August 2014 Graduation Address by Dr. Kenneth Ward
President Rudd, Provost Weddle-West, Deans, members of the faculty, family and friends, and most importantly, Members of the Class of 2014, congratulations on your achievement.
It's a real honor to speak to you today. In the interest of full disclosure, let me first tell you that I've never before given a commencement address. However, to prepare for today, I did spend some time watching YouTube videos of other commencement speakers. Everyone from Conan O'Brien to President Obama has been out there recently imparting words of wisdom, or at least making the audiences laugh, and getting millions of YouTube hits as a result. Those aren't easy acts to follow. In fact, it's downright daunting. The most daunting commencement address of all was one given just a few months ago at the University of Texas by Naval Admiral William McRaven. The admiral gave a riveting account of his training as a Navy SEAL, and masterfully told how his SEAL experiences – going days without sleep and being constantly pushed beyond his physical and mental limits – could be applied to the lives of new college graduates. Wow. I wish I had some good military adventures to share with you, but as you may have already guessed, I am not now, nor have I ever been, a Navy SEAL. As one example of how un-SEAL-like I am, I can tell you that while I was a graduate student here at the University of Memphis, I once went fishing on the banks of a nearby lake, and somehow managed to get trapped in mud up to my waist. In very un-SEAL-like fashion, I had to be rescued by a group of boy scouts who happened to be hiking by.
That gives you a sense of what I won't be sharing with you today. What I will share with you, briefly, is one message that has been important for me throughout my career. You've spent the last several years in school, working very hard, and you've learned much. You have every right to be proud. What impresses me so often about U of M graduates is that your education is hard won. You've sacrificed, have held down multiple jobs to pay for your education, have lost sleep, and have lost opportunities to relax and have a good time. We owe a debt of gratitude to our family and friends who have supported us and helped us to get here. I want to acknowledge my own supporters, my wife Kerrie and daughter Vivienne, who are here with me today.
You have learned a lot, but I want to propose that the greater part of your education has been, and will continue to be, the struggle to unlearn. Now, I don't mean to suggest you've wasted your time getting an education, but rather, that knowledge, about ourselves, and about our world, is always evolving. As the popular English writer G.K. Chesterton, said nearly a hundred years ago: "The chief object of education is not to learn things but to unlearn things." And the great American cowboy humorist, Will Rogers, expressed the same sentiment when he said: "It isn't what we don't know that gives us trouble, it's what we know that ain't so."
There's no shortage of examples of how not challenging our assumptions hurts us. In my own field of public health, we often recount the story of how the cure for scurvy was discovered. Scurvy is a disease we don't hear much about anymore. Its symptoms are too gruesome to discuss at a graduation, but trust me that you wouldn't want it. Scurvy was a major problem until the 19th century, especially for sailors. Around the year 1600 a British navy physician did an experiment and discovered that scurvy is easy to prevent. Occasionally eating an orange, or perhaps squeezing a bit of lime into your margarita, is enough to ensure you avoid this disease. But without the vitamin C we get from citrus, scurvy is invariably fatal. Unfortunately, it took 200 years after the cure was discovered before sailors were routinely given citrus to prevent scurvy, during which time more than a million of them died needlessly from this disease. Why did it take so long? To some extent we can blame slow communication of scientific findings – remember, they didn't have the internet – but scurvy would have been eliminated much more quickly except that the best minds of the age "knew what ain't so": the Royal College of Physicians knew the cure was sulphuric acid; the British Navy knew the cure was vinegar. Others knew that forcing sailors to drink seawater, or leeching sailors to draw out their tainted blood, would cure scurvy. But all of these supposed cures were wrong. Failing to challenge our assumptions keeps us from solving important problems and causes needless suffering.
It's easy to dismiss this anecdote as an outdated event that can't happen in the age of Twitter and viral YouTube videos, but that's not the case. In fact, it's so well known that experts often have a difficult time unlearning old knowledge, that we joke about it. The often-heard quip is: "All truth passes through three stages: First, it is ridiculed; Second, it is violently opposed; and Third, it is accepted as self-evident."
And so, I hope that your University of Memphis education will help you to learn, and unlearn, for the rest of your lives. I hope that you have developed the habit of challenging your assumptions about your world and yourselves. I especially want to encourage you to unlearn that problems are intractable and that you can't change things. The opposite is true: you're the only one who can change things. Decide what you're passionate about. Where will you leave your mark? Time goes by fast: 20 or 30 years from now, what do you want to look back on with pride? What will you leave improved about the world? Your mark may be to improve yourself, or your family, your community, or the globe. Whatever your passion is, don't let yourself be dissuaded from reaching your goals. Many people will discourage you because they think they already have the answers. They don't. If they really had the answers, the problem—whatever it is – would be solved already.
Probably like most of us, I've been dissuaded many times during my career from pursuing the path, the questions, that most interested me. My major professional passion is to figure out how to reduce smoking—how to get kids not to start smoking, and how to help adults quit. That passion grew from watching many people in my family, including my father, die from smoking. We've made great progress, but tobacco still kills 400,000 people in this country, and 5 million people around the world, every year. Trying to solve this problem still makes it exciting for me to come to work each day. But I never would have done anything to help solve this problem if I listened to people who thought they already had the answers. As a graduate student, I thought I had a good idea for a grant but was told not to apply because I'd have little chance of getting it until I had my PhD; I applied anyway and got it, and that launched my career. Shortly after the tragedy of 9/11, I was told not to waste my time applying for a grant to train scientists in the Middle East to fight the tobacco epidemic there; no one would fund us to work in that volatile region, we were told. But my colleagues and I thought the tragedy of 9/11 made it even more important to build bridges in that part of the world, and we stuck with it, were funded, and have developed a very successful research and training center that has made a difference and has been recognized by many organizations, including the World Health Organization, for our accomplishments. More recently, we've studied a new problem in tobacco control – waterpipe, or hookah. You may have seen hookah bars sprouting up in Memphis and around college campuses across the U.S. Many people have discouraged us from this work, thinking that waterpipe is safe and just a passing fad, and therefore not worthy of study. We've persisted, and have shown that it's neither safe nor a passing fad.
Those are a few examples of problems that interest me – the problems that interest you will be different. But whatever you're passionate to change, you can count on being thwarted by people who think they already have the answers. If you wait until everyone agrees with you, you'll never accomplish anything. So, I encourage you to listen to all advice you're given, graciously accept all feedback that is offered, and then follow what you think is the right path to achieve your goals. The great inventor Thomas Edison said "there is far more opportunity than there is ability." You have the ability, and you have the opportunity. It's your job to solve the problems that are important to you. To do that, unlearn what needs unlearning. Challenge your assumptions, and start with the assumptions you have about yourself and what you can accomplish. Congratulations – you're off to a great start, and we're very proud of you!