19 June 2009

Message for the Class of 2009

Why on Earth---Are You So Glum, Class of 2009?by Bradley Doucet

June 12, 2009--Let me begin by congratulating you, the Class of 2009, on this, the day of your graduation. There were struggles along the way, but you persevered and overcame them. You made it! Today is your day to celebrate.

Looking ahead, though, you might be forgiven for thinking that the future looks rather grim. The worst global recession in decades drags on month after month. Wars rage in the Middle East with no stable peace in sight. Nuclear weapons seem destined to fall into hands that should by all rights never possess them. And the planet itself, you are told repeatedly, has just about had it with the human race and its hubris. Today may be a day for celebration, but looking ahead, do you, the class of 2009, have any reasons to feel hopeful?

It is true that formidable challenges lie ahead. But I have three messages of hope for you today. First, I want to remind you of some of the things previous generations have accomplished. You have their examples to inspire you, and the fruits of their labors to help you in your coming trials. Second, I want to point out to you that you are living through a truly revolutionary time: the age of the Internet. A veritable wealth of human knowledge is quite literally at your fingertips. May you use it wisely. Finally, I want to encourage you to rise to the ultimate challenge: to think critically—not only about controversial practical issues, but also about the big philosophical questions. If you prove yourselves equal to this ultimate challenge, then the other challenges you will face, be they economic, political, or environmental, will bend to your wills.

Those Who Came Before

It is easy to take for granted all that we have today: planes, trains, and automobiles; films and television; cellular phones, digital music, personal computers; air conditioning and central heating; vaccines, antibiotics, magnetic resonance imaging. None of these boons of modern life fell like manna from heaven. None of these technologies was available to the wealthiest of kings in centuries past. Every one of them had to be invented or discovered by creative human beings committed to improving their lot and that of their fellows.

More fundamentally, the scientific method itself had to be discovered and promulgated, at great personal cost to some of its early pioneers, who were persecuted by religious authorities afraid of change. The freedom to choose your religion, or to choose no religion, also had to be fought for. So did the freedom to speak your mind and the freedom to assemble peacefully. So, too, did the freedom to choose your occupation and to dispose of the fruits of your labor as you see fit. Bruce Cockburn put it best: “Nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight.” The fights ahead will not be easy, but they will be easier thanks to the courageous examples of those who came before and the bounty they have left us.

Information Overload?

The Internet may be the most revolutionary technology since the printing press. The printing press democratized knowledge in a way that transformed the world, underwriting the Enlightenment itself and the Industrial Revolution that followed, and therefore all of the wonderful technologies and freedoms mentioned above. The Internet democratizes knowledge even further, drawing on the disparate experiences of billions. While the printing press broke the stranglehold the Church had on learning, the Internet places that learning truly within the reach of all.

Gone are the gatekeepers of information, the media empires. Here are citizen journalists and instant access to media outlets from around the world. Gone are the establishment-dominated points of view. Here are a dozen alternative viewpoints to fight it out in a truly open marketplace of ideas. Gone are the successful government manipulations of information. Here are the unstoppable whistleblowers of the virtual world.

The Internet is chaotic, true. Obviously, not everything you find there is of equal value. Much of it, in fact, is pure rubbish. How can you sift through the garbage to find the diamonds in the dirt? Since there is a demand for this kind of service, there are those who will supply that demand, websites that will earn your trust over time, the way publishers and writers always have. But still, knowing who and what to believe requires some effort on your part. It is, in fact, the most important task you face.

Teaching Yourselves How to Think

In order to decide what and who to believe, you need to know how to think straight. If you are fortunate, your school has helped you lay some of the groundwork here, but the obstacles to rigorous thinking are many and varied. Teach yourself about the kinds of logical fallacies that derail clear thought. Learn to spot these fallacies in your own thinking as well as in the thinking of others.

Confirmation bias—that tendency we have to seek out confirming information and avoid or ignore disconfirming evidence—is particularly problematic. Cultivate a proper respect for its pernicious effect. To claim any kind of certainty in your beliefs, you must try to challenge your deeply-held views as much as possible. Clear, objective thinking does not require that you remain undecided indefinitely, but it does require that you consider alternate viewpoints and give them a fair hearing. Sometimes you will change your mind, sometimes you will not. Either way, you will have reason to feel more secure in your knowledge.

So read widely and deeply from diverse sources. No one has the time to study every issue, but if you’re interested in economics, find out what different economists think are the causes of our current financial woes. Renewed growth and prosperity are well within our reach as long as we navigate this crisis with care. If international relations is your top concern, what do people across the political spectrum have to say about the causes of war and the requirements of peace? Did you know that humanity is in many ways becoming less violent? Why is that, and how can we accelerate that trend? If you’re most worried about the state of the natural world, which environmental problems are most pressing and which are overblown? Are you aware that human health and wellbeing have continued improving throughout the world despite some real problems? What are the causes of those problems and what are some innovative ways to address them?

More deeply, what kind of society best promotes innovation? What is the proper role of government? What is the purpose of art? How should you live your life? How can you be certain of anything? These kinds of big, philosophical questions require your critical attention, too, for they underpin the kinds of decisions people make about more practical matters.
The decline of religion, tradition, and authority in the developed world has left people with a lot more freedom, which is a good thing, but it has also left them with a lot less structure and guidance, which is not such a good thing. The guidance that most people in previous generations took for granted is fading, and has yet to be replaced by much of anything. You may not need supernatural fairy tales, but you do need philosophical signposts if you are to meet the challenges that lie in wait—and if you are to live happy, successful lives.

It’s easy to get discouraged and put on a cynical face, but cynicism won’t get you what you want. It won’t help you make the world a better place, and it won’t make you happy. Instead, keep in mind all that your ancestors accomplished. Keep in mind the tools they left you. They would be amazed to see the modern world with all of its amenities and opportunities. Make the most of their example and their gifts by turning on the light of consciousness and letting it shine as brightly as possible.

Thank you.

Why on Earth...? is a series of cultural commentaries by Bradley Doucet.

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