Commencement 2023 - Dean Brian Edwards

Dean Brian Edwards

The following address was delivered by Dean Brian Edwards on May 19, 2023 at the School of Liberal Arts Commencement Ceremony.

Good morning!

Class of 2023, let me start with a little bit of encouragement. If you are not used to waking up for an 8 am class—or maybe you just did your last all-nighter of college and it looks really bright out there—thank you for getting up early. Now you see why we early risers love the cool weather of a New Orleans morning!

And I want to reassure you. When we leave together at the end of this ceremony in a couple of hours, it’s going to be a little bit hotter than it is right now, and you’re going to be happy you’re going off to brunch—or to take a cold shower—while all those suckers from Science and Engineering are just getting started. We’re putting the oven on preheat 350, and starting it right now, so let’s get going. We are ON the clock.

One other thing, I promise you, even if you are the last person to come across this stage to receive one of the highly cherished but nonetheless completely empty green folders that I will hand you and pose for a photo with you holding, you DO NOT WANT TO LEAVE EARLY. There are two reasons: first, there is something at the end of all this that is going to be worth the wait. Let’s call it a New Orleans send off and I want to do it together. And second, do you remember Harry Potter Book 3, when the Weasley brothers give Harry a secret map? Well, when the last student of our last department marches across this stage, you open that folder and it becomes a Marauder’s Map of the Tulane campus, finally revealing the exact entrance point of the secret passage that connects Newcomb Hall and the basement of the Boot. I have taken it. These gowns when turned inside out become a cloak of invisibility. But the map only works if you are inside the bounds of Yulman Stadium. You want to stay till the end.

The heat and humidity notwithstanding, there are so many people here in person to celebrate you. And that’s not only because they wanted the excuse to come to New Orleans to eat beignets or order drive-thru daiquiris (yes, my friends from the Blue States, that is a thing). After the graduations of 2020 and 2021, when we couldn’t celebrate in the way we do today, I don’t think any of us will ever take a gathering like today for granted. Class of 2023, they come here because the formation of a college graduate is social act, a collaboration. You alone will walk across this stage and you did the all-nighters and wrote the papers, but so many people here and watching on our livestream have been a part of getting you here today. They are here for you, but in many ways, you would not be here without them. So I would like to start by acknowledging your communities of support and to give you a chance to thank them—your parents, your grandparents, your caregivers, your aunts and uncles, your siblings, friends, the families that you have chosen and created—let’s thank them for their sacrifices, their support, their love, and their many contributions.

Here on the stage behind me are the chairs and directors of the 35 departments and programs that make up the School of Liberal Arts, as well as my five associate deans and my leadership team. Down on the field, in the first three rows, dozens more professors represent the more than 400 members of the Liberal Arts faculty. There are many of the nearly 100 staff in the School working today, as ever, to support our collective enterprise. For the past four years, these people have been your community, teaching you, advising you, supporting you in numerous ways seen and unseen. They have given passionately to their teaching, to the feedback on your work, and to inspire you and guide you. They are here because this day makes them exceptionally proud. As they celebrate you, let us thank them.

Every year, while Tulane’s students are cramming—I mean preparing—for final exams, my thoughts turn to what message I want to give you on your graduation. A graduation speech tries to give some final meaning to your college education, and pay tribute to the time you were here. I remember well when you arrived on campus. I had arrived at Tulane in 2018 just one year before most of you. Needless to say, your college years have been, well, historic. But I don’t want to dish up the usual cliches—unless of course you want me to. It is graduation, after all.

I was recently sitting around with several of your classmates and I asked them for some advice. “Do you want me to mention or not mention Covid?” I asked. “Are you tired of hearing about how it structured your college years?” There was a long pause.

“I don’t see how you can’t mention it,” said one. “I mean we got here in the fall of 2019, and then halfway through the second semester of our first year, we were sent home.” Another graduating senior said, “Yeah, and I was a spring scholar, so for me it was only a few weeks.” So then I asked. “What about Hurricane Ida, should I talk about that?” “Oh yeah, you should definitely mention Ida, that was a big part of fall of junior year, when we went home just a couple of weeks after we’d gotten here.” “And don’t forget Hurricane Zeta and the transformer on top of the library.” I admit I had forgotten about those.

