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Live up to the promise of your personal gifts

The following is an excerpt from President Richard Brodhead's convocation address to freshmen, delivered in the Chapel Wednesday:

Duke's newest students, I welcome you to this place and the great new life that awaits. Your university has a history of being home to the best. When a famous senator looked for a place at the forefront of innovative medical care this summer, he considered many possibilities, but he chose Duke. When the United States Olympic basketball looked for a coach who could mold great individual talent into a team, they did not look many places: they came straight to Duke. One of the most widely noted art exhibits of this year, "El Greco to Velazquez," will show in two places in this country: at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Nasher Museum at Duke. This summer the United States Green Building Council gave a LEED Platinum certificate, its highest rating for environmental sustainability, to a building that houses Duke engineering students and incorporates their inventions-the Smart Home, the first platinum residence hall on the planet.

Today we have something else to boast about. Now we've got you! We chose you because of your special promise, and you chose us because Duke makes good things better. Both were great choices. Now, let's make it happen.

It is a complete fluke that the Class of 2012's arrival should take place in the middle of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Since they happen to overlap, these two events have both been filling my mind, and I've begun to see each in the image of the other. The Olympic games are spectacles of competition and individual achievement, but there is something profoundly communal at their heart. In antiquity, where the Olympiad was observed for nearly a thousand years, the Greek city-states would suspend wars and other conflict when the games arrived, and athletes would travel to a sanctuary site, Olympus, for the contests. Then, as now, many forms of civic value have strife and division as their yield. But the games propose an ideal that suspends hostilities and draws people together across divides. This is the ideal of outstanding performance, of the exquisite realization of human powers.

Every time you turn on the Olympics, you see the endless ways humans have dreamed up to move their bodies in water, on land or in the air, each with astonishing grace and power. When you tune in, you also join the cross-cultural community of hundreds of millions watching with you: the current Olympics likely form the single most widely shared experience of our new global village. What draws us together in this profound way? This is the community of humans delighting in the power of the human, and in the spectacle of human achievement pushed to its highest forms.

For the athletes who participate, the Olympics create a further form of community. Ask your classmate Becca Ward, who won one of the first medals awarded in Beijing (in fencing) before hastening back to join you today. When Olympians move into the Olympic Village, they join the select society of those who share their exalted level of talent and have embraced the same demanding goals. Getting to be neighbors with their parallel numbers from around the world yields both friendship and a further stimulus for achievement. You know why so many records fall at the Olympics: people have the inspiration of competing with the best.

I'm speaking of the Olympics, but I'm really thinking of you and your gathering here. Yesterday on East Campus I witnessed 1,700 spirited youth who used to be total strangers to one another, and who have nothing in common but their many forms of talent, coming together from all over this region, nation and world, to occupy your own separate village. Why? So you too can befriend each other, delight each other and inspire each other toward what you came here to do: to live up to the promise of your highest personal gifts.

That's your mission as a student here. Please don't forget it or settle for a lesser goal. But as even I must admit, there are differences between Duke and the Olympics. At Duke you need to try out all your powers, not just the ones you're famously good at. There need be no losers here, but there's only one real way to be a winner. That is to use Duke to transform yourself into a broadly informed, broadly capable person-and that won't happen unless you open yourself to a range of interests and activities, including things that aren't your "event." Our recent graduate Shannon Rowbury made the U.S. Olympic track team with the fastest time in the nation in the women's 1500 meters. But at Duke she was not just a track star but a highly engaged student of English, theater, film and visual studies, who helped mastermind a movie marathon where scores of Duke students learned their skills as future filmmakers. Such a blend of discipline, curiosity, creativity, and initiative will keep you running long after the legs begin to slow.

And education isn't finally about show and performance: it's about learning how to think. I spent a memorable night last spring listening to a debate on Google's 2006 decision to launch a search engine based in China. Under China's regulation of internet service providers, Google had to agree to self-censor to enter the Chinese market, a striking departure from our notions of individual rights and free inquiry. But without a direct Chinese presence, Google would miss a chance to compete in the world's fastest-growing internet market, where other American rivals were already present.

This is a textbook ethical dilemma, and all the more interesting for being a real-world choice with real-world consequences. It raises a host of issues. How are different kinds of value to be balanced against each other? Will that balancing need to be different in future, in face of new globalizing forces like the internet and the integration of global commerce? Are our familiar notions of rights absolute, or can different cultures have legitimately different understandings of individual and community rights? If you seek to promote change elsewhere, do you best advance it by engaging or by refusing to engage?

At the debate I attended, five participants went at these questions. All of them were impressive, but none was a specialist. They were ordinary Duke students who had taken a course that included this case as a class exercise-in short they were you, taking advantage of daily opportunities of this place. They voiced different points of view, but when they spoke, they showed certain elemental strengths. They had entered into the difficulty of the question; they had a detailed grasp of the facts; they could visualize and respond to points of view different from their own; and they were able to stake out clear positions without evading the complexities of the case.

No medals are given for skills like these, but if you want to be a constructive contributor to your world, these are strengths you'll look for every chance to build, as these students had. With luck, some day you'll be the one making hard decisions in face of the world's changing challenges and complexities. It will matter if you're able to make them in a thoughtful, well-informed way-so it matters how you use your time at Duke.

In a few days the Olympics will be done for four more years. But in a few days your race will just be beginning. Like the Olympics, Duke is a community dedicated to the highest realization of human powers-with the difference that here you're readied for a long life of accomplishment, requiring development of every dimension of your gifts. Are you up for that? That's what I hoped! Class of 2012, let the games begin.

Richard Brodhead is the ninth president of Duke University.


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