The Valedictorian’s Speech

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With the pomp and circumstance of Class Day and graduation weeks behind us, Bwog was surprised and delighted when we were contacted last night by Maxim Pinkovskiy, the Columbia College valedictorian.

Wrote Pinkovskiy: “As the valedictorian of Columbia College does not give a speech on Class Day, I did not get to make a speech. However, some students asked me to write one on my own, so I am sending you what I composed a few weeks after graduation.” Read on, nostalgic recent alums hoping to relive Class Day.

As we leave Columbia today, we are likely to ask ourselves: what has been the meaning of the past four years? Does our diploma indicate that we “have satisfied the onerous and nearly insuperable requirements for the degree of Bachelor of Arts,” or does it mean something more, even if just to ourselves? What do these medieval maces and baroque berets mean in the age of I-Pods and internships? As Plato might have said, what is the form of a university education, and might it have changed irrevocably from the days of yore? Like a good Columbian, when faced with these questions, I turn to the classics. More than two thousand years ago, in a China in the flux of social and economic transformation, Confucius, like us today, was asking himself: what are the fundamentals of a proper education in this world? His response was, as usual, an aphorism: 

      “To study and in due season to practice what one has learned, is this not a pleasure?”

      “To have friends coming from afar, is this not a delight?”

      “To remain unembittered even though one is unrecognized, is that not to be noble?” 

Confucius, Analects 1:1

So, “To study and in due season to practice what one has learned, is this not a pleasure?”

      I will never forget how Professor de Bary’s eyes shine as though he were seventeen when he teaches this aphorism, nor George Olive’s appreciation of Isaiah Berlin’s biography of Marx; nor, for the matter, my own delight when seeing Professor Chiappori demonstrate how to test for optimal insurance, or Professor Vytlacil adapt the Wald Test for any continuous function. Yet, even the purely formal part of education goes beyond study alone; as Confucius suggests, what matters is not only the material but a well-paced progression from understanding the basics to gaining the necessary proficiency to make one’s own contribution to the subject. In the definition of James Joyce and Professor Michael Seidel, my first Columbia mentor, education makes us “classical” rather than “romantic” artists – instead of being blown about by sentiment with no technique, we judiciously and deliberately create masterpieces that appear to be spontaneous. While studying fascinating things at Columbia, we also learned through experience what the “due season” is for us, and we developed the awareness of ourselves as students that will enable us to continue learning and practicing what we learned along the paths that we choose to pursue.

      “To have friends coming from afar, is this not a delight?”

      I have been fortunate that many of my friends, having graduated, came back to visit me from afar when I turned twenty-one. Perhaps the most beautiful of Confucius’s aphorisms for me is “walking along with three people, my teacher is sure to be among them” (7:21). Many of our friendships are with people from afar – both in space and time – hence, more subtly, one can say that many people from afar are now our friends. The specialty of a university education is that we meet people entirely unlike ourselves and grow to befriend them and bond with them as we had not bonded with anyone before. My friends come from Berkeley to Bangladesh, from San Francisco to Amarillo, Texas, and age from 18 to 89. In the tumultuous world around us, as Columbians, we have the responsibility to continue embracing people from afar for the content of their character and the nobility of their deeds.

      “To remain unembittered even though one is unrecognized, is that not to be noble?”

      Confucius’s final aphorism is his most autobiographical, and brings me to what I have found most impressive in the Columbia community. Confucius argued his philosophy to many Chinese princes; although he succeeded with none, he did not become discouraged, but professed his teaching all his life, even if just to a few students. While Confucius lived in a feudal age, in a free society his lesson is even more relevant. Our fortune in living in a pluralistic and diverse society ensures that although our views and ideas may be recognized by some, they will never be recognized by all, and we cannot strive to change society without regard to the wishes of others. In a sense, we will all be unrecognized someday. It is a part of a true education to be able to muster the strength not to surrender, but to continue to advocate what we believe in and work for it, and to retain the fundamental humanism in our outlook without allowing it to become jaded. This means to act on our conscience or to express our opinions even though we are just college students or young professionals. At Columbia, I have been struck by how ready my peers have been to engage in civil debate, to challenge the pronouncements of authorities in a respectful manner, to consecrate themselves to causes that woke their passion, and most importantly, to look at the world with the eyes of a critic, seek out aspects that can be improved, and negotiate the institutions of a free society to make these improvements happen. Some of us have reformed University institutions, others created spaces for interests hitherto unrepresented – from a sign language club to a club for academic economics – still others campaigned for political parties and used the knowledge they learned at Columbia to improve public debate. It is the ability to remain unembittered, but always ready to be serious advocates of our causes, that we will call upon for years after leaving Alma Mater.

