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Commencement Addresses

Sagan's Rules Of Life

  • Date: 05/16/1999
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: UA Commencement (p.m.)
  • Ladies and gentlemen, members of the class of 1999, we continue today an ancient tradition of assembling in formal convocation to recognize those who have reached significant milestones on the road to knowledge and accomplishment.

    And so we are gathered for this commencement together with graduates in the arenas of nursing, arts and sciences, and community service and technology.

    With no small measure of effort and self-discipline, you have learned to apply critical thinking and to use new information and new technologies, and, along the way, you have discovered that learning is a continuous process.

    So, what's next?

    I propose that you reflect on some rules of life offered by the renowned astronomer, planetary scientist, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Dr. Carl Sagan.

    In bestowing its highest award -- the Public Welfare Medal -- the National Academy of Science's proclamation read, in part,

    "No one has ever succeeded in conveying the wonder, excitement and joy of science as widely as Carl Sagan, and few as well. His ability to capture the imagination of millions and to explain difficult concepts in understandable terms is a magnificent achievement."

    Carl Sagan died in 1996, having played a leading role in the Mariner, Viking, and Voyager spacecraft expeditions.

    And before his death, he had also published his "rules of life" . . .

    Those of you who may have seen Carl Sagan's 13-part "Cosmos" series on public television might expect that his rules might well number in the "Billions and Billions". However, there are only 12.

    And here they are.

    First -- "Be a good 'baloney' detector".


    We are living in the midst of an information explosion. New knowledge is growing exponentially. And -- as if that were not enough -- we are inundated with opinion, half-truths and hype from innumerable other sources -- radio, television, newspapers, magazines, and now, the worldwide Web...

    America's favorite pastime seems to be that of giving one's opinion...

    But now, more than ever, it is important to be able to separate fact from myth, knowledge from opinion. And your college education has given you the tools with which to think independently and critically.

    The truth IS out there. Find it! Don't fall for the baloney!

    Second -- Pick something difficult and learn it well.

    Of course, you can understand why I might think that Dr. Sagan was suggesting that all of you go on for additional graduate education at The University of Akron!

    As graduates, you have already begun to use Dr. Sagan's advice. Indeed, you have gained knowledge and varying levels of expertise and proficiency in the areas of academic interest you have pursued. But remember, your learning has only just begun. Change is a constant. Knowledge is not static. Learning is ongoing.

    Third -- Don't be afraid to ask dumb questions.

    Far worse than not knowing something is not knowing what you don't know. One year from now, even one month from now, I bet some of you won't know the answers to many of the questions on your last final exams.

    A far more important skill than having the right answers is being able to frame the right questions to get the information you need. Consider a simple example.

    Instead of asking, "What is the meaning of life," why not consider asking yourself the following question: "How do I make my life meaningful?"

    How you frame the question is often the key to problem solving.

    Be brave: ask questions. You may evoke a smile or two along the way, but that's a good thing, right?

    ...Especially if you gain knowledge and understanding in the process.

    Fourth -- Engage in lifelong learning activities and discuss them with others.

    In this time of accelerating change and increasing complexity, intellectual capital is at a premium. Today's global economy is a knowledge economy in which those who cannot learn, adapt, and think critically and creatively will be left behind.

    Thus, to be leaders and to participate effectively in today's economy, you must commit yourself to lifelong learning.

    Fifth -- LISTEN

    You might just learn something in the process.

    Sixth -- Realize everyone makes mistakes. Be open to criticism and tolerant of others' errors.

    In 1981, Bill Gates -- the founder and head of Microsoft -- said, and I quote, "640 kilobytes (of computer memory) ought to be enough for anybody."

    Yet the 1998 version of the Microsoft Windows operating system alone requires 24-thousand kilobytes of computer memory! And that is just for starters.

    Obviously, Mr. Gates knew enough to learn from his mistake.

    Trial and error is part of science. And it is part of human learning, for each of us and for those with whom we live and work everyday.

    Seventh -- Know the planet and take care of it.

    In our world there exists a complex web of inter- relatedness amongst living systems. For example, we continue to read articles and hear concerns about the thinning of the ozone and global warming.

    While my wife, Theresa, and I were living in Alaska, we were privileged to participate in work being done in Greenland on polar ice cores drilled through 10,000 feet of ice and representing a climatic record going back 200,000 years.

    Much like annual growth rings of trees, the successive layers of ice have given us clues about past climates and suggest that rapid and dramatic changes in the world's temperatures could once again occur, perhaps due to the burning of fossil fuels.

    Thus, sustainable economic development hinges upon your knowledge of the inter- relatedness of the earth's systems.

    Eighth -- Don't spend too much time watching television.

    While television certainly has its entertaining and informative aspects, it is clear that we -- as a society -- give it too high a priority and devote too much time to it.

    Life is not a spectator sport. We need to interact with each other in order to expand our knowledge and work together for creative problem solving.

    Ninth -- Learn about your own culture, and learn about other cultures. Value them all.


    Tenth -- Search for the truth.

    The tools of scientific inqhave entered an era of unprecedented global economic activity in which production and distribution of goods and services is worldwide. Cultural illiteracy exacts a high price economically as well as diplomatically. There are a myriad of embarrassing anecdotes related to foreign language and cultural illiteracy. Business practices and negotiation styles vary across cultures. If for no other reason than economics, we can't afford to not know about other cultures.

    Eleventh -- Be active in the democratic process.

    Sound public policy requires broad public understanding and involvement. Your education here at The University of Akron enables you to participate effectively in the democratic process by giving you the tools to analyze, discuss and develop intelligent choices.

    Don't leave issues of public importance to be resolved by those less well informed than you.

    Eleveuiry that you have studied will help you.

    As Carl Sagan wrote:

    "Science is far from a perfect instrument of knowledge. It's just the best we have.

    Science and rational analysis are self-correcting . . . an ever-expanding and closer and closer approximation of the truth.

    Twelfth -- Be compassionate. Don't live solely for yourself.

    Kindness is invaluable.

    Appreciate the connectedness, the inter- relatedness of individuals and all living systems.

    Certainly, your participation and involvement with The University of Akron has enhanced your alma mater. And, I hope that in some measure, we have done the same for you.

    On behalf of the Trustees, the faculty, the staff and administration, your fellow students and The University of Akron family everywhere -- I salute you, the Spring 1999 graduates, together with your family and friends who have helped make your success possible.


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