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Dartmouth Commencement 2009

Posted 06/14/09

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Commencement address by Valedictorian Yangyang Liu

Yangyang Liu
Yangyang Liu
Listen to Commencement remarks by Yangyang Liu (9:25, 8.6mb)

Mr. President, members of the Board of Trustees, honored guests, family and friends, professors, fellow classmates:

In the past few days, we have much eulogized the glorious Collis omelet and the equally glorious Baker Tower Room. Yet I fear that I cannot give these places as good a valedictory as most of you. Therefore, I shall speak to you about something that is common to us all, as human beings. That something is curiosity. Children are naturally curious; they want to know about every aspect of everything: where do clouds come from, what is the substance of fire, how do we come into being and why do we die. Children ask questions because that is what they do; they do not seek to justify these questions, or to weigh their relative value. Their curiosity is an attribute of their innocence. But this kind of innocence does not last.

As children grow up, they begin to wonder about the purpose and worth of their actions. As they do so, curiosity becomes less of an instinctive quality and more an asset that needs to be actively sustained and nourished. More specifically, curiosity now depends on one’s conscious knowledge of the existence of the unknown. This awareness of the unknown can be powerful and inspiring stuff. But it is also something that needs to be cultivated and encouraged.

About a week ago, a friend of mine asked my opinion about the “freedom of thought” in my home country of China. My friend wanted to know whether there is less of such freedom there than in this country. The question was no doubt inspired by news reports about things such as the “great Chinese Firewall” designed to prevent Chinese internet users from accessing websites such as Wikipedia and BBC. As I told my friend, the true cost of censorship in China, and indeed anywhere, has less to do with such electronic barriers, most of which are routinely and easily circumvented. Instead, the true cost has to do with a loss of the awareness of the unknown. People can often manage to obtain information if they know what they want to know. But such knowledge necessarily depends on curiosity. If curiosity is allowed to wither or is suppressed, mere access to information counts for very little.

The freedom of thought is a basic human right. But not all people choose to exercise that right—even when conditions appear to be favorable. Curiosity can dwindle even when oppression is absent. In such cases, convention and habit take its place.

Well, what is the alternative? How is curiosity best fostered and sustained? The challenge, it seems to me, is not simply about learning to ask the right questions. The formulation of useful questions is a valuable skill, but that skill by itself cannot produce useful answers. The exploration of the unknown also requires a certain facility for guesswork, or an ability to anticipate which among the several possible lines of inquiry are worth pursuing. An example from mathematics illustrates this. In math problem-solving, one must select from a very large number of possible paths to a solution. However, there is often no objective way to know which of these many paths is likely to pan out. How is one to decide then? Mathematicians refer to the ability to make these choices as “foresight.” Over time, foresight has acquired an almost mystical status. Richard Feynman, a Nobel prize-winning physicist, was once asked how to go about solving a problem. He answered that one should first stare at the problem very hard, and then write down the solution. Feynman’s point was that foresight is essential to problem solving, even if it is hard to describe and even if it may be something that is rather less than rational. The point, it seems to me, is equally valid for other academic disciplines. What mathematicians call “foresight” other scholars may refer to as “perception” or “intuition”—but whatever it is called, it is essential to success in the pursuit of knowledge.

I believe that acquiring foresight is a particularly important part of the college education. This is because foresight is the indispensible counterpart to curiosity. Foresight includes the discipline of curiosity, but we want neither discipline nor curiosity alone, for curiosity without discipline becomes flabby, and discipline without curiosity invites narrow-mindedness.

Paul Erdos, a Hungarian-American mathematician, once observed that the main challenge when training promising math students did not have much to do with the teaching of particular techniques, such as calculus. What they really needed, Erdos argued, was someone to “influence their taste.” I first read this when I was fifteen, and I wondered about what Erdos meant by “taste.” Surely he didn’t imply a judgmental “taste,” as we would sometimes describe taste in music or art? I have come to believe that he was instead referring to foresight, to the challenge of figuring out how to match our internal curiosities to the vast unknown out there. I do not know if Dartmouth can provide curiosity to those who lack it, but I do believe that the disciplining of curiosity through the cultivation of foresight is the ultimate purpose of a college education. For me, this is the greatest benefit that Dartmouth confers upon all of its students, regardless of disciplinary specialty or academic interest.

I once heard of a story of a man asked by God to pick the best ears of wheat in the field as he passes through it, he hesitates till the end, thinking that the next ear would always be better. No need to say that he didn’t make the best choice. We humans are rather like the man in the story in that we cannot know the end of the field until we reach it. Yet I prefer to think that the moral of the story is not about making the best choices, but rather about knowing why we make the choices we do. Curiosity based on innocence soon fades to little more than a memory, but curiosity based on self-awareness lasts. And that is why every day we behold the world fresh-eyed, but may our wonders be tempered by discipline, by foresight, which is a privilege of experience.

Thank you.

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