2008 Commencement Address

John Prausnitz
UC Berkeley Professor of Chemical Engineering

"Berkeley: The Tacit Dimension"

Thank you, Dean Heathcock, for this opportunity to extend greetings to the graduates of 2008.

It is one of the characteristics of all human societies to mark life’s milestones with celebration. Graduation from a university is surely one of the happiest of these and therefore all over the United States, groups like this one assemble at this time of year to celebrate a joyful day. The element of joy is one of the key ingredients in a day like this. But it is also a time for reflection, a time to ask from where you have come and how your recent past will influence what lies ahead.

I want to reflect briefly with you on what Berkeley has done for you and the importance of that for your future. I do not want to dwell on the specialized scientific education that you have received because we are all well aware of the exciting professional opportunities that await you. Instead, I want to say something about the not-so-obvious features of Berkeley, about the dimension of your experiences here which you absorb unknowingly, almost unconsciously, which you received by your daily contact as a member of a most unusual community. I want to call to your attention some features of Berkeley that have influenced you profoundly and will continue to do so. I call this not-so-obvious characteristic of Berkeley its tacit dimension, that is, those parts of Berkeley that determine its social and intellectual climate, in short, its atmosphere that reflects its values, that is so pervasive that we tend to take it for granted.

Before I describe this tacit dimension, I want to assert that it provides the basis of the personal growth that is the ultimate purpose of education. Berkeley’s tacit dimension provides a powerful response to the admonition of Mark Twain: Your parents made you what you are but it’s your fault if you stay that way.

I see three aspects of this tacit dimension.

The first one concerns respect for objective truth, for rational evidence, for the superiority of logic over prejudice and superstition, for the faith that important problems are more likely to be solved by detached intellectual effort than by emotional impulse.  We rarely discuss this attitude of respect; we assume its validity and we act in accord with it.  In Berkeley, we accept it tacitly as one of the cornerstones of the way we live.

While this respect is shared by most educated people in the modern world, we know that it was not always so, that there were many periods in history where respect for rational thought was displaced by irrational fervor, sometimes with cruelty and bloodshed, often with scorn and blind fanaticism.

Striking examples of disrespect for truth are provided by the church’s isolation of Galileo; by the ridicule that tormented Charles Darwin; by the anti-Semitism that plagued Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud; and in our own country, by political action to suppress the teaching of evolution in our public schools.

We know that these outrages existed throughout history, but we tend to forget that they exist even today.  Daily, the newspapers report incidents of fanaticism where respect for rational thought is annihilated by ideological passion.  I am thinking not only of the Ayatollahs in Iran or the suicide bombers in Israel and Iraq; I am also thinking of contemporary America, of lethal homophobia in Wyoming, of fanatical Branch Dividians in Texas and of current intemperate attacks on socio-biology, stem-cell research, genetic engineering, intelligence testing, nuclear energy and fluoridation of water.  While I recognize that there are reasonable arguments concerning these issues,  I remind you of the flood of prejudice and emotional or shameless political propaganda which is designed to discredit these scientific issues, not because they are intellectually incorrect but merely because they displease.

Those who believe as you and I do, that scientific evidence is not all, but surely a large part, of wisdom, recoil unhappily at the power of ideology over logic, at the tyranny of ignorance over knowledge.  Respect for rational evidence, I claim, is one aspect of Berkeley’s tacit dimension.

At Berkeley, we believe in the usefulness of rational research to help solve problems, even if the immediate results of that research may run counter to our cherished opinions.  We believe that while preference, tradition and custom deserve respectful consideration, they should not halt the quest for truth.  We believe, in other words, that the past has a voice but not a veto. 

This aspect of Berkeley’s tacit dimension holds that rational thought must withstand the rude clamor of the day and the hostile winds of doctrine.  This tacit, fundamental value of Berkeley produces the man or woman who makes it a point of honor not to be deceived.

The second aspect of Berkeley’s tacit dimension is in sharp contrast to the first; it affirms that despite its tremendous importance, science is not all pervasive, that the intellectual spectrum of an intelligent person must also encompass areas that are not subject to quantitative measurement and are not classified by that systematic categorization which is so characteristic of science.  The atmosphere on this campus pleads for a balance between science and humanistic knowledge.  Berkeley believes that the humanities are an essential part of that legitimate inquiry which must be pursued to attain a high quality of life.

We value history, literature and the arts not merely because we want to fill our leisure hours with enjoyable entertainment.  What gives intellectual pleasure is a matter of personal preference; for some, rock and roll provides pleasure, while for others, it may be Mozart. That is not the point.  The importance of the humanities lies in responding to some deeply-felt need to understand the world around us.  Science alone cannot do that.  Scientists want to know how they and other human beings work, alone and together.  The subtle dynamics of human personality and human interaction are not yet—if indeed, ever—described by scientific methods.  If we want to penetrate this realm, we do better by giving favorable attention to art, music, literature, history and philosophy.

