Professor of Economics
9:30 a.m. Sunday, May 20, 2007
Thank you. Well, I guess that's right. This is not the real world - more on that later.
My wife, Tinker Powell, and I have been teaching at Grinnell for 17 years, and we've gone to many graduation ceremonies. This is the first time we've been to one as the parents of a Grinnell graduating senior, and that's incredibly exciting. So, it's a whole special event that I know you're feeling.
I haven't done this in 15 years, so I was wondering, what is my job here today? And I think, as Brenda said, my job is to give you some final professorial advice before you go into the real world - maybe something that will help you in the real world. But this raises a profound and disturbing question to me, which is: what the hell do I really know about the real world? I entered school when Eisenhower was president, and as you can see, I haven't really left. I'm exaggerating. I spent a year working in the 80s in Washington D.C. How many of you want to nominate Washington D.C. as a part of the real world?
So, I'll talk about school. That's something I know about. There was an important lesson that I learned on the first day of school. I was going to kindergarten. It was probably the September of '58 or '59. It was '58. I was with my mother and - by the way, my mother is here and can confirm this story - I was with my mother and I was nervous, you know how a kid is in kindergarten. But the principal came up and she said, "Who's this?" My mother said, "This is Mark." And [the principal] said, "Here Mark, have a ball." And she bounced me this big rubber ball, the kind that you play kickball with, and I was incredibly excited. I was transformed. This fantastic thing had happened to me; I felt better about school. My mother, after the principal left, she leaned over and said, "That ball isn't really yours. You can't take that home." And I thought, "My God, you can't trust these people." Five minutes into school, I learned that lesson.
So, that's the theme of this talk: questioning authority - not believing what people tell you in school. I will say that we have that pretty well worked out at Grinnell. That's actually a theme of liberal arts education: critical thinking. Don't believe everything you are told just because you are told it. And I think the good news is that Grinnell students have that questioning authority thing down really well. That is not something you have to worry about. I had a colleague who came here to teach for a year. She was at Florida State, which is a big research state university with very large classes, and she was amazed and very pleasantly surprised that Grinnell students are so engaged and they are willing to talk about everything. They would come up after class and ask her about the material. And she was - maybe less pleasantly - surprised that a student came up once and tried to advise her about how she should teach the class. You know, this is something we have. By the way, this is not our fault. Think about it; suppose we survey the parents here and said, "What was the greatest challenge you faced in raising your Grinnell student?" How many people would say, "Well, you know, we could never really get her to challenge authority. No matter what we did, we'd run into this blind obedience"?
I wonder what it would be like to be at a different place. About five years after I started teaching here, I went to a conference at West Point. And I started thinking, I wonder what it would be like to teach at West Point. Since, I've had this fantasy about - and I know it's not really like this - but in my mind, I'm having a conversation with a student in my office and I say, "You will believe in free trade!" and student says, "Sir, yes sir!"
"I can't hear you." "Sir, yes sir!"
It's not like that here. In the case of my own daughter, Mary Powell, the match between her and Grinnell was obvious very, very early in her life. When she was a little girl, she would say things like,
"What's the moon made of?"
I said, "Oh, I don't know, rocks and minerals pretty much like the earth."
And she'd say, "No, that's wrong."
We had this conversation about alligators.
She said, "Do alligators live in Iowa?"
I said, "No, Iowa is too cold for alligators."
She said, "Oh yeah, they do. They live indoors."
It was almost as if questioning authority was the whole point of the exercise.
I need to say something now. I need to pause here and do an aside. It seems unkind to be here in this public forum and be embarrassing your child, but you need to realize that my daughter is actually the next speaker. Which means that if I do not say anything to embarrass her now, she can embarrass me and I have no recourse whatsoever. This is an application of what social scientists call "game theory." And I'm adopting a what's called a mini-max strategy: I'm assuming that she's going to embarrass me, and I'm launching the first strike.
Well, maybe the slightly more serious part of this is that questioning authority is the easy part of the intellectual exercise of living. What's a great deal harder, it seems to me is questioning yourself. In a country like this - it is not true for everybody - but in a country like this, it is much safer to challenge the thinking of the president than to challenge your own thinking because there's a lot more at stake when you're wrong than when the president's wrong, at least for you personally. If you challenge your own views, you might have to admit that something you have thought for a very long time is not true; it's wrong. And you know, this is not a culture that celebrates being wrong. It's certainly not a culture that celebrates admitting you're wrong, which is kind of a shame because there's something kind of noble about being wrong, and something especially courageous about admitting it. It seems to me in the last few years we had seen what happens when a country or leadership of a country becomes a victim of its own self-assurance and how dangerous that turns out to be. It's odd because we have seen, in the world, how dangerous it is when self-assurance runs amuck. What kind of iron-clad, self-confidence does it take to crash an airplane into a building full of people you've never met? How must the bubble of self-assurance be so air-tight that it doesn't even admit a whiff of the horror that you're about to commit? That's scary when we see it in other people. So, maybe you could be vigilant about this yourself .
And you might say "Alright professor, thank you. Perhaps you can give us some advice and tips about you in your own life are always constantly looking for areas in which you are wrong and how to admit it yourself." I would do that if I felt it were necessary in my life. Ok, this thing I'm telling you to do, I'm not good at it, alright? I'm extremely bad at it. There are people in this very room, people on this platform who can tell you how hard it is for me to admit that I'm wrong. I would advise those people not to tell you that if they want a graduation present. So maybe that's the story. There are many things in life that are much harder to do as you get older, many things in life. And admitting that you're wrong is one of them. So, my excuse is that this is about you. I want you to think about wrongness. It's too late for me. Even though I try to do it.
Now, if I were a graduating senior, I would say "Why is he lecturing me about self-assurance? I have a job in Chicago that I will start in two weeks that I don't know anything about it. I'm not self-assured. I'm a cathedral of insecurity. I'm a basket case, worrying about my future." Well, okay. Good for you. You're in a position where you know what you don't know, or at least you know that you don't know something important. How much better would the world be if more people were in that frame of mind? So, maybe we should cherish that. Don't think of it as fear. Think of it as open-mindedness. Flexibility. You can use that phrase. People will say, "So how's you're new job going?" Say, "I'm doing pretty flexible." So, if you can question not only authority but your own self, I think maybe your life might be harder but the world might a better place. And I think self-doubt is a very scary place to live, but in the long run it may be a lot safer.
The final thing I want to say is that I'm luckier than most parents in this room, my wife and I are, because when kids go out for college, they just don't come back, not really in the same way. We're lucky that Mary gave us four more years here than what we can normally expect. And those four years were the most happy years for me professionally that I've ever had and probably ever will have, and I want to thank my daughter, Mary, for giving them to me. Thank you.