Khan: MIT As Hogwarts, With Magic, Strange Wonders And Love

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I love that Sal Kahn, founder of the online education nonprofit, Khan Academy compared MIT to Hogwarts in his commencement address to 2012 graduates last week:

I always tell people that MIT is the closest thing to being Hogwarts — Harry Potter’s wizarding school — in real life.

The science and innovation that occurs here looks no different than pure magic to most of the world. The faculty here are the real-world McGonagalls — that’s you President Hockfield — and Dumbledores. There are secret tunnels and passages with strange wonders and creatures around every corner — some of whom may just finish their thesis this decade. The names of history’s great wizards surround us here in Killian Court — from Aristotle to Galileo, Newton to Darwin. They remind us that we have inherited an ancient art. One that, despite being vilified or suppressed by forces of ignorance throughout history, is the prime cause of human progress and well-being.

Also like Hogwarts, MIT brings young people from around the country and world who are a little bit off-the-charts in their potential for this “magic.” Some come from environments and communities that celebrated their gifts. Others had to actively hide their abilities and passions for fear of being ostracized and ridiculed. Students come to MIT from every religion, every ethnicity. Some from educated, affluent families, others from ones that live at or near poverty. But they — you, we — shared a common passion. Something that made us feel a little different. We sensed that MIT might be a place where there were others like us. Where we could challenge ourselves and develop our craft.

Khan, an MIT grad himself, also got personal, offering a moving analysis of, as he put it, "MIT-MIT love" the phenomenon of fellow MIT students bonding for life, as he did with his wife:

Of our many close friends from MIT, 90 percent are married to each other.

Now, I think this many friendships and marriages coming out of one place, as romantic as the Infinite Corridor may be, begs some introspection.

In fact, so extreme is the coupling that I have observed here that I have sometimes suspected that this whole place is just a front for a DARPA-funded human breeding project...

This is a place where students with perfect SAT scores and genius level IQs can and will fail exams. A place where students who may have been the brightest student in their school, state or country often feel mediocre and stressed. A place where sleep regularly takes a back seat to the intellectual intensity of the curriculum.

But this intensity is what forges deep bonds, honesty and compassion. You have laughed together, comforted each other, procrastinated together and cried together. You have been with each other at your best and worst moments. Like soldiers who have fought alongside each other, you have shared experiences that the rest of the world may not understand or even comprehend.

Because of this, whenever you see another MIT graduate the rest of your life, you know that you have a past in common. That you both have secret powers that you often keep hidden from regular view. Regardless of how different your pre-MIT backgrounds may have been, you will feel deeply connected — like people meeting from a long lost village or family or galaxy. You will actively seek other MIT people out. When others talk about an intellectually challenging experience they had or complain about how hard they had to work, you will glance at the other MIT grad in the room and share a quick smirk.

And if you are the preferred gender for each other, then you also might just realize that they have a certain twinkle in the eye. A certain beauty to the tilt of their head when they are deep in thought. Their competence and expertise makes you wonder what type of civilization you could create together. In short, you discover that you find them irresistibly attractive.


And with poetic flair, he urged students to keep sight of the big picture:

When you feel stressed, look up at the night sky and ponder the distance to the next star and the age of the universe. Think of all the other stressed sentient creatures from other star systems and galaxies looking out in the vastness of space in wonder and awe and take comfort in your shared experience.

When you feel overwhelmed, walk alone through the woods and forget your name, your title, your education and view yourself for what you really are — another mammal wondering why it is here but appreciating the fact that your civilization has not as yet been evaporated by a supernova...

Also remember that whom you choose as a life partner is a far more important decision than what career you choose to pursue. If you are lucky enough to have a true equal, someone who fills you with joy and emotional contentment, with whom you have deep shared values, who respects you and loves you for your innate you-ness; no superficial, external failure or conflict can faze you.

This program aired on June 15, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.

Rachel Zimmerman Twitter Reporter
Rachel Zimmerman previously reported on health and the intersection of health and business for WBUR. She is working on a memoir about rebuilding her family after her husband’s suicide. 




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