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Neil Armstrong's 1982 UC Commencement address

Presented on June 13 while Armstrong was an adjunct professor

(First-man-on-the-moon and former UC engineering professor Neil Armstrong died Aug. 25, 2012, at 82 years of age.)

by Neil Armstrong

I indeed appreciate the privilege of delivering this final lecture. I cannot increase the education you have accumulated on this campus. I can only take these few minutes to reflect on the significance of this occasion.

Today, you receive a parchment that marks your progress on life's trail. It will not state that you are an educated person. It does imply that you have demonstrated an ability to learn.

You have learned the importance of fact and opinion, but hopefully and more importantly, you have learned to segregate them.

I would hope that you have come to appreciate the elegance of simplicity. The simplest explanation is often the best, but usually the most difficult to find.

Mark Twain said, "Truth is mighty and will prevail; there's nothing the matter with that, except it ain't so."

We hold that the pursuit of truth is meritorious for its own sake. But truth is seldom absolute; it is more often dependent on the perspective of the observer.

The laws of Newton are "good enough" for most on the scale of man's activities, but inadequate for universal use. On a cosmic scale, the "laws of nature" seem to be merely local regulations. We accept that truth can be described as the best currently available description; that certainty is exclusively the property of the freshman.

I hope you recognize that serendipity is a vital ingredient to human progress. Certainly, Roentgen, who "accidentally" discovered the X-ray, would concur. But you will also recognize that serendipity is most likely to occur to those who are best prepared to notice the unexpected and recognize its value.

The human species has a predilection toward division by category. This university is divided into colleges, the colleges into schools, the schools into areas of study, areas into specialties.

Suppose that 20 specialists were selected from throughout the land, based on the similarity of their interests, aspirations and their views -- 20 people who were as identical in their persuasions as could be found; and were assembled for a weekend conference on their common specialty. I submit that by Saturday afternoon they will have divided into factions.

For the convenience and efficiency of the educational process, your classes have been neatly compartmentalized to conform to the divisions between fields of study and professorial interest and expertise. You have noticed by now that there is a good deal of leakage between compartments.

Diverse fields are not only inter-related, they are often interactive. Astronomical theory proposes that tidal frictions are lengthening the earth's day and its month. Supportive evidence comes from a seashell. The chambered nautilus, a cephalopod, grows a new ridge of shell each day, a new chamber each month. Like counting rings in a tree trunk, examination of the ridges and chambers in ancient nautiloid fossils indicates the creature lived in a time when days and months were indeed much shorter than they are now. Astrophysics, biology and paleontology have found a common bond.

I hope you have grown comfortable with the use of logic, without being deceived into believing that logic always leads to the correct conclusion.

In essence, you have embraced thinking. Robert Frost said, "Thinking isn't to agree or disagree. That's voting."

Thinking and a willingness to learn have brought you to this commencement. I think it needless to remind you that to commence does not mean to end -- but rather to begin.

As you take leave of the university toward additional education, business, professional service or the legion of the unemployed, remember your reasons for coming here.

Someone once said, "We wish you happiness, but our wishes cannot give it." Similarly we wish you success, but it is not ours to give.

As you look back on your years here, you will remember some courses in which you learned absolutely nothing and were without value ... and others which were brilliant, enlightening and unquestionably the foundation for future success. I suggest you'll be wrong in both judgments.

The diploma does not certify brilliance but does demonstrate your ability to achieve a goal. The next goal is yours to choose. Edward Hale, a former chaplain of the United States Senate, put it this way:

I am only one, but I am one.
I can't do everything, but I can do something.
And what I can do, that I ought to do,
And what I ought to do,
By the grace of God, I shall do.

Some of you have come from other lands to study here in these United States. You honor us by choosing this university in this country. We hope your investment here has been fruitful, that friendships nurtured here will endure.

Finally, I'd like the class of '82 to note that the attendance today of an audience: your parents, grandparents, relatives, and friends who have inspired you, encouraged you, occasionally chided you, and frequently paid bills for you.

Your parents and their parents are dissatisfied with their own accomplishments. They recognize the cleavages that still exist between nations, the rancor that divides races and creeds. They are frustrated with their progress in reducing crime and elevating the human character.

In fairness, you should credit them for their accomplishments. They built the most efficient food-production system on the planet, conquered the childhood and epidemic diseases that have historically plagued the world, significantly increased life expectancy, made travel available to the masses, built a living standard in which the officially poor would be considered wealthy in much of the world, increased our knowledge of the universe around us a thousand fold and brought significant improvements to the rights and dignity of man.

They achieved these accomplishments while surviving a great depression and two world wars.

They're here today with the hope and perhaps even the conviction that you are well prepared mentally, physically and spiritually to challenge the problems they've left unfinished.

They've come to applaud you, but I suggest that, if you're so inclined, this would be a good opportunity to applaud them.

Good luck!

 

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