Wilson: world needs graduates’ smarts

Dr. Edward O. Wilson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, asked Carolina’s newest graduates to pay attention to an imbalance in how the world is turning “at least pastel green” Sunday during the spring Commencement ceremony in Kenan Stadium.

While it’s good that the environmentally conscious focus on the physical environment – climate change, pollution, the decline of fresh water and arable land, and the depletion of irreplaceable natural resources – too little attention is being paid to the living environment, he said.

Wilson worries about the diversity of life: ponds, rivers, forests, coral reefs; species of plants, animals and microorganisms; as well as the genes that prescribe the traits of those species.

Human activity is eroding away the Earth’s biosphere – the razor-thin membrane plastered onto the planet’s surface – at an accelerating rate, said Wilson, author of “On Human Nature” and “The Ants” – both non-fiction Pulitzer winners.

Without change, half the Earth’s species will be gone or on the edge of extinction by the end of the century, Wilson said.

“The loss of so much of the rest of life, if allowed to continue, will inflict a heavy price on you and future generations in wealth, security and spirit. If on the other hand, the problem is solved, the benefits … will become beyond measure.”

He urged them to take the torch “in this fundamental problem, and the opportunity it provides to understand and to contribute to its solution.”

Wilson was the featured speaker at Commencement, where Chancellor Holden Thorp presided and Carolina awarded six honorary degrees. An estimated 5,780 undergraduate, graduate and professional students received degrees during Commencement weekend, which included a hooding ceremony for doctoral students on Saturday in the Dean E. Smith Center.

Wilson, the internationally recognized Harvard University professor, also told the graduates that today’s “overwhelming technoscientific civilization” – the accumulated knowledge of the world is already at the zettabyte level (one followed by 21 zeroes of bytes) – was changing everything required to survive as a species.

“This country and the rest of the world needs university-trained young people prepared not only by knowledge itself but by the capacity to find new knowledge in order to respond quickly to needs and crises, in their various professions, in public affairs, and in their daily life,” Wilson said. “And, with it all, to think upon and understand the meaning of humanity and yourselves and your lives.
“So, go forth. Think. Save the world.”

Thorp echoed that theme in his charge to the graduates, acknowledging that the prospects of entering the real world would be frightening to some.

“We know from experience, that you will make that real world better,” he said. “You have the knowledge, energy and experience to take us where we need to go.”

As Tar Heels, everyone in Chapel Hill will always be proud of the graduates and have deep faith in their abilities, Thorp said.

Sunday morning’s Kenan Stadium crowd was enthusiastic despite cloudy skies and rain that ended just before the ceremony. The audience of about 25,000 honored the mothers in attendance since it was their day, too. The sun cannily peeked through the clouds just as the graduates sang the alma mater, “Hark the Sound.”

A sea of true Carolina blue academic gowns debuted among the undergraduates, thanks to Alexander Julian, the award-winning colorist and fashion designer. He was determined that his son, Will, would not graduate wearing an aqua gown.

The robes used for years were not true Carolina Blue. Julian volunteered to work with the regalia supplier and the campus to create the nation’s first designer graduation regalia. The gowns are made with recyclable materials (100 percent recycled plastic bottles; 23 per gown). And they are really the correct shade of Carolina blue.

Read Edward O. Wilson’s Commencement speech

Watch archived version of streaming video from the entire ceremony

Dr. Suzanne Cusick, professor of music at New York University, gave the keynote address at the 2011 Doctoral Hooding Ceremony on May 7. An estimated 250 students participated in the ceremony at the Dean E. Smith Center to have their academic hoods conferred. Cusick, who earned her doctorate in musicology from UNC, stressed the importance of a college education at a public university.

“Public universities like UNC exist to guarantee all the people access to learning, and through that, access to the myriad forms of power. And public universities like UNC exist to produce knowledge that, however esoteric in its conception, can be used by citizens who are not scholars, to analyze and affect their situations, whether at work or at home, in public or in private.”

Read the full text of Cusick’s speech here.

Published May 9, 2011.