“Standing on the shoulders of giants”
Commencement Address (P. Louchouarn)
Texas A&M University at Galveston – Summer 2013
Graduating students and your families and friends,
Distinguished members of the faculty and all members of Texas A&M University at Galveston:
Thank you for inviting me to speak to you today. It is my honor to be here to recognize the achievement of our students for this last graduation of the class of 2013.
Before I start, I want to recognize General McClain for his suggestion that I give the address today, and more importantly for his advice on how to do it. When he initially suggested I give the address, I was a little at a loss. I’d never given a commencement speech before and I’ve always considered it to be a big deal. The General, with his usual laid-back attitude and a twinkle in his eyes said: “It’s easy! Just tell them they are prepared, and be personal”. Again, I want to thank you General for a great suggestion, I’ll try to do just that. But most importantly I want to thank you for your constant advice.
Now to the task at hand: The Commencement Address.
To keep in good standing with the General’s advice, I’ll be personal. And anyone who has taken a class with me or attended one of my lectures knows I love quotes. So I found the perfect one for this speech from one of my favorite painters, Salvador Dalí:
“I’ll be so brief, I’m already finished…”
Just kidding… I couldn’t be brief to save my life. (and you would know this if you had taken one of my classes).
My title “standing on the shoulders of giants”, comes directly from another quote. This one is from Isaac Newton: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants”
My interpretation of it has always been in relation to my primary role as a professor. I have made it my mission to highlight the fact that we never learn (or create) anything out of context.
Let me rephrase that: we should NEVER learn anything out of context. And especially out of historical context.
What do I mean? Graduates, and everyone in this room, your education, whatever its level, was made possible by the countless achievements and discoveries of past (and present) scientists, intellectuals, historians, business leaders, public servants, teachers, parents. The list is immense!
This is the beauty of education you see.
It is a social, incremental, cultural inheritance. Every generation is bonified by the development of knowledge from previous generations, and in turn it can directly pass its own achievements and discoveries to the next generation.
If Newton accepted that his brilliance was part of a stream, and not independent, occurring in a vacuum, who are we to forget it?
I say this because a few years ago, I attended a PhD defense as a member of a student’s committee. And during the Question-Answers portion of the defense, I asked the student repeatedly questions like: “who before you came up with a similar observation?” or “how is your work related to previous findings?”. And I kept getting answers like “no one, I’m the first to report it” and “my data are unique”. Even if this were true (which it wasn’t in this case), and even if all of us are indeed unique, none of our cultural heritage and knowledge came to us in a vacuum. In fact, not even our biology is unique. We share strands of DNA from our respective biological parents.
So graduates, let me say this today: Never minimize your achievements, but never forget where you came from or the giants on which shoulders you rest!
So, who are your giants? Well, first of all I’d assume that your loved ones come first: parents, family, friends. Second, and I’ll insist, all that made this day possible from Gallileo (pfiuff, I’d going deep here), to General Rudder, to your Professors (yes, come on, they deserve a little love. All of them!). And then there is another group, which stands by your side and support you. These are the Aggies out there that have graduated and made this university proud.
I have never such a thing as the Aggie Spirit and the connection of its alumni. And I say this having worked at an Ivy League University that prides itself in its alumni network.
Wear an Aggie cap anywhere in the world and chances are you’ll get a “thumbs up” or a cheerful “Howdy”. I know, it’s happened to me. In NYC’s subway no less.
The Aggie Spirit is infectious. I fell to it.
Your Aggie fellows are your giants and I can bet many of you will be the recipients of a little shoulder boost from that group in your careers. And in turn, I know that you’ll lend your own shoulder to the mix.
But back to my first agenda item: Telling you that you are prepared. You are prepared because the Aggie tradition is about service and its education has prepared you for leadership. What do I understand by leadership? Here is a quote from General Colin Powell on leadership that best exemplifies my own view on it:
“Leadership is about solving problems.” General Powell goes on to say: “The day people stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership”.