By offering on this campus a wealth of cultural activities—concerts, ballet, art shows, theater—beyond an unmatched number of lectures on every conceivable subject of human inquiry, by doing this, Berkeley affirms that involvement in humanistic studies and cultural events is an important contribution toward producing a human being who would and should be more than a robot.

The purpose of Berkeley’s respect for the humanities is not to provide entertainment which is superior to most television shows. This tacit respect, which is rarely discussed but which is in full evidence every day on campus, follows from the distinction between two types of knowledge: one type concerns scientific, verifiable, quantitative knowledge while the other concerns inner knowledge, the kind that cannot be reduced to mathematics or to simple language.  However, this inner knowledge can be transmitted through symbols, through sounds and gestures, through shapes and colors, through stories and poems, in short, through creative imagination. Berkeley’s tacit dimension asserts that both science and humanities are necessary for a meaningful life.

Although not explicitly pointed out in a course or lecture, this respect for humanistic studies and activities is something you have absorbed during your Berkeley years. In your social contacts, you have met students from other departments; you have read about cultural events in the campus newspaper; you have seen the billboards for theater, jazz festivals, museum exhibits and string quartets.

At the dinner table, or late at night, over beer or coffee, you have debated the age-old problems of humanity: What is good? What is evil? What is justice? In other words, you have been exposed to the idea that humanistic activities comprise an integral part of the human intellect.  You have accepted Berkeley’s belief that the arts and the study of culture contribute to a life well-lived.  You have absorbed, without conscious knowing, this second aspect of Berkeley’s tacit dimension: all of the mind’s faculties deserve sympathetic attention.

I come now to Berkeley’s third tacit dimension, to that part of Berkeley that is neither science nor humanities, that is not academic but that is intimately concerned with the affirmation of life, with what theologians call “the ground of being.”  I refer to the vibrant spirit, the sense of fun, the singing, the laughter, the guitar playing, the jogging and bicycling, the ubiquitous coffee houses, in short, the expression of joyful well-being which permeates this campus more than any other.  This tacit dimension is best described by a simple fact: this campus is never dull; it is full of activity, color and enthusiasm.  In Berkeley, there is no room for boredom.

Just think of Sproul Plaza and Telegraph Avenue.  Heated discussions on every conceivable topic: politics, morals, sports, religion; earnest, often passionate, publicity and recruitment for a variety of organizations, all more or less concerned with saving the world.  There are political speakers, beaters of African drums; there is street theater and mimicry; there are religious zealots and moral crusaders; there is outlandish clothing, crazy hairstyles, exotic foods, outrageous banners, campus activists sitting in trees; there is a mingling of the serious and the absurd, the revolutionary and the traditional, all accompanied by barking dogs.  One of my favorite Sproul Plaza characters was the young man in a spacesuit who, for one dollar, would sell you a deed for an acre of land—on the moon.

Throughout this campus there is a spirit of fun, of saying yes to life, of affirming that life is worth living, denying despair, with hope for the future.

And there is humor that gives perspective to our learning.  A few years ago, on the beer-cellar wall of Larry Blakes’ was a splendid graffito:

To be or not to be.................(Shakespeare)
To be is to do........................(Sartre)
To do is to be........................(Camus)
Doobedoobedoo....................(Frank Sinatra).

There is no campus with more vitality than Berkeley’s.  Those of you who have not visited other universities, especially in other countries, cannot fully appreciate the uniqueness of the Berkeley campus in creating this atmosphere of joy and vivaciousness. I have seen many campuses where there is little color, where most buildings and most people are gray, where there is no song, no laughter, no fun, where dogs are afraid to bark.  Berkeley is blessed with a holy sense that life is delightful and that proper living means joy and good cheer.  This tacit dimension gives us a sense of value that goes far beyond what we learn in classes or laboratories.

But there is more.  I have called your attention to our vibrant campus, but even late in the day or on Sunday morning, when population is low, there is evidence of that affirmation of life which constitutes a part of Berkeley’s tacit dimension.  I refer to the sense of beauty which surrounds us, to the consistent landscaping, the care given to trees, bushes and flowers.  Despite reduced budgets and despite economies of all sorts, Berkeley has never skimped in its dedication to the principle that “Green is the golden tree of life.”  Despite the budget cuts of Governor Schwarzenegger, despite the tyranny of short-sighted accountants, somehow, we find the funds to keep the campus blooming, to make real our respect for natural beauty.

Providing beautiful surroundings is not an academic matter. It is a response to our human need for aesthetic satisfaction, a need that Berkeley recognizes and affirms.

