Remarks: Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution David Skorton at Chesapeake College

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Editor’s Note: Dr. David Skorton, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, gave the commencement address in Wye Mills yesterday.  We have reprinted his remarks in their entirety.
Thank you for that introduction, Dr. Viniar (Barbara). I’m not surprised that you’ve been such a successful and innovative leader here at Chesapeake College, given your earlier successes, including your excellent track record leading the Institute for Community College Development when we were colleagues at Cornell. Thanks for inviting me to be here today.

It’s my pleasure to be here on Maryland’s Eastern Shore for this auspicious occasion. Go Skipjacks!

And let me share one of many congratulations to the 2017 graduating class! Well done!

As I thought about what I wanted to share with you and your families and friends today, the state of the world brought to mind a particularly relevant phrase: “May you live in interesting times.”

Supposedly a Chinese curse, there’s no evidence it is actually a curse, nor that it’s Chinese. Perhaps we can think of it as an early example of fake news.

If you are predisposed to thinking of our interesting times as a curse, you would certainly have justification to do so. This graduating class will have to contend with the effects of climate change. You will face a job market which is likely to become increasingly uncertain because of the proliferation of automation. And we are all living through a hyper-partisan era in which our elected officials seem less likely than ever to seek common ground to find solutions.

Given the realities on the ground, it is all too easy to become discouraged if not cynical.

However, I think these really are interesting times in the truest sense of the word. They hold great promise for the future. We have a tremendous opportunity in front of us, if only each of us and all of us grab hold of it.

I believe that wholeheartedly, because when things have been at their bleakest—wars, depressions, existential crises—the American people have always found a way to persevere and thrive. And I believe that we can and will do this again.

Despite your achievement today, it is understandable that you may feel somewhat anxious about your future or even be unsure what you want to do next. But the fact that you’ve taken on this challenge shows you have the fortitude to be successful in life. It’s true whether you arrived fresh out of high school or came later to continue your education; whether your next destination is the workforce or a four-year school.

So, before you feel the urge to rush out and prove my optimism right—or at least to get out of these robes and celebrate somewhere—I’d like to tell you why I feel so good about our collective future.

As the Secretary of the Smithsonian, I get to see what smart, dedicated people do every day. Not just the 6500 employees who work for us, but also the 6300 volunteers who work at our 19 museums, nine research centers, and the National Zoo.

In many ways, museums, like institutions of higher learning, are going through a massive transformation. Much of that is due to the pervasive influence of technology, from interactivity to communication to outreach. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the explosion of connectivity brought about by the internet and the ubiquity of smartphones.

Author Clay Shirky has written extensively about the kinds of active and engaged networks of people that social media can enable. In a TED talk, he called our internet-connected age, “the largest increase in expressive capability in human history.”

I see a lot of that expressiveness from the Smithsonian’s digital volunteers. Outnumbering our on-site volunteers, this army of 8700 people around the world transcribes Smithsonian documents and data online. They are critically important to our mammoth effort to digitize much of our collection of 154 million objects. In this way, technology is helping us reach people globally with our collections. But it is also enabling the people who help us to do so.

The power of social media also becomes obvious when groups pool their money to accomplish goals that don’t receive enough funding through traditional means. This crowdfunding can take the form of philanthropy like the viral “ice bucket challenge” that raised 100 million dollars in a month for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis—ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. That money led directly to researchers identifying a gene associated with the disease, a breakthrough that could lead to new treatments.

The Smithsonian has also been the beneficiary of people’s collective generosity. The National Air and Space Museum had a successful Kickstarter campaign to preserve the spacesuit that Neil Armstrong wore during his historic Apollo 11 mission to the moon.

Technology is also increasingly giving hope to the underserved around the world. In developing nations, solar power, microloans, and clean water are lifelines to modernity.

Bringing technology to underserved populations has made huge differences in people’s ability to care for, educate, and feed their families. For instance, between 2011 and 2014, the explosion in mobile technology in developing nations led to a twenty percent drop in people who didn’t have bank accounts. This is a crucial development since, as World Bank

Group President Jim Yong Kim said in 2015, “Access to financial services can serve as a bridge out of poverty.”

The tools of the digital age also allow people from a large variety of backgrounds to engage in what has become known as “citizen science,” collecting data on a massive scale and giving the naturally curious the ability to experience first-hand the scientific method. One such program that our Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute takes part in is the

Global Amphibian BioBlitz. Its aim is to observe one of every amphibian in the world and create a database to study and protect them. So far, more than 16,000 amateur herpetologists have participated.

My outlook continues to be optimistic because so many of these technologies are being deployed by people for the benefit of their fellow human beings. Technology is a powerful tool, but ultimately it is only as important and effective as the people who wield it. The collective power of people to do good is so frequently underappreciated. Working toward a common goal, people can topple dictators, help cure disease, and change the course of history.

