Benjamin Strauss, Student Commencement Speech, May 22, 2012

May 25, 2012

Cooper Union Stock Photo

Benjamin Strauss was Cooper Union's 2012 Student Commencement Speaker. Below you'll find a transcript of his speech.


Class of 2012: Welcome to the Great Hall.

When we were in this room for Freshman Orientation, there were a lot more of us. 

And today, those of us who are left, are back here, for one reason, and one reason only.

We have met the challenges of three of the most brutally honest disciplines.  Art, architecture, and engineering.  Success is hard to attain- as we’re all acutely aware- and failure is obvious and comes with repercussions.  So the reason we are here is because we are the only ones who can make things happen as well as we do.  We decided, maybe nobly, maybe foolishly, to commit ourselves to these fields, in which the stakes are the highest, in a school which ups the ante even more.  The only way to keep your head above water here is to be great. 

So as I take the liberty of welcoming you to the Great Hall, I ask you, what is greatness?

Is it Abraham Lincoln standing at this podium, demanding that ethical conscience be the very policy of a nation in his “Right Makes Might” speech?  Is it Theodore Roosevelt spearheading the war against New York City’s government corruption on this same stage?  Is it Presidents Grant, Cleveland, Taft, Wilson, Clinton and Obama, right here, calling for labor, capital, and union changes that have formed this country?

Yes, it's all of those things... For the last 153 years, as leadership has passed through this hall, it has espoused greatness.  While we don't embody the exact forms as these politicians, we have been given the tools to be the next group of leaders.  So what is the greatness that surrounds us?

The education that has transformed us from students into leaders has certainly transcended the ordinary.  But within that transformation process, maybe “greatness” transcends the mere curricula we studied.   Perhaps, to be great is not just to design the structures that shelter life, or to exploit scientific truths to enhance quality of life, or to introduce our rationale to emotions via the senses.  Maybe it's the inherent symbiosis of three different disciplines steered in a common direction, namely, making life better.

But do you know what really defines “greatness” in this room?  It’s that I'm standing in front of you, as an accomplished graduate of Cooper Union, and as I scan the room, I can confidently say that as successful as I've been, the overwhelming majority of you, my classmates, are smarter or more talented than I am.  Don't believe me? Ask Professors Wolf [Alan Wolf, Chair of Physics] and Uglesich [Robert Uglesich, Assistant Professor of Physics].

That greatness – that is, the ability for some really smart people to be average, is what defines Cooper.  The standards here are higher, and so we are going to accomplish more.  This has been made possible by Peter Cooper’s insistence on an atmosphere in which education and concrete results reign supreme.  Whether we are rich or poor, gay or straight, black, white, Asian, or Hispanic, has had no impact on our ability to be part of this once in a lifetime opportunity.  Peter Cooper put the students who can make things happen in a school where they're taught the best, by only the best, and what’s the result?  An education that’s free not only with regard to tuition, but also in the limitless sharing of knowledge among really creative people.  A school composed exclusively of individuals who make their peers not simply more knowledgeable, but smarter and more critical in their thinking.  And finally, a group of graduates who are best equipped to lead in their fields and in society.  We have not merely gained academic achievement by completing the most rigorous curricula.  We think in ways we never imagined possible four years ago.

Our educational experience is different, and as the beneficiaries, so is our debt.  Whereas in the classic undergraduate collegiate system, in which students sit in lectures to learn, and contribute tuition dollars to fund it, Cooper's model is one which money could never buy.  How do we, as undergrads, get away without paying tuition dollars?  We replace payments with contributions of intellect.  We are responsible for educating each other, and not one of us would be here if we didn't have the abilities to contribute both the requisite quantity and quality...  And so, tomorrow, while graduates around the country have to start paying their tuition debts back, we have to start paying ours forward.  They are in the form of responsibilities to society, and they are two-fold: first, to improve life for those who haven't been afforded the same opportunities, and second to perpetuate the opportunities for the next group of difference makers.  Make no mistake about it: that includes financially supporting the institution that got us this far.  But don’t fulfill these obligations only with money.  Also contribute what you know.  Give your expertise to the specialists in your field, and your point of view influenced by that expertise to those in other disciplines.  I suspect we'll be doing more of the latter, because, while we have each become experts in one field, we are novices in just about every other one.

To quote a pretty wise man, Socrates, “the only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing.”

So I admit, after four years in one of the most exclusive institutions for art, architecture, and engineering in the world, I can’t claim that I fully understand what the artists and architects do.  Actually, in the spirit of full disclosure, I should also mention that more often than not, I can’t claim that I fully understand what the engineers do either.  Artists and architects, I don’t think I’m even equipped to appreciate your accomplishments at a level commensurate with their merits.  But I can say without hesitation that I have learned from you, that you have made me a better engineer.  And as an engineer, witnessing your efforts and their outcomes is a constant reminder of the numerous approaches that exist for any problem.  And I'm confident that each student of one discipline has learned from the other two.

So, I challenge you.  No. I beg of you- continue to challenge me… to make me smarter, to share with me the wisdom you have that I still do not.  Continue to share it with your friends, your neighbors, the strangers around you.  [And], remember to seize their wisdom as they offer it to you, because then, just maybe, you’ll end up as lucky as me.  Do that, and I promise you that our accomplishments and contributions here to making life better will be only a small scale representation of what we ultimately do.

…In the words of an even wiser man, Dean Baker, “C U Later!”

  • Founded by inventor, industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper in 1859, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art offers education in art, architecture and engineering, as well as courses in the humanities and social sciences.

  • “My feelings, my desires, my hopes, embrace humanity throughout the world,” Peter Cooper proclaimed in a speech in 1853. He looked forward to a time when, “knowledge shall cover the earth as waters cover the great deep.”

  • From its beginnings, Cooper Union was a unique institution, dedicated to founder Peter Cooper's proposition that education is the key not only to personal prosperity but to civic virtue and harmony.

  • Peter Cooper wanted his graduates to acquire the technical mastery and entrepreneurial skills, enrich their intellects and spark their creativity, and develop a sense of social justice that would translate into action.