By Leo Melamed
June 12, 2005
have arrived at a signal turning point in your life’s
journey. A milestone you have lost sleep over, sweated for,
prayed for—and in some cases beat all the odds.
big! How big? Well, not to get overly metaphysical, it is
a moment that more than anything symbolizes the difference
between mankind and our counterparts in the animal kingdom.
Other animals must learn everything anew from birth; humans
have the capacity to record what they have learned and pass
other words, today’s commencement exercises, in a very
real sense, symbolize the moment at which the cumulative
knowledge of all preceding human generations has been passed
on to you. That’s scary big.
you think about it in this fashion, graduation is like a
giant game of tag. Except now you are it. And you
will remain it until you pass it on to the next generation.
there is this one little hitch in the knowledge game of tag
that I better tell you about. You cannot simply pass on the
knowledge you received. We would still be using stone tools
if that were the case. Before you can tag the next generation,
you are required to give them more than you received.
This may be the reason that these are called commencement exercises.
They represents the beginning of your race in Knowledge Tag.
Until then you remain it.
good news is that it is a team effort. You are not alone.
To win in Knowledge Tag, you have every member of your graduating
class on your team pulling in the same direction. More than
that, every member of every graduating class. More
than that, every member of your generation.
bad news is that it is a team effort. Don’t look around
you now, but some members of your generation will do diddley
squat. That means the burden on each of you is to pick up
their slack. And there is more bad news: You are late
in the game. It would be a cinch if you were starting
from scratch; if no one had yet invented, say, fire, or the
wheel. But no such luck.
mean, you will get no credit for discovering what Aristotle
already taught us, or what Galileo observed, or Darwin defined,
or Newton uncovered, or the zillion ways Einstein enlightened
you will also not be given credit for those things in life
which are the hallmark of today’s civilization. According
to Dave Barry, beer is the greatest invention in history—but
beer has been around since 6000 B.C. By the way, Barry
concedes, the wheel was a fine invention too, but as he points
out, “the wheel does not go nearly as well with pizza.” Anyway,
we’ve had soap since the time of the Phoenicians, dentures
since 700 B.C., and the button about the same time—although
I question that fact since there is no record of a buttonhole
until the thirteenth century.
I am trying to say: You are very late in this game.
Good old Conrad Gesner gave us a pencil way back in 1565, shoelaces
have been around since 1790, we have had toilet paper since
1857, chewing gum since 1870, and by the way, the movie There's Something
About Mary would never have been made if the zipper hadn’t
been invented back 1893. And if you are thinking of a two-wheeler,
forget about it, the bicycle is 200 years old. Even foodstuff
like the potato chips or Jell-O are over 100 years old.
I must tell you that the century we just left took a lot of
stuff off the table. I mean, some nifty stuff like the teddy
bear, born in 1902, and crayons the very next year, and cellophane
in 1911. Then 1913 gave us two blockbusters: the crossword
puzzle and the brassiere—though I fail to see the connection.
This led directly to the discovery of lipstick in 1915, Kleenex
in 1924, and the really big one: Scotch tape, in 1930.
even though your generation was close to some really cool stuff—unlike
in Horseshoes, in Knowledge Tag, close doesn’t count.
I know you represent the College of Commerce and the Kellstadt
Graduate School of Business, but if you’re into transportation,
too late, Carl Magee unveiled the parking meter in 1932. Or
if your calling is real estate, Charles Darrow beat you by
inventing Monopoly in 1934. If fashion is your fancy, you are
also very late, the bikini was exposed in 1946, which led directly
to disposable diapers four years later. If sports is your pleasure, fuhgeddaboudit, Astro
Turf was created in 1965. If its information technology, sorry,
Post-it notes appeared in the mid-1970s. Oh yes, if finance
is your bag, sorry again, some immigrant kid invented financial
futures back in 1972. And if your specialty is human relations,
I hate to break it to you, but you missed out on Prozac and
also missed all the easy stuff like the alphabet, the airplane,
air conditioning, the atomic bomb, the combustion engine, the
credit card, gun powder, the lightbulb, the locomotive, the
personal computer, the radio, the reaper, the steamboat, the
telephone, television, and we all know that Al Gore beat everyone
to the invention of the Internet.
I do have some good news. For one thing, the Commissioner of
U.S. Patents, Charles H. Duell, was just a wee bit off the
mark when in 1899 he declared that “everything
that can be invented has been invented.” Ever say something
really, really stupid?
most important, you are in America.
to the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s classification
of the 321 world’s great ideas and inventions, better
than 50 percent were conceived in the U.S. In other words,
while Americans may be losing jobs in manufacturing, and
may be outsourcing services to foreign domiciles, we remain
number one in ideas, inventions, and innovations. Bet that
really frosts the French. In other words, we Americans are
way ahead in Knowledge Tag. And that is your edge.
that any other nation on this globe, Americans are free to
think, to experiment, to innovate. It is no accident. In
his book Free to Choose, Milton Friedman asserts that
the story of the United States is a story of two interdependent
miracles: an economic miracle and a political miracle. Each
miracle resulted from a separate set of revolutionary ideas—both
sets of ideas, by a curious coincidence, were formulated
in the same year, 1776.
set of ideas was embodied in Adam Smith’s The Wealth
of Nations, which established that an economic system
could succeed only in an environment which allowed the freedom
of individuals to pursue their own objectives. The second
set of ideas, drafted by Thomas Jefferson, was embodied in
the Declaration of Independence. It proclaimed the entitlement
of some self-evident truths among which are life, liberty,
and the pursuit of happiness.
the two centuries following their introduction, when these
two ideals were applied to a people with an immigrant ancestry,
of a multicultural heritage, and a multiracial composition,
they produced an unimaginable result. They became a lightning
rod for ideas. They created a crucible for innovation. They
combined to become the decisive driver of progress in science,
technology, and economic development. Is not this diversity
the essence of DePaul University as well? Our fundamental
ideals, our way of life, our pluralistic society—one
of a kind on the face of the Earth and unique to the history
of mankind—produces an environment that invites thought.
It is the winning formula in Knowledge Tag.
you the lucky ones. To be here in this country, at the start
of a new century, at the start of a new millennium, and commencing
the knowledge game of tag.
and gentlemen, start your engines.
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