IU commencement speaker: create ‘ethical version of economics’


Few people blend policy and poetry like Michael D. Higgins, the president of Ireland and the undergraduate commencement speaker May 10 at Indiana University Bloomington.

The author of four published collections of poetry, he spoke passionately to IU graduates about maintaining the “ancient symmetry between nature, human understanding and scholarship.” But he has spent decades in politics, and his address also took a critical look at the strengths and weaknesses of the social sciences for making policy decisions.

Higgins earned a master’s degree in sociology from IU in 1967. He was admitted to the doctoral program but went back to Ireland because of family illness and didn’t return to Bloomington — until last weekend, when the university presented him an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree.

In his speech, Higgins fondly recalled his year as an IU graduate student but critiqued sociology and economics of that era for accepting “modernization theory” as their dominant paradigm.

In the development theory which this model spawned, countries could be divided along a continuum of modernization that was deemed to be measurable. Modern, urban, industrialized Western peoples constituted one end of the spectrum, and rural, traditional, agricultural peoples were at the other end, and were perceived as having obstacles of a cultural, political and economic kind to overcome. On some occasions more crude formulations forgot the continuum and simply spoke of modern and backward societies. I need not remind you of the harm which has been done to international relations, and to the prospects for global justice, by an unquestioning acceptance of this type of thinking.

Higgins has been a university lecturer in sociology and political science and has published books of essays as well as poetry. A former mayor of Galway, known widely as an advocate for human rights, he was Ireland’s first minister of arts and culture before becoming president. His address included a reading of his poem “Of Possibility,” written in memory of the Irish theologian John O’Donoghue.

Along with other advice, he warned students not to assume that “that which might be known was measurable and calculable; that that which was not calculable, quantifiable, might be ignored.”

The major challenges facing our planet require a global response. If previous generations did not make redundant the instruments of war, or eliminate poverty, while benefiting from scientific achievement; if they did not deliver the results of science and technology for the full benefit of all humanity; if they allowed an abuse of Enlightenment reason to evolve into an unaccountable irrationality – none of those failures, often by those with the best of intentions, none of them constitute unavoidable inevitabilities.

Higgins called on graduates to help develop “a new ethical version of economics” written with creativity and drawing on the wisdom and knowledge of multiple disciplines and traditions.

“The critical capacity to challenge false inevitabilities will serve you well on your journey,” he said. “May you not only acquire and retain critical consciousness, but my wish for you is that you also retain a sense of wonder, of possibilities that are never fully contained, never exhausted.”

The undergraduate commencement ceremonies, along with IU Bloomington’s graduate commencement and graduation ceremonies for the Kelley School of Business, School of Public and Environmental Affairs and Maurer School of Law, may be watched online at broadcast.iu.edu.

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