Professor Esther Duflo’s salute to the advanced degree recipients

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Below is the text of the salute to the advanced degree recipients, by Esther Duflo, the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics at MIT, for the Institute’s 2020 Commencement, held online May 29, 2020.

My fellow graduates, women and men from MIT, I salute you, I congratulate you, and I honor you. It is a bittersweet occasion, graduating in these very unique circumstances. We are missing the chance to be all together on this special day. You’ve missed your last few months on campus, your opportunity to forge a bond with your cohorts, which will last you a lifetime.

But remember, you are the lucky ones. You get to graduate having done most of your work here at MIT, and you are as equipped as anyone to deal with the challenges that await us. If you are like me, you might feel a bit intimidated by this luck. How can I repay this huge debt I have to the world? To have had a chance to graduate from MIT with an advanced degree, when others’ lives got cut short, or were profoundly disrupted.

Faced with that, it is tempting to look for a magic bullet, to solve the whole problem at once. Or if you realized that it is not possible, to get despondent, to get discouraged, to get depressed, or to just do something else. And this is what I want to talk to you about today, using, as appropriate, some high minded literary quotations.

Since you are busy with your graduate work, you may have missed one of the important developments in children’s literature, which is the last installment of Dave Pilkey’s excellent series, called Dog-Man. At the end of this book, Flippy, a biomechanical fish, who might as well have been invented at MIT, forgoes the opportunity to go live with his best friend, L’il Petey and his family, and instead decides to take care of 22 tadpoles, who through a series of unfortunate events, have found themselves orphaned. L’il Petey and his dad leave the fish in the pond, and they go home and discuss. I’m going to read you part of that discussion.

“Papa, I told you how Flippy was a good guy.”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“He’s changing the world.”

“Well, I don’t know about that. I mean come on, what he’s really doing is looking after a few baby tadpoles. That’s not really going to change the world.”

“Maybe not, but it will change their world.”

Remember that. Like the war on cancer, the war on Covid is not going to be won in one major battle. Instead, it will take thousands of small victories, and no doubt many, many setbacks along the way. And this is true not just for Covid, but for the fight against poverty, the war against climate change, for finding a cure for Alzheimer’s, or indeed for any of the challenges that await us.

On any of these topics, my conviction is that it is possible to make significant progress by focusing on small manageable issues, and addressing each of these issues as rigorously as possible.

So pick your issue, and go for it with all your heart, all your mind, and all your knowledge. Be nimble, be ready to pivot; no issue is too small, no issue is too specific, as long as you can learn from it, and as long as you hold yourself to the highest standard when you are trying to solve it.

It will take patience, and effort.  Progress will be slow, but it is inevitable. It will take thousands of people, working on different aspects of the problem, building on each other’s victories.

So get some rest graduates, and then get started. There is a lot of work in front of us.

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