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Archive for May, 2011

Valediction

Commencement 2011 at Mount Holyoke College.

Farewell to Shadley

Compared to the age of the earth, or even to the much briefer age of the human race, it was barely a moment ago in 1837 that Mary Lyon founded Mount Holyoke. It was just a split-second later when, while taking care of a sick student, she fell ill herself and passed away.

And now, today, our commencement speaker asked: “What are people able to do and to be?”

More to the point would be the question: What are we able to do and to be?

We can do a lot, because we have been given a lot. Now, it’s our turn to start giving back: to our communities, to our societies, and to our world. To all our fellow human beings, great or small. To those who suffer poverty, disease, or injustice. To those who look like us and those who don’t. To those who follow our faiths and those who follow other paths.

And we can also be a lot. We can be people who set an example of leadership, compassion, and dedication to the good. We can be people who make Mary Lyon proud that she founded Mount Holyoke. We can be people who, as Mary Lyon said, “fear nothing in the universe but that we will not know all our duty or shall fail to do it.”

Today, we celebrate the opportunity that we had to attend one of the finest colleges on earth — with the most dedicated teachers, the most interesting fellow students, and a curriculum that challenged all of us to become better than our best. Today, we celebrate how we embraced that opportunity and met that challenge. Today, we celebrate both the achievements of yesterday and the possibilities of tomorrow.

But today we also leave behind a place, and a part of our lives, that changed us forever. To sally forth into the new, we must let go of the old. And when we let go of something we love, it hurts. Part of us will always be at Mount Holyoke, and the spirit of Mount Holyoke will always be within us.

The word “valediction” comes from Latin. “Vale” is the command form of valere, meaning to be strong or be well. The “diction” part comes from dicere, to say. To give a valediction means wishing you to be strong and to fare well on your journey through life. I wish that to all of you: to my fellow Mohos as well as to my teachers, family, friends, and readers.

Be strong and fare well: The world needs you.


Copyright 2011 by Rinth de Shadley.

Martha Nussbaum and Me

I’ve been super busy and I didn’t mention that our commencement speaker is Martha Nussbaum, who is Ernst Freund Distinguished Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago.

I actually wrote about Dr. Nussbaum back in January, when she published a book about the dangers and abuses of the Internet. She has some keen insights about the hazards of Internet anonymity, especially when it lets people attack others viciously and irresponsibly.

We’ve got our senior barbecue on Thursday, along with our “Class of 2011 Final Lecture,” which should be both informative and inspirational. And there are several other events. Then graduation. I’m still excited, happy, and sad about it, all at the same time.

Studying Naked

Sophie Germain (1776-1831), a great French mathematician.

No, not me. Sophie Germain. I took a study break last night and was reading about her.

Unfortunately, I got absorbed in my reading and the next thing I knew, it was 2:30am. I’ve been sleepy all day. I know that I’m too young to be “too old for this,” but today I sure felt like it.

Sophie Germain (1776-1831) was a French mathematician who overcame sexual discrimination to achieve great things. She first got interested in mathematics by reading the books in her father’s library. But her parents disapproved of her interest because it wasn’t considered suitable for a young woman. So she started sneaking the books up to her bedroom at night and reading by candlelight.

When her parents found out — well, I guess it was a different era. And maybe her parents were a little crazy. They took away her clothes and kept her bedroom ice cold, but even being naked and freezing couldn’t stop her from studying mathematics. So they gave up trying to stop her.

French society hadn’t given up, of course. The university wouldn’t admit her as a student because she was a woman. To get her education, she eavesdropped at the doors of lecture halls and borrowed lecture notes from male students.

She started writing mathematical articles, using the pen name of Antoine LeBlanc to hide the fact that she was a woman. Eventually, she wrote to the greatest mathematician of the age, Carl Friedrich Gauss. When Gauss discovered her true identity, he became her dedicated supporter. He wrote that she had “the most noble courage, extraordinary talent, and superior genius.”

Urged by Gauss, in 1831 the University of Gottingen decided to award Germain a doctorate for her work in mathematics. That was an almost unheard-of honor for a woman in a sexist society. Sadly, Germain died before she could receive the award. But her example of courage and determination can still inspire us today. Even when we’re so tired that we feel like we’re “too old for this.” 🙂

(Blog post #195!)


Copyright 2011 by Rinth de Shadley.