Welcome to the the Office of the President
On Equality Citadel Commencement Address
May 6, 2001
General Grinalds, members of the Board of Visitors, distinguished guests, graduates, family and friends, it is a great honor for me to join you today. As someone who has listened to many commencement speeches, it is a privilege to reverse the roles today and deliver one instead. I do so with some trepidation, however, recognizing that most graduation speeches are easily ignored – before, during, and after they are delivered. In the words of Thomas Carlyle: "Silence is deep as eternity, speech is shallow as time." For the benefit of all concerned, I promise to keep the shallowness of this speech as brief as possible.
Let me begin with a salute to the graduates. After all, this is The Citadel, so a salute is in order! Each of you has completed a rigorous course of study. Many have done so while simultaneously balancing the demands of jobs and families. No doubt, countless sacrifices have been made to pursue these degrees – some by the graduates themselves, others by their family members and friends. So, as we pay tribute to the achievements of the graduates, we must also recognize the contributions of the loved ones who have helped to make this graduation possible. To the parents, spouses, children and other supporters assembled here, we thank you for your encouragement, understanding, and patience.
Today marks a milestone in the lives of the graduates. For you, the year 2001 will always have special significance. You will remember it as a year of personal accomplishment, and it will be recorded as such on your diplomas. It is worth noting, however, that this graduation is not the only important event during the year 2001.
This discovery was the product of a decade of intense, fiercely competitive work. The enormity of this task is almost beyond comprehension. Let me try to put it into perspective for you. If you were to try to read this sequence of nucleotides out loud, and if you could enumerate one base pair each second, it would take you about a hundred years to complete the recitation. Of course, that is not allowing for bathroom breaks, meals, or even the occasional siesta. Even more remarkable is the fact that every time one of the 3 trillion cells in your body divides, this complete DNA sequence is replicated. Indeed, every human being is a living, breathing supercomputer for processing genetic information.
One of the great surprises of the Human Genome Project is that we are carrying around fewer genes than we once imagined. When the race to sequence the human genome began, it was assumed that about 100,000 genes would be detected. It turns out that we have only about a third that number. This is pretty humbling when you consider that the lowly roundworm possesses more than half of our number of genes. From a genetic point of view, there is an awful lot of overlap between the recipe for fishing bait and for you. Sobering, isn’t it?
Of much greater significance is the fact that any two human beings share 99.9 percent of the same genetic information. The difference between you and me, for instance, is little more than genetic dust. We have a thousand times more in common than we have differentiating us. This rule applies across the full spectrum of humankind - from the aboriginal Australians, to Asians, to Native Americans, to Caucasians, to Africans. When it comes to our genetic wardrobe, we are cut from the same cloth.
At the same time, it is obvious that human beings come in a pretty diverse set of packages. Each of us defines our identity by the features that differentiate us from other people. We may be a bit taller, or possess a somewhat darker complexion, or a more prominent nose, or brow, or jaw. Beyond our physical selves, we also are delineated by emotional, intellectual and creative characteristics. Together, such features paint a portrait of our individuality. In the words of Bernard Malamud: "You see in others who you are."
As a society, we tend to celebrate those who manifest certain features to extremes. We are awestruck by those who excel in beauty, or intellect, or creativity, or athleticism, or compassion. What is easily forgotten is that these differences operate at the margin. For every one of these distinguishing features, there are a thousand similarities to our fellow human beings. You and I are far more like Marilyn Monroe, or Albert Einstein, or Yo Yo Ma, or Michael Jordan, or Mother Theresa, than we are different from them.
Personally, I find it reassuring that Michael Jordan and I are so closely related. He may find it disturbing, but to me it is comforting. It makes him seem a little more human. Yes, I have to confess that it also makes me feel a little more godlike. Of course, I still cannot slam-dunk a basketball, but in the big picture, I am just like Mike.
At this point, you may be concerned that I have lost complete touch with reality. While my oneness with Mike may be hard to accept, it would be a grave mistake to think that you or I are fundamentally different from other human beings. Although our parents may pass on to each of us widely disparate worldly assets, they are far more uniform in their genetic bequests. In terms of biological inheritance, when the last will and testament is read, we are heirs to remarkably similar estates.
Of course, with about 6 billion members, the human family is large enough to accommodate a few outliers. Some exceptions can produce remarkable genius - others can result in tragic illness. Still, these are the exceptions and not the rule.
If this concept does not seem radical today, it is partly because social philosophers came to the same conclusion about 350 years ago. In 1651, Thomas Hobbes wrote that: "All men, among themselves, are by nature equal." Our country’s founding fathers endorsed this same concept a century later when they wrote that: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal." Looking back, we can only wonder whether or not they truly meant to include all men, regardless of race, and whether they had in mind women as well. Nevertheless, their thinking was far ahead of the scientific community.
In the 1981 book The Mismeasure of Man, author Stephen J. Gould describes scientific attempts during the 19th century to advance the theory of biological determinism. Under this paradigm, societal differences between groups were believed to arise from genetic differences. For example, the inheritance of inferior cognitive ability was thought to be responsible for the lower social and economic position of certain groups. In order to measure intelligence, these Victorian scientists relied upon physical dimensions, such as the size of the cranial vault within skulls.
We now know that the size of the cranial vault does not correlate with intellectual performance. Although the science underlying biological determinism has been debunked, some advocates still remain. A case in point is the 1994 book The Bell Curve, subtitled Intelligence and Class in American Life. Here, cranial measurements were replaced by standardized intelligence tests, but the underlying hypothesis remained the same. That biological determinism should persist in the minds of some is a testament to the difficulty of accepting such gross inequities in our society on any other basis.
The most invidious consequence of biological determinism, in my opinion, is that it assigns to nature prejudice that can only be of human origin. In the final analysis, achievement is as much about opportunity as it is about ability.
Whatever intellectual endowment we bring into this world, it all comes to naught without the benefit of proper cultivation.
This Commencement is a tribute to the proper cultivation of intellect. We celebrate today, not the blessings of inheritance, but the fruits of labor. In the words of the ancient Chinese proverb: "By nature all men are alike, but by education widely different." The question, then, is what difference will be made by your education?
Whatever purpose calls you beyond this day, let us pray that it is in the service of a greater good. I leave you in that spirit with the words of Edward Everett Hale:
"I am only one,
But still I am one.
I cannot do everything,
But still I can do something;
And because I cannot do everything
I will not refuse to do the something that I can do."
Thank you very much.