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Distributed September 6, 2005
Contact Mark Nickel

Kenneth R. Miller
Welcome to Trade School: Labor, Love and Learning at Brown

Kenneth R. Miller, professor of biology at Brown University, delivered the keynote address at the University’s 242nd Opening Convocation Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2005. The text of that address follows here. (See also news release online.)

President Simmons, Provost Zimmer, Vice Chancellor Langlois, colleagues, friends, and most of all, our new graduate, medical, and transfer students, and members of the Brown University Class of 2009:

I am honored beyond words at the chance to speak to you today.


And what a day it is!

To echo the words of the 118th Psalm, “This is a day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad.”

And this is indeed a day the Lord has made. But the Lord had help.

Each of us is here today for a reason. And I saw many of those reasons last week. On the day the Class of 2009 moved in, I took a few minutes to stroll around campus and just watch. I looked at the minivans packed with boxes, listened to those annoying little brothers and sisters, and I looked at you, smiling with expectation, joy, and fear – but most of all I watched your parents. There is just one day a year when it’s possible to see how much is truly invested in a university, and that was the day. Their faces were filled with pride, sacrifice, anticipation and hope. You are here as individuals, but I hope you never forget that you do not stand here alone.

So, what about Brown? Well, I’ve got some news you might find disturbing. If you’ve focused the last few years of your life, your activities, your resume, your personal statement at getting into Brown, figuring that once you got into this great school you had it made, we fooled you. And we fooled you good.

If you thought this was a place that would refine you, educate you, and stamp your passport on the way to a good life in American society, we took you for a ride. Because we’re not going to do any of those things.

In fact, I’m going to say something you never expected to hear at a place like Brown: “Welcome to trade school.” You heard me right. Trade school.

Brown’s just of those places where you learn a craft, a skill. A trade school where you learn to work with your hands. Was that false advertising? Maybe.

But Brown is a trade school. And this is a place where you will indeed learn to work with your own hands.

Brown is almost unique in being a University that has an ideology – not liberal, not conservative, not right wing or left wing – but an ideology nonetheless.

The ideology of this University is that you make your education. At Brown an education is not something you get. Not something the University gives you. It is something you make yourself.

If describing education as a trade sounds strange, perhaps that’s because of the value I place on labor. My grandfather, in whose house I grew up, was a welder. His skill brought together the steel plates that still hold up bridges and fused the iron hulls of ships that sent the allies to victory in a great war. They made a living for generations of his family, built a home, and supported the dreams of generations that followed.

From this man, whose formal education ended in eighth grade, I learned the value of work, the beauty of a machine, the logic of construction, and the pride of craftsmanship. From this man, Albert Hamill, I learned that there is nothing nobler than to use the skill of your own hands to express what is in your mind, and from that to create something genuinely new.

All too often we make an artificial distinction between the work of the mind and the work of the hands. In reality, human knowledge is one, and it involves both. That’s why I speak of education as craftsmanship, and of learning as a trade.

Brown’s open curriculum is nothing less than a chance to fashion your own education – and like all chances in life, success is not guaranteed. In contrast to those universities where a common course of study is prescribed for all students, the Brown curriculum requires both wisdom and courage. The wisdom to recognize the gaps in your own knowledge, and the courage to do something about them.

Universities are special and remarkable places.

They are gatherings in time and place of those who would teach each other, learn from each other, and grow together in knowledge, wisdom, and skill.

The master craftsmen who inhabit this trade school are legion. Arnold Weinstein is here to tell you about the literature of ideas; Barbara Tannenbaum will share her skills in persuasive communication; Tom Banchoff will open your minds to the fourth dimension; and James Head will help you explore the universe itself. If you give each of them the chance.

Don’t shy away from opportunities like these. Don’t take the easy route. And don’t dismiss certain areas of learning as irrelevant for reasons of training or career. For therein lies the greatest danger of this trade school – not that you will try something, and fail – as we all do – but that in some important ways, you may not try at all – that you will leave whole areas of the shop floor untouched.

Because I am a scientist, I will take two examples from my area of that shop floor, the natural sciences – but I offer them merely as examples of what awaits you in the arts, social sciences, and humanities as well.

It’s fair to say that most people consider the sciences to be worth studying because you can do things with them. Cure disease, build chemical compounds, clean the environment, engineer new products. But there’s a danger in regarding science in this way.

Namely, the idea that scientific knowledge is practical knowledge (which it definitely is), leads to the prejudice that science is only practical knowledge.

If one isn’t going to become a physicist, there’s no point in studying physics. If you’re not going to med school, why bother with biochemistry? And if you’re going to become a writer, an artist, an historian, or a musician, what’s the point of the Krebs Cycle?

Well, here’s why:

Science is not a body of knowledge.

It’s a way of looking at the world, and it gives us a perspective that a person who is not literate in science simply does not have.

Because it involves, in a very special way, the nature of reality itself.

