125th Commencement Address at The White Mountain School

Remarks delivered by Dr. Catherine Houghton ‘60

Commencement Address at The White Mountain School, Saturday May 28, 2011
Dr. Catherine Houghton ‘60
Thank you Brian, for your kind introduction, and thank you to Head of School Tim Breen, the Trustees, faculty, alumni, parents, students, and especially the senior class for the special honor of addressing you on this important day.
When I was asked to speak, I took a closer look at White Mountain School. It’s all good, by the way. I went to this school several decades ago when it had a “saint” in the name and all the students were girls. St. Mary’s-in-the-Mountains and the White Mountain School were both about mountains! There’s always been a big emphasis on the outdoors, taking advantage of this spectacular location. The school always had a strong college preparatory program. And it continues to be associated with the Episcopal Church, with the Judeo-Christian values that underlie our Western way of thinking.
But today’s school reflects a secular United States in the 21st century. Today you might be asked your “faith tradition”, rather than your religion. The U.S. derives its strength from a population that is more and more diverse, in a society that is increasingly pluralistic. It’s a country founded on principles of tolerance and equality that is more open and tolerant today than ever before. WMS reflects that.

You are a much more diverse student body than 50 years ago. Roughly half and half, boys and girls, one out of five commuting from home, 60 of you from 16 states, and an amazing 40 of you from 13 countries on five continents. There used to be a course called Sacred Studies. You have Sustainability Studies, the modern equivalent! We had choir and music appreciation. You have WMS A Cappella and American Popular Music. We had Morning Prayer. You have Morning Meeting. In place of the Pendulum, you have websites and blogs. In place of First Aid, you are certified Wilderness First Responders.  It’s awesome what you do today.

Your courses in Environmental Science, Economic Development, Systems Analysis, Climate and Energy, and Bio-mimicry have turned you into 21st century environmental activists. You’ve managed a farm and a forest. You’ve tested water, and collected data. You’ve thought about nature’s design, and how to use technology to design solutions that imitate the principles found in nature. With the calculus and sciences you studied, and your analytical skills, you are ready — to ask the right questions, to work with others, and to apply what you learn.
Some of you will become engineers, biologists, and doctors. Others, journalists who can articulate a problem to a wider, thinking, public. Some of you will be teachers who can excite the curiosity of youngsters and help them understand their world. All of you have a powerful weapon in your ability to write clearly.  Kudos to your outstanding faculty, with their youth, academic rigor, and real-life experience. This is an amazing school. Amazing teachers. Amazing students.
Now, the world out there you are entering is one that would have been inconceivable to most people a few short years ago. Global growth is shifting away from Europe and North America to Asia and the developing countries. In Brazil, Russia, India, and China, a rising middle class will soon expect a standard of living that we in America have come to take for granted. Disruptive technologies are already transforming the individual and society.
The information age has produced change at a pace no single person can stay ahead of. Says futurist Ross Dawson: 

We will soon consume more media than there are hours in the day through multi-channeling. Billions of people will be media producers, streaming media with their own point of view from everywhere in the world. We are at the dawn of an incomprehensible onslaught of news and information, some of it useful, much of it useless.

We are going to see “culture jamming”, where everybody takes slices of this prose and that music, re-mixes it, and jams it up to express himself. Intellectual property laws won’t be able to keep pace. Every culture on the planet will reach everywhere. More and more, culture will be a global mash, changing by the minute.
From futurist Dave Evans, we learn that within the next two years, global wireless traffic will reach 400 petabytes (that’s 400 quadrillion bytes) a month. By 2015 – four years from now – we will be creating the equivalent of 92.5 million Libraries of Congress every year. In 50 years, 95 percent of what we will know will have been discovered in those last 50 years. If that still seems a long way off, consider this: Today, information is already doubling every 11 hours.   
Futurists predict a world where energy will be delivered wirelessly, and it will be free. Homes and buildings will be printable and self-constructing. You will design your clothes on your computer in the morning before you wear them, and change the design at whim to suit your mood. Magnetic levitation trains will travel in a vacuum up to 2000 mph, getting you from Boston to Denver in an hour. Billboards will individualize themselves to target you, the consumer. Your cell phone will tell you when you are in love! Micro algae will become the new clean biofuel. Within a generation, we will know whether there is extra-terrestrial life out there or not.

Medical advances will reverse irreversible injuries. Wars will be conducted by robots. A college education will be open source and free.    

Someday, you will be able to travel faster than light. You will be able to exist in multiple universes and dimensions at one time. You will transcend your abilities with technologies that augment your senses and memory, and that expand on reality itself. You will put on a coat to become invisible! You will be able to encode yourself to live in a computer’s memory. And your dog or cat will live forever.
Right now, in 2011, we are seeing seismic changes in the global political landscape, particularly in North Africa and the Mideast. In the last five months young people have defied tear gas and bullets to fight authoritarian regimes for freedoms that are a given for us – the freedom to be different, to speak out, to be heard, to elect a representative government. This growing drive for freedom and dignity and economic opportunity could utterly transform civil society in these countries, unleashing the talents and energies of an entire generation. You will be part of that. Already today, if you go to Egypt, you will find that Egyptians have no time for reactionary movements; they are busy figuring out what they want their nation to be. They are designing their own country.

