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Words of wisdom: passion, fruition. . .shpilkes?

03 June 2004

 



Click here for more commencement photos
Peg Skorpinski photo

Commencement oratory ranges from the tiresome, even soporific, to the inspired and inspirational. During graduation season, only a quick glance at each day’s edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education shows which outback colleges are welcoming the local postmaster for his third consecutive keynote address, and how fortunate Berkeley is to draw luminaries from every walk of life — many of them Cal grads themselves — to share their hard-won insights with its hard-working graduates. Click on the names below for a sample of what some keynoters had to say in May to the UC Berkeley Class of 2004.

Paul Hawken
Ted Koppel
Tina Takemoto
Stephen P.A. Fodor
Jo Freeman
William Bagley
Barbara Lee
Cynthia Gorney
Mary Nichols
B. Ruby Rich
Michael Krasny
Joe Goode
Eric Schmidt
Daniel Koshland

College of Natural Resources
Paul Hawken, environmental entrepreneur
I believe the movement to create a just and fair society will prevail. Just as in single organisms, humanity can muster a collective immune response to resist political disease and economic infection. There are today 100,000 groups — citizen-based organizations, non-governmental organizations, volunteer organizations — that address social and environmental loss. This is the world’s largest movement. The U.S., supposedly, is a superpower, but this is the other superpower. It flies under the radar of the media and politics because it is nonviolent and grassroots: It has no bombs, no armies, and no planes. It has no central ideology. There are no white charismatic male vertebrates in charge … thank God.

Commencement Convocation
Ted Koppel, ABC News anchor
Graduating classes on occasions like these are accustomed to hearing that “You are remarkable…extraordinary … that the world, indeed, has never seen your like before.” Horse manure. I am much more impressed by those among your parents and grandparents who risked their lives fleeing Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia as boat people; who while speaking barely any English at all worked at whatever jobs they could get to sustain and support you. They are the ones who maintain the discipline that kept you out of trouble and forced you to study. There are Indians and Pakistanis among you; Bangladeshis, Mexicans, Hondurans, Nicaraguans, Palestinians, Lebanese; Chinese, Koreans, and African Americans whose families who have endured similar hardships to bring you to the point you’ve reached today. And even those of you who have come from relatively privileged backgrounds are probably no more than two or three generations removed from the Irish, Italian, Polish and Russian immigrants who fled the political and economic hardships of the mid- and late-1800s. Or the Jews who fled the Holocaust of 65 years ago or the pogroms of more than 100 years past. Those were remarkable generations, extraordinary generations. They planted all of the hopes and dreams that they would never realize in us and in you. And on this day where we have gathered to honor you, you would do well once again to honor them.

Department of Art Practice
Tina Takemoto, associate professor of visual studies, California College of the Arts
We live in a society that uses its most advanced technologies to support surveillance, the military, and vast commercial interests, a culture in which art education and the arts are increasingly devalued and defunded. We live in a visual landscape inundated with images from advertising and the mass media depicting all levels of unreality, sensationalism, cultural and racial stereotypes, homophobia, inhumanity, violence, and abuse. As artists and conscious beings in the world, what are we to do?… [Art] can create a space, a location, a moment, an entity (be it a painting, sculpture, installation, performance, or video) that urges us to explore a range of human emotions and experiences within and beyond the conventional boundaries of our daily lives. And whether this art is personal, political, sexy, cynical, slow, fast, hard, soft, quiet, loud, sticky, chewy, abject, fluffy, stern, or chatty, we need it whether we like it or not. Therefore, I challenge you, Class of 2004, to keep using your subversive imagination in dialogue with the world to offer new and transformative visions for our lives and our futures.

College of Chemistry
Stephen P.A. Fodor, Founder, Affymetrix, Inc.
We often view ethical considerations as vehicles to tell us what not to do instead of helping us decide what to do. But isn’t the reverse perspective just as important? Aren’t there just as many times when we have a moral imperative to do something, to say “Thou shall” as opposed to “Thou shall not”? Beyond the shores of our land of plenty, a significant portion of humankind cannot grow enough food to feed themselves. For generations we in America have been an accomplice to this starvation. Now we have the tools to develop a new generation of crops that will grow in poor soil and weather conditions. That means genetic modification. Some people are troubled by that concept and are unable to get a fix on their ethical compass. So, while we are endlessly debating, lives are literally wasting away. Maybe the author Isaac Asimov had all this in mind when he said, “Never let your sense of morals get in the way of doing what’s right.”

Department of Political Science
Jo Freeman, attorney and activist
The struggle for democracy never ends, because whoever is in power, no matter how benevolent, always prefers order to disorder, and at best, inevitably views disruption as a distraction…. Suppression particularly finds favor when there is perception of an external threat. The PATRIOT Act and the Total Information Awareness Project are hardly unprecedented. During the Red Scare of the 1920s and ’30s, and the Cold War of the 1940s and ’50s, fear of the Communist menace was used to silence dissent, and to suppress rights far beyond any realistic need for national security. These rights did not automatically return when that threat receded. The rights lost to fear had to be fought for and regained years later.

Department of Economics
William Bagley, former UC regent
Beware of ideologues. Ideologues have put into the state constitution and state law a whole bunch of measures that basically appropriate money in advance, constricting the state’s ability, for example, to support UC. Of our $77-billion state budget, less than 20 percent is discretionary money. The university is one of those discretionary areas. This leaves the university naked. That’s part of the problem we have today. Anybody with $2 million can get anything on the ballot. And the public — not knowing, at times, the consequences — is willing to pass many of these measures.

