2011 Valedictory Oration

2011 Valedictory Oration
John Pardon

May 31, 2011 -- As Prepared
Princeton University Class of 2011

When strangers find out that I go to Princeton, a typical response is something along the lines of: "Whoa! You must be really smart!" I imagine that all of you have gotten, or will get in the years to come, many similar responses upon informing others that you go to, or have graduated from, Princeton. Having a Princeton diploma is certainly evidence of certain mental capacities. Though, rather than concentrate on intelligence or information garnered in our four years here, I think it is better to analyze how the attitude towards learning developed at Princeton can help us in the future.

Terence Tao, a world-famous mathematician, who studied for his Ph.D. here at Princeton, maintains a mathematical blog, with some relevant advice. Professor Tao reminds us that hard work is "far more satisfying" than "smarts." I think it is worth remembering that to be truly successful, a personal initiative and accessibility to great teachers are ultimately more important than any pre-existing personal aptitude. After all, the brain is something to be exercised and trained, in the same way athletes train their muscles, musicians train their ears and poets train their emotions. The fundamental basis for this training is intellectual curiosity and a willingness to work hard.

As an incoming freshman at Princeton, I chose Chinese as a new language to learn because, of all my options, it seemed to have the most difficult pronunciation and most complex writing system. The summer after freshman year, I went to Princeton in Beijing, in what turned out to be the most academically challenging program I have ever participated in. I was both amazed and delighted at how fast it is possible to learn a language in such an intense environment, and with such amazing teachers. I have since had to do a significant amount of writing in Chinese, to the point where I find myself thinking of which Chinese idiom is most appropriate to use at various points here, only to remember that I have been warned not to give this speech in Chinese.

We came to Princeton to discover what we love to study, and to enjoy the company of other students whose academic preferences align or fail to align with our own. Such a high concentration of bright, driven and ambitious students certainly creates a certain amount of stress and personal questioning, but I firmly believe that ultimately all of us have gained from the intellectual caliber and academic diversity of our peers. I am certain that the hardest classes I took are the ones that I will remember the most, and are the ones where I learned the most. This is, of course, another reminder that personal affinity for a subject can only be fully realized when complemented with the inspiration of great teachers, and I am sure that is one of the other principal reasons we came to Princeton. I urge you to seek out great teachers throughout your entire life. Get to know the people from whom you will learn the most.

In fact for many of us, our formal education is over, and after graduation, only some of us will take an academic path. But I sincerely hope that all of us will be able to excite our intellectual curiosity in our future work, because it is curiosity that makes us seek out those challenges that have the potential to turn into life-changing new experiences. And for these new experiences it does not matter how prestigious our Princeton diploma looks; rather it is more important that at Princeton, we have learned how to approach new material with energy and enthusiasm. We have learned to look for the challenge rather than for the comfortable. This is certainly what makes for top-quality work in any field, though I view this as a philosophy of life, not just of academics.

I would like to conclude by posing the following question: When is the last time you had a truly original idea? The single most basic form of expression that humans draw upon is imitation of others, and so I think having an original idea may qualify you as being partially insane. Even so, it is exactly such ideas that Princeton aims to inspire us to bring forth. We live in a society, culture and technological state where almost everything is done in large groups, and the amount of pre-existing information is both vast and instantly accessible. This is true no matter whether you plan a career in academia, public service or business. But I hope that as new graduates, we will all have the courage to continue to think deeply and independently, and to have original ideas which do not fit into the mold. Certainly this is one of the best ways to demonstrate the spirit of intellectual curiosity and capacity that we have cultivated during these last four years.

Congratulations to the class of 2011, and thank you.