Yale Bulletin and Calendar

May 26, 2000Volume 28, Number 33

Reflection on Revolution

The following is the text of the Baccalaureate Address delivered by President Richard C. Levin in Woolsey Hall on May 21.

We are living in the midst of a revolution. Should you doubt it, just consider how rapidly the world has changed since you came to Yale four years ago. In September 1996, you couldn't buy groceries, or health care products, or airline tickets on the Internet. Amazon.com had been operating for a year, but HomeGrocer.com, drugstore.com, ShopLink.com, Priceline.com and cheaptickets.com were not yet in business. Silicon Valley was booming, but Silicon Alley didn't exist. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was one half its current value, the NASDAQ index was one third its current value, and you couldn't check the weather forecast on the "wireless Web" using your cell phone.

You occupy a privileged position in this revolution, because, as Dean Brodhead just reminded you: "The world is all before you where to choose your place of rest." And Milton was not the only poet to describe the possibilities opened by revolution. In 1791, less than a year after leaving Cambridge, William Wordsworth headed off to Paris, where he was quickly caught up in the exhilaration of the early years of the French Revolution. He wrote: "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/But to be young was very heaven." Wordsworth's revolution, as we know, descended into Terror and hence to Empire, but it changed the political and social structure of Europe forever.

The year I entered college, Bob Dylan wrote an anthem for my generation -- "The Times they are A-Changin'" -- in which he described another revolution. What came to pass was less apocalyptic than he envisioned, but to the extent that he prophesized a revolution of attitude, he was on to something. In the wake of the turbulent 1960s, most Americans emerged with a profoundly revised perception of the rights of racial minorities and women, a belief that opportunity should not be constrained by race or gender. The enduring importance of these changes in attitude and objective opportunity should not be underestimated. But the 1960s did not radically alter the economic and social order.

By contrast, the Internet Revolution will alter economy and society no less profoundly than the advent of the railroads in the nineteenth century and the automobile in the twentieth. The Internet will shrink time and space in much the same way -- changing patterns of production and distribution, reorganizing the structure of business enterprises, rearranging people across the landscape, altering the relationship between home and work. The railroads gave a powerful impetus to productivity gains and economic growth by stimulating regional specialization in agriculture, the creation of the multidivisional enterprise, and the emergence of new, inland cities and financial centers like Atlanta and Dallas at important junctions. The railroads also spurred social change by distributing population linearly across the nation and radially from the center of larger cities.

The advent of automobiles, trucks, and highways had an equally profound effect on productivity and economic growth -- allowing the decentralization of production and distribution, providing greater flexibility in location and scheduling, reducing barriers to entry, encouraging product differentiation and responsiveness to consumers. To the extent that suburbanization changed the life style of millions, transformed the use of leisure time, altered social structure, created disparity in educational opportunity, and threatened the viability of many cities, it would not be implausible to argue that the automobile was the most powerful agent of social change in the 20th century.

If this evidence from economic history does not convince you, consider what Marcel Proust had to say about the coming of the automobile:

Distances are only the relation of space to time and vary with it. We express the difficulty that we have in getting to a place in a system of miles or kilometers which becomes false as soon as that difficulty decreases. Art is modified by it also, since a village which seemed to be in a different world from some other village becomes its neighbor in a landscape whose dimensions are altered. In any case, to learn that there may perhaps exist a universe in which two and two make five and a straight line is not the shortest distance between two points would have astonished Albertine far less than to hear the driver say that it was easy to go in a single afternoon to Saint-Jean and Raspelière.

The Internet will make ever more remote villages neighbors in a landscape whose dimensions are radically altered. Alongside this powerful tendency and its implied challenge to the cultural distinctiveness of nations and regions, the Internet promises gains in productivity that are commensurate with those attributed to the railroad and the automobile. We are only beginning to see how the Internet will revolutionize the marketing and distribution of goods and services. It will have similar effects on transactions done inside businesses and noncommercial organizations, even within the home. Everything we do that involves the acquisition and use of information is potentially subject to enormous cost saving, reorganization and transformation. Exactly where all this will lead cannot be foretold, but it is inevitable that tens of thousands of new business opportunities will arise and many old ways of doing business will become obsolete. For many transactions, national boundaries will become irrelevant. For many occupations, the physical link between home and workplace, relaxed by the automobile, will be obliterated. There will be big winners and many losers, and the net gains will be measured in rates of economic growth, at home and abroad, that substantially exceed those we have experienced for most of the second half of the twentieth century. This conclusion is likely to hold even if it turns out that financial markets currently overestimate the value of these developments.

