All the Little Things We Know
Thank you, Dean Bartanen. It is a great privilege to speak and share this joy with all of you and especially with my mom, for whom this day can hopefully be a good birthday present.
More than half a century ago the great political philosopher and historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin revived the distinction between two kinds of people: those that know one big thing, hedgehogs, and those that know many little things, foxes. Though I have no doubt that many, if not most of you specialized in a particular discipline, the distinctiveness of the UPS experience is the great variety of knowledge and talents that one could acquire in their time here. I believe that this variety trains us to be foxes, with all the benefits that being a fox can bring.
But before we explore our own potential, I would like you all to think about how you became foxes in the first place. No doubt you have taken many courses in your major or minor, hopefully you enjoyed most of those. But then there are those pesky “cores.” Pesky, because we often didn’t want to take them. And yet, as we soon learned from our professors in those courses, this feared knowledge was actually essential if one wants to have a more complete portrait of the world.
Finally, there was always that “unusual” class. For me it was History and Practice of Ancient Astronomy. When I first began it I thought: “why would I ever need to know how to use an astrolabe?” As time went by, I realized that the class was a treasure. Not only did I learn about ancient culture, and the philosophy and history of science, but I also discovered that the system we high-and-mighty modern people use to keep time is fundamentally the same method ancient Babylonian scribes invented thousands of years ago. Now the point of all this is that UPS imbues us with all kinds of important wide-ranging information, despite the fact that we as students are sometimes hesitant to seek knowledge outside our comfort zone. Then, when you consider that an education here also involves participation in sports and clubs, well, that is the essence of variety. It is how foxes are born.
The big question is: “how do all of these discrepant experiences and tidbits of information help us in our efforts to build a life, form a career, or change the world?” Well, a person armed with a liberal arts education is trained to be an innovator, constantly mixing thoughts and ideas while refusing to be pinned down into a single category.
This innovator is not necessarily the person who discovers the next “miracle drug,” or founds some cutting-edge business, though he could. To me, an innovator is merely a person with fresh ideas. As for the innovation, there are many spheres in which it could be applied.
Some students will emerge as academics or scientists who seamlessly weave together strands of knowledge to conceive original theories and new techniques. In recent years the insights of economists has been appropriated by several other social sciences, but the process of integration does not have to stop there. A couple of years ago, a friend and I were discussing the merits of extending Western-style human rights to the rest of the world. Having been trained in biology, my friend noted that promoting human rights is analogous to introducing new species to a foreign environment. A long debate followed but whether he was right or wrong doesn’t really matter. What’s important is that the idea emerged in the first place. Needless to say, many theories will be proven wrong but innovation is a process of trial and error.
Organizations and political establishments need innovators too. Here innovation is really all about creative and effective leadership. Once again, UPS students fit the bill because our complex student identities will make imaginative leadership much easier. Specifically, it is our association with different students groups, majors, clubs, and events that has filled us with a comprehensive knowledge of how to appeal to diverse collectives and how to direct them more successfully. In the Machiavellian sense, being a fox can help a politician outwit and take advantage of people. In the sense I am referring to, being a fox is less morally questionable. In fact, knowing many little things and not just one big thing is what can separate the wise and respectable politician (if there is such a thing) from one driven just by ideology.
At this point, let me also suggest that a fox can become a hedgehog. Hopefully this is good news to those of you who dream of doing that one big thing. A great aspect of our experience here is that it erects a wide foundation upon which we can build and reach even further. Just as a pyramid is more likely to withstand the ages than a really tall column, a big idea that has its roots and support in a wide base of knowledge is always stronger than some lofty but narrow construct. Finally, we will always have the opportunity to focus on some particular goal, but the hedgehogs won’t be able to go back and find that foundation that they lack.
Now I don’t want to leave you with the impression that everyone has to become a great leader, scientist, or revolutionary. The best part about being a fox is that you can use all those morsels of information to solve your own problems and satisfy your personal desires. Getting a job, reading the news, making new friends or even finding your own fox. Life at UPS has prepared us for all of these things. The key is whether we want to act on what we have learned. Each one of us has a slightly contrasting vision of our own responsibility, but no matter what it is you will now have the chance to pursue it in a way that only a UPS student can. Milk that diversity of experiences for what it’s worth and I think you will find that you have bettered your life and lives of countless others.