2011 Opening Convocation Address

Provost Mark Schlissel: ‘False Choices’

September 16, 2011  |  By Mark Nickel |  401-863-1638
Mark S. Schlissel University Provost and Professor of Biology Credit: Mike Cohea/Brown University
Mark S. Schlissel, beginning his first full academic year at Brown's 11th provost, delivered the Opening Convocation address to the undergraduate, graduate, and medical students who are beginning their studies at Brown. The text of his address, False Choices, presented at 4 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2011, follows here.

President Simmons, Chancellor Tisch, Reverend Cooper-Nelson, faculty colleagues, and students. Welcome, Brown class of 2015!!! I offer my welcome also to our new graduate, medical, and transfer students.

These wishes have a special meaning for me this day because I too am new to this great University — as President Simmons said, this is my first semester at Brown as it is for you. When I told my mother last spring that I had accepted President Simmons’ offer to become Brown’s Provost she was thrilled, congratulated me profusely and then proceeded to brag to all her friends. Days later, she phoned to ask me just one question about my new job — “What is a provost anyway?” In case you don’t know either, I am the campus’ chief academic officer, responsible for all the professors, students, research, teaching, and learning here at Brown.

After President Simmons invited me to speak today, I asked a young alum about her recollections of the Opening Convocation address. She perked up and said, “Oh, you’re giving the ‘best class ever speech’” because that’s what the speaker always seems to say. Remarkably, it’s true once again. You are part of one of Brown’s most selective entering classes ever — we admitted only 8.9 percent of over 31,000 applicants to the college. Nearly 40 percent of you were valedictorians or salutatorians at your high school graduation, and perhaps more remarkably, 16 percent of you represent the first generation in your family to attend college. Clearly, Brown is like Lake Woebegone, where all the children are above average! Seriously, yours is a student community of great accomplishment and great diversity, and these factors will be key contributors to your education in the years ahead.

From my perspective as a biological scientist and a physician, I’d like to address two questions with you today apropos of the beginning of the academic year, and they’re both big ones:

  1. Why are we here? Rather, what is the purpose of a college education?
  2. What is the relationship between the sciences and the humanities in a liberal education?

These questions are particularly important for us to consider here at Brown since because of the open curriculum, you will have more freedom in shaping your own education than students at almost any other university.

So, why are we here? Although Brown is nearly 250 years old, let me begin by quoting selectively from our mission statement:

“The mission of Brown University is to serve the community, the nation, and the world … by educating and preparing students to discharge the offices of life with usefulness and reputation.”

Hmmm. What does that mean?

John Adams, second president of the United States, was quoted as saying that “there are two types of education. One should teach us how to make a living and the other how to live.”

He pointed out what we consider today to be the two competing views of why people attend college. One view, perhaps espoused by many of your parents, is that you go to college to learn things that will make you employable, that will teach you “how to make a living.” This very utilitarian view focuses on things like science, engineering, and economics for example — disciplines that teach what some might consider important job skills. Given the current state of the world’s economy, being able to find a good job after college and launch a career is obviously a concern for many of you. The competing notion is that you go to college to develop “qualities of the mind” and be educated in the nature of ideas and creativity — things that will “teach you how to live.” To explore what it means to be human. This latter view might refer to the study of subjects like literature, philosophy, history, art and music — subjects that some would argue have less of a direct link to the skills that future employers might find attractive in this increasingly competitive and complex world.

It is just this growing complexity that makes the choice between learning a skill and preparing a mind a false choice. B.F. Skinner said, “Education is what survives when what has been learnt has been forgotten.”

I can certainly attest to this. Much of what I learned in college, graduate and medical school has been superseded by new facts and new levels of understanding. When I was an undergraduate in the late 1970s, techniques were developed that allowed biologists to read the code of small stretches of DNA, the stuff genes are made from, in a painstaking fashion one letter at a time. Reading a stretch of 30 letters was considered a major accomplishment. About twelve years later, The Human Genome Project was started with the goal of determining the entire genetic code of one individual, all 3 billion letters. This took more than a decade of effort from a consortium of labs all around the world, and was completed in 2003 at a cost of around $2 billion. Now, just eight years later, the sequence of letters in your own personal genome can be determined in 2 to 3 weeks at a cost of less than $5,000. I predict that before the end of this decade, each of you will carry in your pocket the sequence of your own genome on a device like a thumb drive for use by medical professionals to tailor health-related interventions to your own genetic legacy. What I learned as a biochemistry major in college barely provides a framework for how I’ve had to educate myself ever since. So, the literal substance of what you learn in college is rarely as important as one might think. And let’s not even discuss how studying biochemistry or medicine might have prepared me for becoming Brown’s Provost. Not.

