Professor Bill Cronon’s Convocation Remarks to the Class of 2017

It is both a pleasure and an honor to join Chancellor Blank, Aaron Bird Bear, and Jessica Franco-Morales in welcoming you here to the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

You’ve come to a very special place.

UW-Madison is one of the greatest universities in the world. That in itself is something of a miracle. Wisconsin is a relatively small and not especially wealthy state, and there was really no reason to expect back at its founding in 1848 that Madison would eventually rank with places like Berkeley and Michigan and Yale and Harvard.

That it does so is testament to the belief widely shared among citizens of this state throughout our history that we all gain from what Robert La Follette called “The Wisconsin Idea”: the belief that a university’s greatness is measured by what it gives back to the state, the nation, and the world—and to all the people of this planet who might gain from the knowledge we pursue here.

What is a university? The English word derives from the Latin universus, meaning “entire” or “whole.” You probably won’t be surprised that the word “universe” shares this same etymological root, and not by accident: it is the mission of this place to study the entire universe, on every conceivable scale, from every conceivable angle.

Put more simply, we are here to try as best we can to understand ourselves and the world we inhabit.

That’s a very large endeavor. No one of us can ever hope to master more than a small fraction of the nearly infinite human ways of understanding ourselves and the world…but there are few places better than a university to learn about them, and few universities better than this one for doing so.

There’s almost nothing you can’t learn about at UW-Madison if you’re so inclined, from physics to chemistry to biology, from medicine to agriculture to engineering to business, from literature to philosophy to history, from art to music, from law to economics to politics, and so on and on and on.

The menu spread out before you here is truly vast—so vast, in fact, that it can feel pretty daunting at times. Like the universe it studies, this is a very large place, and it’s easy to feel lost or overwhelmed by the sheer scale of it all.

So let me offer a few suggestions about how to make the most of your time here.

The first is that to a greater degree than you’ve ever before experienced in school, you are in charge of your own education here. Although you must fulfill a broad menu of requirements before you graduate, there are innumerable ways to meet those requirements. You’ll get lots of advice about your options, but you’ll rarely be told what to do. You have to figure that out for yourself.

To do so successfully, it helps to have at least a tentative plan. It’s not that you already need to know your major or what you want to do with the rest of your life. If you think you do know these things right now, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll be changing your mind about them before you’re done.

That’s fine. You won’t make the most of this place if you’re not open to the possibility of changing your mind. But it still helps to have a plan, a sense that you’re moving toward a goal—even if next semester you decide to head off in a different direction.

That last point is crucial: being willing to change direction is just as important as having a plan, since refining our goals is how we learn and change and grow. You need a plan, but not too rigid a plan, because you don’t yet know enough to know what you really want or how best to get there.

To expand your range of possibilities, it helps to take courses and seek out experiences that will enable you to imagine more fully the life you’re seeking for yourself.

One of the best ways to do that is to pay close attention to what other people love, no matter how eccentric their passions may initially seem.

The two courses I took as an undergraduate here that had by far the biggest impact on my own life—that are almost certainly the reason I’m standing at this podium today—weren’t remotely in my original plan. I never could have anticipated that the teachers in those courses would help me fall in love with the work I now do.

Steve Jobs, the former CEO of Apple Computer who died just two years ago, told a story about the courses in calligraphy that he audited at Reed College after dropping out of school – and how his fascination for those seemingly useless courses was the reason that the Macintosh computer was the first ever to offer a menu of beautiful fonts as part of its standard operating system.

So: try to make at least a little space in your studies for courses like these that don’t fit your plan but that expand your curiosity and teach you to see the world with new eyes.

While I’m at it, let me share with you one of the best-kept secrets of all, which is that some of the most profound educational experiences you’ll have during your time at UW-Madison won’t come from teachers like me standing in front of students like you to share what we know. They’ll happen in your dorm room, in your cafeteria, in clubs and organizations, in churches and synagogues and mosques, in walks along the Lakeshore Path, at Camp Randall, on the Union Terrace, on Bascom Hill, anywhere. They’ll happen not with your teachers, but with your classmates and friends.

Look at all the people sitting around you in this great arena. The two biggest questions you’re all asking right now are probably “Will I be OK here?” and “Will I have any friends?”

The answers to these questions are almost certainly yes and yes, but it helps to remember that you’re not alone in worrying about them. We too often hide such feelings, but the person sitting next to you is just as excited—and just as scared—as you are.

Your parents already know this, but you may not: what you’re doing right now is one of the biggest and bravest things you’ve ever done in your entire life. Each one of you has made an amazing journey to reach this room on this campus at this great university. You each have so much to offer the people around you if only you find in yourself the courage and the openness and the generosity to share what you know, what you care about, and what you feel.

The people around you are strangers today, but before long they will be your classmates, your neighbors, your friends. People who are going to be among your dearest companions for the rest of your life are sitting right here in this room and you haven’t even met them yet.

One of the most valuable things you’ll do at this university is to get to know these strangers around you. By learning their stories about the journeys they’ve made to get here, and offering your own in return, you’ll discover how different they are from you—and how much you share in common.

Among the greatest treasures of a great university is not just the extraordinary array of subjects and disciplines you can study here, but the equally extraordinary human beings you can meet and know and come to cherish as your friends.

You can’t plan such things. You can only try to recognize and open yourself to them when they cross your path. That’s as true of your fellow classmates as it is of your courses and your teachers.

It’s the moments of serendipity that are not in your plan that are most likely to change your life forever.

They’re among the best reasons I know for spending time in a place that has the universe in its name.

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