Leaving the Question Blank
So when I first learned I was going to speak at graduation today and after taking a selfie with my transcript, I thought to myself “Sweet! You must be the first international, the first Bulgarian, or at least the first ‘Ivan’ to get to this point.” You can imagine my horror, then, when I found out that just in the last 10 years or so there were at least three international students who gave the Valedictorian speech, one of them was a Bulgarian, and, to top it all off, he was named “Ivan” as well. I felt just a little less special on the inside and pondered for a couple of minutes the deeply existential question of why “Ivan” is such a popular name in Bulgaria.
This little glimpse into my mental life is probably enough to convince you that I, like most Williams students, am an active participant in the business of comparing myself to other people. We, the people of Williams, might not speak about grades with our friends, but please do take a moment and try to recollect whether you’ve been in a situation before where a conversation about everyone’s schedule was instantly turned into a competition on who has the busiest workload, the most extracurricular activities, or the highest honors. I certainly have.
As smart and ambitious people, it is unsurprising that we seek metrics to compare our performance to that of other smart and ambitious people. Yet it seems to me that there is something deeply anxious about this proclivity, first, because part of us really wants to score higher than others on most metrics, and, second, because it can be really frikkin’ hard to figure out why do we want what these metrics measure. Without knowing this, we are in danger of endowing these metrics with a life on their own, of constantly seeking the reassurance of the high score, while incessantly battling the primal fear that others are better than us and being unable to tell why this is such a frightening prospect.
Now, having posed the hard question of what is it that your heart really craves, as a philosophy major, I will do what philosophers do best – leave the question blank and then hope to get credit for the whole deal. I cannot help but think that this is one of those unanswerable questions because the answer changes as we change, grow, and encounter new perspectives, ideas, and experiences. What gave us meaning in the past might not give us meaning anymore, and it is difficult to predict what will give us meaning in the future. For example, I really did think that “Ivan” was the best name to have in Bulgaria.
It seems to me, however, that the true response to this question is not to have an answer ready when it is posed to us, to hide behind predetermined metrics and neat little labels and hope that they somehow bestow meaning on our existence, but to embrace its complexity and the continual reevaluation of who we are as an essential element of our nature. Part of the value of a Williams education is that we have to change the metrics we think in and reshuffle the available labels in our minds when we are exposed to a variety of academic fields and when we interact with individuals that are not at all minded like us, but that are equally talented and intellectually curious. For this reason alone, I think it is a good thing that we do not speak about our grades because it is easy to compare grades, but it is hard to figure out what these grades mean to and about each one of us.
Fellow classmates, I am fairly confident that the vast majority of the facts and concepts we have learned in class here will be forgotten in the exciting and diverse lives we are likely to lead. We have learned these concepts as answers to paper prompts, problem set items, and exam questions. Yet I cannot help but think that the most important skill we have attained at this place is not to answer these questions, but to question the answers we give or have been given. Because rather than immutable like the theorems of mathematics, the models of economics, and the laws of nature, the answers to the questions that are most important to us right here, right now, and at any time and place in our lives are likely to be as mercurial and capricious as Williamstown weather. The power to leave the answer to these questions blank is a special power that everyone gathered here has. Because of this alone, I hope that we will all be able to lead happy and fulfilling lives.