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'Do Better'

'Do Better'With words of wit and wisdom, Sol Gittleman encouraged members of Tufts' class of 2010 to face their future with an appreciation for the past.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [05.23.10] Sol Gittleman, a professor beloved by thousands of Tufts graduates, told the class of 2010 that in order to understand and be ready for the future, they must know about the past. "Each generation," he said, speaking at the all-university commencement exercises on May 23, "has to grow from the previous one, learn from its errors and build."

Complete coverage of Commencement 2010

Transcript and audio of Gittleman's address

Audio slideshow: Commencement 2010

Gittleman, the Alice and Nathan Gantcher University Professor, and the university's provost from 1981 to 2002, was the main speaker and the recipient of an honorary degree at the ceremony held on the Medford/Somerville campus. The university awarded 3,037 degrees, including 1,341 undergraduate degrees and 1,696 graduate degrees at its 154th commencement.

In addition to Gittleman, Tufts President Lawrence S. Bacow presented honorary degrees to radiologist Richard Dorsay, A60, M64, a founding member of the Leonard Carmichael Society; Kristina M. Johnson, the Under Secretary of Energy in the United States Department of Energy; Ann Hobson Pilot, the former principal harpist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra; and Gordon S. Wood, A55, who taught history at Brown University for nearly 40 years.

Bacow introduced Gittleman as "representing the very best tradition of great teaching at Tufts," noting his course on Yiddish Literature "is the standard by which all great courses are measured." He said Gittleman was known, too, for the personal time and attention he gave to his students.

With the same humor, grace and wisdom he has imparted to his students, Gittleman charmed the audience with recollections from his own upbringing and provided them with insights on technology, history and the state of the world. And, slightly mocking himself, he compared himself to the character Polonius from Shakespeare's "Hamlet" and offered some words of advice.

Even though his mother couldn't read, he said, and his father had only a rudimentary education, both imbued him with the "optimism and knowledge that I would go to college, no matter what." But his mother was a tough taskmaster. "Try as hard as I could to please and satisfy her, she would look at my excellent report card, which was incomprehensible to her, with very mournful eyes, and say, 'Your brother's doing better.' Well, he wasn't doing better, but what did I know?"

To laughter, he explained why he tends to do things speedily. "I grew up during the Depression in one room behind a candy store in Hoboken, N.J. in a bedroom shared by my immigrant parents, my brother and me," he said. "I don't remember why, but at times we had only one pillow and my mother would say to me, 'Sleep fast, your father needs the pillow.'"

Gittleman told the graduates they must keep one foot in the past and one in the future. He said that if he could have pressed a button, he would have made everyone "at least partial history majors" to make certain they are connected to the world of their parents and grandparents. "Your world will be that of the 21st century, but if you expect to understand it, you had better make certain how we got here." In order to understand World War II or the current conflicts in South Asia, the Middle East and Africa, he said, it is necessary to know the origins and causes of World War I and subsequent peace treaties and agreements. To understand the nature of the conflict in Northern Ireland, it is first crucial to review the causes of the Thirty Years War; to understand the Sunni insurrection of Al Qaeda in Iraq, one has to review the Battle of Karbala in 680 that created the Sunni majority and the Shiite minority.

Gittleman said that if he were to draw up a required reading list, three of the books would be the holy scriptures of the religions "that seem uniquely locked in struggle." We are currently fighting a war, he said, involving the three religions that trace their origins to the Patriarch Abraham. "These three faiths, locked in conflict, share a single religious tradition but cannot find peace with each other....For the sake of all of us you have got to do better than we've done."

He offered views for the graduates of each school. The health scientists and engineers, he suggested, face a future difficult to envision. "Contemplate the fact that 90 percent of all the biomedical and technological discoveries since the beginning of recorded civilization have occurred in my lifetime. Can you imagine what the next half-century will produce?"

Gittleman told the undergraduates their teachers never thought the courses they offered would actually provide them with all the wisdom they would need. "For most of you, we really didn't even prepare you for a specific job. We prepared you for a life of risk, change and the capacity to think, grow, learn and be happy; to discover what it is that gives you satisfaction."

He reminded the audience that all we've ever known is war. "The only thing that changes is technology and that is intended to show us the hope for a better world and at the same time to frighten us to death....So to the Fletcher graduates: Find a way to heal the world, make it safe and give it peace."

And to all, he said, "If you can continue to get better at everything you do, if you can take risks, change directions, remain intellectually flexible and engaged in the world around you, if you can discover a modest degree of happiness regardless of your income, then we will take some credit for lighting the candle of your mind."

With thanks to Polonius, "the advice giver," he said: "Work hard at whatever you do, whatever you believe in...Expect nothing. Blame no one. Do something. Don't whine. Keep your memos short; watch your grammar, proofread, and spelling still counts."

Story by Marjorie Howard, Office of Publications

Photo by Tufts Photo

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