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I am pleased to join Dean Brodhead in welcoming all of you, members of the Class of 2006, to Yale College. And I am also pleased to welcome to the Yale family those parents, relatives, and friends of the Class of 2006 who are with us today.
No doubt you have been busy arranging the furniture in your rooms, setting up computers and voice mail, and sharing in the exhilaration of meeting one another. This morning, we offer you this ceremony to give you a chance to pause and reflect on what you are about to begin.
You may have chosen to come here because some particular aspect of Yale College appealed to you. You may have learned that our faculty is seriously committed to undergraduate teaching, or that our residential system uniquely captures the advantages of both large university and small college life. Perhaps you aspire to be a journalist, and you heard that the Yale Daily News is the nation’s best college newspaper. Maybe one of our athletic programs attracted you. Or, possibly, you heard about the abundant opportunities to exercise your musical or dramatic talents. Whatever your reason for choosing Yale, you are about to become part of an enterprise with 300 years of history. So let me sketch some aspects of that history and give you a sense of the University as a whole.
This is a place with an extraordinary tradition of innovation in education. Yale appointed the first science professor in North America, and it was the first American institution to grant the degree of Doctor of Medicine, the first to establish a program in public health, the first to establish a University-based School of Nursing. We were the first American university to establish a School of Forestry, and the first, nearly a century later, to appoint a professor of industrial ecology. Yale was the first American university to establish an art gallery, the first to establish a school of fine art, the first to establish a School of Drama. We were the first American university to create a department devoted exclusively to graduate students, and the first to grant the Ph.D. degree. We were the first to award a bachelor’s degree to a native of China, the first to grant a graduate degree to a native of Japan, the first to award a Ph.D. to an African American.
Yale is a place where the men and women who teach you are international leaders in their fields of scholarship, where seminal contributions to knowledge have been made decade after decade. Yale scientists discovered the laws of thermodynamics and the function of RNA, developed the first interferon treatment for cancer, and identified the cause of Lyme disease. Yale scholars were among the pioneers of the modern study of ancient Near Eastern languages and civilizations, linguistics, and comparative literature, and for the past half-century our literature departments have been at the forefront in developing a series of reigning paradigms of literary criticism. Yale scholars established the field of sociology in America, brought mathematics into the study of economics, and forged the modern theory of democracy. This is an impressive list of intellectual achievements, and the tradition of such achievements continues to motivate the teachers you will encounter over the next four years. Their knowledge and sense of wonder about the world will inspire you. I hope you will take every advantage of the faculty’s willingness to engage with you in class, during office hours, and in your residential colleges.
Yale is also a place with treasures beyond imagining. In the breadth and depth of library holdings and art and natural history collections, only one other American university is a close rival. Busy as you will be here with your courses and extracurricular activities, I hope you will soon take an afternoon to explore the stacks of the Sterling Memorial Library. You will be amazed at what you find. As a first-year graduate student studying economic history, I found to my astonishment an abundance of sixteenth and seventeenth century pamphlets, published in England, just sitting on the open shelves. And I hope you will visit the University Art Gallery. Take the stairs to the third floor and you will be standing opposite a magnificent Van Gogh amidst an extraordinary array of modern and contemporary paintings. Proceed to your right for a couple of rooms and you will find American paintings and furniture that are among the finest examples anywhere. Across Chapel Street you will discover the largest and most complete collection of British paintings and prints outside London. And don’t miss this winter’s exhibition of the artifacts of Machu Picchu, the largest ever mounted, at Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History.
Yale is finally a place with the scale and resources to undertake ambitious multi-year, indeed multi-generational, scholarly projects. No less than four monumental projects are currently under way here. Since 1949, Yale scholars have been at work on the publication of the papers of James Boswell, the 18th century British diarist and biographer of Samuel Johnson. Twenty-seven volumes have been published and six more are in progress. Since 1953, another succession of scholars has produced 25 volumes of the works of Yale’s great Puritan theologian, Jonathan Edwards, with 2 final volumes in preparation. Printing the complete record of the important British Parliamentary sessions of the 17th century has been an on-going project here since 1966, and, finally, 36 of a projected 46 volumes of The Papers of Benjamin Franklin have been edited and published since 1954.
