June 1st, 2005

me: ooh!

Commencement 2005

Controversy often surrounds the choice of commencement speaker at Caltech. This year's speaker, Sandra Tsing Loh, will be the first alumna ever to address the graduating class (BS in physics, 1983). The problem? She's not a practicing scientist. She has the audacity not to have even a peripheral involvement in science, as, for example, host to a TV science program for children or as an actor who's portrayed Richard Feynman in a documentary. No, instead she's a writer and a performance artist, a musician and a radio commentator with sharp wits and a social conscience. Apparently, some people feel this makes her an inappropriate example for the newly degreed from Caltech. It's an institute of technology, not the liberal arts, they cry, therefore, the speaker should have a connection to science, no matter how tenuous. Because clearly, acting in a movie about a physicist constitutes a stronger link to the scientific community than spending four years earning a degree in physics.

Isn't commencement meant to be a celebration of accomplishment and an exhortation to exercise potential? Every graduate must subsequently struggle to figure out how best to apply his or her talents outside the academy. Providing a graduate with an example of someone who's received the same training he has and has lived a fruitful life outside the realm of science shows him how much freedom and flexibility his abilities and intellect afford him. It's shameful that educators should espouse the view that only certain uses of a science education can be considered exemplary. The aim of all types of education should be to increase the choices available to students, not reduce them.