Then we talked about how the greater world had changed during the past four years. “What about January 6? Or the protests after George Floyd was murdered,” I asked. Looks turned more serious. It’s been a lot. I thought I should lighten the mood. This was a celebration after all. “OK How about the Cotton Bowl?!” Smiles returned. I mean if we went through a pandemic, two hurricanes, a presidential election, and an attack on American democracy during your college years, that’s small potatoes compared to the transformation of Tulane into a football school…

But then we hit on the big one, what some people are calling the most massive change of all during the time you’ve been in college, and it’s more recent. ChatGPT. One of the students suggested that I could ask ChatGPT to write this graduation speech. I hadn’t thought of that. Don’t worry, I wrote everything you’ve heard so far. Or did I?

But I got curious of course, so a few days ago, I asked ChatGPT to write me a graduation speech about the value of a liberal arts education, just to see what it would come up with. So here is what Artificial Intelligence has to tell you:
“Throughout history, liberal arts education has been a beacon of enlightenment, nurturing the minds and spirits of those seeking a well-rounded education. It has instilled in us the virtues of critical thinking, intellectual curiosity, and …has equipped us with the tools necessary to navigate a complex and ever-changing world.”

Ok, well I guess so, ChatGPT. That’s a bit flat though. I was underwhelmed. It wasn’t wrong, but it was bad, uninspiring. So I asked it to make it funnier. I mean I’ve stood up here a few times before.

Here’s what I got back:
“While our friends in more specialized fields were busy learning how to calculate the circumference of a subatomic particle or deciphering the secrets of corporate tax law, we were exploring the depths of our souls through interpretive dance. And hey, it turns out that … [this] actually counts as a legitimate academic pursuit.”

Ouch, ChatGPT! Nasty nasty nasty. It gets worse when I ask it to say something about liberal arts education in New Orleans: “Just like the gumbo that simmers in the French Quarter, our education has been a delightful blend of flavors and influences.” OH MY GOD, no one is going to invite this guy to a party. But I was having fun, so I asked it to write speeches about Covid-19, about climate change and a liberal arts education, and even a speech that connects all of those with Liberal Arts and also Tulane winning the Cotton Bowl. The speeches got worse and worse. Believe me you’d be asleep by now. Hey, you in row 35: wake up!

It turns out that ChatGPT can’t do precisely what we value here in a liberal arts school—balance all that complexity, while telling a story. It could include it all, throw it in the mix like the gumbo it kept mentioning every time I reminded it to mention New Orleans. But the elegance was gone, the humor was off.

And then I had one final brainstorm: I asked ChatGPT to tell me about how ChatGPT related to liberal arts education. And boy does ChatGPT like bragging about itself, and glossing over its own shortcomings. You’d think that all there was about education was knowing everything and then regurgitating it, like cramming for an exam about everything. Clearly, there is something much more essential that liberal arts graduates know.

I would call that a judgment, a sensibility, a highly developed intellectual taste. And also the capacity to make an argument, and to see how an argument is constructed, and see through an argument too. Also, and this is crucial, an ability to change your mind midstream, the way we did in March of 2020 when we had to go home, or again in late August of 2021 when the power went off, or on January 6, 2021, or so many times while you were pursuing the degrees that will be officially conferred on you tomorrow.

For you are the greatest creations of the past four years, the transformative discovery, and we recognize how your highly developed natural intelligence, your liberal arts intelligence, will change the world more profoundly, I believe, in ways small and big, than artificial intelligence.

It has been an amazing four years, no one possibly would have predicted in August 2019 what those years would bring. And when I say that I can’t wait to see where you go with your Tulane education, it is with the same sense of wonder for what lies ahead. Please do stay in touch with us—this is always your home. Congratulations, Class of 2023!