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Perspectives

  • Date: 12/18/1999
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: UA Commencement (a.m.), E. J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
  • 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 arts and sciences, fine and applied arts, nursing, and community service and technology.

    With no small measure of effort and self-discipline, each of you has 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.

    And, you have learned what a difference a few credit hours can make.

    Just think . . . If you still had three more credits to complete, you would not graduate until the next century, the next millennium. And that is a sobering perspective!

    It is commonly understood that each of us sees things differently -- that each of us has a different point of view. At the same time, it is uncommon for any of us to reflect on the limitations that our perspectives impose on how we see things.

    Indeed, our perspectives are sometimes like blinders: They restrict our field of vision, allowing us to see only selected aspects of our environment and, simultaneously, keeping us from seeing other things that may be very close to us.

    This idea, which I call the "strangeness of the familiar," is something we have all experienced.

    Think about it. As the driver of a car, you know the streets you use to get home or to work. But if you ride as a passenger down those same streets, or if you walk, you suddenly see things you never saw when you were the driver. It is, indeed, as if you are seeing things for the first time.

    A similar idea is beautifully described by O.B. Hardison, Jr. in his book "Disappearing through the Skylight: Culture and Technology in the Twentieth Century" (1989).

    He talks about how we tend to take established technologies for granted, and in doing so, we actually lose sight of them.

    "If an innovation is basic," Hardison writes, "simply because it is so, a generation after it has been introduced, it becomes part of the world as given - part of the shape of consciousness, you might say, rather than the content of consciousness." (p. xii)

    Even though new technology is usually seen as intrusive and sometimes even threatening - once it has been accepted, the technology recedes into background.

    For example, we only take notice of electricity, the telephone, or any of a number of relatively recent innovations when they break or malfunction!

    Hardison tells us that the lack of consciousness of the familiar actually changes our culture -- making those earlier innovations "transparent to thought," rather than part of our daily considerations.

    In essence, he says, "It is as though progress were making the real world invisible." And this is what he means by his title, "Disappearing through the Skylight."

    It seems to me that this effect of disappearing through the skylight applies not only to technologies that have permeated our civilization, but also to all of those people and things that are closest to home.

    Because it seems that those things that are closest to home are the least noticed . . . and the least respected, understood, celebrated, cherished, safeguarded . . . And that is precisely what I mean by the strangeness of the familiar.

    These same principles apply to your education.

    Your intellect and curiosity have been repeatedly stimulated with knowledge that was new to you. For four years - or five or six or has it been more? . . . - your education has been your focus, your pursuit; and, now, it is just a part of you.

    But do notice that something else is now also a part of you, because - in addition to the mathematics and sciences and language and other subjects you learned here - you had one lesson offered over and over again. And that was the lesson on learning how-to-learn.

    The University of Akron has enabled you to learn how to make additional learning part of you . . . and, thereby, how to pursue new opportunities more successfully.

    In other words, your education has become your personal infrastructure for success in a knowledge economy. It has become that which makes you effective.

    And because of that, you will be an active participant in shaping the infrastructure of the new millennium.

    Perhaps you puzzle at that strange sounding word, "infrastructure," so let me explain.

    If you open your watch, you find the "stuff" that keeps time. The gears and sprockets -- or the microchips -- of a watch make up the infrastructure of a time keeping system.

    Infrastructure, in other words, refers to those things that enable a particular system to accomplish its purpose.

    For example, the infrastructure in a transportation system includes the roads, vehicles, fueling stations, repair garages and all of those other things that keep transportation moving.

    Thus, when I say that in a knowledge economy your education is infrastructure, I mean for you to understand that education is the "stuff" that enables you to function effectively and productively.

    Your education is infrastructure, because you have become knowledgeable individuals who can apply analytical and problem solving skills to shape our industries and our societies.

    Your education is infrastructure, because through your continued learning, you will create the ideas and technologies that shape the industries of the future.

    Your education is infrastructure because it will enable you to better yourself and our society.

    And lest you think that this is nothing more than academic rhetoric, let me cite just a few examples to prove my point:

    It was learning that enabled the agricultural end industrial revolutions at the turn of the last century. And during World War II, learning that was initially vital to the Allied war effort laid the groundwork for technological leaps in medicine, aviation, energy, electronics -- developments which today affect virtually every realm of our human endeavors.

    And with learning to develop transistors, the era of microelectronics began and sowed the first seeds of the Silicon Valley; and from such modest beginnings, we are now immersed in the information age.

    The learning we did related to the Space Race not only resulted in Americans walking on the moon, . . . but also gave rise to the Space Industry, and enabled new technologies in satellite communications, computer science, robotics and miniaturization.

    And as recently as 1970, a single discovery in molecular biology initiated the new industry of biotechnology, an industry from which we are now seeing dramatic advances in medical science and the introduction of effective new technologies such as the production of human insulin by factories of microorganisms.

    These are just a few examples of education as infrastructure. Each effectively demonstrates that new knowledge builds new capacities just as surely as materials build new structures . . .

    . . . And now, as you face the new millennium, keep in mind that you carry within you the capacity to use your education to shape the infrastructure of the future.

    As the last graduating class of the 1900s, keep in mind that what you yourself have become, your infrastructure, will be the genesis of yet unknown technologies, industries, and capabilities in the new millennium.

    For just as surely as the education that the Wright brothers possessed at the turn of the last century enabled human flight and the emergence of aviation, so, too, will the learning that you now take forth from this University enable the next great transformations of the new century.

    As long as you continue to learn, to enhance your own infrastructure -- you will continue to create a positive future well into the next century.

    Learning is more than something you do while you are in school; it is a practical and fulfilling and rewarding approach to life . . .

    . . . one that will challenge and expand your perspectives, enrich your life, and enable you to greet change as opportunity.

    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 Fall 1999 graduates, together with your family and friends who have helped make your success possible.

    Congratulations!

     

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