Brian Smith gives inspiring talk at Ripon College’s Baccalaureate

Brian Smith, professor of religion, presented the talk “Nourishing the Mind” at Ripon College’s Baccalaureate program May 13, 2017.

Following is the text of his presentation:

This year, the theme for Commencement is “Wisconsin Food and Entrepreneurship.” We recognize the commitment to food that contributes to the state’s distinctive identity. The College will be bestowing honorary degrees tomorrow on two outstanding Wisconsin restauranteurs and small business owners — Craig Culver, co-founder, interim CEO and chairman of the board of Culver’s, and Stefano Viglietti, chef and restauranteur, who owns and operates four restaurants in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.

Welcome to you both, and to all the graduates and your families and friends joining us tonight for the Baccalaureate Service. The Baccalaureate traditionally is celebrated the evening before Commencement. It is to help us reflect in an interfaith celebration on the spiritual and moral implications of the Commencement theme.

Nourishing the Body
The readings recited by Allison, Noelle and Emma from different spiritual traditions all celebrate food as a blessing. These religious scriptures consider food as a gift from God and that we should always be thankful for this nourishment. The Buddhist reading by Noelle also made the link between good food and care for the body as a responsibility.

Your generation understands this responsibility. You are much more conscious than my generation of the importance of eating healthy food, and also of including exercise in your routine This combination provides balance and makes your lives more enjoyable.

Nourishing the Mind
Hopefully, you have learned more than the importance of healthy food and exercise at Ripon College, important as these are. You have also nourished your minds with a variety of solid intellectual food during these past four years.

In your science courses, you have learned the importance of studying the physical world with experiments and to conduct careful analysis based on empirical facts. In the social sciences, you have studied societal and psychological influences that shape human behavior and explain differences not only at the personal level but across cultures. In the fine arts, you have explored the various ways humans have created beauty that have developed your imaginations and shaped your emotions In the humanities, you have studied how people over time have created meaning and provided insights and principles for how to live a moral life.

This nourishment of your minds and spirits from a variety of disciplines has opened whole new ways of understanding the world from different perspectives. Along the way, you have developed important skills to make your life and the lives of others more meaningful — critical thinking, careful weighing of facts, clear writing and effective oral communication, an appreciation of cultural diversity, and building relationships.

Mitchell in his speech described very well this last nourishment you have received at Ripon — “trusting relationships.” You have made friends who will remain part of you for the rest of your lives, and you have established relationships with mentors who guided you through your academic life, and who will follow you in your journeys.

We will always be here for you, and you can always come home to Ripon.

Truly, you have been nourished in body, mind and spirit at Ripon. This kind of food will provide you with the resources to live meaningful lives — not just for yourselves, but as Mitchell challenged you, to transform the world. Yes, this is possible. With gifts come responsibilities.

Challenges Facing You in Our World
Three of the challenges you will face in your careers are: how to use well the fantastic possibilities of technology; how to manage the global economy effectively and fairly; and how to work together as citizens to protect our environment. All three of these challenges will require using the skills you learned at Ripon and demand a continuing nourishment of your minds with new knowledge and sound judgments. Your education has not ended. It must continue.

The first challenge. The rate of change in our world is going at a pace faster than we are able to adapt. Technology turnover occurs every five to seven years, but it normally has taken the human mind 15 years to adapt to its consequences. We now need more than ever well-educated minds to think through the implications of new technology and to use it productively and ethically in our world.

Technology is providing us with the ability to access at faster rates than ever before information and to communicate with persons we will never meet. These possibilities have incredible potential for solving human problems but will require the skills which a liberal arts education provides. Critical thinking, weighing of evidence, communicating honestly, exploration of the ethical consequences technology has on your own lives and those of others — all these skills you learned at Ripon will need to be practiced and honed to even higher levels of excellence to help you to make technology work for the good of humanity rather than to control it.

There are wonderful opportunities in the technological supernova to nourish the human mind, but there are also elements in it that are poisonous and dangerous. Scientists and medical professionals all over the world can use the worldwide web to share data and new discoveries that can cure diseases, but terrorists and sex traffickers can also use this medium to recruit vulnerable humans into destruction and slavery.

Second challenge. The global economy is becoming ever more interdependent and provides greater possibilities for the growth and accumulation of wealth for more and more people on the planet. It produces products at lower prices to benefit countless millions. It also does so at times at the expense of those who are currently unable to participate in the global economy and who are falling further and further behind. Three million children in our world today die of malnutrition each year, over 8,000 a day.

The global market is producing enough food for everyone, but we humans have not yet mastered a way to distribute it effectively to all who are hungry. This is the challenge of your generation, that no child is left behind to die of starvation when we have the resources to prevent it.

The readings tonight celebrated the joy of eating but also reminded us to share food. To paraphrase the selection we heard from the Qur’an, we should enjoy the fruits of our land but always give the poor a share at harvest time. The meal blessing from the Red Bank Humanists expressed the hope “that someday, all people on Earth may enjoy the same good fortune that we share.” In the reading from the New Testament, we heard that the earliest Christians “would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” So fearful were they that if they accumulated goods only for themselves they would forget the teachings of Jesus to show compassion for those in need.

Third challenge. You all will face in your adult lives the challenge to save the environment from further deterioration. You have learned the scientific method in your courses and how careful scientists are in making judgments about their study of the physical world. The overwhelming number of scientists today are telling us, based on careful study of trends over time, that Mother Nature is suffering and that we humans are contributing to it by our rapid consumption of resources, particularly using energy sources that are contaminating air and water at a rate that are making some species of life on earth no longer sustainable.

