Baruch students celebrate graduation at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
Baruch students celebrate graduation at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

Commencement, a showcase for Baruch College’s signature diversity, was among the Spring 2022 events that inspired President S. David Wu’s May blog post, “The Environment We Create for Ourselves.” This month, President Wu addresses the value of in-person human interaction, for the individual, for higher education, and for society at large. “The only way we can learn to understand and appreciate one another is through old-fashioned human interaction.”

This is graduation season and the completion of another unusual academic year—not only for the graduates but for everyone in the Baruch community. The transition from virtual to traditional face-to-face settings has influenced us in ways that have been quite unexpected, at least that is the case for me.

Throughout the month of May, I attended a series of the College’s first in-person celebrations since 2019, which included the Bernard Baruch Dinner gala, Student Achievement Awards, Athletics Awards Banquet luncheon, Baruch Community Spring Celebration on Clivner=Field Plaza, and the 2022 Commencement at the Barclays Center—along with numerous festivities leading up to it. I also attended a number of external gatherings around the City, including the Association for a Better New York gala at Rockefeller Center and a reception at Gracie Mansion with Mayor Eric Adams.

Out of all these events, my most memorable experience was the community gathering on the Plaza, where I had the opportunity to meet staff, faculty, and lots of students—some of them graduating seniors. It was a perfect spring day, with the sun shining and a gentle breeze that blended with the sound of a saxophone flowing from the student jazz band and mixed with the smell of cotton candy and lemonade. I took selfies with students, shot hoops, played a serious game of Connect Four, and engaged in countless casual chats with graduating seniors about their Baruch experience and what they want to do with their lives. The euphoria on the plaza was palpable, and I went home that night with a warmth in my heart I haven’t felt in a long time.

In a much more formal, but just as heartwarming setting at the Bernard Baruch Dinner, I met nearly 400 of our alumni and College sponsors, some for the very first time. As I chatted with the guests, many reflected on the fact that we don’t realize how much we miss human contact until we re-experience it on such occasions. As I stepped on the stage to welcome the crowd, I felt an electricity in the air that had almost been forgotten.

While these face-to-face interactions were both refreshing and mesmerizing, our pragmatic selves have now realized the overhead we were paying prior to the pandemic in traveling and organizing for certain in-person meetings that can now be comfortably substituted by a simple Zoom chat.

This time last year I called for the Baruch community to think of an experiment blending the virtual and in-person worlds as a metaphorical dress rehearsal for the future. By now, I hope we have all learned our own lessons from the dress rehearsal and perhaps formed our own opinions about what the future should look like. Depending on our own circumstances and experiences, it may be clearer and more intuitive as to how we should balance the virtual and physical in order to get the best out of both worlds.

It is quite likely, however, that each of us has very different ideas about the future we envision, as well as the environment we want to create for ourselves. Let’s pause for a moment and reflect on that. Not only for Baruch but for our society.

Human Impulses and Technology Development

In her influential book The Human Condition, philosopher Hannah Arendt explored the impact of technology on human consciousness: “The fact is that the human capacity for life in the world always implies an ability to transcend and to be alienated from the processes of life itself, while vitality and liveliness can be conserved only to the extent that men are willing to take the burden, the toil and trouble of life, upon themselves.”

Arendt’s sentiment was shaped by anxieties prevalent in the 1950s regarding the survival of politics and culture in the face of technological development. While the book was written more than a half century ago, it is almost prophetic in that modern technological developments tend to follow the human impulse of “transcending and alienating from the process of life itself.”

It makes sense that many of us would prefer to deploy technology to accomplish our work remotely in order to avoid the hassle of commuting—sometimes for hours each day—on crowded subways, buses, trains, or highways. But there is another side of the scale, where “the burden, the toil and trouble of life” is at the very core of our vitality and liveliness.

Beyond a simple philosophical point, this paradox also manifests itself in shapes and forms that have real consequences in our daily lives. By now, we are all familiar with the arguments—and have witnessed—that a technology-enabled and social media–curated culture can damage and weaken our civic life, as well as political discourse, in profound and fundamental ways. It is a cautionary tale of unintended consequences and the importance of not only focusing on what we could gain but also being thoughtful about what we may collectively lose in the process.

What Does Biology Have to Do with It?

With regard to technology, for a while now I’ve been interested in a relatively new branch of modern biology and genetics known as epigenetics. Scientists discovered that sometimes a change in environment can have a long-lasting impact on the way genes are expressed—so much so that two genetically identical individuals can fair quite differently given their lifestyle, diet, and personal experiences, as well as other environmental factors to which they are exposed.

In her fascinating book The Epigenetics Revolution, British biologist Nessa Carey describes abundant research findings on the molecular level and notes that a set of mechanisms can actually cause modifications to our genetic material and change the ways genes are expressed (to be switched on or off), but they do not alter the genes themselves. As Carey declared in her book: “This means that we are finally starting to unravel the missing link between nature and nurture; how our environment talks to us and alters us, sometimes forever.”

My point for this detour is that I often wonder, if lifestyle choices and environmental factors can go so far as to alter our genetic destination, are there even broader implications for us as humans—not just scientifically, but metaphorically and philosophically?

We know that our environment, or the way we choose to interact with it, plays a role in shaping who we are and what we become. What we may not realize is that, as human beings in a technology-dominated modern society, we are taking an active role in designing and shaping our own environment—both individually and collectively. Thus, not only are we profoundly impacted by our environment, but we are shaped by the very environment we have created for ourselves.

The Environment We Create for Ourselves

Following the big reset brought on by the pandemic and the reckoning that challenged various forms of social injustice, our society is facing a pivotal moment.

Increasingly, our human impulse—with the help of technology—drives us to create environments where we no longer need to interact with those who are different than we are, nor do we need to engage with people who have contrasting belief systems, or try to understand those who maintain what we believe to be peculiar values and cultural backgrounds. We are increasingly isolated and alienated from other human beings. What if the big reset is driving us further into isolation and alienation?

At last week’s Commencement, I saw Baruch College’s signature diversity well-represented in the nearly 6,000 students who made up the Class of 2022. Together they hail from more than 130 countries, speak more than 75 languages at home, live in all five boroughs of New York City and beyond, and embody all socioeconomic backgrounds.

Among the parting words I shared with our graduates was my hope that by immersing themselves in this culturally dynamic environment, they have honed an ability to read people from different perspectives and multiple angles and have developed an understanding that those from various backgrounds may behave and act differently—but have tremendous value to add.

For us to realize the true power of that environment requires a culture of intense interaction and engagement—which is well within our power to create.

While one of the human impulses is to retreat into our own corners, alienating ourselves from the discomfort of conflicts and confrontation, the only way we can learn to understand and appreciate one another is through old-fashioned human interaction. In this context, technology is a bit like an early evening cocktail or after-dinner dessert—it helps to enhance and enrich our lives, but if we depend on it or make it the main course, we may develop deep regrets later.

Before we start our strategic planning process in earnest this fall, let’s pause for a moment and think about the future we wish for and the environment we want to create for ourselves. Let’s keep in mind that a culture of interaction and engagement helps resolve conflicts and builds a stronger, more cohesive culture—while isolation and alienation breed suspicion and conflict.

Let’s set aside some time this summer to find the balance in our lives and to discover our own way to make the best out of the technology around us, while making every effort to engage, in-person, with our follow human beings.

Note: I will take a hiatus from my monthly blog in the summer and resume in September 2022.

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