Graduates, congratulations! It’s been an eventful and somewhat staggering journey to this day … a journey that has led you to this most joyful and celebratory moment. Cherish this moment with all your hearts as you thank your families, your friends, your teachers, and your classmates for being with you and standing by you, both at Dartmouth and throughout your lives.
Today, I am supposed to give you that one nugget of wisdom that will unlock answers to life’s questions. But instead, I’m going to go in a different direction and focus on the questions. After all, it was the great 18th century French philosopher Voltaire who advised us to “judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.”
I trust that many of you spent the last week looking back at your four years at Dartmouth wondering how they could have possibly gone by so quickly. It probably seems like yesterday that you were gathered together at your first class meeting eager to embrace the full Dartmouth experience and engage in all its storied traditions.
Perhaps you remember the gist of my remarks to you that day. Or … maybe not.
As you began your Dartmouth journey, I shared what it meant for you to become part of an academic community—a community of scholars united by their dedication to inquiry and truth. And, I told you that your first order of business, in becoming a member of such a community, would be learning how to ask questions.
It was quite a departure from what you had experienced in school up until that point. Prior to coming to Dartmouth, answers were the thing. Answers were what your schooling was all about. You studied, took a test, and got a grade based on the number of answers you got “right.”
But when we were together in Leede Arena that day, I told you that an equally important part of your Dartmouth education would be learning to ask questions … deep and complex questions … questions without clear cut answers. Perhaps you weren’t quite sure of what I meant at the time, but you’d find out soon enough.
Just 18 months into your time at Dartmouth, the world was turned upside down by a global pandemic—one of the most complex challenges we’ve ever been forced to confront as a global society. And in those early days, there were no answers. No playbook to follow.
As a society, it was ultimately our ability to ask the right questions that enabled us to chart a path forward. How did the disease spread? Who was most vulnerable and how do we protect them? How could we create vaccines to arm our immune systems? With questions in hand, we were able to gather evidence, apply reasoning, debate with those who disagreed … and ultimately determine a collective course of action.
You are entering a deeply troubled world. War. Inequity. Global warming. Gun violence. A mental health crisis exacerbated by the pandemic. These are thorny issues for which there are no easy answers. But with the right questions, you can see your way through.
So my message to you today is simple. Go into the world, not with all the answers, but with all the questions. And as you do, there are two that I hope you will always keep at the top of your list.
First, no matter the issue before you, ask whomever holds a different point of view why they think the way they do. It’s not enough to let every voice speak. You should always seek out alternative viewpoints and consider them with an open mind.
Second, keep on asking what you want to accomplish in life. Fifty years ago, President Kemeny told the Great Class of ’72 at their commencement that their undergraduate years were the time when they were to have sorted out their goals for life. And he expressed his concern that too few of them had made a commitment to a path forward.
Now on most matters, I agree with my esteemed predecessor. But in this case, I do not. Graduates—you need not have already determined your life’s goals. Figuring out that path will be your life’s work.
Your academic journey, culminating today, has been full of life lessons—none more important than this: There is no problem too big to be solved, no aspiration too great to be achieved, no obstacle too tough to overcome … provided that you begin by asking the right questions.
Class of ’22, you are mighty, and we are proud.
May your lives be filled with health, hope, and happiness always, and may you forever keep Dartmouth close to your hearts.
Text as prepared for delivery.