Purdue University President Mitch Daniels recently gave the folowing commencement address:
Purdue is known for the pioneers and adventurers it produces, those whose sense of wonder has led them to frontiers of new knowledge, across our planet and beyond it. But even a Nobel Laureate or an astronaut could not surpass by much the curiosity of a newly minted college graduate: I wonder what's next? Am I good enough? Most of all, in what kind of world will I live my adult life?
Maybe you saw the following headlines: "Salary Rise for Graduates"; "More Jobs Ahead: Outlook for Graduates is Better Than Usual"; "Thriving Economy Gives Grads Bright Prospects."
OK, maybe you didn't. They were from 1956, 1985 and 2006, respectively. Most graduates have departed in years like those, bound for an America of unquestioned economic promise, national confidence and world leadership.
The headlines of your graduation year are different: "Class of 2013 Might Earn Less"; "Class of 2013 Faces Grim Job Prospects"; "Without Jobs, College Grads Head for Debtors' Prison." About half of you will leave college with student loan debt, and as daunting as that burden may feel, the debt you chose to incur is small compared to the debt you are inheriting, through no decision of your own. Your elders have run up an enormous national tab for you to pay off.
In a stagnant economy, with national debt weighing down the present and threatening the future, pessimism is hardly surprising. But then, the pessimists are with us in all eras, good and not so good.
Anything that titillates, that excites, that sends a shiver up the spine, tends to sell, so there's always a market for doomsaying. But something keeps getting in the way of Armageddon. That something is human ingenuity.
That population "bomb" that was going to detonate and destroy the world? It was a dud. Rising incomes and education levels brought birthrates plummeting down, first in the developed world and now even in developing countries like Vietnam, Tunisia and El Salvador. Now books with names like "The Birth Dearth" and "What to Expect When No One's Expecting" bring us data showing that the looming danger comes from aging societies with far too few young people.
Those global starvation scenarios are in the file of pseudo-scientific embarrassments. Instead of global famine, the proportion living at subsistence income levels is smaller today than ever in human history.
Is world hunger still the largest challenge we face? Of course, but instead of the worldwide catastrophe we were told to expect, the last few decades have seen sensational improvements. And how proud we are that no place has contributed more to that improvement than our university.
Think of the countless lives saved from starvation by the work of Purdue's two World Food Prize winners alone.
Most recently, another set of models hit the wastebasket. Through new breakthroughs in energy extraction, we now can see enormously larger supplies of affordable and cleaner energy. Old alarms about "peak oil supply" are being supplanted by new estimates of "peak oil demand," meaning supplies will outlast our need for them. A new era of rebuilt manufacturing close to home, lower living costs for homes and transportation, and lower CO2 is unfolding.
Why were all the sages and their sophisticated models so wildly wrong? Because they fell into the oldest of traps, the fallacy of extrapolation. They failed to imagine that human ingenuity, first and foremost scientific and technological ingenuity, creates enormous and often sudden discontinuities that demolish old forecasts and reset in fundamental ways the path of mankind's progress. The steam engine, the automobile, the Green Revolution, the silicon chip … No matter how often history repeats, the doomsayers never see the next one coming.
In a few minutes, you will own for life one of the proudest emblems of achievement anywhere on the planet, a diploma from Purdue University. You will validate its worth as you move through lives of personal success and satisfaction. But you will fully honor it only as you invent, or start up, or build, or teach, or lead others in ways that alter and, thereby, continue the world's upward path.
I make no pretense to special foresight, and I don't claim to know with certainty that humankind will yet again overcome the very real threats it faces. But I know this: Our 2013 graduates, and those who preceded and will follow, are people who will make huge differences, quite possibly the kind that reset all the forecasts and send the pessimists back to their gloomy little corners.