Making our individual voices heard is still one of the most powerful aspects of the United States. That truth is at the heart of our democracy. It is why people from around the world still aspire to the American Dream. I’ve had the good fortune to meet many of them at our National Museum of American History, where each year many people from distant shores come to be sworn in as new citizens in naturalization ceremonies. As someone whose father was a Russian immigrant and a naturalized citizen, the annual event is always a moving experience for me. I challenge anyone who meets these people and hears their stories of how they got here to question their patriotism. Seeing America through their eyes is to truly appreciate the ideals this nation embodies.

Immigration has always been important for the diversity it has brought to our nation. When people talk about diversity, they usually mean ethnicity, gender, or background. That is certainly important, for what is the American Dream but the notion that all have an equal opportunity to succeed? Thankfully, younger generations are already on board with a more diverse society.

But just as critical for the dynamism and innovation that drives the U.S. is a type of diversity that author Scott Page identifies in his book, “The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies.”

He addresses the value of “cognitive diversity”—the differences in how people think. Everyone sees the world a bit differently, everyone has different strengths, and these different perspectives facilitate problem-solving.

In fact, his research showed that the most diverse groups consistently outperformed the most talented groups.

And here is another reason for you to be optimistic today: education is still the greatest predictor of earnings in the workforce.

According to the Department of Education, college graduates with a bachelor’s degree typically earn 66 percent more than high school graduates. Over the course of a lifetime, that translates into a 1-million-dollar gap between a high school diploma and a bachelor’s degree. And in three years, approximately two-thirds of job openings will require postsecondary education or training, including associate’s degrees.

Colleges like Chesapeake play a critical role for their students, their communities and the country. That is why I have for decades admired and worked closely with colleagues in community colleges in Iowa, New York State, and beyond.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, associate’s degrees awarded increased from 634,000 to more than 1 million from the 2002 school year to the 2012 school year, a jump of 59%, more than the rate that bachelor’s degrees rose.

And an associate’s degree provides tremendous value. The College Board’s Annual Survey of Colleges found that the average 2016 tuition of a community college is about a third of a 4-year in-state public school. And it’s about a tenth of a 4-year private university.

Even more impressive is the value an associate’s degree can provide once you hit the workforce. According to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workplace, about 30% of Americans with associate’s degrees earn more than those with bachelor’s degrees.

It is why there is a push to make community colleges free of charge, as the state of Tennessee recently did for all adults without a college degree or certificate.

Another encouraging and quite important aspect of community colleges is their forward-looking devotion to a robust emphasis on the liberal arts. According to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Humanities Indicator Project, the share of humanities-focused associates’ degrees grew from 25.8 percent in 1987 to 38.9 percent in 2013.

The liberal arts are a big part of the curriculum and culture at Chesapeake College, which I think is so important today. You know that the arts and culture enrich individuals and communities intrinsically and practically. That understanding is reflected in the college’s vision, “to prepare students as independent learners who are intellectually competent, technologically proficient, and who share the responsibilities and privileges of global citizenship.”

Those are the very skills that the arts, humanities, and social sciences help provide. They improve our ability to think critically, analyze, synthesize, and communicate. They provide a historical and cultural perspective. All of which can benefit scientists, society, and employers, so I know that you are prepared for the next phases of your lives, no matter what comes your way.

This past Earth Day, I stood on a stage not too different from this, looking at a large gathering of scientists, environmentalists, thought leaders, and students not too different from you.

They were there as part of the Smithsonian’s first Earth Optimism Summit, a conference of people working on one of our most critical challenges, the environment.
If there is something that should be daunting, it’s the state of our planet. Increased floods and droughts, dwindling natural resources, increased opportunity for pandemic disease—all seem like intractable problems with no easy solutions.

But the people who work on these very real problems weren’t intimidated. They were engaged. They were energized. And, yes, they were optimistic. They knew that nearly every problem has a solution, that every challenge is also an opportunity.

As I looked over that crowd, I was encouraged and hopeful, just as I am standing here today.

So, before I leave you today, as a long-time educator I would like to give you one last assignment in a few parts.

First, imagine the world as you would like it to look in five years. Ten years. Then figure out how to get there.

Second, don’t let life’s inevitable challenges dissuade you from making a difference. Author Dr. Angela Duckworth has written about “grit,” the perseverance and passion toward achieving one’s goals, that her research shows is more essential to success than talent. You need to be possessed of that if you want to go as far as you can.

Third, be adaptable. Life is likely to throw several curveballs at you, for good and bad. Having agility of mind and spirit will allow you to roll with the punches and come out ahead.

Finally, and most importantly, don’t become cynical.

 

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