Good morning, Class of 2025! I’m thrilled to join my colleagues on this stage and across the university in welcoming you to convocation, and to Duke.
I’m equally delighted to welcome our families and friends, as we gather with this amazing class for the first time. You’ve nurtured and supported these students throughout their lives, for which we offer our profound thanks, and we look forward to your continued engagement as members of our extended Duke family.
Students, I’m sure you’re feeling the presence today of all those who have supported you as you worked toward this moment—whether they are with us in person or in spirit. Will you please join me in offering our thanks and congratulations to our families and friends?
So, here you are, assembled for a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience. And while we wish circumstances would’ve allowed us to gather in our intended venue, Cameron Indoor Stadium, I have to say that—the humidity aside—this is an extraordinary setting: here, outside, under the gothic spires and towering oaks.
Those of us who call this place home can sometimes overlook the beauty that surrounds us, or take for granted the beautiful buzz of the comings and goings of students, faculty, staff, and visitors. But the long solitude forced by the pandemic makes us uncommonly alert now to the joys of gathering. It’s so good to see people on Abele Quad again. And as the critic and poet Peter Schjeldahl put it recently, “I’ve been feeling apologetic to certain trees…for my past indifference to their beauty.”
The return of all of these people to Duke is not without its attendant pitfalls—and I’m not just speaking of the ongoing challenges of managing our lives amidst the ever-novel coronavirus.
The other day, as I was crossing this Quad, I saw our Vice President, Mary Pat McMahon, in the distance, walking toward me. Seeing an old friend after what feels like a very long break, I waved. Only Mary Pat didn’t wave back. I figured that maybe she hadn’t seen me. So I waved again, this time more vigorously, and shouted “Hi Mary Pat!” Now she looked a bit confused. That’s because as we got closer, I realized this wasn’t Mary Pat at all. In fact, this person didn’t even look like her.
And how did I look to her? Maybe a little crazy.
We’ve all had these moments of confusion. They’re universal to the human experience: cases of mistaken identity, related to what psychologists might call a gestalt shift. One moment, we are confidently navigating the world we know so well; the next, we’re confronting a confusing world that looks nothing like we thought.
While these moments may be universal, they can be unsettling. And perhaps, as we emerge from the relative isolation of the first eighteen months of this pandemic, they’ve become a bit more common. So, we adapt. To save face, we convert that ebullient wave, in mid-air, to a hair comb.
Well, with that bit of social awkwardness still on my mind, I want to talk with you briefly today about confusion and uncertainty—topics that have been present for many of us in the past few months, as we’ve weathered the challenges of an ongoing pandemic.
We’ve suffered all manner of shortages due to supply chain interruptions, but certainty seems especially hard to come by. We crave certainty about public health guidance, about which masks to wear, about how far to stay apart, about vaccines. As recent graduates, you no doubt wanted certaintyabout whether your graduations would even be taking place.
We crave certainty because it’s usually followed around by its close cousin, confidence. Certainty and confidence can indeed be great. Perhaps you were certain about coming here to Duke. Perhaps this was your clear first choice of colleges, and you had your heart set on coming here since long before you applied early decision. Perhaps some of you know right now that you’ll earn a degree in economics followed by a career in finance, or that you’ll head to medical school or law school after finishing your bachelor’s degree. All of you have known what it takes to excel in high school, and you’ve confidently followed that path to the opportunities that now await you.
Confusion, on the other hand, is not usually so welcome a companion. None of us particularly likes to look or feel confused. Confusion and uncertainty are uncomfortable places to live, and they can undermine our confidence. So uncomfortable that—just as we’ve perfected that hair-comb move to mask our social confusion—we develop all sorts of moves to mask our uncertainty, to find more certain ground as quickly as possible, to restore our lost confidence.
But my message to you today about uncertainty is: Get used to it. And more: Look for it and embrace it.
Now’s a good time for this, since I’ll wager that today, as you settle into new dorms and prepare to say farewell to your families, all of you are feeling a fair amount of uncertainty. And that is unsettling, even scary. Today, I want to encourage you to embrace the deep uncertainty of this moment, to allow yourself to experience the confusion of life in a new place. This is not empty advice: I have my reasons.
