GSAS Celebrates Graduates in 2015 Convocation Ceremonies

Volume 5, Issue 2, Summer 2015

On May 17, GSAS celebrated the Class of 2015 in two ceremonies honoring master’s and Ph.D. candidates.

More than 400 students in fields ranging from African-American Studies to Statistics participated in the M.A. Convocation ceremony, which featured remarks by Alexandra Schultz, M.A. ’15, Anthropology, and keynote speaker Carl Haber, Ph.D. ’85, Physics.

The Ph.D. Convocation ceremony recognized more than 300 graduates earning the University’s highest degree. Ari Ezra Waldman, Ph.D. ’15, Sociology, gave the student address, while Professor Sean C. Solomon, director of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, delivered the keynote address. In addition, the Graduate Student Advisory Council (GSAC) Faculty Mentoring Awards were given to Professor of Sociology Karen Barkey and Associate Professor of Sociomedical Sciences Helen-Maria Lekas. The Presidential Awards for Outstanding Teaching were given to Spencer Brucks, a Ph.D. student in Chemistry; Elham Seyedsayamdost, Ph.D. ’15, Political Science; and Christine Webb, Ph.D. ’15, Psychology.

The texts of the two student addresses are reprinted in this issue of Superscript.

Alexandra Schultz, M.A. ’15, Anthropology

Dean Alonso, Provost Coatsworth, Executive Vice President Madigan, members of the faculty, administration, and staff, family, friends, and fellow graduates...

I have a confession to make—I didn’t step too far outside the box when it came to choosing a topic upon which to speak today. Some might even accuse me of unoriginality. Today, I would like to speak to you about education.

I imagine a silent groan has just erupted inside many of you: How predictable! Yes, we’re bombarded with newspaper articles on the topic: links between education and lower rates of HIV; correlations between schooling and the increased married age of young women in poverty-stricken countries. Politicians wax lyrical. In Australia—where I’m from (I’m sure you figured that out already)—our prime minister, Tony Abbott, claims that the key to overcoming the atrocious disparities between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians is education. He says, “It’s hard to find work without a basic education, and it’s hard to live well without a job.”

Indeed, for most people here today, quotes regarding the power of education have most likely peppered every event that you have attended in your academic life. I’m sure that you have heard, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it” (Aristotle). Or, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world” (Nelson Mandela).

We are told that education is the key: to better health outcomes and reduced crime, to social cohesiveness, personal well-being, community well-being, health literacy, computer literacy, and, of course, “literacy-literacy”…

I know—you get it! But do you?

When I sat down to write this speech in the hope that I might be selected to speak today, I pondered the succinct instructions for its creation: “It should be no longer than 1,250 words, and it should reflect on your experience as a student and your perspective on the future.”

My experience. As a student. And I had to reflect, because I left Columbia to return home to Australia almost twelve months ago.

When I first thought back, I remembered glorious snow days: days upon which walking through the gates into Columbia was akin to entering an ethereal, blanketed, winter wonderland. And then I remembered how jaded I became when I realized that snow days were really about being sprayed with icy taxi sludge and having my new boots permanently salt-stained. I thought of the long hours in Columbia’s many beautiful libraries. The creaky seats. The hushed whispers. I shuddered to think of those weeks in which it seemed as though all of my professors, for all of my subjects, had conspired to each assign an entire—near impenetrable—book as that week’s reading.

However, I also reflected more deeply upon my experience. What did my time at Columbia mean to me? What was I taking away with me? I wrote three words on a piece of paper: Knowledge. Power. Fortitude. Underneath this trio, I had written “education.” It was underlined, twice. Gifted as we are with the power of language, human beings have learned to manipulate words. Some are evocative and forceful and hold great value: “freedom!” Others loll esoterically and almost comedically off the tongue: “phenomenology.” However, it is a great travesty that others, like “education,” seem to have been hollowed out of all meaning, overused. Like a word that as a child—in some kind of a precocious cognitive experiment—you’d repeat over and again just to experience the odd sensation of it becoming completely devoid of meaning to your brain: “muffin, muffin, muffin, muffin, muffin...”

