"The Reward is in the Challenge" 

Baccalaureate Address
by Barry Balof, Assistant Professor of Mathematics

Saturday, May 20, 2006 - Whitman College 

I am excited to have the chance to address you this afternoon.  I am especially honored to be part of this celebration of you, the class of 2006, since you've actually been here longer than I have.  I taught my first class here in September of 2003, and my short time here has been touched greatly by your short time here.  If all future classes are as strong as yours, then I am in for a very rewarding and enlightening career.  When I was asked to give this talk, I tried to look at my subject from an outsider's perspective.  As a mathematician, my primary academic residence is a world of equations, conjectures, theorems, and proofs.  Upon reflection, I found some universally applicable truths from my discipline that I hope to share with you today.

Often times in mathematics, we make a conjecture or prove a theorem by doing something similar in another branch of mathematics, and then translate between the branches.  A philosopher once asked me 'How do we know that the truth of the statement in one context implies its truth in another?'  The truth is implied if the bridges that we build between the different branches of mathematics are strong.  As graduates, you may be asking yourselves about the utility of a Whitman education in your life to come.  You've all taken Core.   You've all taken a breadth of courses.  You've each concentrated on at least one area of major study and passed rigorous exams in that area.  Now you may be asking yourself ‘How will this all translate to life after Whitman?’  The answer, as with mathematics, is to build your bridges strongly.  The connections that you make between what you attempt in the future and what you've learned here will be as invaluable to you as those connections between the different branches of mathematics are for us.

As Whitman graduates, you should have no problem constructing these bridges.  I am continually amazed at the boundless efforts Whitman College students put into their coursework.  It’s one of the reasons that you are so much fun to teach.  It's also one reason that I can make my courses and exams as challenging as they are.  Looking back on my own education, it’s the harder exams that I remember the most.  One exam in graduate school, was a take-home exam.  I worked two weeks straight, eight hours a day on this exam, and earned 55 percent.  I've never been so proud of an exam grade in my life, because I earned every point that I got on that test.  Some of you who have survived my take-home midterms may feel similarly.  I have always had the sense that the Whitman student would rather earn a B in a challenging course than an A in an easier one.  I ask you never to give up that spirit of challenge, that self-motivation and tenacity that has brought you to and through Whitman as you move on in life.  Read a difficult book, fight for a difficult cause, try (as we mathematicians do) to solve an unsolved problem.  For my 20-month old daughter, the challenge might be to go down the big slide all by herself.  For my wife and me, it might be to let her go down the big slide all by herself.  (Parents, this advice on challenges applies to you as well!)  Don’t be afraid to be wrong every now and again; you’ll just appreciate that much more when you’re right.  More importantly, don’t be afraid of questions, and don’t be afraid to answer “I don’t know, but let’s find out”  As you move on, you’ll find, time and again, that the reward is in the challenge and how it motivates you to do your best work.

I give you one more piece of advice, inspired by a quote from Aaron Sorkin’s television show "Sports Night".  'It's taken me a lot of years, but I've come around to this.  If you’re dumb, surround yourself with smart people.  If you're smart, surround yourself with smart people who disagree with you.'  As your accomplishments over the last four years have indicated, you fall squarely in the latter half of that statement, thus I leave you with the following: take the time to make friends with at least one person with whom you disagree.  Stay well read and well informed so that you can continue to disagree with this person in an intelligent and productive manner.  Moreover, if you've chosen well, don't expect to change their mind, at least not at first.  If we've educated you well, then don't fear that they’ll change yours either, at least not at first.  Education is the inevitable byproduct of such healthy discord.  You all have kept us on our toes for the last four years.  Now, as you leave, it is my hope that you’ll continue stay on yours.  Class of 2006, we look forward to hearing great things of and from you.  Congratulations and thank you.