Academic Awards Program

Fareed Zakaria Keynote Address
Academic Awards Banquet 2012

Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. This is just an extraordinary, inspiring evening. I come from the Northeast, and they have traditions there – great, old traditions that go back centuries – sometimes to the 17th century, as they do at Harvard University and Yale University. But I think something that demonstrates the vitality of the United States perhaps better than anything else is the new traditions, the new celebrations that respond to the needs of the society. So you have this extraordinary event and this idea, sprung from David Boren’s mind 26 years ago, and here now we see what those sparks have resulted in. Those sparks from David Boren’s mind have created a mighty conflagration that is illuminating the whole state because of this focus on academic excellence, on the most important profession, the profession that makes all other professions possible, which is teaching. So I can only say this is the most wonderful tradition I have seen. It is so full of life, so full of vitality, and let’s hope it stays around as long as some of those old traditions –and so a couple hundred years from now people still remember that it all started here.

What I wanted to talk about for a brief period this evening is the kind of world that our young students are going to enter because if they were to read books or magazines or newspapers, or watch television, they would have a sense that they were coming into a grim world indeed --a world that is marked by terrible economic crisis, by geopolitical threats, by bombs going off all over the world, by terrorism, and it would be disturbing. It is disturbing. And so I wanted to step back a little and give you a little bit of historical perspective and tell you, 18- year-olds, what kind of world you really are entering.

The first thing you will notice about the world you are entering into is that it is a world at peace – profoundly at peace. We are living in a time when the major powers of the world, the richest countries in the world with the biggest armies, are not engaged in active geopolitical or geomilitary competition. No wars, no proxy wars, no arms races among the largest and most powerful countries in the world. This is historically very unusual. You would have to go back hundreds of years to find a period which was comparable. And you can see this very simply if you were to look at the facts, the data. I know that if you turn on the TV and see an IED going off somewhere or a terrorist scare somewhere else and we can all scare ourselves silly. We watch these alerts in the airports go from red to orange and yellow or maybe it’s the other way around. I can never seem to keep track of it. But the data doesn’t lie. The number of people to die as a result of war or civil war and yes terrorism has declined by 50 percent over the last few decades, by 75 percent compared with the period during the Cold War and of course by 99 percent if you compare it to the decade of the 1940s, World War II.

Put very simply, we are living in a time when fewer people are dying as a result of major political violence than really at any period in at least a century. Steven Pinker at Harvard argues that we are living in the most peaceful time in recorded history.
And what that peace, that political stability, has meant is that you have had the creation of a single, global system, a single global economy, a single global society in which people can see each other, trade with each other, learn from each other. And that world has produced an explosion of productivity and wealth. It may not seem like that, but think about this: In 1979, when we were still in that old world of the Cold War, geopolitically divided countries locked in each other’s spheres of influence, the number of countries that were growing at 3 percent a year was about 30. The number of countries that are growing at 3 percent a year this year is 90. It was 125 before the financial crisis. So what we’re seeing is a tripling of the number of countries, perhaps a quadruple, that can successfully navigate this new world. And with that has meant a rising standard of living and the removal of people from street poverty.

The United Nations estimates that the number of people who have been lifted out of poverty in the last 50 years is larger than in the preceding 500 years. If you think about what this world has meant for human kind as a whole these last few decades, it has meant greater peace and prosperity for every individual which has translated into a higher standard of living. Looking at it very simply, we are now gaining 5 hours of life expectancy every day, and that’s without even exercising. You gain five hours of life expectancy every day, and that is because of the improvements in diet, hygiene, of course, profoundly in medical technology and medicine. People forget what medicine was like. Atul Gawande, the New Yorker writer who also moonlights as a surgeon in Boston, writes about a surgery that took place in the mid-19th century in which the doctor was trying to amputate his patient’s leg. By accident, he also amputated his assistant’s arm. Both of them died of sepsis, and an onlooker died of shock. It is the only known medical procedure to have a 300 percent fatality rate.

If you compare that to the world of medicine today, and the extraordinary advances that have taken place, you see how profoundly our lives have been changed and how they are continuing to change.

Think about technology in another light to understand the kind of world you are living in. You think that you’ve been through an age of technological revolution. You ain’t seen nothing yet. The cell phones that you all have have more computing power than the Apollo space shuttle. Think about that. Think about the extraordinary power and information that provides. There is a Moore’s Law in the world of computers is that which the power of a computer will double every 18 months while its price halves. Well that Moore is still proceeding at pace, except that at one crucial area it is actually accelerating. We are able to sequence the human genome at a faster pace than Moore’s Law, and that means you will find the power of computing and the power of biology, the power of engineering and the power of biology joining together in a way that we cannot even begin to understand what the consequences will be.

And then there is the new material sciences in which you have things like three-dimensional printing, which is literally creating customized manufacturing for every single person, for every single object. And then there is nanotechnology which I cannot even pretend to explain to you, but when you look at the consequences of all these revolutions occurring simultaneously and you think about the life of an ordinary person coming into this world, he or she is going to profoundly benefit from all of these extraordinary revolutions.