Leadership is about solving problems. And in case you haven’t noticed, that’s what you’ve been doing for the last four years (maybe 6-7?). And today is proof that you’ve done it successfully. You solved problems with homework. You’ve argued your grades with some professors, sometimes with me… You’ve navigated financial aid. You’ve managed to get a few football tickets (I hope), and so many other details and sometimes more serious issues that you’ve in fact been problem solvers for a number of years.
Here is another quote by General Powell:
“If you are going to achieve excellence in big things, you develop the habits of little matters. Excellence is not an exception, it is a prevailing attitude”
Class of 2013, you are prepared because today is proof that you have indeed developed a “habit in little matters”.
Now, with a personal story. As the Admiral mentioned, although I grew up and lived the vast majority of my life on the American continent, I was born in France. And so did my parents back in the early 1930s, a decade before WWII. My father grew up on the western tip of Brittany, and my mother was a Parisian. Though as soon as WWII started my grandmother sent my mother to live with family in Normandy. That decision was made on the grounds that Normandy would be safer than Paris (but we all know the wisdom of that assumption).
Both of my grandfathers were prisoners of war in the netherworld of German work camps. Strangely enough, my brothers and I grew up oblivious of this situation. I knew my grandparents into their 90s. It is only into our adulthood that understood the situation our parents and grandparents lived through. I learned about my mother’s biggest fear as a child: frogs! When she had to jump in ditches during air raids coming back from school. But the most momentous time in my parents’ lives, and I heard that story often, was when American GIs landed in Brittany and Normandy. What my mother remembers is her rides in open top jeeps, exchanging fresh produce for chewing gums and chocolate bars (I agree with the latter! Gotta have your priorities). But these were just stories for me, that never really hit home until a few years ago when I became a Citizen of this country.
During that emotional ceremony, I was surprised to find myself thinking about D-Day, about the sacrifice of American GIs (and Canadian ones too) who liberated Western Europe. Why did I think about my mother’s stories? I don’t know. But it seemed then a twist of fate that I should become an American Citizen. Here is another twist: One of the commanders on those French beaches during D-Day was none other than General Earl Rudder who led his 2nd Ranger Battalion to scale 100-foot cliffs under enemy fire. I read that during that operation, his battalion’s casualties were more than 50% and that he himself was wounded twice.
Who does that?... Other than men and women truly and fiercely committed to their ideal…
These are the giants of my generation. These are my giants. And I’ll never be able to thank any of them directly.
So, on behalf of your forebears, I’d like to extend my deferred gratitude to all veterans in the room along with the men and women in active duty.
Let me get back to General Rudder. Beyond his role in the war, we know he became a transformational leader of Texas A&M University. Every non-Core and female student in this room today stand on his shoulders because he transformed Texas A&M. He also enabled the foundation of the Texas Maritime Academy, which itself led to the university you are a part of. That is the reason we named our ship after him. It is safe to say we all stand on his shoulders.
So, graduates of the class of 2013, find out who your personal giants are. Recognize them, grow their numbers, honor them as best as you can, and most importantly, make sure you become giants of your own for the next generation.
With respect to that last bit, let me quote, appropriately, President Abraham Lincoln: “You have to do your won growing, no matter how tall your grandfather was”
Surely, if a man of his stature recognized the humbling need for each of us to develop our own strength and height, it would serve us to listen and understand that growth is NOT something you do in isolation. We rest on the shoulders of giants indeed, but it is not only for us to see further, but also to give the next generation a little boost for their own growth.
So let me finish this speech by reminding why you are prepared for the next phase of your life.
You are prepared because you’ve taken ownership of your own learning.
You are prepared because this day is proof to you that goals take time to achieve and that patience and determination will take you where you want to be. That you have developed a habit in little matters.
And finally, you are prepared because you now become part of a nation of giants on whose shoulders others will rise. Because leadership is about caring, your Aggie mission of service is also one of leadership.
Congratulations class of 2013, become Aggie Giants!