Gov. J.B. Pritzker and NU President Michael Schill at the commencement ceremony at Ryan Field. Credit: Jim Prisching/Northwestern University

Young people need to develop an “idiot detection system,” Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker told graduates at Northwestern University’s 165th commencement ceremony Monday.

Pritzker said the easiest way to spot an idiot is to “look for the person who is cruel,” because empathy and compassion are evolved traits. 

People who are cruel view vulnerable people as rungs on a ladder to get what they want, Pritzker said, and ultimately they fail in an advanced society.

“They never forged new mental pathways to overcome instinctual fear and distrust,” he added, saying “the kindest person in the room is often the smartest,” because their mental processes have evolved.

Northwestern University held its 165th Commencement at Ryan Field Stadium Monday Morning.  Illinois Governor JB Pritzker, who was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Laws at the ceremony, was Commencement Speaker.

The governor also peppered his comments with some one-liners. Noting that the grads might be somewhat disappointed at having the state’s governor deliver their commencement address, he quipped, “Believe me, I, too, would rather be listening to Beyonce give a speech today.”

He said the graduates should not hesitate to seek advice from their parents, because most parents worry about their children and want them to succeed. He said, “if you think your parents are crazy — you made us that way!”

Pritzker said that the COVID pandemic has equipped the Class of ’23 with unique strength.

“We don’t get a say in what part of history our lives drop in on…every generation grows up scared or scarred by something.” He added that “COVID has made you stronger and given you a unique set of armor.” 

He said he did not know how to approach the COVID crisis at first. But, in approaching how to manage it, he relied on a core value — the importance of saving lives. He said this approach helped him in decision-making and prevented the inertia that comes with facing an unknown danger. 

He concluded his comments by telling the audience that youth and past experiences are not always the best time of life. People should appreciate the Good Old Days “while you are in them,” he said.

Relatives of graduates filled the Ryan Field stands. Credit: Desiree Shannon

Michael Schill, NU’s new President, acknowledged that the new graduates shared a unique bond because of COVID. 

“You overcame what may be the greatest challenge you have yet faced in your life…to earn the most valuable asset you will ever own, a college degree.” He also spoke of what the new grads could offer today’s chaotic and troubled world. 

He said that the pandemic caused a seismic shift in society for better or worse. He also said that the pandemic spurred societal reckonings regarding racism, policing, housing and healthcare.    

He said he hoped that the new graduates would be willing to listen to others who differ from them in identity and outlook, and to “create a more just and equitible society.”  

He said it was important to have empathy with people “who listen to your words,” and to value free speech.

“My generation has left you with many problems to fix,” he said.

New grads, he said, must construct a new consensus that respects science, strives for equity, promotes care for the environment, and rejects racism.

He urged them to expand their worldview and never “succumb to the siren song of ignorance, no matter how intoxicating simplicity may be.”

The Commencement also featured student undergrad speaker Ji Hye Choi, who described herself as a first generation low-income student.

Choi was diagnosed with stage three ovarian cancer during her tenure as an undergrad.

She struggled to deal with the treatments required to combat the disease, as well as with the pandemic, like everyone else.

She said that she survived her ordeal (she is now cancer-free) because of the supportive power of the NU community, her “village,” and her mother. 

Desiree Shannon relocated to Evanston in 2022 from Columbus, Ohio. She has a journalism degree from Otterbein College of Ohio. During her undergraduate studies, she completed an internship with the Washington...

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