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The Knowledge Revolution Commencement Address

Peter Drucker: Knowledge is the true capital of a modern society.

Key points

  • Drucker delivered powerful messages on applying one’s talents for the greater good.
  • The meaning of education and knowledge to society has changed drastically.
  • Power is responsibility.
Boris15/Shutterstock
Source: Boris15/Shutterstock

May is college graduation season, and, with their wide online availability, many commencement addresses have had significant impact beyond their in-person audience. Some have even morphed into books, such as J.K. Rowling’s Very Good Lives (Harvard), Neil Gaiman’s Make Good Art (University of the Arts), and David Foster Wallace’s This Is Water (Kenyon College).

Even though a video is not available online, we can tap into the wisdom from Peter Drucker’s May 31, 1964, commencement address at the University of Scranton, in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where I was born and raised. Drucker was 54; living 110 miles away in Montclair, New Jersey; and was a well-known author with a new book, Managing for Results. He was in the middle of 21 years teaching management at New York University and would have more than 40 productive years in his future as a writer, professor, and consultant.

Societal Change Around Education and Knowledge

The societal change around the concepts of education and knowledge was an animating theme of his address. The 1964 graduates (who are around 80 years old now) were, according to Drucker, “the first generation of the ‘knowledge revolution.’”

It was less than a decade since he had first identified the concept of “knowledge workers,” when that particular group was still relatively small. The address included themes Drucker wrote about in that era, including the change in the United States from an emphasis on manufacturing tangible goods to creating services, with productive knowledge work.

His comments also revolved around what we now think of in such terminology as human capital, social capital, intellectual property, and intellectual assets. He discussed the

...application of knowledge to work and the cause for the steadily rising demand for more knowledge, for more people with education, for more knowledge work and knowledge workers.…The great achievement of this change is that it has made knowledge productive. In fact knowledge is the true capital of a modern society—and you, the educated people, are the only true "capitalists" on the horizon.

The Greater Good

His words that day on personal responsibility, family, humility, and applying one’s talents for the greater good also remain relevant. They are applicable for people leaving college and starting careers or graduate school, as well as those later in life looking to change careers, become entrepreneurs, or engage in lifelong learning.

Some of the issues Drucker identified remain problems 58 years later. For example, he urged graduates to

...think occasionally about the tremendous commitment of our society which you represent. This is a commitment to the productive and creative force of knowledge. It is a commitment to freedom of opportunities no earlier generation of man could even dream of. It is above all a commitment to education not just an economic investment, not just as the foundation for a high income and a fairly comfortable life—it is a commitment to education as the royal road to a better society, a society of opportunities, a society free from prejudice, free from class hatred and class envy...

He believed it was possible to perform work that has meaning on an individual level, and that will contribute toward a better society:

I hope you will remember that in turn it is your responsibility to put your knowledge and your education to work where they produce the most—for you, for your families, for your society, for your country and for mankind.

Drucker took somewhat of a tough-love approach to the graduates, reminding them that their years of education had represented sacrifices made by their parents. In addition, spending many years in school was not always the norm:

…not so long ago even in this country most children had to go to work at fourteen simply because their families could not afford to support them longer, did indeed depend on the few pennies the youngsters brought home after ten hours of back-breaking work.

While asserting that teaching hadn’t changed in many years, he said,

...what education and knowledge mean to society, that has changed drastically, and within the lifetime of the older generation still living. Throughout history education was a luxury of which even a very rich society could not afford to have a great deal.

He continued:

No one before you was given so much power and influence as you have ahead of you. I hope that you will remember that power used to one’s own selfish ends, to self-aggrandizement and pride becomes arrogance and tyranny and corrodes and destroys both the user and all around him. I hope that you will remember that power is above all a responsibility, an education, and an opportunity.

Drucker noted that, because of their education, those graduating in Scranton and elsewhere faced “a very much brighter future than young people have ever faced before.”

We cannot view Drucker’s commencement address from that day. But perhaps we can use our imagination and visualize the group of students and their families, as they listened to the “father of modern management” encourage the graduates to aim higher for a life that would make a significant, positive difference in society. His final words remain relevant today:

That your parents, your teachers, your friends are here today to see you start life as educated knowledge people, is a measure both of our expectations and of our confidence. Good luck to every one of you.

(Acknowledgment: Drucker's quotes in this post are from the text of the commencement address published June 1, 1964; Sec. 1, pg 3, 10 in The Scranton Times, "Cap and Gown Day on Campus: 410 Given Degrees at U of S; Graduates Termed "True Capitalists" by Professor at NYU.")

References

Peter F. Drucker: Managing For Results: Economic Tasks and Risk-taking Decisions (HarperCollins, 1964)

Neil Gaiman: Make Good Art (William Morrow, 2013)

Bruce Rosenstein: Create Your Future the Peter Drucker Way: Developing and Applying a Forward Focused Mindset (McGraw-Hill, 2013)

J.K. Rowling: Very Good Lives: The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination (Little, Brown and Company, 2015)

David Foster Wallace: This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life (Little, Brown and Company, 2009)

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