Commence Commencing

My fellow law professor Jonathan Zittrain, Churchill native and Shady Side grad, delivered a fabulous commencement address at Shady Side last week. Here's the full text; below is a taste. It's wisdom that is as old as the Pittsburgh hills, in many ways, but it bears repeating and applying -- by adults no less than by children. Taking Wikipedia as an optimistic example but viewing it with a critical eye -- how might Pittsburgh wiki-fy itself?

My view is that Wikipedia and projects like it belong at the heart of a high school and college education. Instead of turning to a handful of approved sources and paraphrasing them to write a ten-page U.S. History paper that will be viewed and graded only by the teacher – who looks at a stack of papers and anticipates the same bad movie, twenty times – you can be asked to demonstrate a sustained and original contribution to a Wikipedia article on an important topic, having to contend with conflicting sources and others’ arguments, learning to discern and then defend truth amidst chaos – and to refine your own view in light of what you discover. There are few things as devastatingly disarming to others as admitting when you’re wrong.

For the world you are entering – really the one you’ve been in all along – is one swimming in received wisdom, accepted uncritically. Too easily we farm out the hard work of knowing whether our society is on a sustainable path to policymakers, experts, or the media. It’s like: Katie Couric will tell us if there’s anything genuinely worth worrying about. But these channels of authority are overwhelmed, dysfunctional, and in some cases outright corrupt.

What will reinforce them, or even take their place, is something you can help build, with tools that even ten years ago were unknown. The key is to move from the reactive, desultory world of Charlie Brown to one in which you appreciate that you are generally at least as empowered as the next person, and to realize the ethical dimension that accompanies the day-by-day as well as the landmark events in life. As my best friend at Shady Side put it, reflecting on what he knows now that he and I had missed in high school, one of the best ways to evaluate your success is the effect you have on a room of people – family or strangers – when you enter. Does it become brighter or darker? That’s something you can choose, even though too often it’s just a script followed without much thought. Enterprises like Wikipedia urge us to ask the same question in our virtual lives, knowing how often they touch real ones.


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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at] Mike also blogs at, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

All opinions expressed at Pittsblog 2.0 are those of their respective authors and of no one (and no thing) else, least of all the University of Pittsburgh.

Pittsblog 2.0 has a motto: "It's steel good in Pittsburgh." Say it aloud, with a Pittsburgh accent.

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