When the student organizers of the Second-Year Council Dinner Series extended their gracious invitation to me to speak, I asked about the topic. I was surprised that they wanted to hear about me. Suddenly I had a chance at Andy Warhol’s dream of fifteen minutes of fame. After a moment of more serious reflection, I realized that the request was a fair one: as their teacher and dean, I ought to be an open book for them to read, one in which they might see a future that means something to them.
But before I turn to my past, let me begin with our present. We have a few more weeks of this brilliant autumn before the deep weeping red of the crape myrtle succumbs to the barren limbs of winter. There will be lots to remember from this October, beginning with the upset victory over twelfth-ranked Georgia Tech. Before the game, I worried that the Yellow Jackets’ sting would prove fatal to the Cavaliers. But as time ran out on Georgia Tech, I joined the cheers as a mass of orange and blue poured down the hill, the way that nature loves to fill a vacuum, right past those signs that say “No Spectators Allowed on the Field.” The team was engulfed by ecstatic students singing the Good Old Song.
That will be a fond recollection of October 2011. But this is also the month that began with the passing of Steven Jobs. I was riveted by all the commentaries and eulogies—not because I am a Jobs fan: I am not. I resent him for his iPods that intruded into the space and time I might otherwise have had with my children; and for his iPhones that have prevented any possibility of solitude from work; like so many of us, the first thing I do in the morning and the last thing I do at night is read and write e-mail in bed.
New York Times columnist David Brooks used the passing of Jobs to underscore the worrisome slowdown in innovation in America. He cited Tyler Cowen’s recent book The Great Stagnation, Neal Stephenson’s essay “Innovation Starvation,” and Peter Thiel’s “The End of the Future.” For Brooks, Jobs’ death seemed to mark the end of hope. It does not, but I understand why he thinks the Promethean moment has passed. You second-year students, who had not even been born in the 1980s, cannot remember the very same fears of American decline and Japanese advance that dominated that decade. People in Detroit decided that they better start learning Japanese. They didn’t realize that the center of world innovation had not in fact crossed the Pacific. It was just three time zones away, in Palo Alto. Three decades later, America remains the world’s leader in high technology.
In other words, the fire of Prometheus only fades for a moment before it is lit again. And no matter how many thousands of universities are built in China and India, I will always bet that that flame will be kindled in this country, at a university like ours, a university that Mr. Jefferson founded on a model that, when all is said and done, hasn’t changed much over two centuries—it’s a brilliant flame that keeps on burning brightly.
Still, it must be said that Steve Jobs personified a great era in modern American history, the fortuitous synchronicity of cultures and sensibilities that were both original and time bound. It is always wonderful to be young and talented, but to be so in the penumbra of the 1960s cultural revolutions was quite special. Here comes a baby with a curious provenance (Syrian father, German-American mother, adopted by a machinist’s family with no college degrees), who dabbled in tie-died shirts, LSD, ashrams in India, and communes in Oregon. Steve Jobs became what he became by imbibing and personifying the spirit of the age, and then, through the force of his personality and his formidable talents, he transcended it.
He and Steve Wozniak began with a little personal computer in 1976, then the foundational Apple II in 1978, then the Mac, then all the i-this, i-that and i-other. There will be another Jobs, to be sure, and I hope he/she is sitting here in this room. That will be a person who comes out of the zeitgeist, the spirit of the age, takes full advantage of it, runs with it, and makes from this present a future that none of us could imagine.
Where does that leave me? When I was your age, I felt like I had just stepped off a spaceship, flying from my home planet of Seoul, Korea to a planet called Brunswick, Maine, with its Bowdoin College. I did not understand the country I landed in, let alone understand the zeitgeist, how it came to be, where it was going. I was an alien in a country where for people my age, popularity seemed more important than anything. When I wasn’t invited to join one of the ten fraternity houses on campus then, I spent most of my time in college shooting pool in the student union—or with the friends I found at the Afro-Am Center, listening to Marvin Gaye and Jimi Hendrix. I didn’t really know who they were; I just knew they were cool.
America is an idiosyncratic country, a difficult country to understand if you weren’t born here—or perhaps even if you were. The founding documents of this country say that certain truths are “self-evident,” and I felt like a fool for not understanding what they are. But Americans can also be provincial, not grasping that these same truths are decidedly not self-evident in many cultures around the world.
