The Forum | Freedom of Expression

Boilermakers Aren’t Made for Tribes

May 23, 2018

This is an excerpt from Purdue President Mitch E. Daniels, Jr’s 2018 Commencement Address:

I look forward all year to this moment, and this view. No sight all year comes close. All these excited, beaming faces, each realizing that a new world of freedom and opportunity is about to open.  Congratulations, parents, on that last tuition check.

And to our graduates to be, the stars of our show today, we extend the same, on this day of validation. Around the nation today, too many diplomas are being handed to your peers by institutions where, studies tell us, little was expected or demanded of them. Soon many of those graduates will be “mugged by reality”, as employers inform them that they are not adequately prepared for the roles and the jobs they expected to take up.  

Not here. Each year’s data, and the constant feedback from the enterprises who welcome Boilers into their ranks, confirms that the hard work of a Purdue education is worth all the effort. That you are more than ready for the challenges ahead.

“Challenges” is one of those commencement clichés, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t fit the occasion. In great research centers like Purdue we talk a lot about “grand challenges”, and properly so.  Conquering disease, world hunger, managing whatever climatic changes are on their way, continuing the breathtaking ascent from poverty that the world has achieved even in your short lifetimes – all these will provide many of you thrilling careers and opportunities for deeply rewarding service. And that’s just the beginning of the challenges you’ll confront.

Beyond these material hurdles lie moral and ethical questions the likes of which, and the rapid onset of which, humanity has never had to deal with. When we can genetically engineer perfect children, should we? When wealthy adults can radically enhance their own mental abilities and lifespans well beyond those less fortunate, should we let them? When robots, and a dwindling fraction of technologically gifted workers, are producing the majority of all the value and wealth in society, what will become of those who appear unnecessary? Will they be treated with respect, or as helpless dependents? If the latter, will the productive minority decide, as some have begun to speculate, that the others no longer deserve an equal say in the society’s decisions?  There will be dozens more such mind-bending dilemmas.

I don’t fear the inability of a world led by new leaders like you to overcome even our most daunting scientific and material problems. Again and again, the pessimists and doomsayers have been proven wrong by the unexpected, unpredictable power of human ingenuity.

I don’t even doubt your generation’s capacity to work through the tortuous ethical issues that astonishing technological breakthroughs are forcing on the world. Every day I see in Purdue students the innate decency and the ability to wrestle with complexity that it will take to work through these problems. 

Instead, I believe the biggest challenge you may face lies elsewhere. It will involve the repair and renewal of trust among ourselves as a people, and trust in the free institutions which alone can protect and nurture individual human dignity.  If ever a challenge was “grand”, this one is.

The last few Mays, I’ve found myself issuing the same caution to each departing class. I’ve pointed out that, although they don’t think of themselves this way and I hope never will, they are now aristocrats. They are members of a privileged elite. It’s not the kind we’ve known through history. It’s not based on a family name, or inherited wealth, or a father’s position in some ruling totalitarian party. It’s the new aristocracy of a knowledge economy, with membership conferred by unusual cognitive skills, augmented by a superior education like Purdue’s. 

I’ve noted that the people I’m describing have begun to cluster together – to work with each other, live near each other, socialize with each other, marry each other, have children just like each other’s children, starting the cycle over again. And unintentionally to segregate from their less blessed, less well educated fellow citizens. I’ve urged each set of graduates to resist this tendency, to make special efforts to connect with those who never made it to Purdue or a place like it. It’s a shame to go through life with a narrow range of human interactions, and all one can learn from those who are different.

Click here to watch the full speech >>       

Purdue University President Mitch Daniels will receive the 2018 Philip Merrill Award for Outstanding Contributions to Liberal Arts Education. The award will be presented to President Daniels on October 12 at an evening gala following ACTA’s annual ATHENA Roundtable conference in Washington, DC.


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

Discover More