WPI Journal

December 1996

Embarking on an Age of Exploration

It is a great honor for me to bring you greetings from the men and women of the Connecticut College community and from colleges and universities around the country that hold this institution in such high regard.

This beautiful day and this beautiful hall are a fit setting in which to celebrate the inauguration of President Parrish and the extraordinary career he brings to WPl. With his experience as a widely published engineer and scientist, and a highly apprecia ted teacher and administrator, he brings a unique set of skills and a unique kind of wisdom to WPl at this moment in its history and at this time in human history. For we are entering an age of exploration. And the best education for the leaders of this n ew age will be one that connects the practice of science and technology with the deeper understanding of human beings and culture.

Many writers point to the invention of the Gutenberg Press as the reference point for our age. Gutenberg's invention opened a new set of possibilities - possibilities for communication, yes, but much more profoundly, possibilities for access to learning, fo r sustaining, building and transmitting to future generations the wisdom of human minds working across all fields of endeavor. It was a great moment in human history, the invention of the Gutenberg Press, yet that technology - and that moment - as great as they were, are not the reference points for our age.

In our age, telecommunications and information systems have opened a time much more complicated, much more exciting, and sometimes, much more frightening than the age of Gutenberg - more, in fact, like the age of exploration. In this new age of exploration , librarians have become navigators, not simply catalogers. Faculty members are no longer simply lecturers as they were after Gutenberg (the word lecturer comes from a lecteur, a French phrase that means ³to be the one who reads the book to others²); now they are fellow explorers with their students.

Now we move, not one foot in front of the other, step by step, one moment at a time on the linear path, but through geographical space, and forward and backward in time, using a net with multiple options and modes, with parallel processes and programs and progressions. Limited technically only by the speed of light, people around the world without running water, without access to what we would consider everyday technology, have access to satellite dishes and generators and receive the modern world right o ut of the sky.

In Morocco, in underground dwellings, people watch television and see the same soccer games and the same Dallas reruns that people watch in Paris, London and New York. Corporate scientists from the far corners of the Earth can work together in global team s by meeting in regular video conferences, reducing to nothingness the thousands of miles that separate them. Time and distance have converged through technology. When I consider the printing press in this context, it seems to me that Gutenberg was just an upgrade - one might even say the equivalent of more monks, writing faster, storing more sacred texts - "MonkPerfect 10.1." If that's true, perhaps we can't look at the simple "field of telecommunications" as our metaphor. Perhaps the metaphor is exploratio n - navigating the geography of cyberspace.

Surfing the net, we are, in fact, part of a new metaphor. We are part of a new age in which men and women of all countries and all races and abilities, in their majestic diversity, will engage together in establishing a new framework for human life. We ne ed to know where we are so we can understand what we need to put in the craft with us as we make our progress. Education will now need to engage students and faculty with the world. It will need to engage students with multiple cultures - not just ethnic and national cultures, but disciplinary and problem-solving cultures. We all will need to speak multiple languages - multiple human languages, but also multiple machine and technological languages. Those of us over 40 will be the last gener ation to speak digital with an accent.

The directions already so well-developed in WPl's project-based education are exactly right for the age of exploration; this institution must be congratulated for the foresight that made its education right for this time. Explorers in science, technology and engineering have brought human beings to this age, and WPI's kind of education will be critical to preparing the explorers of the future.

But as a humanist, and a French literature scholar, I believe that this institution, my own institution, and other institutions across the country must continue to work on a way to link the critical, analytical skills even more powerfully with the humane skills. These skills must be developed together, because in this age we will need to have humane skills (for instance, negotiation and conflict resolution skills) at just as high a level as our technical skills. For it will be those who can bring about te chnical advances and sustain the peace who will bring us peace with prosperity, instead of peace with despair and with the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots.

We will also need to develop authentic communication skills - public speaking skills and listening skills. In an age when technology gives us the opportunity to communicate across wide bands of the human race, those with the best ideas may not prevail unle ss they are also the ones who can communicate their ideas most competently and effectively.

Team-building skills will also be important in this new age. These are skills you have wisely worked on here at WPI because you understand that while human beings will always be touched by the gifts of the quintessential individual performer, the complexi ty of our age will increasingly demand teamwork and the capacity of individuals within teams to play a variety of roles to enable the team to do its best work and to be more than the sum of its parts.

In addition to these humane skills, I believe educators must focus more intensively on how we can connect the human spirit to the achievements of the age of exploration. We need to be sensitive to what is important to all human beings, whether they are he re in New England or in Africa, Asia or Latin America; whether they are older or younger; whether they are well or sick. We must be willing to look for common ground and a set of transcending values that connect the human spirit across the world.

This will not be easy, but we in America are especially well-suited to this study. We were blessed to be born in this great land, and we are united by a set of documents that lay out an understanding of the human spirit and the obligations and opportuniti es we offer each other. We are bound together by the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Ideas from Greek and Roman civilization, from European humanism, and from the great Judeo-Christian and Islamic faiths, brought the wisdom of the human spirit to the framers of the Constitution.

We must assure that this wisdom goes with us in the craft we will construct to travel through the age of exploration. We must not only say that we believe that all men are created equal and that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable r ights, among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We must make that set of beliefs real for others, not just those with whom we share a great deal, but for our brothers and sisters around the world. We must dedicate ourselves to that transcend ing set of goals with the same power with which we pursue the space program and the human genome project.

For our enemies today are not evil empires; they are the potential for racial and ethnic and national conflicts that will break societies apart. Many scholars believe this potential for destruction is more powerful than any force we have ever met. We must bring together the powers that have motivated the work done here at WPI, the powers of the corporate, trade and business sectors, and the powers of the military and government, to work toward ways to bring about peace and cooperation as we move toward everyone's prosperity.

We have arrived at an important moment. The education you have accomplished here has been part of the strongest work of the age of modernism. Systematizing, efficiency-optimizing technologies have moved us to this extraordinary moment. They have built one wing of the craft. Through the ages, human beings have been building the other wing, one based in relationships moved by the human spirit and by the need for tolerance, compassion and trust. This wing cannot always be accounted for by rational analysis, but the craft will need both wings.

After a while, we will notice that we are not only in a craft with two wings, both working well, but that the craft has become a bird and that both wings are moving with equal strength. Those wings will carry the human race into the 21st century, not into the despair of ethnic rivalries and small destructive wars, of disease, and of the widening gap between the rich and the poor, but into the generosity and ingenuity of the human spirit, born in the kind of education WPI offers. This kind of education wil l bring us to the place that human beings have only imagined for thousands of years and that was thought to be an ideal that we were not intended to achieve on this Earth. It is a place where the age of exploration can truly begin.


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