I came from a country that went from very poor to very rich in my lifetime. It is a country that honors its scholarly tradition. I come from a sprawling clan, so many uncles and aunts that I never knew existed, and yet among all those cousins, I can’t think of anyone who didn’t go to college. I knew them all well, because they all showed up at our house in Seoul to be fed and housed when they came to college in the capital.
The country I grew up in was the antithesis of what we hold dear in this country. It wasn’t democratic; it was a dictatorship. Freedom was regulated rather than celebrated, night and day was separated by curfews—the sirens at midnight, and the dropping of morning newspapers in the dark courtyard shortly after the lifting of the curfew at 4 a.m. Why the curfew? Allegedly, to look for communists, but in fact to cow the population. Yet despite the absence of civil liberties, there was still a spirit of enrichment, hope, and a promise of their place in the sun. Koreans are a people who believe in their bones that theirs is one of the finest civilizations in the world, and that they could be great again if they could just make it through the twentieth century.
My father was an economic planner in a country where economic planning meant something, designing five-year plans for the industries that they wanted to encourage, with micro-economic planning to make it happen. He would leave home at 5 a.m. to visit the local market, for a spot check on the price of charcoal briquettes (used to heat most homes) and of squares of tofu. This would tell him how prices were fluctuating throughout the country. In fifty years, civil servants like my father took a country poor by every measure except education, set progressive goals and export targets—which were met year after year after year and which transcended anything in modern times to that point: double-digit growth in GNP from 1965 to 1997. (China has taken the same model and surpassed everyone.)
I remember the hardships. I remember showing up in school at 6:30 a.m. to sweep the streets with my classmates. Korea is a cold country and in the winter my fingers froze to the broomstick. In gym class, we learned to throw plastic grenades in case we had to throw real ones at North Korean soldiers.
I lived in Korea until I was fourteen; then I finished high school in Tokyo. No matter how harsh the environment we grow up in, it is still your childhood, it is who you are, it is the meaning of the authentic. I look back on my youth as a period of unprecedented hope and eventual accomplishment.
I have in my heart a complicated understanding about cultures and cultural authenticity that defies all principles and rules, that defies all the voices that tell you what you can’t do (and they were all over Korea in the 1960s). Steve Jobs, you and I are all creatures of the surroundings that we inhabit and make authentic; and it is when you are authentic—because you have imbibed the spirit of the age and its possibilities and hopes—that all the obstacles and differences melt away, and we seek what is genuine and confident and true.
Throughout my studies at Bowdoin and later at Columbia, I never thought of myself as part of the “mainstream.” But it never bothered me that I was on the outside looking in. By training and temperament I am a scholar—and by definition, a scholar is not a participant in the events as they occur—they are observers. There is a little-noticed advantage in not being in the mainstream—standing there, your nose pressed against the window, on the outside looking in. From that vantage point you can observe many things that active participants and mainstreamers do not see.
Eric Hobsbawm, in his autobiography, A Twentieth Century Life, spoke of the contributions that the Jewish people have made to the modern world, a contribution so disproportionate to their numbers. Part of the genius that they brought to Europe and later to the United States was that they were outsiders—essential outsiders—seeing things that insiders often cannot. Over the course of American history, outsiders have brought so much talent to this country.
But outsiders don’t see and hear everything. I have to admit that thirty years later I am still deaf to the genius of Jimi Hendrix. Still, there are other aspects of American life that I have lived, imbibed, and thoroughly understood, to the point that they are in my DNA—things that have allowed me to continue to be authentic to myself as I was as a ten-year-old child, and to myself today, as teacher and dean to you. However, I don’t think I became an American on university campuses, reading philosophy and literature in a second language. I did so sitting in the bleachers at Little League games. My son was a first-baseman. Even though he was neither tall nor left-handed, as first-basemen are supposed to be, he was an excellent fielder. The trophy he won read, “If he can touch it, he can catch it.” I watched my son—an American son, or a son becoming American—in his “Arts’ Yankees” uniform, and little by little, as if through osmosis, I came to feel that I belonged, too. It is another kind of authenticity.
Early in 2008 someone called to ask if I might consider the position of dean of Arts & Sciences at the University of Virginia. Virginia! I thought it was the most exotic word I’d ever heard in my life—but it also rang true. I remember coming to interview here in late February 2008, sitting in the back garden of one of the pavilions, and watching purple pansies in full bloom. There was sweetness in the air, sunlight spread through the garden: it was glorious, but it was just a beginning. Now that I am part of it, I have nothing but good will, high hopes, and such great good fortune to be part of a university with students like you—and that takes such great pains to remain authentic to its original meaning and purpose.