All this implies a time of extraordinary opportunity for your generation. And you don't have to start a dot-com to participate. The possibilities for innovation and entrepreneurship extend well beyond the sphere of commercial activity into the nonprofit and public arenas. New forms of education will emerge, as well as new approaches to delivering social services and new instruments of public oversight and regulation.

With these abundant opportunities to shape your own lives go important responsibilities. The benefits of these new technologies will not be shared equally by everyone. We will want to keep in place the powerful incentives that reward innovation, but we will not want to live with the consequences of an ever-widening gap between the rich and poor, in this country and around the world. The inchoate demonstrations in Seattle and Washington, D.C., as well as the re-emergence of political activism on this and other campuses, surely signal that there are important problems of social justice to be addressed, although the problems are not yet well formulated and the solutions not yet identified. As you seize the opportunities created by new technology, you must also assume the burden of citizenship and share in the responsibility to spread those opportunities to others, who are now deprived of them by accident of birth or geography.

You are well prepared for the challenges of these revolutionary times, because, faithful to the values enunciated in the seminal Yale Report of 1828, your education focused more on the "discipline of the mind" than on its "furniture." Your teachers were not mere "content providers." They helped you to develop the capacity to think independently, to master new bodies of knowledge as you confront them, to probe beneath the surface to seek the principles that organize the facts.

In this respect, the education you received here was instrumental. The capacity to think critically will serve you well as you build careers of every kind, whether in e-commerce, science, education, health care, social service, religion, or public life. And the experience here of living in community -- of learning to work with and care for others -- will serve you just as well as you face the moral and ethical challenges that attend a period of rapid social and economic change.

I ask you to consider just one more task. In the heady rush to seize the opportunities that this revolutionary time provides, and as you wrestle with the ethical dilemmas it presents, I would urge you to give sufficient time to reading and reflection. Your lives will be incalculably richer if you continue to challenge yourselves by reading and re-reading the greatest works of literature, history, and philosophy. The humanities can be a constant source of enlargement for your lives.

I was inspired to this last observation very recently by reading the latest work of Yale's great scholar, critic, and teacher Harold Bloom. This slender volume, entitled "How to Read and Why," is about the pleasures one derives from careful reading, and it makes its case by means of a series of examples drawn from short stories, poems, plays, and novels. Professor Bloom focuses on works of the imagination, on literature, but I would argue that serious engagement with great works of history, biography, and autobiography achieves the same result. Each of these forms permits the reader to encounter otherness -- the independent consciousness of the poet, the fully developed characters of the great novelist or biographer, the richly drawn world of another time and place in which history unfolds. To give just one example, if we wished to understand the struggle between personal ideals and the necessity of practical action, we would be well advised to study both Tolstoy's portrayal of Pierre Bezuhov and the life and writings of Abraham Lincoln. By seriously engaging with the text, literary or historical, we both encounter difference, which through reflection enlarges our own sphere of experience, and we find a common humanity. These are my own words, but I believe they capture what Professor Bloom means when he draws upon Dr. Johnson, Francis Bacon, and Emerson to urge: "find what comes truly near to you, that can be used for weighing and for considering. Read deeply ... to share in that one nature that writes and reads."

Reading, according to Bloom, will not make one behave better, neither will it change the world. One need not read with either objective in mind, because deep reading will enlarge your humanity and this alone is worthwhile. But I would add this: reading, reflection, and action based upon reflection can make you a better person, and you can change the world.

Women and men of the Class of 2000: You are "standing on the top of golden hours." Use what Yale has given you to make the most of these revolutionary times.

Take care that the possibilities created by the Internet Revolution are available to all. And keep on reading -- to encounter otherness, to reflect upon it, to discover what binds you to those who wrote, to enlarge your humanity.

C O M M E N C E M E N T2 0 0 0


Baccalaureate Address

Honorary Degrees

Senior Class Day

Teaching Prizes

Scholastic Prizes

Roosevelt L. Thompson Prize

Athletic Awards

David Everett Chantler Prize

Other Student Awards and Honors

Wilbur Cross Medals


Yale celebrates 299th Commencement

Fellowship winners to pursue summer study across the globe

Yale helps the new 'Amistad' set sail on its educational mission

Festival Time: Celebrations of art, music and culture at Yale, city sites

Environmental leaders to join school's faculty

Conservation leaders named McCluskey Fellows

Alumni return to campus to celebrate reunions

Researcher links unexplained car accidents and heart irregularities

Center's family celebration will mark Cancer Survivors Day

Family Festival to celebrate Yale Art Gallery exhibitions

Students will teach in China, Hong Kong

Movie theaters 'pitch in' to raise funds for Yale pediatric programs

Edmund Gordon is honored for his achievements

'Feminist humor maven' will speak at campaign school

Symposium will pay tribute to Dr. Marvin Sears

Fair will highlight continuing education

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