First is the recognition that some uncertainty is inevitable in your undergraduate experience. No matter how sure your path has been in arriving here, you will face challenges on the road ahead—the challenges of living away from home, of learning class schedules, of the academic expectations of a demanding curriculum, and of so many new relationships. There will be fits and starts, leaps and falls. When we’re used to being sure-footed, a stumble or fall can be startling and frightening. But that’s to be expected, even welcomed, since that’s how our agility and our balance improves.
Second, passing though confusion and uncertainty is the only route to new understanding. Sadly so perhaps, but there is no other way forward. Just as growth in physical strength requires its moments of exercising to our limits—”no pain, no gain” as people often say—our grasp of truly new concepts and ideas requires its moments of puzzling through deep confusion.
In the moment, it doesn’t always feel that great. In fact, it’s often no fun at all. But we can train ourselves to take on confusion in measured ways. And we do. That’s what your teachers and mentors at Duke will be guiding you through. Uncertainty is a necessary part of the deep learning process; but after struggling to make sense of it, you will find that the new ideas do eventually fall into place. And I’ll wager that you’ll come to enjoy that struggle and that confusion—perhaps as you’ve come to enjoy vigorous exercise—when you see the fruits of your labor. As you resolve your confusions, you will learn and discover, and do great things.
Third, our willingness to embrace uncertainty—to be honest about how much we don’t know—has perhaps never been more important to our society and to our public life, on campus and off. I mentioned a moment ago that, amidst the confusion wrought by the pandemic, certainty seems especially hard to come by. Oddly, however, we seem to have a surplus of judgment, and conviction, and sadly of condemnation. We seem so quick today to judge, so confident in the correctness of our views, that we scarcely pause to consider whether we might, just might, misunderstand.
Perhaps these two phenomena—the uncertainly of this moment in history and the conviction of so many that surely we know the truth—are related. That’s worth pondering. But my point is simply that we—all of us, would do well to be far more humble about whether or not we’ve somehow cornered the truth. And in our humility, we would do well to grant others the chance to speak their minds. We should let others share ideas, perhaps most importantly when those ideas seem to us outrageous.
Again, this can be very hard to do. It may seem compassionate, even just, to silence others who voice ideas we find wrong, threatening or upsetting. But as I noted in an address last spring to graduates of our Sanford School of Public Policy, truth-seeking depends upon robust and respectful debate. That is the surest path, if not quite to truth, then to its most reasonable human approximation.
If we admit honestly to our uncertainty, then we can open, in two ways.
We can be open to serving the unheard and the underserved, listening carefully to those voices that are too often ignored, with an abiding concern for justice for the overlooked. And at the same time, we can be open to recognizing that we may not have all the answers—that there is in fact a chance that we may be wrong. Wrong about the facts of the matter, and so perhaps wrong about what to do. We hold some truths to be self-evident. Most are not.
We must have the humility to embrace uncertainty, to explore modes of inquiry that might confuse or unsettle us, with the faith that a new and improved understanding lies ahead. That is, ultimately, our core mission as an institution of higher learning, one in which we now invite you to take part.
It won’t always be easy, but it will be exhilarating. At times, maybe a little too exhilarating. And so one key piece of advice: Get. Some. Sleep. The best exercise routine has to include recovery time. And a brain after rest learns best.
And if you should lose confidence in your ideas, don’t panic. That’s learning, as I’ve just said. But you should never lose confidence in your boundless capacity to learn and to grow, or—and let me emphasize this—the fact that you belong here, as a unique, deeply valued member of our community. You should remain confident, especially when your confusion grows, that others are with you in your confusion, that we are here to support you through it. Please never hide your confusion. Lean into it as a source of strength. Wear it as a badge of pride, and bring it to your teachers and mentors, and friends and classmates as a conversation starter. I’m sure that they will be open to and helpful to you in that moment, and I hope you will in turn be open to them.
I am certain you can do it. That’s why you’re here today, under these trees, walking these paths. And if you happen to find yourself on Abele Quad some day in the next four years and see a guy in a suit and round glasses waving wildly in your direction—do me a solid and wave back. I’ll be glad to see you.
Congratulations and welcome. We are so delighted you are here.