Remarks by Jamie Merisotis
President/CEO, Lumina Foundation
Franklin College Commencement
Saturday, May 21, 2022, 10 a.m. EDT

 Good morning. Thank you, President Prather for this honor and for your leadership. In just about every way to measure someone in your important role, you have excelled – leading the college at a time of great societal challenge yet still enrolling more students, expanding student diversity, introducing new tech innovation and digital fluency initiatives, and pursuing a vision to prepare students not just to be responsible citizens but also leaders capable of making our nation better when it comes to fairness, justice, and compassion. For all these things, I applaud you and Franklin College for the extraordinary work.

My most important task today is to congratulate the Franklin College Class of 2022! I am thrilled to be with you on this life-changing day. For me, graduation is always one of life’s great milestones, but what you have accomplished goes well beyond academics.

  • Each of you participated in at least one internship or research project – many of you completed several.
  • You got hands-on experience with the digital tools that will be part of your world going forward, while also learning to appreciate the importance and beauty of the liberal arts.
  • You learned that diversity, equity and inclusion are not weaknesses but rather America’s decisive competitive advantage.
  • And you did all these things while grappling with the disruptions of COVID – showing a sense of shared responsibility for the health and safety of the community – demonstrating grit, character, and flexibility under challenging circumstances.

Along the way, I’m sure, you had the support of others – dedicated parents and relatives; faculty and mentors; and more. I salute all of you for this shared achievement.

Beyond congratulations, though, I want to thank you. You may not realize it – particularly on a day like today, which is rightly focused on celebrating personal accomplishment – but the degree you have earned benefits all of us. That’s because the power of learning will not only continue to change your life for the better, it will also help ensure our collective success.

A better-educated nation is a healthier nation. It’s a nation where people are eager to contribute to their communities. It’s a nation where people can tell the difference between what’s real and what’s fake. The future of America depends on people like you – today, more than ever.

Now, commencement speakers are often chosen based on some stellar accomplishment or position – a political leader or statesman or woman; a titan of industry; a renowned scholar; a champion athlete; even a popular comedian.  I’m of course none of those things.

I’m not even sure I have this honor because of my long tenure as CEO of Lumina Foundation, which is focused on large-scale, national systemic change in education and training after high school.  I believe I’m with you today because, for a long time, I’ve talked about what millions of people like you, who are entering or reentering the workforce after an extraordinary learning experience, will do in a world where everyone has an opinion about the work of the future.

One thing to make clear is that I make a distinction between “future of work” and “work of the future.” This isn’t a semantic quibble.  In today’s complex world, I think we must acknowledge that the very notion of work itself matters.  When people say “future of work” I believe at least some of them are questioning the basic idea of work and its value. I think they’re wrong. Here’s why.

Over the past decade or so, we’ve seen an almost obsessive focus on the so-called “future of work” in the international media, in academic studies, in books, and in policy discussions. Most fall into what I’ve been calling the “robot zombie apocalypse” camp; the dominant narrative is one of massive job loss fueled by rapid advances in artificial intelligence. I’m sure you’ve seen some of those headlines, yourself – and as a parent of a son finishing his first year in college and a daughter just a few years away, I can understand your concern.

But at the end of the day, we know that technology has always played a role in both job creation and job destruction. It’s possible that technology could very well create millions of new jobs – as it has in the past.

But that doesn’t mean that things are not different this time, because they are different, and we need to pay attention to how and why they are different. The work of the future will change almost everything we take for granted about jobs and employment, as well as the nature of education. What’s different are the tasks that humans will need to perform, as well as what people expect from the work that they are performing.

As technology advances, we should assume that any task that is repetitive and predictable – mental tasks as well as physical ones – will eventually be performed by a machine. We’re well-accustomed to robots on the factory floor and ATMs dispensing cash, but a recent study forecasts that nearly half of the work in industries as diverse as retail, agriculture, and food services[1] has the potential to be automated.

So at its simplest, human work is the work only humans can do. It’s rooted in our intelligence, our drive, and our values – all things that distinguish us from machines. We’ll need to prepare for this new era of human work by developing our human capacities like compassion, critical thinking, ethics, and interpersonal communication – in learning environments like colleges and universities, at work, and in our daily lives.

The skills for human work are sometimes referred to somewhat dismissively as “soft skills,” but I think of them as “durable skills.” They are durable because of their lasting value. And we know that because in survey after survey, employers tell us they are looking for these very things. They need what you have developed here at Franklin, durable skills like communication, problem-solving, teamwork, genuine curiosity and humility, and a strong work ethic.