Near the end of the 19th century, a number of individuals discovered something known as the photoelectric effect.

When light hits a metal surface, charged particles (electrons) are kicked out.

If the light is intense, a strong electric current is produced.

Since light itself is a form of energy, it makes perfectly good sense that some of the energy of sunlight is transferred to electrons in the metal.

But there was something about the photoelectric effect that didn’t make sense.

If you make the light dimmer and dimmer, almost to the point of total darkness, the electrical current goes down.

But the electrons that do come out of the metal still come out with plenty of energy.

In fact, no matter how dim the light gets, the amount of energy per electron never drops. It’s as if somewhere in that dim beam of light there are sledgehammers lurking, and they hit those few electrons with an incredible wallop.

Exactly 100 years ago, a young man, then only 25, looked at the photoelectric effect, and decided that it could be explained in a simple way.

Maybe light is not the smooth, continuous, form of radiation it seems to be. Maybe light is actually composed of individual, distinct packets of energy?

In dim light, there are fewer packets.

In bright light there are many packets.

But each packet, each sledgehammer, still carries the same punch.

The amount of energy transferred to an electron would then correspond directly to the energy in one of these packets of light, which are now called photons.

As you may know, the name of that young man was Albert Einstein, and his simple and elegant formulation of the particle nature of light won, for him, the Nobel Prize.

But it also won something else for each and every human being who cares to learn science.

And that prize is nothing less than a new view of the nature of the universe.

Nature is not continuous.

From atomic particles to sunlight, the elements of nature are broken into distinct, individual, quanta that make the microscopic world very, very different from the world of our everyday experience.

Every person who has taken the time to learn and appreciate physics has an insight as to just how profound this transformation of human imagination has been.

And sadly, those who have set science outside the realm of their own experience have cut themselves off from one of the great revolutions of human understanding.

When we turn to another science, to biology, we likewise find people who are, indeed, cutting themselves off from another revolution in human understanding.

As most of you know, there is substantial evidence that our species shares a common ancestor with the great apes – the gorilla, orangutan and chimpanzee. But can we be sure of this? Can we put that evidence to the test? Today, we can indeed.

The complete DNA sequence of one of those great apes, the chimpanzee, was published less than a week ago, and it provides us with a remarkable new opportunity to answer a question that has fascinated people of every culture, of every place and time. Where did we come from?

We human beings carry our genetic information on 23 pairs of DNA-containing chromosomes. The great ape species, on the other hand, have 24 pairs. And there’s the mystery. How could we share a common ancestor with them if you and I and even President Simmons are, quite literally, missing a chromosome? Where’d it go?

Well, if one thought that our genome was “designed,” as many Americans seem to, it wouldn’t have gone anywhere. If our DNA was the unique product of an intelligent designer, that fellow could simply have arranged our DNA in fewer packages than the apes, and since there is no real relationship between us and them, nothing would be missing.

But if a fellow named Charles Darwin was right, there is a relationship, a link, and the remnants of that missing chromosome have to be somewhere inside us. You couldn’t just throw a whole chromosome away, and therefore evolution makes a testable prediction. When we lay the human and chimpanzee genomes side by side, we’ve got to find a human chromosome constructed by sticking two chromosomes together from that common ancestor. And if we cannot find it, evolution is wrong. Well, guess what? It’s chromosome #2.

Our second chromosome was produced by the head to head fusion of ape chromosomes 12 and 13, and the new primate and human data show the exact point at which those two chromosomes were pasted together. No doubt about it – like a criminal at the scene of a crime, evolution left its messy fingerprints all over us – and we know where we came from. Like everything else on this planet, we evolved.

Whether you find that conclusion depressing or exhilarating, it changes the way we see our world, our existence, and our relationship to every other living thing that inhabits this planet. It’s practical knowledge, to be sure, but like all true knowledge, it has the power to change, enlighten, and transform. And that is the labor, the trade that each of you have taken upon yourself as you enter Brown ... the tradecraft of personal transformation.

I attended my 35th class reunion here at Brown at the close of our last academic year. And at that gathering, one of my classmates, a student with whom I had once studied American Poetry, recalled the sad and extraordinary words of Edna St. Vincent Millay:

Thus in winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.

Now, almost four decades after I sat on this green as a freshman at Brown, I can call back to you from my 50s, and tell you that the poet was right. Youth disappears. Beauty fades, and the summer song of one’s teens and 20s will vanish.

But I can also say with a wink and a smile that learning is different.

Knowledge does not fade, it brightens. Learning does not vanish – that’s what universities are for, to keep the fire of learning alive, to pass it from one generation to the next, to give human understanding an institutional immortality, an immortality that each and every one of you is now part of.

With care and cultivation and courage, that fire can burn in each of you for every day of your lives. In that sense, the true summer of our lives begins today, and may it sing in each of you for all of your days – and forever.

Welcome to Brown. I’ll see you in class!


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