Department of African American Studies
Barbara Lee, U.S. Representative, 9th District, California
Half a century ago, Thurgood Marshall went before the very Supreme Court on which he would one day sit, and helped lead a revolution to compel this nation to live up to its own principles…. Brown v. Board of Education was probably the most important Supreme Court case of the 20th century. … [Over the five decades since], Brown v. Board has continued to be upheld — because of the Thurgood Marshalls … and all of those who risked and sometimes lost their lives in the fight against segregation in schools, in universities, in stores, and lunch counters, in the workplace, and at the ballot box. So today at our graduation, we honor their sacrifices, because if weren’t be for them, we would not be here.

Graduate School of Journalism
Cynthia Gorney, associate professor of journalism
There’s a great Yiddish word my mother-in-law taught me: shpilkes, which is what seven-year-olds have when they’re forced to sit in chairs too long — you gotta move, you gotta go check that out, you gotta see what’s over there, you gotta be finding things out all the time…. Among our graduates today, we have people from Little Rock, Santa Cruz, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Addis Ababa, Shanghai, and Richmond and Oakland and North Berkeley. We have a gospel singer from St. Louis, and an Urdu-speaking opera singer from Cavalier, North Dakota, and a fluent Spanish speaker from Tokyo, and a Russian and Mandarin-speaking marathon runner from Harvard. …But what they have in common is a certain kind of shpilkes of the brain and the heart and the soul.

Energy & Natural Resources
Mary Nichols, Director, UCLA Institute of the Environment, former California Secretary of Resources and U.S. EPA Assistant Administrator
There’s nothing that we do that doesn’t require us to do it with other people, to be able to recognize that each of us brings a distinct set of traits and personality to the job that we’re doing. What’s so remarkable about the world of politics is that even when you’re working with people…most opposed to what you’re trying to do, you are dealing with them fundamentally as people who need to be addressed in a way that brings out what is positive and potentially good in their character.

Departments of Film Studies and Rhetoric
B. Ruby Rich, film critic, adjunct professor of film studies
What we really need today, I submit to you, is attention to life, not to death. And attention to a balance of cultures other than our own — not their on-screen obliteration. A willingness of open minds, not to shut them down. We need a cinema capable of rising to the occasion, with new narratives, plots, and characters, new modes of comprehension. We need moviemakers engaged with a world irrevocably different from that to which they sold tickets pre-9/11. We don’t need to see the sad genre of cinematic fundamentalism, drawn to an imaginary but a long-gone past, revived to lure a contemporary audience into a delusional slumber of self-satisfaction purchased at the expense of self-awareness. These movies transport viewers into a state of denial, a dreamtime of good and evil, a world divided into two, a world in which the audience knows once again for which side to cheer. But the world has become too complicated for these childish formulas; we deserve better. We deserve to be told the truth. Free of distortion. Free of censorship. The cinemas of other countries seem to be able to provide that, but we don’t see enough of them.

Department of English
Michael Krasny, host of KQED-FM’s “Forum,” professor of English, San Francisco State University
I believe that…all of you have a charge…to use that education which you have been privileged enough to bring to fruition today and use it to make a difference. Stand boldly and unbendingly behind the liberties that have been promised to all of you since the inception of this republic nearly 230 years ago. And stand strongly and unwaveringly against those who would try to imperil, attack, diminish, or take those liberties from you. And I give you another charge. Stay informed so you are not ignorant of this perilous world. Knowledge is what your education has been all about. Preserve and foster and expand and cherish knowledge....Make it your charge to understand what is going on in your world. Read, read, read. Not only fact, but as you as English majors know and know well, fiction, poetry, drama. Never stop enlarging your minds to what aesthetically pleases you or politically informs you.…

Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies
Joe Goode, professor of theater, dance, and performance studies; artistic director, Joe Goode Performance Group
Here’s a little quote from a Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron: “Abandon any hope of fruition.” … I think that what’s she’s talking about is this feeling of wanting to jump over yourself and find something that’s more awake or alive than the present situation. That somehow there’s a there there. We all need to get there where it’s all going to come together, that we will somehow become, and that the golden light will shine on us.…Don’t be in a hurry to become. This feeling that some of you are having of not really being here or there, not yet quite being anything, and maybe not even knowing definitively what it is that you want to be, it’s a blessed state. Honor it. It is the most familiar feeling you’re ever going to have. You’re going to return to it again and again and again. I’m 53 years old and I have enjoyed some success and it always comes as a surprise to me, because I haven’t become anything yet. I truly hope that in 10 or 20 years I’ll see some of you. I have a feeling I will. And I’ll be able to check in with what you’re becoming.

Haas School of Business
Eric Schmidt, CEO, Google
I will tell you first and foremost that leadership at any level requires passion. Don’t take a job, don’t take a role, and don’t do something because other people tell you to do it. Do something because you’re passionate about it. The passion that you have unlocks the inner spirit and the commitment that you have and gets enormous things accomplished in life. If I could tell you anything out of the gate how this happens, I would tell you to tell the truth, be humble — arrogance is never pretty — and bank good will for a rainy day, because you may need it.

Department of Molecular and Cell Biology
Daniel Koshland, Professor in the Graduate School
Smug people are very obnoxious, but you must admit they are happy with themselves. Permanent smugness is terrible, and I don’t advocate it, but every once in a while, when you’ve done a good deed, or made your contribution to a worthy cause, you should check to see if anyone is watching, and then look at yourself directly in the mirror and say, “By God, I’ve done a good job.” I think that particularly applies to you today. You have taken countless exams, read unending pages of textbooks, performed infinite hours of experiments in the laboratory, and are receiving a degree from one of the best and toughest universities in the world. You — your parents and siblings and friends — deserve to be proud. Tomorrow, reality sets in when you go out to solve the problems of the world and your parents write, “The check is no longer in the mail,” but today you deserve 30 seconds of transient smugness. It is a job well done. Congratulations, and thank you for listening to one more lecture.