What I did learn in college that has been of enduring value during my career was how to learn. I learned how to seek out what I wanted to know and achieve a desired level of understanding. I also cultivated a sense of wonder about the world, a sense of excitement that came from understanding. As William Butler Yeats said, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Working in a molecular biology research lab as an undergraduate, I found one of my lifelong passions, falling in love with lab science — using my own hands to generate data to argue about in an attempt to achieve new understanding of the natural world. I found it intoxicating. I also built a general toolbox of skills like writing clearly, speaking persuasively, being critical and incisive in considering the thoughts of others, as well as my own ideas. And finally, another undervalued skill — learning how to grind it out, the qualities of persistence and commitment. I would argue that these are the important career skills to learn in college, and they can be learned equally well while majoring in philosophy, politics, or physics.

Many of you starting your college education today plan to study the sciences, engineering or math, and perhaps even more of you intend to pursue the humanities, arts, or social sciences. Often, these are viewed as alternative curricula. I’d like to argue that especially at Brown, they are not as unrelated as you might think. Let me tell you what I mean.

In grade school, you all learned about the “scientific method” — observation, hypothesis, experiment, conclusion. Well, as a practicing scientist for the last 30 years, I can tell you with certainty that this just isn’t the way science works, at least not biological science. Scientists are thought of as dispassionate seekers of objective truth, honest observers of the world around us. It turns out that scientists are just like everyone else in terms of the impact of their biases and influence of their egos on their work. We usually begin with a tightly held, preconceived notion of the answer to a scientific problem arrived at after considering the work of others and infatuated with our own cleverness. We are convinced we’ve “out-thought” nature and we’ve got something really important figured out. Then we go out and look for data, consciously or subconsciously, that fit with this notion. Often, these notions are framed by the prevailing theories or trendy ideas within a scientific discipline, a kind of “group-think.” Our ways of thinking and interpreting what we observe are constrained by human psychology and cultural influences. It took a physicist-turned-philosopher named T.S. Kuhn to point this out to us in his famous book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Most science occurs within the bounds of existing paradigms, disrupted only rarely by major scientific revolutions. For example, the Copernican Revolution that led to the understanding of the solar system with Earth orbiting around the Sun. “Fact gathering” is constrained, Kuhn argued, by an intellectual paradigm that tells you the bounds of what you’re looking for. Great scientists, those with insight, keep an open mind, and when their experiments fail to support their notions, they let go and generate new ideas. Serendipity often enters into the equation leading to great discoveries — Fleming discovered penicillin because of a contaminant in his experiments on bacteria; Rontgen discovered X-rays and their value for medicine while studying cathode ray tubes; pharmacologists discovered the commercial properties of Viagra while testing the drug as a blood pressure medicine in a nursing home and noticing some surprising extracurricular activities amongst the study subjects.

What about doctors? Surely those of you who aspire to go to medical school should be focusing your studies on the sciences. Medical school teaches students about basic human biology and disease, but spends precious little time addressing the humanistic aspects of medical care. Empathy is an absolutely critical capacity for physicians. How do you learn that? How do you learn to relate to people from very different circumstances, cultures, and origins than your own? Physicians need to be careful listeners, to extract from a patient’s narrative the key facts necessary to make a diagnosis. These types of professional skills can be cultivated through the study of the humanities! Great literature reveals in narrative form the life stories, challenges and dilemmas of others. We can learn to see the world through another’s eyes, like those of Chunming in Factory Girls. We can cultivate our own ethics and integrity and capacity for empathy through the study of literature or philosophy.

Things that scientists discover sometimes provide insight into that larger question I posed earlier, the one that captivates study in the humanities: what it means to be human. To me, one of the most profound of all scientific insights is the observation that all life on earth uses the same set of basic biochemical building blocks — carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and nucleic acids — and nearly identical processes to convert the energy held within sunlight or food into useful forms to do work. What’s more, the genes that code for the enzymes required for these processes are remarkably similar in bacteria, plants, and animals. These scientific insights alter the way we humans think about ourselves — the evolutionary relatedness of all life on earth. The “debate” on teaching evolution speaks to the emotional and philosophical power of these ideas.

I’ve spoken about why students interested in the sciences should also study the humanities. But why should a student interested in development studies or law school or the arts study science as part of their Open Curriculum here at Brown? It’s not to learn how to do problem sets or to learn particular facts about atoms or DNA or how to do derivatives — I’m referring to the kind you learn in calculus, not the ones used on Wall Street. It’s to learn how to rely on, perhaps demand, data and to apply quantitative reasoning skills to solve problems you will encounter in your own lives. It is to understand enough science to enable you to consider the impact of science and technology on society. But also, perhaps more importantly, to experience the excitement of understanding phenomena in the natural world — like a child learning why the sky is blue.