So when you hear about the bad news, remember if you were to sit back and some historian would describing this world we’re living in, they would not be talking about it as the world of economic crisis, or the age of the recession. They would describe this as the age of human progress, of astonishing human progress. That is really the world you are coming into. And now you might say that is all very well for world and that’s wonderful that people in India and China are doing well, but what does that mean for us in the United States? Shouldn’t we be worried?

Well, think about it. If you had a choice, I think when you looked at all the cards everyone was dealt you would still very much want to be in this country. You are in the country with the most dynamic economy in the world, that is at the commanding heights of all these technological revolutions that I have described. You are in a society that is vibrant in economic terms but also in social terms. The United States is the only rich country in the world that is going to grow in terms of population and demographics over the next 30 or 40 years. Every other country is moving into a downward spiral where they are all slowly but surely becoming retirement societies. The United States adds 3 million people to its population every year. And some part of that comes from immigration and we still take more legal immigrants than the rest of the world put together. That provides this country with a powerful new source of energy, dynamism and hope as people come as they have for centuries determined to find a new world and a new life for themselves.

Think about the world you are about to go into, the world of higher education. The United States dominates this world like almost no industry. There are two or three different lists that are made up around the world about the best universities in the world. Of the top 20, 18 are American. Of the top 50, 36 are American. Of the top 100, 65 are American. And two of those lists are made in China, so we know there can’t be national biases. The reality is the United States has perfected in some ways this extraordinary ability to make college education something deeply rewarding, deeply satisfying, deeply challenging and yet something that is accessible to almost anyone.

Now when I say all these things I don’t want you to think I’m suggesting complacency. What I’m suggesting is that there are extraordinary challenges out there. But we sometimes tend to forget that there have always been challenges, but there are human responses to these challenges, and those human responses can be very powerful and very effective. So think about the last 75 years. It is not that we lacked challenges – World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War and dozens of smaller challenges. It is that human beings also respond to these challenges, and ultimately those efforts and those responses overcome them.

I’m going to give you a small example of this. In 2009, you have the H1N1 virus outbreak in Mexico. People were very worried and if you had looked at it objectively, a species-jumping virus, you would have said this could easily be something like the great Asian flu of 1957 or 1968 in which 4 million people died, but that didn’t happen. And it didn’t happen because the Mexican authorities very early on detected it, alerted the world about it, went to the World Health Organization, learned best practices, isolated the source, quarantined large parts of the population and vaccinated other people. In Mexico, which is a deeply Catholic country, for three Sundays, you couldn’t go to church. Perhaps more importantly, for three weekends you couldn’t attend a soccer match. They literally shut down the country, and the result was the virus was contained so much so that people looked back three months later and said did we overreact? What was all the fuss about? We didn’t overreact. We reacted. We responded. We identified a challenge and found a solution.

And so I could spend a lot of time talking about all of the challenges we have and God knows we have them at the level of the state, the country, the world, the planet, but what I want to focus on is something that doesn’t get as much attention. It’s all those responses from all those human beings, companies, towns, countries that do make a difference. We were moving into something that looked remarkably like the Great Depression in 2008 and then the coordinated action of governments all over the world prevented that from happening and then the coordinated or uncoordinated actions of individuals and companies all over the world have led us out into some level of normalcy and some kind of recovery.

And so I just want to remind you that when you think about the world and you think about all these challenges just remember: the human race has gotten to where it has – this extraordinary era of progress – not be because there were no challenges in the past. We wouldn’t have gotten out of the gate if there hadn’t been challenges. But it is because there are responses to these challenges. And so in a sense what I’m saying to the young people in this audience more than anyone else is have faith in yourself. Have faith in the fact that your efforts and your achievement will make a difference at the micro-level in terms of creating a good life for yourselves, but also at the macro-level because the aggregation of all these individual responses does have an impact and it does shape the world and it does change the world. It has done it in the past. It will do it in the future.

So I remain extraordinarily confident when I look to the future, and I am extraordinarily confident in large part because of events like these. When Tocqueville (a French political thinker and historian) came to America in 1832, one of the things that struck him most, he said, was when you go around the United States what you find is that when there is a town that lacks an orchestra, people don’t look around and ask who is going to give us an orchestra. They come together as a civic organization, and they create an orchestra. They fund one. When they think that they don’t have a museum, they build a museum.

And so that is really what has happened here. When you perceived that there was a need for something like this, this extraordinary foundation, you created it from the bottom up – a societal response to a societal challenge. This is what Arnold Toynbee (a British historian) talked about when he talked about great civilizations. They all face challenges. The great ones have responses.

So I leave you just with that thought. In a sense, what I’m saying is I’m going to bet on these 18 year olds in the room and that is where my optimism comes from. I’m going to bet on them because they are going to do great things, and they are going to respond to challenges in ways that they could not possibly understand.

We’ve spent all our time thanking the students and thanking the teachers and that is as it should be, but I’m going to tell the students one last piece of advice. And this a piece of advice you can only get from having lived a little bit, so trust me, you know you can think you are all very bright and you are, but this one you have to live life to know. You cannot possibly know how much your parents love you until you have children of your own. When you have children of your own, trust me, for the first time in your lives you will understand how much your parents love you. But don’t wait that long. Today would be a good day to tell them thank you.

Thank you very much.