Philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah meditates on the stamina of the liberal arts as the Class of 2012 joins the conversation
Keynote speaker Kwame Anthony Appiah—the Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy at Princeton and recent winner of the National Humanities Medal—offered an eloquent defense of the enduring value of the liberal arts at Occidental’s 125th-anniversary Commencement on May 20.
Through the human conversation that dates to Socrates and continues through Montaigne, Jefferson, and Wittengenstein to the present day, “you come to answer the questions no one else can answer for you: the ones you have to decide for yourselves,” said Appiah, whose visionary 2006 book Cosmopolitanism challenges readers to look beyond the boundaries—real and imagined—that divide countries, nations, and peoples, and to see our common humanity.
“The humanities help you think about what to do with technology, and what not to do,” Appiah told the 445 members of the Class of 2012 and the crowd of more than 3,500 at Remsen Bird Hillside Theater. “They help you think about the immense potency of scientific thought, and about its limitations. And even when they offer no definitive answers, they help you ask good questions. Such as: What’s the meaning of life?”
The explosive growth of the Internet and digital technology has vastly extended that conversation—and the need for a means to effectively participate, he said. “Real knowledge—genuine understanding—has never been more desperately needed: You need some way to navigate through the noise ... to find among the terabytes the kilobyte you need right now. And that’s what your liberal arts education has provided you.”
The ability to reach people around the world through cheap, accessible technology makes us all citizens of the world, Appiah continued. “Nothing you put out on the Web, even if it’s only meant for your neighbors, is guaranteed to have only local impact ... So you’ve got some decisions to make. As graduates of Oxy, you’ve got the skills and judgment to make them.”
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