Jim Tranquada

Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah offered an eloquent defense of the enduring value of the liberal arts in his speech at Occidental College'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, the Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy at Princeton and recent winner of the National Humanities Medal.

"The humanities help you think about what to do with technology, and what not to do. 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?" Appiah told the 445 members of the Class of 2012 and more than 3,500 family members and friends who packed the Remsen Bird Hillside Theater under sunny skies.

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 of individuals 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, as beneficiaries of a first-class liberal arts education, you've got the skills and judgment to make them."

Joining Appiah in receiving honorary degrees were four Occidental alumni who in their various fields of endeavor offered other illustrations of the power of an Oxy education.

"Every day I use something I learned here," said public radio host and Los Angeles Times columnist Patt Morrison '74. "Your education is more than just a jumped-up search engine ... what you're taking away with you here is how to learn, how to create, and how to adapt."

"Given the chance, education and educators have the opportunity to transform lives, and Oxy managed to transform mine," said Stephen Cooper '68, business turnaround expert and current CEO of Warner Music Group. "My experience at Oxy represents the very best of what a small liberal arts college can offer."

Also being recognized with honorary degrees were Ruth Coleman '82, director of California State Parks, and Diane Evans '76, director for Earth Science and Technology at Jet Propulsion Laboratory.