September 10, 2019

Building a community of like-minded peers

September 10, 2019

Citing Mary Shelley’s best-known novel Frankenstein, Dr. Ian Bickford shared his thoughts about the destruction when great talents are not coupled with ethics and good community. He promised that at Fulbright, all will work together to build a community as students want it to be. 

Here is Dr. Bickford’s closing remark at the Convocation Ceremony.

I read the other day in the newspaper – you might have read this, too – that there are globules being grown out of stem cells on the International Space Station that are starting to make actual brain waves, to the point that there is some distant but real concern about these globules eventually achieving a form of consciousness.

As I said earlier, students, you’re beginning your university experience at a complicated moment in history. You’ll find in your time at Fulbright that it’s often difficult to disentangle questions of research from questions of ethics, and also that it’s difficult to disentangle the kinds of questions we ask in different disciplines.

We may notice the increasing nearness, for example, of neuroscience to computer science, especially in the field of artificial intelligence. My own field, which is literature, may have something to offer, because the question of artificially created consciousness isn’t really new: it reaches back at least 200 years, as far as 1818, which is the year an 18 year old woman named Mary Shelley published a novel titled Frankenstein .

How many people in the room are 18 years old? Raise your hand.

How many are familiar with the name Frankenstein?

I’d like to end today by saying a few things about that name, and also about age and the different kinds of agency we have in different moments in our lives.

When we think of Frankenstein, or really Frankenstein’s monster, we’re likely to imagine a stumbling giant with a square forehead and bolts in its neck. That image comes from the 1931 film in which the monster is shocked to life in a laboratory. Mary Shelley, on the other hand, never mentions electricity in her novel. Instead Shelley calls Victor Frankenstein “the Modern Prometheus.”

Prometheus is the figure in Greek mythology who is punished for stealing fire from the gods. For the eighteen-year-old Mary Shelley, what she calls “the spark of being,” the spark that brings the monster to life, is not an electrical spark, which implies automation, but a spark of fire, which implies inspiration.

Neuropsychologists sometimes say the brain is wired, or hardwired, for all kinds of things, sometimes contradictory things: greed and altruism; safety and risk-taking; optimism and pessimism; fairness and prejudice. But this is a metaphor. Your brain doesn’t have wires; it has axons, around 100 billion of them, which are sort of like wires but in a different way not like wires at all.

The axons in the brain of someone the age of our students, or of Mary Shelley when she wrote Frankenstein, could wrap four times around the circumference of earth. By age 80, we lose half that length, more than 1% per year. Students, just for the record, you actually have a capacity to learn and make connections that older people can’t keep up with.

Mary Shelley wondered later in her life how she was able, at such a young age, to write a novel like Frankenstein, which she knew, with a mixture of pride and perplexity, was a work of genius. In fact her ability was partly because of her age, because she was taking in so much, so quickly, because this is a moment in life defined by inspiration, not automation; change, not habit; capacity, not limitation.

The monster in her novel, similarly, isn’t a monster at all. He is brilliant and misunderstood. He learns at an incredible rate, reads great works of literature, thinks about his place in the universe. Victor Frankenstein, too, is not a mad scientist but a university student, a young person inspired to invent and create.

When the story goes badly, it’s not a failure of science but of education – Frankenstein and his creation are both on their own, isolated in their ideas. They don’t, in other words, have likeminded peers.

Here, you do. I’ve said a lot today about the importance of building. Perhaps the most important thing you’ll build in your years Fulbright is a community. I asked you the other day at the beginning of orientation to think about what kind of community you want to build together. And as you tell us what you want it to be, we’ll listen to you, and we’ll work together to make it.

It will be the basis for the community at Fulbright University Vietnam for a long time to come.

Thank you, everyone, for being here

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