Bjorn Arneson

It was a great honor and pleasure to have been selected by my peers to deliver the student address at the Humphrey Institute commencement ceremony on Sunday. I used the opportunity to mash together much of what I’ve written about at pubTalk over the last few months.

One definition of commencement is “to set into motion.” My fellow graduates are already running full speed into the community–no pushing and prodding necessary. I hope that these words inspired many to relish life and work near the world’s ragged edges, continually broaden and deepen their body of knowledge, and be agents of progress.

Hello. Dean Atwood, Representative Ellison, Humphrey faculty and staff, fellow graduates, friends and family, it is a privilege to have been asked to say a few things on behalf of the graduating class. Given the high regard in which I hold my classmates, it a particular honor.

I have to say that this day seems to have snuck up on me. It feels not so long ago that I was buttoning up my first-day-of-graduate-school shirt and spilling off a crowded bus onto the University campus. I recall the feelings of apprehension and opportunity swirling about in my head. Is this the right decision? Will I succeed? Most importantly, will my ideas make a difference?

Perhaps these questions are not unfamiliar. Perhaps they are still unanswered–that’s OK. I’ve always been suspicious of people who have too few questions.

Now, we both conclude this degree and commence a different kind of learning–a life-long self-directed course. Merlin the magician from T.H. White’s novel Once and Future King says to King Arthur:

[Education] is the only thing that never fails…. You may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then–to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never dream of regretting.

To learn what wags the world takes a lifetime and often requires crouching low to have a look at the world from rather unflattering angles.

And, from these different angles, a mono-disciplinary problem-solving approach leaves much undiscovered or, worse yet, leads to solutions that serve the narrow interests of the decider, but not the “decid-ee.” Clearly a richer approach is needed. After all, if these were easy problems they would have already been solved.

Last month, in an editorial to the New York Times, scholar Mark C. Taylor suggested that the university as we know it is obsolete–that siloed academic departments produce narrow scholarship and reproduce one-dimensional students. He suggested that graduate curricula, in particular, be restructured:

…like a web or complex adaptive network. Responsible teaching and scholarship must become cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural.

It would be far more effective to bring together people working on questions of religion, politics, history, economics, anthropology, sociology, literature, art…and philosophy to engage in comparative analysis of common problems.

To this I say “Don’t forget music!” Other music majors in the room? I know there are at least a few more…. No?

If this is the educational wave of the future, I dare say that public affairs is on the leading edge. A multi-disciplinary conversation has been one of the real joys of my Humphrey degree. From the Jernberg lounge to Cowles Auditorium and beyond, I’ve been inspired and challenged over and over by the rich experiences of classmates, faculty, staff, and visiting scholars and public leaders.

So now we resume our regularly scheduled education–a course in practical wisdom and moral leadership in the world. Sorry to say there may not be credit available.

Armed with a quiver full of analytic arrows, we climb back up from the ivory-colored basement classrooms and out into the community, prepared to “both think and do” as Hill Fellow Reatha Clark King noted a few weeks ago. Many of us will find…[knock on wood]…positions of public influence. We’ll be planning cities of the future, leading smart investment in technology and energy infrastructure, managing a changing workforce, and stewarding public resources for the greatest social good. Positions full of weighty responsibility. Positions in which “research meets practice”.

But as we all well know, practice is sometimes not as tidy as research. Our careers will undoubtedly require trudging around in the morally-murky grey area between black and white. Some see the grey area as symptomatic of inadequate knowledge, of failed incentives, of ineffectual laws. Others suggest that the murky “in-between” is where moral wisdom and practical leadership bloom. I’m inclined to agree with the latter.

Practical leadership is tested when the answer is unclear or unknown, or when there is no right answer…. Moral wisdom is sharpened on a shapeless, ambiguous, grey whetstone. If these are the conditions under which moral wisdom and practical leadership take root and grow, we should take joy knowing that public affairs is the field into which we’ve been sown.

In the decades after the Civil War, American sociologist William Graham Sumner somewhat pessimistically wrote:

For A to sit down and think, ‘What shall I do?’ is commonplace; but to think what B ought to do is interesting, romantic, moral, self-flattering, and public-spirited all at once. It satisfies a great number of human weaknesses at once. To go on and plan what a whole class of people ought to do is to feel one’s self a power on earth, to win a public position, to clothe one’s self in dignity. Hence we have an unlimited supply of reformers, philanthropists, humanitarians, and would-be managers-in-general of society.

To me, Sumner’s message is not so much an indictment of reformers, philanthropists, humanitarians, and would-be public managers, as it is a call to utmost integrity; a call to unflagging moral and ethical leadership; a call to the magician’s continuous learning; and a mandate to speak with those whom we presume to speak for.

I suspect that some among you will be speaking for us all someday–I hope it’s true. That being the case, then, it has been a practical pleasure being in conversation with you.

Thank you.