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2004 Valedictory Oration

Ruth Tennen
June 1, 2004

Last week, I went into New York with some friends to see the Broadway musical "Avenue Q." The show depicts the trials of a young puppet named Princeton, who just graduated from college with a bachelor's degree in English and has no idea what to do next. He laments a lack of purpose in his life. But he can't shake the feeling that someday he might "make a difference to the human race."

The train ride home from New York was filled with conversation about the show. At Secaucus station, we marveled at the technical precision of the puppeteers. At Newark Penn Station, we analyzed the song "Schadenfreude," "happiness at the misfortune of others." By Elizabeth station, we were bowled over with laughter at the exquisite parody of Sesame Street that we had just seen.

Then, as we pulled away from Metropark around 12:30 a.m., our conversation turned -- as most good conversations do -- to fluid dynamics. Specifically, Bernoulli's Principle. Why, someone asked, do shower curtains inevitably get sucked into the shower, no matter how much pressing, folding and maneuvering we attempt? I sheepishly asked for a brief clarification of Bernoulli's Principle and was given the following explanation: a streaming jet of fluid causes a drop in pressure. This explains why airplanes fly and why shower curtains unavoidably flap toward us in the shower.

But does this really explain things? Not quite, according to one of my friends. Generations of scientists had linked this shower curtain phenomenon to Bernoulli's Principle. It took a mechanical engineer named David Schmidt to demonstrate that this is not the case. Instead, a miniature vortex forms around each water droplet in the shower. Like hurricanes, these vortexes pull things -- such as shower curtains -- toward their centers.

We were all thoroughly impressed with this new explanation. What stood out in my mind was Schmidt's dissatisfaction with conventional thinking and his "go-get-'em" mentality. He challenged the intellectual status quo on this crucial scientific question.

The hardest thing I was expected to do at Princeton was to critique scientific journal articles. Why, I asked, should we -- college students who had read maybe 50 scientific articles in our entire lives -- be critiquing a published article that was written by scientific gurus and peer reviewed by giants in the field of biology? Shouldn't we accept and respect the editorial decisions made by the journal Nature? Apparently not.

In a molecular biology seminar this spring, the professor liked to pose a question after we finished discussing a journal article. "Do you buy this?" he'd ask. In other words, do the authors make a good scientific case for their conclusions? Such a question was inevitably followed by averted glances and shifting papers. We were uncomfortable criticizing the work of our intellectual superiors.

These scholarly confrontations were encouraged in all academic arenas. In a Near Eastern Studies seminar, we were asked to delve into millennium-old polemical Christian and Jewish writings without commentaries by modern scholars. We were urged to form our own conclusions. In my rock and roll class, with Elvis Presley's "Blue Suede Shoes" playing in the background, my preceptor questioned the value of the very class she was teaching. "Why should we study rock and roll?" she asked us. "What's the point?"

Our Princeton experiences have taught us how to challenge expectations and how to confront traditional thinking with a critical eye. Many of our classmates have already undertaken these challenges, inspiring us to do the same. A friend with the intellectual audacity to publish an A.P. Physics review guide at the age of 22. A peer who solved the crystal structure of a protein involved in cancer. A classmate who will attempt to break Olympic swimming records this summer. Friends who dare to add their own compositions to the canon of orchestral music. Fellow students who travel to Afghanistan, to Egypt, to Brazil and to the Gambia, convinced that they can contribute to the struggle for human rights.

Yet this willingness to challenge convention has not come at the expense of respect for our amazing Princeton intellectual traditions. The first time I set foot on the Princeton campus as a pre-frosh in the spring of 2000, I sat in on a lecture in Professor James McPherson's Civil War class. As McPherson exited McCosh 50 for the last time that semester, there was a veritable uproar of applause that lingered long after he departed. I remember thinking that maybe this was a special guest lecture. Exactly four years later, on April 28, I returned to McCosh 50 to hear that same lecture. And that same memorable ovation.

In his 1979 play "The Trial of God," Elie Wiesel wrote: "Do you . . . have the courage to . . . ask questions no one has ever dared ask before? And give answers no one has ever had the courage to articulate . . .?" Thank you, teachers, for allowing us to challenge -- or rather, insisting that we challenge. Teachers who are secure enough in their own intellectual prowess that they are neither impatient with simple questions nor threatened by brilliant ones. Teachers who have given us the confidence to question our intellectual superiors, challenge the status quo and find solutions that defy traditional thinking.

I'll leave you with one of my favorite lines from "Avenue Q." Reminiscing about the days of college, Princeton the puppet sings, "I wish I could go back to college. In college you know who you are. You sit in the quad, and think, ‘Oh my God! I am totally gonna go far!'"

Class of 2004, may you, like Princeton, find your purpose in life. You are totally gonna go far.

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