I should like to make an attempt today to bring back a little of the word’s meaning to us all— “education,” not “muffin”—in the hope that we might comprehend the great accomplishment and privilege that we are here to celebrate.

Let’s begin with language. Language, arguably, is the first step on a road to formal education, and it shapes us intimately and profoundly. It wires our brains in myriad wonderful, terrible, and irreversible ways. It shapes what we see and how we think. It gives us the ability to retain thought, memory. It gives us the ability to share thought. Language defines our perceptive abilities. For example, having a word for a particular color allows us to more accurately “see” that color. Some languages have limited categories of color, and consequently, speakers of such languages have more difficulty discerning between variations. If the word for green does not exist in your vocabulary—it is subsumed under “yellow” and “blue”—you will find it more difficult to distinguish what English speakers call “green” from other “yellows” and “blues.”

More amazingly, however: as we learn new languages, we also acquire the perceptive abilities that come with them. It’s exciting to think that “out there” are not only new ways of thinking, but truly new ways of experiencing the world. Language is fortunately denied to statistically few who come into this world.

Nonetheless, the same cannot be said for literacy. To read and write plays an almost incomprehensible role in shaping and reshaping our brains, in dictating the ways in which we communicate with the world, each other, and indeed ourselves. Imagine not being able to write a shopping list? A note to a loved one? Imagine your ability to communicate limited to the here and now. Not only has literacy allowed societies to function in novel and increasingly complex ways, it has allowed us to expand thought outside of our minds, our inner workings to spill onto pages and loose into the world. Indeed, Walter Ong tells us, “Without writing, the literate mind would not and could not think as it does.” More than any other single invention, writing has transformed human consciousness.

Only 74 percent of the world shares the gift of literacy with the graduates before me. (But formal education, of course, extends far beyond mere functional literacy.) And in 2012, 58 million of the world’s children were not enrolled in school. While I’m determined not to quote statistics at you, I do wish to highlight that at every stage of your education, you became increasingly differentiated from those you left behind. Every skill that you acquired reshaped your brain and created new ways for you to see the world. You discovered that there were things that you never knew you did not know. And then you learned them. You became one of approximately a third of Americans to hold a bachelor’s degree, and now you are one of only 8 percent to hold a master’s. And that does not take into consideration the exceptionality of the institution at which you have done so. You are indeed unique, and your brain is irreversibly changed because of it.

A quarter of the world cannot read the label on a medicine bottle, or enroll their child in school. But you have just completed a part of a journey that has allowed you to converse with the great minds of human existence. You have knowledge, and so you also have power. And you got through the “thing,” so presumably you also have fortitude. You have the privilege of possessing an exceptional education, and therefore, an exceptional mind.

The only question remains: what will you do with it?

Prior to Columbia, Alexandra Schultz earned a B.A. with First Class Honours from the University of Adelaide. She currently works at the Australasian Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health as the manager of indigenous programs.

Ari Ezra Waldman, Ph.D. ’15, Sociology

Dean Alonso, Provost Coatsworth, Executive Vice President Madigan, members of the faculty, administration, and staff, family, friends, and fellow graduates...

It is an honor to speak with you today; indeed, a privilege second only to the honor it was to work alongside you these last several years. It is true that a Ph.D. is as much about the people we meet as it is about the books we read and write. I’ve met scientists making drugs smarter and more precise so they attack microscopic viruses and not the cells around them. Among us is an anthropologist who is doing groundbreaking research on cross-cultural exchange. And our cohort includes a social scientist who will influence early childhood education with her work on how children learn to read.

But although our diversity of expertise will open myriad doors, our singular journey unites us in an imperative to stand in defense of education. Unfortunately, that education is under attack from a culture and political class that are devaluing intelligence in general and a liberal arts education in particular.

