as well. He said,

"The fight against Communism diminished us. That is why we were unable to rejoice in our victory. It left us in a state of false and corrosive orthodoxy. It licensed our excesses, and we didn't like ourselves better for them. It dulled our love of dissent and our sense of life's adventure.

"In my country," he said, "and perhaps in yours, the service of industries of criticism have almost drowned the magic of creation. Our intellectuals hate too much; our press revels in public executions. We are poisoning ourselves with malice. Yet we take no risks. We are not brave. Our orthodoxy still gives us no way out.

"Yet we have never been so free. We no longer need to clip the wings of our humanity. It's time we flew again."

That is what John LeCarre said.

So now it is up to you to fly.

Learn to cooperate as well as compete.

Respect and cherish differences, but build common purpose and values.

Be citizens of the world.

Regain the will to excel.

Men and women of MIT, I wish you godspeed and the very best of good fortune.

A version of this
article appeared in the
June 2, 1993

issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume
37, Number
35).


Topics: Administration, Commencement

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