Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The speech I gave at Senior Lunch

Dana Mohamed pumped me up to start this blog; I think she would like this.


I want to start with a modest estimate, a crude mathematical model if you will. Excluding labs, we all took 22 semester-long classes in the core, plus about 10 classes (more or less - this is a model, remember) in our major. Assuming about four problems a week for each class, that means that in our time at Harvey Mudd, in technical classes alone, we solved 1,232 problems. It's difficult to quantify how much work on top of that we did for non-technical classes, but let me just say that as a representative sample, I counted how many pages I wrote in the humanities and social sciences while I was here, and it was 405 pages. 1,232 problems. 405 pages. To top it all off, Thesis. Clinic. There is no one that can tell us that we are not accomplished.

But all of this education means little if we do not put it to good use. And numbers like 405 and 1,232 are not adequate to count the problems we will encounter as graduates, in a world where, for example, 3 million people a year die of AIDS, and where a Hurricane like Katrina can incur $81.2 billion dollars’ worth of damage. And so I want to seize this moment to interrogate what it actually means to leave here with these diplomas in our hands - what responsibilities this entails for each of us. And I want to investigate those responsibilities by asking our class a simple question, "Do we dare?"

Four years ago, after we received our acceptance letters to Harvey Mudd, each of us may have stopped and asked this question: "Do I dare?" For coming to this school is in some ways a small act of bravery. We knew we would face intense scrutiny in a school with little over 700 students. We knew we would be pushed by our enormously talented peers. And finally, we knew the cirriculum would be truly tough. We understood all this coming in.

And despite all this, each of us answered the question, "Do I dare?" in the affirmative. And in the four years that ensued, we saw some of the consequences one can invite when one chooses to take a risk like that.

We failed tests. We slept through classes. We forgot appointments.

But we were lucky to be surrounded by role models who understood our failures. Fellow students experiencing the same pressures. Faculty, staff and administration who continued to operate a model of education that is a little different, a little eccentric, that privileges collaboration over competition. We were surrounded by people who dared to believe that a community could operate successfully under something like the honor code. People who dared to trust that much. People who sustained a five-college model. And finally, people like us, who chose a school where we would examine the “impact of our work on society.”

Four years later, we have experienced the rewards that come from an educational model that is daring in these various ways. So leaving this place, we go forward into situations where we will also confront the question, "Do I dare?" And I charge us to answer yes in the following three ways.

First, let us dare to question. When we came to Mudd we were told constantly to "Ask for help," and "Ask questions." We must not stop that asking. We must interrogate the society around us, and in turn interrogate ourselves. We must ask ourselves questions like, Do I dare speak out against unethical practices at my company? Do I dare refuse when asked to design a weapon? Do I dare hire an unconventional candidate? Do I dare to teach others rather than simply practice what I have been taught?

And every time we dare to question, let us dare to find the right answer even if it is the difficult one.

Second, let us dare to struggle. Let us fight to make science, engineering, and mathematics accessible to all people. Let us fight for technology that empowers people, that enriches their lives. Let us struggle against those who alter and erase accurate science only because for them it spells bad politics.

And every time we dare to struggle, let us dare to win.

Third, if these words can even be uttered without sounding like a platitude, let us dare to dream.

If you dare to dream that we will engineer sustainable fuels and transportation systems, then say with me, I dare.

If, like me, you dare to dream that our generation will finally understand gravity, then I ask you now to say it with me. I dare.

If you dare to dream that we will make computing technology accessible to more people in the coming years than ever before, then say with me, I dare.

If you dare to dream that our generation will prove or disprove the Riemann hypothesis, then say with me, I dare.

If you dare to dream that we will engineer AIDS treatments that are affordable and effective, and that we will find a way to make those treatments reach the millions of people that are dying from the disease, then say with me, I dare.

If you dare to dream that our generation will cure AIDS, then say with me, I dare.

And for every time we dare to dream, let us spend our waking lives making those dreams come true.

As scientists, engineers, and mathematicians, we have an authority and a voice in a global society where too many are voiceless. To use that voice effectively, we will daring, we will need courage. It will not always be easy.

In a world that constructs notions of race and gender completely removed from biological fact, we will need courage. In a world reluctant to face what chemistry says about styrofoam, we will need courage. In a world that forgets that groundbreaking physicist and mathematician Noether was a she, we will need courage. In a world where computer science skills are used by some for fraud and harassment, we will need courage. In a world where engineering skills are used to make war more devastating, we will need courage.

In a world where Larry Summers states publicly that women are intrinsically less proficient at math, we will need courage to drown out his voice with the names of our counterexamples: Maria Klawe, Weiqing Gu, Mae Jemison.

As Harvey Mudd students, we redefined the boundaries of what is achievable, what is possible. Each of us knows well just how much effort and intensity it takes to push those boundaries. Now let us realize that the educational arena in which we struggled for the past four years was always, whether we noticed it or not, a subset of the world we lived in. Let us here and now erase the boundary between "scientific" concerns and human concerns, so that the perserverance we acquired in the classroom can become a selfless perserverance directed towards positive change.

As students, we lived the consequences and rewards of daring to come here. As graduates let us continue to invite challenge into our lives. Do we dare? We dare.

1 comment:

DLoMoh said...

Yes, I like. How was it received? I assume quite well.

Say,.. I'm going to send you something if I can find it. Check facebook.