Rick Scott, the conservative governor of Florida, said that his state doesn’t “need any anthropologists.” Floridians, he said, need to focus solely on math and engineering classes. The governor of North Carolina, Pat McCrory, who gutted his state’s education budget, called certain liberal arts classes “worthless.” Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker recently cut $300 million from his state’s university system, calling on faculty to just teach more classes and calling for curricular changes that emphasize “getting jobs.” And the left is not innocent, either. In his effort to expand vocational education opportunities, an otherwise noble goal, the President singled out art history as, perhaps, an “unnecessary” distraction.

The argument goes something like this: if the United States ever hopes to compete against technology powerhouses in other parts of the world, and if it ever hopes to “win” the economic wars of tomorrow, we have to train people for the technology jobs to come. In times of scarce resources, when we are all asked to do more with less, we do not have the luxury, these critics say, of a broad-based liberal arts education. It’s just not practical, and it doesn’t get people jobs.

I do not deny that American education can do better by its students, their parents, and the society it serves. Nor do I deny that education in science and technology is essential for our future. I myself am a student of technology and how we interact with each other on the Internet. But by taking a myopic view of education, we endanger that which has made this country so innovative, so dynamic, diverse, and vibrant.

A liberal arts education is a lifelong endeavor that trains us to question dogma, challenge the status quo, and defy conventional wisdom. It is, therefore, not only essential to a wellfunctioning and responsive democracy, but, as the germ of new ideas, it is a necessary element in the innovation equation.

Behind the electrical engineer’s drive to power the world through smarter grids and new computers is a willingness to defy convention. Behind the architect’s design for a physical space is the awareness of how structures impact social interaction and how oppressive governments have, throughout history, used spaces to keep their citizens in line. And behind the Internet of things is a network inspired by philosophies—both ancient and modern—of decentralization, lack of hierarchy, and constant generativity. These are ideals that we learn both in and out of the classroom, but they are denied us when we excise the liberal arts from the broad-based education society needs.

Like all of us here today, STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] and the liberal arts have to work together if our society’s goal is to educate and foster creative thinkers who come up with the next big idea rather than create mere functionaries who are content to implement the last one.

Without such freethinking liberal arts majors, for example, we wouldn’t have YouTube or Facebook, smartphones or wind turbines, SoulCycle or Spanx. The technology for some of these innovations may come from STEM education, but the ideas, the philosophies, the sociological, anthropological, and cultural brainwork are from a far wider liberal arts education.

Together, we need to stand up for the value of a broad liberal arts education because no one else will. Industry trade associations will continue to lobby for more trained bodies in their fields. Politicians will continue to cut budgets to fund whatever project or tax incentives that suit their ideologies. And interest groups will continue to press for specific changes that affect their constituent groups. Our society needs to have many of the debates these advocates will inspire. But someone must stand for the critical thinking that makes those debates possible. That responsibility falls to us.

We are the best examples of what broad-based learning can create. And I’m not just referring to the sociologists or psychologists, historians, and anthropologists among us. Consider the MIT technologist who spent years learning theory before putting it into action to create BuzzFeed. And the engineer who studied a problem of urban construction, assessed the city’s needs and future constraints, and challenged his industry’s norms to come up with a miracle of urban revitalization. We call his invention the High Line. And the literature student who did nothing less than revolutionize computing, technology, and daily life. His name was Steve Jobs.

We are all products of a comprehensive liberal arts education that pushed us to innovate in our chosen fields. But with this kind of education under fire, we must now become its advocates. We must do this so the next cohort can challenge our dogmas and address next-generation problems in unconventional ways, ways that never crossed our minds. We must do this so future generations can learn and think for themselves.

Thank you, and congratulations.

Ari Ezra Waldman is currently an associate professor of law and director of the Innovation Center for Law and Technology at New York Law School, where he teaches intellectual property, privacy, Internet law, and torts. Before pursuing his Ph.D., he earned a J.D. from Harvard Law School in 2005 and a B.A. in history from Harvard College. His scholarship centers on the law and policy of Internet social life, with particular focus on privacy, cyberharassment, and online bullying.