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May 13, 1999

Text of Thomas E. Starzl's address to the Class of 1999

Text of Thomas E. Starzl's address to the Class of 1999

Class of 1999: It has been a half-century since I sat out there, where you are today. I wondered then, as you must be wondering now, what waited for me beyond the commencement milestone. Your presence here today means that you have already succeeded in school. What remains to be determined is how well you will succeed in the rest of your life.

That success will be measured by some in terms of the money you make, your professional status, acceptance of your work by peers, awards and prizes, your house and car, and public popularity. These are only symbols. They will mean nothing to you unless they are achieved with nobility of purpose.

Nobility of purpose is an internal standard, imposed upon themselves in some way by every man or woman. The standard may be low or high. That is known (and is knowable) only by the individual, who often is the harshest judge of the reasons for his or her own actions. This self-assessment may surface daily, be an unwelcome visitor in the depths of the night, or be acknowledged only at the last moment of death. But it is always there. Thus, nobility of purpose is the cardinal element of high self-esteem.

It has been said that the imprint of one's personality and character already has been fixed by the age of 12. This may be true in terms of the "shalt not" restrictions of our religious tracts. However, in my 50 years in university life, I have never met a graduate whose nobility of purpose, and its direct derivative self-esteem, had reached a final stage of maturation. This then is the malleable clay (the wild card) that you bring to the table. It is the means by which each and every one of you can improve yourself, and coincidentally the world, from this day forward.

Nobility of purpose is your moral compass. It accrues layer by layer over a lifetime, during childhood under parental supervision, and watched over during the period of your higher education by the surrogate parent of the college or university. Now the time has come when you are on your own. Thanks to your education, you are better equipped for the journey, whether this be down one of the pathways of science or along a humanities route.

Unlike most inner-city universities, the science and the humanity disciplines, with their multiplicity of subdivisions, share a common main campus at the University of Pittsburgh and are given intellectual shelter, side by side. The resulting diversity within a few square blocks of Oakland is stunning. In the humanities, the students and teachers are preoccupied with the perpetuation, refinement and continuous reevaluation of existing literature, art and music. An aura of history hangs heavy over these classrooms, where the objective is to understand a work of literature, art or music in its entirety, or over others where the purpose is to comprehend the context (more than the details) of law, political movement, or a social transformation.

In contrast, science is ruled by a reductionist philosophy in which an attempt is made to define all phenomena by a study of their component parts. In an active field of science and particularly the life sciences, almost all articles published more than five years ago are considered obsolete. Consequently, there is very little sense of history. Although the reductionist approach has served science well for 400 years, it may deteriorate into an exercise, using increasingly sophisticated technology of "learning more and more about less and less." Then, the individual scientist risks becoming a mere cog, as plodding and methodical as a machine, in a multidisciplinary team that actually may be driven by a false premise.

One solution is to obliterate the distinction that has been made increasingly between the humanities and science. This would allow each to draw from the special qualities of the other. The resulting expression of individualism could allow the scientist to see and create things beyond the reach of traditionalists, approaching art as was done by Einstein. In other words, rather than putting the spotlight on details, it may be possible to illuminate the whole scientific canvas. I am not the first one to suggest the unity of art and big science. Alexander Pope wrote 370 years ago, in his "Essay on Man":

"All Nature is but Art unknown to thee;

All Chance direction which thou cans't not see;

All Discord Harmony not understood;

All partial Evil universal Good."

Whether you are identified with science or the humanities, I believe you can be proud of the University from which you are catapulting yourself today, airborne on the wings of your diploma. Wherever you land, you might consider two items of simple advice. First, "Be proud, but not too proud." Many of you are here today because someone cared enough to sacrifice their own welfare at your altar. I am thinking foremost of those proud parents, sisters, brothers, friends and others who freely helped you gain an advantage which (in some instances) had been denied them. Then, there are others who paid with their blood or lives in distant lands, or at home, for our right (yours and mine) to be here today. That still goes on.

We can tell from the gowns on this particular day who has a freshly printed diploma, but this is the last time it will be so obvious. The piece of paper may help you scale heights which you might have reached anyway, and which have been reached by others without a formal education. The question is, what do you really want to accomplish in your life, granted that it will be immeasurably easier and more gratifying because of your education? On that score, I was taught a lesson in humility about 15 years ago by a skilled Pittsburgh laborer who had never finished high school.

I met this man at our recently purchased house on Centre Avenue only a few weeks before he died of cancer of the pancreas. No treatment was possible, and because the drainage of bile from his liver was blocked, his skin and eyes had turned bright yellow (jaundice). Over my protests, he insisted on restoring a neglected but inherently beautiful walnut floor that had been laid in 1915 when the house was built. When he was finished, and gave me a ridiculously small bill, I asked him why this job was so important. He answered: "I wanted to contribute to something that will still be here long after I am gone." It was as genuine a statement as I have ever heard. It also was the most universal.

My second piece of advice was taught to me by my father. Now, I will pass it on to you, having satisfied myself of its validity. Never make a decision about accepting a job or duty primarily on the basis of its monetary reward. Your life, and the lives of those you will touch, are too valuable to be put up for sale. Just do what you believe in your hearts to be right. You will respect yourself for this, others will respect you, and the money will take care of itself.

Some of you will become rich, famous, or both. Others will not experience either condition, but will bless the world nevertheless with what they bring back to their families, communities and countries from their University of Pittsburgh experience. If this is done with nobility of purpose, your lives will be a cumulative job well done, and you will all be happy.

I hope that you will always remember that this great university was once your second home as so many loyal alumni have in the past.

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