Thoughtful people can disagree on the best strategies to take to reverse this trend, but people with education such as yours cannot deny it is occurring. To solve this challenge will require sharing of accurate information internationally, clear thinking, and a search for common ground solutions by political institutions. Neither top-down enforced regulation by intergovernmental agencies nor leaving the problem to be solved by national governments, unable or unwilling to tackle the issue alone, will be sufficient to solve this challenge.

Your liberal arts education has taught you to examine issues from different perspectives, to understand and appreciate different cultures and value systems, and to work for the solution of problems cooperatively. That is how you nourished your minds at Ripon. These skills will serve you well as leaders in the 21st-century to meet each of these three challenges, to use technology constructively, to promote a fair distribution of goods in the global market, and to protect the environment.

Rigid ideologies will not provide sufficient wisdom to meet these challenges. You will need to take good ideas from whatever the source, and work cooperatively across cultures and political lines to find solutions.

Unfortunately, today our own national political system is not using these skills to work on solutions for these and other challenges. You know well from your history courses that what has made this country great and helped us in the past is a combination of public and private resources to grow our nation and collaboration between national and local governments — construction of dams and interstate highways, Social Security for all Americans, research in health and science, Medicare and Medicaid, job training, civil rights for all.

These are but a few of the issues we, as a nation, have creatively faced that have involved national and local, government and business, and bipartisan political cooperation. We need the kind of leadership today we have had in the past to face our challenges in the 21st century at home and abroad.

As you work on these new challenges don’t fall prey to “fake news” or “alternate facts.” Be willing as our forefathers and foremothers were to work across political lines to find effective solutions.

Our past electoral cycle in 2016 made it very difficult for candidates to propose bipartisan solutions because of political polarization that is gripping our politics in a vice. In 1990, surveys indicated that 20 percent of Republican parents were opposed to their children marrying a Democrat, and 18 percent of Democratic parents felt the same reluctance about their children marrying a Republican. Since 2010, however, 50 percent of Republican parents now say they would not want their children to marry a Democrat and 30 percent of Democratic parents show the same reluctance about their son or daughter marrying a Republican.

Even in private life, the ability to understand and respect political differences has declined. Friendships have been lost, families are seriously divided. In some families, in order to maintain peace during the election relatives, could not discuss politics with one another without bitter fights. Some wives and husbands who supported different candidates in the presidential elections lived in tense fear and silence with one another.

Don’t allow this partisan poison to jeopardize the nourishment your minds have received in your liberal arts education. You have the intellectual, communication and cooperative skills to help unlock this political gridlock in public and private life over politics. You are well-equipped to act as responsible citizens to forge effective solutions to the challenges facing us for the rest of the 21st century.

Values in a Liberal Education to Confront the Challenges
Tom Friedman, who has travelled the world as a journalist for 30 years, in his recent book, “Thank You for Being Late,” describes both the challenges we now face and the type of thinking needed to confront them effectively. Here are his words:

“… We are approaching a world where, acting together, we could sustainably feed, clothe and shelter every person, as well as cure every disease, increase the free time of virtually every person, educate virtually every child, and enable virtually everyone to realize their full potential. The supernova (or worldwide web) is enabling so many more minds to work on solving on all the world’s great problems. …

“That is why I insist that, as a species, we have never stood at this moral fork in the road — where one of us could kill all of us and all of us could fix everything if we really decided to do so.

“Therefore, properly exercising the powers that have been uniquely placed in the hands of our generation will require a degree of moral innovation that we have barely begun to explore, in America or globally, and a degree of grounding in ethics that most leaders lack.

“ ‘Maybe this is overly romantic, but I think leadership is going to require the ability to come to grips with values and ethics,’ remarked Jeffrey Garten, the former dean of the Yale School of Management.

“Education will need a strong dose of liberal arts. How will we think about privacy or genetic experimentation? These are areas where there is no international framework at all. In fact, there’s barely a national framework. China has embarked on large-scale genetic engineering in certain animals. Where is that going? What should be the legal and ethical principles on which such activity should be based? And who has the wherewithal to even establish the right principles? How do you balance this technological progress with this sense of humanity? You’re not going to get that if you went to MIT and all you did was study nuclear physics. This is the supreme irony. The more technological we get, the more we need people have a much broader framework. You’ll be able to hire the technologists to make the systems work, but in terms of the goals, that takes a different kind of leader. Amen.”

You Ripon graduates are precisely the kind of broadly educated future leaders that Friedman describes we need. He sees the liberal arts education you have received at Ripon making you eminently qualified to lead us in the 21st century.

A final thought on a religious note, since we are in a house of worship. In the book, Friedman says he was asked once after a public presentation if God was in cyberspace. He was taken back by the question since he had never thought about this possibility before. He asked a rabbi whom he respected for his wisdom, Rabbi Tzvi Marx, a great Talmudic scholar formerly associated with the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Rabbi Marx responded to Friedman as follows:

“God is always hidden whether in cyberspace or in the shopping mall, and to have God be in the room with you, whether a real room or a chat room, you have to bring Him there by the moral choices and mouse clicks you make.”

Wise words.

As you graduates go forth into the world of expanding possibilities, may you continue to nourish your minds well and apply creatively the skills you have learned at Ripon to confront the challenges of your time, always trying to make good moral choices and the best mouse clicks.

God bless you all!

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