This past summer, drawing exclusively on both the published and unpublished collections of Franklin’s papers here at Yale, one of our most distinguished scholars, Sterling Professor Emeritus Edmund Morgan, published a new biography of the learned scientist, publicist, and statesman.1 Since the year of your graduation, 2006, will mark the 300th anniversary of Franklin’s birth, I thought I might offer just a few reflections on his life and character and suggest how these might relate to your Yale experience.
I should remind you that among the nation’s founders, only Jefferson rivaled Franklin in his range of accomplishments. Franklin was a successful printer and publisher of the leading newspaper in the colonies as well as the author and publisher of the biggest commercial success of his time, Poor Richard’s Almanac. He invented the Franklin stove, made major contributions to the scientific understanding of electricity, discovered that lightning was an electrical phenomenon, and designed means of protecting buildings against it. He founded Pennsylvania’s first lending library, the American Philosophical Society, the University of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Hospital, a volunteer fire association, and a fire insurance company. He drafted a plan for unifying the colonies in 1754, and then 21 years later drafted the Articles of Confederation. He represented first Pennsylvania, then several colonies, then the united colonies as ambassador to Britain, negotiated the Treaty of Paris ending the American Revolution, and returned to attend the Constitutional Convention, where he gave the closing speech urging the unanimous support of the delegates. His last public document, in 1790, was a petition to Congress urging the abolition of slavery.
No one expects you to match this astonishing record, but several of Franklin’s personal qualities are worthy of your emulation. First among these traits I would cite his relentless curiosity. Professor Morgan recounts that Franklin was constantly seeking explanations for the natural phenomena we observe in our daily lives. He wondered where the air that went up chimneys came from, and used his findings to improve the design of wood-burning stoves and chimneys. He wondered why oil droplets held their shape on solid surfaces but spread to a thin film on water. He speculated on the movement of storm systems and interrogated travelers to document their course. And, of course, he was the first to explore and classify which materials conduct electricity and which don’t. When he grew restless on his seven crossings of the Atlantic, he charted the location of the Gulf Stream, and he designed new hulls and riggings for sailing vessels, as well as propellers and pumps to activate them. He worked with Noah Webster on devising more phonetic spellings for English words, and he advised Robert Fulton on adapting the steam engine for use in ships. He rarely sat in meetings without doodling, sometimes designing elaborate math puzzles such as the 16 by 16 magic square reproduced in Professor Morgan’s biography.2
Two other characteristics that deserve your attention are Franklin’s tenacity in maintaining an independent point of view, and, at the same time, his flexibility to modify his opinions in the face of evidence. Throughout the many years he served in London representing the interest of Pennsylvania and other colonies, Franklin held to the view that the colonies should remain part of the British Empire, but that their own elected assemblies should have exclusive power to make their laws. Even as late as January 1775 he worked with allies in Britain to put a bill before the House of Lords that would have recognized the Continental Congress, repealed the laws it opposed, and barred future taxation without its consent. The bill was immediately rejected, and soon afterward Franklin headed home. When he docked in Philadelphia in May 1775, he was appalled to learn of the violence of the British reaction to the uprisings at Lexington and Concord. He quickly came to the view that saving the Empire was no longer feasible or desirable, and within weeks, he was working quietly and forcefully to move his colleagues in the Continental Congress toward a declaration of independence.
Finally, I would note one other admirable characteristic of Franklin—his devotion to public service. Even his science gratified him most when it produced tangible public benefits. Discussing in his Autobiography the wide use of the Franklin stove, he reflected: “We should be glad to serve others by any Invention of ours."3 He initially despaired that his electrical experiments had discovered nothing of use to mankind, but soon afterward he invented the lightning rod.
And so I leave you with these thoughts. When you graduate, in 2006, the Tercentennial of Benjamin Franklin’s birth, I hope you will look back on your Yale experience with the recognition that here you were able to accomplish these four things: to give free rein to your curiosity, to develop independent ideas, to remain open-minded in the face of evidence, and to prepare yourselves, not only for lives of personal satisfaction and professional achievement, but also for service to others. This is no small agenda, but all of Yale’s resources are yours for the next four years. Judging from the experience of those who have preceded you, I think I can say this: You will be amazed and delighted by this place. Welcome to Yale.
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