Recently I met Mauro Salazar, PhD student at ETH, Zurich, who send me a – to my opinion – brilliant speech about humanity, ethics and holistic education. He agreed I post his text here.
Gentili professori, cari compagni di studio, famigliari e amici,
It is a real pleasure to stand here today in front of you, as our journey as ETH students is drawing to an end. I would like to take this wonderful opportunity to share with all of you, why I am so happy and so proud to graduate from this prestigious university.
ETH is a school recognised on the global scale, always on top of every ranking and committed to excellent teaching, research and innovation. Here we could study fascinating topics with internationally renowned experts and deepen our knowledge with challenging research projects, shaping our critical and scientific thinking. But I think the most fascinating feature of ETH is to be found in its DNA, its essence, and goes back to its foundation.
ETH was founded by great personalities of the 19th century: Alfred Escher, the man who built our railways, founded the first Swiss banks and developed our industry, which are the pillars of modern Switzerland; and Stefano Franscini, the first federal councillor (Bundesrat) from Ticino, who strongly believed in the importance of education, the fourth pillar. They recognised the long-term impact of having an excellent school where to educate future scientists and engineers, and promote new ideas. They did it with the clear goal of building a future where technology would serve humanity and improve life quality. But they did not want to educate only technically specialised people: they wanted to improve their critical and analytic thinking, provide them with ethical values and foster their creativity.
This is why from the beginning ETH has also offered high-quality courses in the humanities, as you may know from the GESS department – previously Abteilung XII. A representative example is given by the first Italian literature professor of ETH, Francesco De Sanctis, who was one of the most prominent Dante scholars and critics of the 19th century. He joined ETH right after its foundation and has written a highly acclaimed history of Italian literature. What now remains of the Chair of Italian literature, after its termination together with the Chairs of French and English literature after 2000, is still entitled “Cattedra De Sanctis”. Moreover, a statue was erected in his honour. You can still find it on the F floor of the main building. Underneath there is a statement by him, which I think we should keep as a guiding principle throughout our future career: “Prima di essere ingegneri, voi siete uomini”. Before being engineers, you are first – and foremost – humans.
I think that now that we live in the digital era and robots are getting smarter than us, it is of fundamental importance to remember that they will never be humans, as no robot possesses innate human values such as empathy, ethics and creativity.
In his inaugural lecture in 1856 De Sanctis expressed his belief that we need to embrace and promote a “holistic” concept of human education and he ascribed a clear function to the study of literature: namely to expand and refine our thinking. Literature confronts us with the experience of life in all its dimensions. This way, we get a more comprehensive and deeper understanding of how we interact with the world and what it means to be essentially human.
In our increasingly technology-driven world such an approach to a holistic education seems to be more relevant than ever: as scientists we have greater responsibilities (think of the atomic bomb and artificial intelligence, for instance) and the problems we have to solve are more fundamental, as they also have important ethical, philosophical and human features. At ETH we could learn and work on these values, but now we should recognise the importance of studying the humanities at a transdisciplinary level, and no longer bend or deform them to the service of science. On the contrary, we, the scientists, should see the beauty in them and recognise the benefit, though we cannot really measure or quantify it scientifically, and let them inspire us, energise us and trigger our creativity, as we cannot forget who we really are: first – and foremost – humans.
8092 Zürich, Switzerland