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Father Knows Best, Except at Caltech

What's so wrong about graduates trying out for 'American Idol'?

June 20, 2005|Sandra Tsing Loh | Sandra Tsing Loh is a contributing editor at Atlantic Monthly. Her commentaries can be heard on KPCC-FM (89.3) and American Public Media's "Marketplace."

The following is adapted from Sandra Tsing Loh's recent commencement speech to Caltech's Class of 2005.

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For those visiting for the first time, relatives from out of town, let me assure you: Caltech is the top science school in the country. No matter what MIT may pathetically try to claim. Let me give you just a quick snapshot-example of how hard this school is and what your Caltech grad has triumphed over. Consider that beloved academic tradition: the take-home, open-book, infinite-time exam.

"That's right! Take all the time you want! Won't really help you because, P.S., Problem No. 2? It's actually impossible.

"That's right! It's a famous impossible conundrum! Even Descartes couldn't solve it, after working on it ... for 37 years. Then he went insane. Had a fight with Foucault -- bar in Lyons, few drinks, argument, duel. Funny story, we thought it would be amusing to give this unsolvable drove-Descartes-mad paradox to you freshman, in Math 1, during your very first week at Caltech! And then to really mess with your perfect-SAT-high-school-valedictorian heads, we gave you, woo ... infinite time."

But rest assured that Caltech students do learn to fight back, in this intellectual hazing process. Even the mediocre ones. I know, because I was not just one of them, I believe I'm on the short list of candidates for patron saint of those lost at Caltech. Junior year, I was assigned as physics lab partner classmate Sekhar Chivukula. Widely regarded a genius, he's still in physics today. Of our pairing it was said: "Sekhar will do the calculations, Sandra will handle the radioactive samples." But back to you. Graduates! As you sit on Beckman Lawn, ruminating over your last four years here -- or five, or eight -- you might be asking yourself: "What does my Caltech past mean? What of my present? Most importantly, what philosophical advice do I need to carry me, ship-like, into my future?" You may not actually being thinking this -- we certainly weren't at our graduation -- but this is a commencement speech so let's get to it. The advice.

And historically, the one thing we know about advice is: So much is given, so little is remembered, and the little that's remembered is short. Think of Elizabeth Taylor. When asked what advice she had for tomorrow's actors, she said just two words: "Take Fountain." Fountain is a lesser known boulevard in Hollywood, a great shortcut across town. Unusual: Advice that's pithy, useful and still relevant today.

But I wanted to go deeper. And fortunately, I had an eager collaborator in my father, Eugene Loh, 85 years old now, Shanghai-born, Caltech Class of '54. The day he learned I was to be Caltech commencement speaker was both the most thrilling day in his life and then, suddenly, the most terrifying when he realized how much could go wrong. So for the past few months my dad has been calling me every other morning -- at 7:15 a.m.! -- with the quickest routes into Pasadena, how to set a second alarm.

I'm 43 years old, and my Chinese father was still having night sweats about his daughter somehow, Caltech-style, sleeping through this.

My dad was also worried about my blowing the speech, so he drafted it for me on a napkin. First, I was to list our family's Caltech credits: him, me, my brother, Eugene. My father met my mother at the Caltech swimming pool. My sister Tatjana was born in the old St. Luke's, which is now part of ... Caltech! Rock on!

Then I was to quote Goethe, praise David Baltimore, end with something vaguely uplifting like: "Dare to dream." And above all, my dad said: "It's commencement. Don't 'try' to be 'funny.' " And at that moment the light bulb went on. I remembered the one thing that freed me, post-Caltech. And I believe it can free you too. The advice being not "Dare to dream" -- every young person dares to dream. Frankly, it's all they do all day! But many bright young people, under their A-student masks, also harbor a secret passion. And the key to releasing that last exotic bird to flight is not "Dare to dream" but, listen carefully: "Dare ... to disappoint ... your father." That's right, Caltech graduates, freedom begins now! Diploma in hand, start today veering wildly off course! Have the fabulous graduation lunch, at the Ath or Burger Continental. Let your parents get a few bites in, and then boldly unveil your hideous summer plans! Skiing, snorkeling, belly-dancing, sleeping -- maybe try out for "American Idol," why not?

And you Asian students? That goes double for you. You know who you are. Don't make me come and get you. Don't be shy. Look at me -- I went into the liberal arts, which, for a Chinese father, is like pole-dancing.

Failing one's elders is serious business and not currently in fashion. These are times of great anxiety, and great conventionality. I see very few black armbands here today.

Graduation is the beginning of the hero's journey, which is a little bit Oedipal. Just a little. I'm not saying kill your father! But the hero's journey does begin by leaving the safety of the village.

If there's a medieval image I'd suggest for Caltech genius, it's less great circle of old grizzled kings than card zero of the Tarot deck: the one Fool stepping off a cliff. You. Who proves them all wrong.

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