Some think that scientists chose their profession out of a desire to do something that might be considered useful: To discover a new property of matter that might lead to new machines or materials; to develop a new drug to treat some dreadful disease; to devise a novel computer algorithm to predict the intensity of hurricanes. While this is often a part of our motivation and it’s what we say when we write research grant proposals asking the government to support our work, many of us practice science out of a sense of wonder and a longing for understanding of the world around us. How did the union of a sperm and an egg a bit more than 18 years ago result in something as unique, complex, and wonderful as a Brown freshman? For me, wonder comes from studying how the immune system can recognize literally hundreds of millions of distinct chemical structures thereby protecting us from a rapidly evolving world of microbial threats to our survival. Many scientists here at Brown are captivated by attempting to understand how the human brain builds circuits that allow us to see and hear and taste and feel and walk and think and dream.

Is this motivation, this sense of wonder, all that different from what might inspire those in the humanities — a classicist, a philosopher, or a historian perhaps? The humanities help us see and try to understand humankind’s greatest and worst potentials. Whether through efforts to interpret ancient writings or the literature of a foreign culture, scholars in the humanities search for understanding of the human condition, the human spirit, the roots of behaviors and feelings that define our everyday lives. I would argue that one of the most important things we can all learn through the study of the humanities is a sense of ethical behavior and integrity. Literature is filled with examples of individuals, families, and communities struggling with choices and adapting to forces outside of their own control. For example, in the book we asked you to read this summer, Factory Girls, factory bosses in Dongguan would withhold salary to enslave their employees and these migrant girls would lie to their employers about their educations or their closest friends about their past. History exposes us to the record of how humans react to their circumstances leading us to judge them as great or flawed. The study of foreign language and culture teaches us to see and understand the world from perspectives outside of our own—seeing things through someone else’s eyes. Study of the humanities teaches us to understand that our own perspective is but one of many possible ways of looking at something. This sounds useful for a scientist as well as a philosopher, doesn’t it?

I urge all students here at Brown not to choose between the two but to study both the sciences and the humanities for another important reason. In a democracy, citizens are asked to make critical decisions that determine the future of our society and because of your Brown education, your family, friends and neighbors will look to you for guidance. How would you consider the conflict between teaching the religious perspective on the Creation and the teaching of evolution without a rudimentary understanding of both topics? How could you cast a vote in favor or against public funding of stem cell research without understanding what stem cells are? How can you think about the potential and the dangers of nuclear energy without an understanding of atoms and fission? The same can be said about the debate on how we should respond to global warming. Just as with the sciences, study of the humanities is a critical enabler of citizenship in our democracy. As pointed out by my former Berkeley colleague, a philosopher named Janet Broughton, “Democracies depend on leaders and citizens who are tough-minded and open-minded, who have a deep understanding of how the world looks to people whose language, culture, politics and religion are very different from their own, and who are dedicated to public engagement and service.”

Whether you end up concentrating in the sciences, social sciences, arts or the humanities, one thing you will surely do at Brown is learn from one another. While a Brown education is expensive, through the leadership of President Simmons, Chancellor Tisch, former Chancellor Robert, the members of the Brown Corporation, and the generosity of nearly 250 years of Brown alumni, admission to Brown is need-blind. This means that your class is not only highly talented and accomplished, it is also diverse, socially, culturally, racially, and economically. Your classmates will bring many different perspectives with them into the classroom, born of this diversity, with an obvious salutary impact on your education.

So what’s your role in all of this? Your role is to be curious and to wonder. Don’t simply accept what your professors have to say but question us. Approach our teachings like a curious scientist and look for the facts that underlie our interpretations and opinions; the data that leads to our conclusions. Assess our lectures with the thoughtfulness of a young philosopher — consider the quality of our arguments, the strength of our logic. Let me tell you a secret — many faculty love to teach because we want to learn. We want the best young minds of your generation to challenge what we think so we can learn and grow. Ask the impertinent question, just do so respectfully. Challenge our preconceived notions, our postulates. Let your curiosity and sense of wonder lead you to contribute to our research, whether in a biology lab, the computer center, a library, a museum, an archive or at a colloquium. President Kennedy once said, “From those to whom much is given, much is required.” You’ve worked hard, but in return been given the remarkable privilege of spending four years of your life surrounded by some of the most talented members of your generation, a faculty who longs to work with you, and the resources of a great university enhanced by the commitment of our supportive alumni. I urge you to play an active role in preparing yourself to discharge the offices of life with usefulness and reputation. Welcome to Brown, medical students, graduate students and class of 2015! Have a fantastic academic year and a wonderful career here at Brown.