      History passes us like a tableau, but human nature never changes, and Confucius in his day was prescient enough to realize that neither book learning, nor a utilitarian drive to succeed were enough to prepare a person for the world. The true noble person would have to be proficient in the study of oneself, be capable of meeting new minds and gaining from them, and above all, be ready to teach the world through one’s own example of humaneness and rightness whatever one’s station in life. I believe that Columbia has given us the means by which to be noble in our lives. 

      The Confucians emphasized five relationships: parent and child, ruler and minister, husband and wife, older and younger, and friend and friend. One of these relations does not apply to me at this date, but the others stand salient in my mind.

      I would like to thank my mother, father and grandmother for being the greatest and paramount blessings in my life, for sharing every second of my existence with me, and for always being wherever I am and accepting whatever I choose. Thank you for teaching me that one cannot go far in the carriage of the past, and for giving me the motto of Tennyson’s Ulysses: To struggle and to search; to find and not to yield.

      I would like to express gratitude to this country for taking me in as though one of its own – for in it I have become one of its own – and for creating such an environment that its citizens can remonstrate without fear if they feel that affairs are not right. Having been born in a country where such remonstration has been suppressed, this difference is as palpable before me as is my hand.

      I would like to thank all my teachers and professors at all stages in my life; and above all: my nurturing thesis advisor Professor Michael Woodford, my role model and President and Founder of the M&M Peanut Minute Student Association of America Professor Xavier Sala-i-Martin, and my sagacious advisor Professor Susan Elmes, who counseled me four times against my inclination and was right every one of these – I am glad I listened. They gave me the power to realize myself, and surrounded me with so much care and support that I didn’t always know I wasn’t home. May I be worthy of your expectations, for you have set a high bar for me.

      Finally, I would like to thank my friends from Columbia and from school, who have reached out to me, made me understand what it means to be a person in this world, and set me examples of true nobility. Wherever you go – to England, to Chicago, to New York – may the road rise up to meet you, and roar, lion, roar!

—  Maxim Pinkovskiy

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  1. CC'08  

    i gagged when i heard that he wrote this. it's like he's living in the footsteps of george olive. It's fine to wish you got to speak, but the salutitorian is chosen by a committee due to both their academic qualities and also their ability to write a speech. Maxim, I'm disappointed.

  2. CC'11  

    thoughtful and interesting.

    though i've never met the guy, thanks to maxim!

  3. cuprincess

    If I hadn't had CC with Maxim, I would have gagged too. However, I know for a fact that this piece was written with the least self-admiration, a true devotion to Columbia and a genuine respect for his friends.

    It was brilliant

  4. yeah!

    Well done Maxim!!! You are a role model to all of us!

  5. oh please  

    i don't know maxim, but it's clear that he has something to share, that is not self-congratulatory but rather the product of reflection and gratitude. it takes a lot for certain people to share, and i commend him on this. i appreciate that an intelligent, reflective voice is given a bit of attention. he even said people asked him to write it, which i absolutely believe. and i'm glad he did! as a member of the class of 08, his words are welcome. it's a lovely, thoughtful, and moving speech.

  6. he forget to

    thank the academy. and no i don't mean plato's

  7. a commentary

    on the first line of the analects? i true confucian scholar indeed. bravo. bravo.

  8. anonymous

    Failed to be a Rhodes or Valedictorian?

    I guess this is the end of the road for you. Why don't you go out with just a little bit of grace.

  9. pretty

    pretty well written; i'm glad he got so much out of columbia

  10. anon

    This is absolutely absurd.

  11. ...

    and wait, he is the valedictorian so he didn't fail in that regard...

  12. smq  

    i found this to be rather thoughtful and inspiring. thanks maxim.

  13. yeah  

    Although i can see two references to george olive, this guy has obviously proven himself, in his own right, so cheers to Maxim! This was very nice.

  14. i thought

    that was a an incredibly sincere and genuine speech. i wish i had taken a class with this guy, and was able to employ most of these idylic notions of education.

    also Maxim, bwog readers are about 97% normal nice folks; however, about 60% of the comments are written by the elusive, sociopathic 3% of the readership so please don't pay them any mind and thanks for sharing some of your wisdom.

  15. yay confucious  

    awesome quotes, i'm happy because i know the original chinese. they made us memorize it like drone at chinese school.

  16. i miss you maxim

    Maxim, i'm not in CC, but I just wanted to thank you for writing such a beautiful piece. I've known you since move in day back freshman year and i totally predicted that you'd be valedictorian.

    best of luck at MIT.

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