When the huge old eucalyptus facing the West Gate near the Valley Life Sciences Building became ill, experts on tree pathology were consulted to save it.  Weekly bulletins appeared in the Daily Californian reporting to a concerned university community the progress of what, at that time, was the campus’ most cherished patient; happily, it recovered.

The new Stanley Hall, immediately North of the College of Chemistry, was not yet finished, when a host of gardeners arrived to plant trees and bushes all around the periphery.

When the optometry building was under construction, a large old tree was in the way.  That tree was not cut down; despite heavy expense, tractors and huge cranes arrived to move the tree about 30 yards to a safe position near Hertz Hall where today it is one of the most magnificent trees on the campus. This moving operation required several days and cost many thousands of dollars.  When all the machinery was finally in place and the cranes lifted the venerable tree, bringing it to its new home, I was one of about a hundred onlookers who broke into spontaneous applause.  It was a moment that I will not forget.  Here was Berkeley at its best.

I am sure you understand that I am not merely talking about the kaleidoscope on Sproul Plaza nor about the preservation of old trees.  I am talking about values.  I am saying that Berkeley believes in vitality, optimism and beauty just as it believes in science and humanities.  I am saying that Berkeley affirms all aspects of life that make life worthwhile.  By witnessing and being a part of that affirmation, you have received an element of education of which you have, perhaps, been unaware.  But I am certain that, unconsciously, this element has made a permanent mark on your own sense of values, on your individual sense of what is truly important.

Beauty is an essential part of a happy life.  An old Chinese proverb says: If you have only two pennies left, use one to buy a bowl of rice but use the other to buy a lily.

Berkeley’s tacit dimension is not transmitted through lectures and laboratories.  It is transmitted through daily experience and participation.

Education is practiced in many ways and there is much argument about which ways are most effective.  But there is general agreement that the best education, the one that lasts, is education by example.  What Berkeley says, may or may not be remembered.  But what Berkeley does, what Berkeley is, has made an impression on you that you will not forget.

I have outlined three aspects of what I have called the tacit dimension, those parts of Berkeley which are rarely mentioned in lectures or textbooks.  It is a dimension which is not covered by homework assignments or final examinations.  Rather, it is a dimension provided by Berkeley’s unique atmosphere.  It is a dimension that has become a part of you without your notice, one that influences your judgment of what is important and what is not, what is right and what is wrong.

Which of these three is the most important?  Is it the respect for rational thought that we harbor in the sciences; is it the need for human intellectual inquiry that we require to lead balanced lives, or is it the affirmation of exuberance and delight and beauty that transcends intellectual pursuits? Clearly all three are important and in elevating one of them I would not want to lower the others.

And yet, this assembly here today, this celebration of graduation, gives us a clue as to what ultimately matters most.  Graduation is primarily a celebration of joy, of looking back with satisfaction on past achievements and of looking ahead with anticipation toward mastering new challenges.  There is no rational reason for putting on a cap and gown, for exchanging congratulations, for eating cake, for presenting bouquets of flowers, for smiling at the camera.  We do these things not for material gain or for advertising our intellectual prowess but merely for the fun of it, for expressing our joy and for our need to share that joy with others.

Our voluntary choice to mark the end of your Berkeley stay with a celebration suggests to me that it is the third tacit dimension, the affirmation of life, which is the crown of the Berkeley experience.  We say farewell to each other not by recalling Newton’s theory of gravitation or by reciting the plot of Hamlet but by expressing with warm feeling the occurrence of a milestone.  And so it will be for all future milestones in your lives.  The great events before you—a new job, a promotion, a marriage, a birth of a child and even the death of a loved one—will be marked primarily by feelings, feelings of pride and happiness and sometimes by feelings of disappointment and sadness.  In such situations what moves us deeply and what sustains us is our sense of values, what truly matters, our human qualities that give us the ability to distinguish between what is good and what is bad, what is permanent and what is fleeting.

When you leave Berkeley, you will carry with you a sense of values based on Berkeley’s tacit dimension: the respect for truth based on evidence, the respect for broad knowledge that goes beyond scientific inquiry and most of all, the respect for nature, the importance of fun and humor and beauty and imagination, the conviction that life should be lived fully and that the pursuit for a better life is worthwhile not only for us but for men and women everywhere.

I congratulate you on the achievement that is recorded on your diplomas.  I congratulate your friends and families, especially your parents, whose immeasurable help has made this day possible.  And I congratulate all students, faculty, staff and alumni, and all who are in some way part of this great university, who have created here a unique atmosphere of learning, research and vitality, an atmosphere nurtured by that tacit dimension which affirms what is best in life, a dimension that you will take with you, a dimension that will enrich your lives.

Wherever you may go, our very best wishes go with you.

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