Sept. 12, 2001
“My topic today is significance. How do we think about the topic when one of the most significant single days in the history of this country happened just yesterday? Significant – because it was unprecedented, surprising, massive and evil. The day will transform the ways in which we think about ourselves, about our country and the world in which we live.
Worse things have happened before in the world – earthquakes that kill tens of thousands, ethnic massacres of hundreds of thousands in our own time, in Africa and elsewhere, and millions dying in concentration camps not that long ago. And there were so many buildings crumbling from the attacks by airplanes during the second World War that it became the expected thing. I was a young person then, but I still recall vividly the crumbling and the rubble and the wailing sirens of alarm, a sound that still sends shivers down the spine. You did not look then at an exploded building and call that significant.
But this is different. We knew it could happen – in movies it did with special effects, and in our imaginations, and we have been constantly reminded of the threat of terrorism and the horrible possible scenarios. But we did not expect it, not then, not here, not that way. We also know that everyone must one day die, but we do not expect that either -- please God not us, not here, not today. Somehow that would not be fair.
I am teaching a course this fall. It is called “Quantitative Reasoning.” There is a concept in statistics that we call statistical significance. The meaning of that concept is rather different from what you find in the dictionary. What it means is not that something is important – it may or may not be – but that something is so rare, uncommon, unusual, unlikely, conspicuous that we sit up and take notice. Not as unusual as what happened yesterday, but something that happens only a few times out of the hundreds of routine, random, haphazard things that surround us each day, something that happens only one percent or only five percent of the time.
I would suggest that this notion may be extended to provide a good perspective for life in general. I call it the five percent rule.
Let me explain the wisdom of that rule. Mark Twain once said “Life would be infinitely happier if we could only be born at the age of eighty and gradually approach eighteen.” All that fund of wisdom about life, all “the privileges and accumulations“ could then be put to much more effective use, when one had the energy, enthusiasm, and capacity for joy, with a big finale at eighteen.
Some of us will soon have a full dose of wisdom. It’s not a happy thought. It’s rather a problem.
But you are eighteen. Full of energy, enthusiasm, and capacity for joy. And that’s a real problem, but of the good variety.
So let me think with you a bit about the problem, and why you, and we, are here.
You will be here four years. These will years of freedom. For most of you this will be only period in life when you have a very unique set of responsibilities:
That has not been so before and will never be again. But now
So what will you do with this very major part of your life, this gift of freedom?
Have a good time? You should.
Make new friends? Of course.
Get a degree so you can get a good job? Make more money? You will.
Are these things, taken together, a sufficient reason and result of four years of college? For some, perhaps many, that may seem to be good enough. As you sit there and project your own four years, is it good enough for you?
And as you think about that, I would commend to you the five-percent rule of significance.
So as you consider the next four years, in what dimension will you be very special?
In what way will you be special, and not only here, but with your God-given talents as someone whom others, through life, will place in the five-percent category, at the good end of the scale?
Twenty-five years ago, in 1976, on the steps of the Mullen Library where we held graduations then, I heard the best graduation address on this campus. And I recall it today particularly in light of yesterday’s tragedy.
The graduation address was given by George Kennan --- one of the most influential statesmen of the quarter century during and after the Second World War, one-time ambassador to Moscow, a framer of foreign policy. Still in recent memory at the time he spoke were the turbulent sixties, the Vietnam war, the awakening of the environmental movement.
Kennan’s topic was the meaning of human freedom.
On the one hand, he portrayed the heavy costs of unfettered commercial enterprise, what we now like to call free market economy – polluted rivers, vulgar and inane television, cities littered with junk and waste. And on the other hand, he pointed out the folly of the belief, still very prevalent today, that unconstrained individual freedom permitting every kind of self-indulgence will somehow lead, as he said, to the “emergence of a new human being, endlessly good, endlessly creative, endlessly constructive… because liberated.” He drew attention to the flaws in human nature, which does not effortlessly embrace the good. And he called therefore for self-discipline and responsibility, both social and personal, because that is what genuine freedom requires. And with a phrase reminiscent of President Kennedy’s words Kennan said to the graduates -- ask yourselves not “what’s in it for me?” but “what is in me for it?”
To think that way takes an uncommon, unusual, rare frame of mind. It was a set of uncommon, rare, and unusually courageous, foresighted people who started this country more than two centuries ago. You know about them from your studies of American history. But read the recently acclaimed biography of John Adams and his wife Abigail, and their life-long love-affair with books and learning, and with each other. It is these types of person who give the proper meaning to the word “elite.”
There is nothing wrong with “elite.” That’s the five percent of the unusual, uncommon, rare, and therefore significant people, people who matter. That does not mean that the other 95 percent do not. Not at all. There are so many dimensions of human experience and human importance that there is plenty of room for everyone to choose one’s own way to be different, to make a difference, to matter, to excel. The world is the wonderful place it is precisely because it is a tapestry of very different threads of lives and talents, each lifting up the human spirit in its own way.
You are here to apply your brain. You are here to ponder the mysteries of human existence with the philosophers – and if you apply your brain in earnest, you will find many more questions than answers. But it is the questions, not the answers, that keep us intellectually engaged and honest, that drive our unquenchable desire to know.
You are here to select your own favorite things of beauty – poems, novels, paintings, music – and you will find much more junky stuff than good, and it will be up to you to sort it out.
And you are here not only to apply your brain to meeting the challenges of the forty syllabi you will have to satisfy, but to the very question of your own value, your own elite standing in the workplace of God.
On that scale, where only five percent really matter, at the good end of uncommon, unusual, rare, on the tip of that scale that is painted “elite” we are here to help you find that special dimension, that special place of your own, your own special way of being significant.”