And it’s not just surveys. When I talk to CEOs from places like Cummins, Salesforce, and Eli Lilly, I’m struck by how many of the leaders throughout the companies have backgrounds not in tech, but in the liberal arts.

People have this odd idea that your major is your pre-job description, but it is not. It doesn’t define what your job is going to be. The great strength of your education today and in the future is that, as technology continues to evolve, all of those critical thinking, problem solving and human communication traits that are so important now are going to be even more important in the future.

To see the power of our human traits we need only to look at the ideas of the person who this institution is named for. As Walter Isaacson describes him in his best-selling biography, Ben Franklin was “America’s best scientist, inventor, diplomat, writer and business strategist” – not to mention his hand in the invention of a new kind of country.

Franklin’s Promethean life reminds us that the origins of education weren’t all about job training. A leading figure of the Enlightenment, Franklin would have been appalled by the suppression of inquiry and investigation into any scientific phenomenon. His whole life was built around the idea: “I don’t understand something, so I’m going to try to figure it out.

That “figuring it out” led him to tame lightning, chart the Gulf Stream, and create inventions as varied as bifocals, clean-burning stoves, and a musical instrument so popular that Mozart and Beethoven wrote pieces for it.[2]

The fact that he did this without the benefit of formal education should remind us that life-changing habits of inquiry can take hold outside the classroom.

That is the real “education,” the real treasure from this Franklin that will accompany you throughout your lives. Not only the technical and digital fluency regardless of your field, but also those human traits that will serve you well in the years ahead: curiosity, creativity, compassion and empathy, ethical reasoning, collaborative decision-making.

Among Ben Franklin’s many exemplary characteristics, I’d like to leave you with two that are especially timely.

The first is tolerance. Tolerance was a recurring theme in his humorous tales and more serious letters – which was all the more remarkable given the rigid Puritanism of the society in which he lived. As testimony to Franklin’s positive influence, when he died, his funeral procession was led by all the clergymen of Philadelphia, of every faith.

In one of the most famous phrases of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson originally wrote: “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable.” Franklin replaced “sacred and undeniable” with “self-evident” – an edit from someone who preferred Enlightenment thinking to fundamentalism. He strongly believed he could best serve God by serving others.

Which leads to the second trait we need to recover today: Franklin’s civic-mindedness. As Walter Isaacson put it, “Few people have ever worked as hard, or done as much, to inculcate virtue and character in themselves and their communities.”

Even enroute to becoming the most successful printer in America, Franklin was constantly launching various civic improvement schemes – a lending library, a college, a volunteer fire corps, an insurance association, a matching grant fund-raiser. He refused to take patents on his many inventions to ensure everyone could benefit from them. When his mother once questioned this practice, he responded, “I’d rather it be said that he lived usefully, rather than he died rich.”

Graduates, while few of us will ever rise to Franklin’s level of achievement, his example is a reminder of how to live and to lead: with your humanity, your tolerance, and your civic-mindedness.

Think about what those values mean, and what they have in common: A concern for others, an understanding that what we do as individuals affects all of us.

I think you understand that, and that’s part of why you’re at Franklin. You know that a sense of mission helps drive your ambition. You know that education equals more economic success and better jobs for individuals. But you can also see that a better-educated population reflects the racial, cultural, and social diversity that has been a hallmark of the American experiment for more than two centuries.

As it was with Franklin, a defining quality of our national experiment is the idea of tolerance, that we embrace our differences in race, gender, gender identity, religion, and immigration status. We know that our differences make us stronger together, including the growing number of first-generation students, a group that includes both President Prather and me.

The public good at the heart of this – access to education and opportunity — serves our shared interests and ideals, which include:

  • More compassion and empathy for others.
  • Greater appreciation for each other, without bias about our origins or beliefs.
  • Deepening levels of trust.
  • An ability to sort truth from misinformation.
  • And respect for the idea that the well-being of our neighbors and communities is something to be cherished and shared, not envied or denied.

As I said at the outset, the future of America depends on people like you – today, more than ever. As you take your next step – with not only your valuable technical and digital skills but also your invaluable human ones – I’m confident America’s future is in good hands.

Again, congratulations on this memorable day. And thank you for allowing me to be a part of it.

[1] 52%, 49% and 47% respectively, McKinsey, The Future of Life Insurance, Sept. 2020

[2] This last he called the Armonica, a spindle with 37 glass bowls one “played” with wet fingers, based on a popular entertainment where people played tunes by rubbing fingers on rims of wine glasses.

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