At the same time, we are looking at a world that is not well-ordered anymore. It is fragmented, multi-ethnic, and asymmetric, and the changes are coming so fast they can scarcely be managed by the multilateral organizations charged with overseeing them. Governments, working together or alone, need to put policies in place that will reduce the number of crises. If too much is happening all at once, they can’t plan for the long term; they can only react.
How does this concern me, you ask? Well, conflict always starts with individuals, and so do negotiation and conciliation. Here at the school, you listened, processed information, gave your understanding of a problem, heard others out, and maybe adapted your viewpoint. Or perhaps you stood your ground, and explained your position. Whether you knew it or not, these are the tools of diplomacy. Your skills as mediators and leaders will be needed out there in the world you are entering.

Some of you may end up working in the poorest areas of the world. There, as you already know from your community outreach, it is education that makes the difference — between a life that will be circumscribed, with few possibilities, and a life in which there will be no arbitrary limits on opportunity.

Let’s look at two women. Bimla Kumari Lama was a bright little girl born in 1943 in a remote village in northern Nepal. A primary school wasn’t built in the region until years later, after Bimla was grown. She had family duties and no time or money to learn how to read, write, or do arithmetic. Yet she was a natural manager. Not having learned to write, she had a formidable memory. During the winter, she ran a small inn along a main trail in the hilly midlands of Nepal. (There were no roads or cars.) In the summer, she planted and harvested village fields in the north. When there were clan festivals she was the one who took charge of these complex events. But her illiteracy meant she could never move beyond subsistence living in her valley to become a teacher, doctor, vet, social worker, or airline pilot, in the capital city or beyond Nepal. She was trapped in a life with no horizons, no richness of thought or experience, and no future. 
Now, contrast Bimla with Susila Devi Thamang, a young woman who also came from an impoverished area of Nepal but had a chance to go to primary school. She got good grades, went to middle school and high school, and passed her SLC exam on the first try with high marks. From there she went on to get a B.Sc. and to study veterinary medicine and earn the degree. Today she is the leading vet in a border town in western Nepal, taking care of animals that are critical to the local economy, and teaching in the local college. She is also helping little girls pay their school fees, get an education, and avoid the pervasive trafficking of young girls to Indian brothels. Thanks to Susila, these girls are escaping the cycle of poverty and oppression that women have traditionally been locked into. For Susila, education made the difference.

Keep Bimla and Susila in mind as you travel the world and come across opportunities to make a difference yourselves. You can pay this valuable White Mountain education forward by making education happen for others.
Commencement speakers are supposed to give advice (although the graduating seniors don’t have to listen).  Here are a few tips on navigating the universe:
– Cultivate an active frame of mind. Be selective.
– Look outward. Think outward.
– Be really good at something. Our society values expertise. 
– Get out of your own comfort zone and into a less comfortable place where everybody is different from you. You need the full picture to make good decisions.    
– Learn a hard language and become fluent in it. I suggest Arabic or Chinese. The world looks different through the prism of another language. You will need this fluency if you work overseas.
– If you’re good at math and curious like a scientist, get a degree in science or engineering. We need more scientists and engineers, and we don’t want to get them all from India and China.
– If you are an artist or a poet, the world needs you, too. You can find your place in teaching, digital media, or even business. The American composer Charles Ives sold insurance by day and composed symphonies at night.
– Do use the social networking tools we have — Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter — to organize people and connect with them. But beware of the erosion of privacy. You can’t undo what you’ve done on the Internet. Once it’s out there, you can’t airbrush it away.
– Learn from your “never again” experiences. Every pilot has a few of those. You got into a pickle, maybe because of deteriorating weather or a radio failure or the rapid onset of darkness, and you had to use your wits to get out of it. You landed your plane safely. And you said “Never again!” Experience is a great teacher. Pilots will tell you that good judgment comes from experience. And experience comes from using bad judgment.

– Try to get along with everybody. This little tip will give you a rewarding, worthwhile, joyful life.  

– Persist. Set your goal and stick with it. If you’re interrupted, get back on track. How did the CIA get Osama bin Laden? It took ten years, and the trail sometimes dried up. But they kept at it.

– Those of you who came to America from another country might have noticed that Americans are always saying, as a kind of sign-off:  “Have fun!” It’s not that we’re superficial. We can be “deep”. But we are a people who like to have fun. Who invented Disneyland, anyway? Or theme parks, or video games?  Do try to have fun, whatever you’re doing. 

– Stay as informed as you can be. You need to know a lot about what is going on. Be choosy about your sources. Do you want to listen to talk radio, or NPR? Your choice.

– Don’t be afraid to be different. You are unique, and you can be an original. You can even be a revolutionary without harming others.

 So — go save the world.  And – since this is America – have fun doing it!  Thank you.    

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