Let me start with my heartfelt congratulations to our 2024 graduates and their families. This has been a challenging year, which makes your success all the more memorable. Your university careers have been marked by world historic events. You began your Stanford careers at the height of the pandemic, making your first Stanford friendships over Zoom. This past year has been a challenging, unpredictable time for our world. Terribly tragic wars have caused an intense pain of loss and tensions throughout our community. This morning, we celebrate your achievements in spite of the troubled environment.

We will rely on you – your values, passion, perseverance, and strength of character – to make our world better. While at Stanford, you’ve gained the tools and analytical skills to help you understand the world, analyze the shortcomings in our world, and work on solutions that will make things better. The university has strived to give you the skills to listen to and learn from one another. I urge you to continue to be open to other points of view – don’t let your convictions shut out your ability to listen and learn.

I urge you to embrace your futures with gratitude and optimism while acknowledging the suffering of others.

You should feel gratitude to your family and to the Stanford community for an outstanding education that has equipped you for lives of exploration and learning – the keys to a fulfilling life and rewarding career. Genuine feelings and expressions of gratitude result in social cohesion and a stronger civil society. These social bonds are very much needed in the current context of division and polarization. Gratitude helps combat the hyper-individualism that assumes that a person’s successes are a result solely of their own efforts. Of course, you have devoted a lot of intense effort and talent to your successes so far in life, but those efforts have been in the context of what others have built and could not have been accomplished without the help and support of individuals and institutions.

Gratitude encourages reciprocity, with all the social benefits it brings. Grateful people enjoy better physical and emotional health, increased happiness, decreased depression and decreased materialism. One of the consequences of the pandemic was a wave of isolation, as we experienced the anxiety that proximity to each other might risk transmission of the virus. Reciprocity and gratitude offer the means to rebuild healthy social networks based on trust and a better society.

Now, let me turn to optimism. In the context of current world events, it may seem naive to suggest that you should go out with a sense of optimism. Here, I think a knowledge of history offers a justification for optimism, and I speak as a historian of ancient Rome. I don't mean to minimize the tragedies of the past four years, but it is a mistake to idealize or romanticize the past in a depressing narrative of decline and hopelessness.

On most measures of well-being, your generation will be well ahead of ancient Romans and of Americans 100 years ago, and even ahead of my own generation.

  • You are likely to live longer than your ancestors. Over the past century, life expectancy in the U.S. has increased by more than 40%, and since 1970, the life expectancy of the world's population has increased by 16 years. The mortality rate of children under age 15 has decreased from 50% in ancient Rome to 25% worldwide in 1950 to just 4% today. 

  • Most Romans had a standard of living close to subsistence. Poverty, unfortunately, still exists, but extreme poverty worldwide has decreased from 1.9 billion in 1990 to 800 million today, even as the population grew from 5 billion to 8 billion – that is, a decline from 43% of the global population in extreme poverty to about 10% in a single generation. 

  • Along with the decline in extreme poverty, the world's population has shifted from being predominantly agrarian and illiterate to predominantly urban and literate in a knowledge economy: the world literacy rate has increased from perhaps 10% in antiquity to 20% in 1900, to 42% in 1960, to 87% today.

  • With those dramatic changes has come the almost complete elimination of legal servitude, which was pervasive in the pre-modern era. In the long view of history these are absolutely stunning changes, and a basic cause of the improvements has been education and the discovery and dissemination of new knowledge to which Stanford is making signal contributions. 

I need to avoid triumphalism: with those unprecedented, positive developments have come huge challenges: environmental degradation, massively destructive weapons of war, and greater inequality of wealth. The benefits of technological advances haven't been evenly distributed. But these persistent evils should be put in the context of massive improvements. I am optimistic that your generation will take on the challenges with the knowledge and spirit that you have acquired here at Stanford. I wish you every success.