Class of 2012 Commencement Address

On June 9, 2012, Liv Leuthold, M.D. (Class of 2002) became the first alumni to give the commencement address to our graduating seniors. To learn more about Liv, please read the interview she gave us in February 2012.

On June 9, 2012, Liv Leuthold, M.D. (SFWHS ‘02, SFWGS  ‘98) became the first alumni to give the commencement address to our graduating seniors. The following is from her speech.

A speech like this wouldn’t be complete without a few words on how much has changed since I was a student here. As freshmen, we had main lesson in an office above a warehouse in Fort Mason, where we watched various trade fairs, glamorous galas, and Christmas tree lots come and go. Our entire school was the size of this class. So when it was time to go see the Shepherd’s Play at the grade school, we could all fit onto one Muni bus. 

The world isn’t quite the same either: I remember in high school people starting to rave about this thing called “Google,” and I read an article about why it would never be possible to deliver Internet content over a phone. I guess I’ve changed a little bit, too – in the past few weeks people have started calling me “wife” and “doctor,” and I’ve started feeling a little old. But even so, reading your symptomatology papers and hearing you all reminisce about your education here, I feel an unmistakable sense of home.  

Yesterday, as I listened to all of you say just a few words about what you would be taking from the school and what you are leaving behind, it became clear to me that much of the advice that’s usually given in a commencement speech is about things you’re already thinking about and even living. You demonstrated openly your ability to learn from your mistakes, and you talked from experience about conquering your fears, finding yourselves, and following your dreams and passions.  '

Today, I am not going to talk to you about following those dreams and passions. I’m going to talk to you about a less conventional graduation topic: being wrong. Over the past four years, you have all gotten very good at being right, and I promise over the next four or five you may be under even more  pressure to do so. But I’m going to  argue that your time may be better spent learning to recognize when you’re wrong. 

Being wrong isn’t as simple as it seems. Let me illustrate this with a simple experiment. Since I used to be a teacher, and you haven’t graduated just yet, we’re going to do a bit of mental math. And I need everybody to participate – even if it’s just in your head. So here’s the question: What’s 105% of 40? I brought a calculator just so I can double check. Did anybody get anything besides 42 (which also happens to be the meaning of life)?

We all know the saying “To err is human.” I don’t know about you, but I always thought of those as patronizing words of comfort for when we don’t get 42. But here’s the thing. Messing up that simple calculation is not a shortcoming of your brain, rather it is a testimony to the unbelievable complexity of the human mind. This calculator, or your iPhone is not smarter than those of us who got that wrong. Actually, the calculator is too simple to make a mistake; it has no capacity for error. The human brain, on the other hand, is complex beyond imagination. It has a staggering hundred billion neurons, each of which, in itself, is too complicated for us to understand, even with the most modern scientific technology. Between these brain cells there are almost a quadrillion connections that are constantly being shaped by your thoughts and experiences. And despite the urban legend to the contrary, we use every single one of those neurons, some for storing memories, others for processing them, and many to just put together the never-ending onslaught of sensory stimuli that we experience and transform into a coherent picture of our world. It is within this complexity that the human mind takes form and that the capacity for error arises. As Kathryn Schulz says in her book Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, “The miracle of your mind is not that you can see the world as it is. It is that you can see the world as it is not.” To err, then, isn’t just human. It is uniquely human. And it is the price we constantly pay for having minds as brilliant and complex as the ones that we’re celebrating here today.

Lucky for us, most of the time “being wrong” is not so bad. Actually, until we realize we are wrong, being wrong feels surprisingly like being right. And that is where the problem lies: we often base our decisions on beliefs that simply are not true, because it does not occur to us that we might be wrong. Sometimes the consequences are small—like when we walk to the car in the wrong direction and realize it’s not there. But sometimes the consequences are spectacular—like when  a surgeon performs an entire operation on the wrong side of the body because, until she realizes the mistake, the experience is exactly the same as doing that surgery on correct side. Even entire groups of people can act on untested and incorrect assumptions. One of the first examples that they taught us in medical school was regarding how doctors used to give all heart failure patients a medicine called digoxin, which is derived from the foxglove plant. What the drug does is make the failing heart beat stronger. You will agree that on the surface this makes sense, and for years, doctors went with this gut feeling until someone had the courage to question this fact. Researchers ended up with a groundbreaking study that showed patients do worse and die faster on this drug. It turns out that, most of the time, a damaged heart does better when it’s forced to rest not run. 

As we reflect on our Waldorf education, we often neglect to give credit to the science we learned. Few of us choose science as a career path, and people may have told you that it is hard to excel in science as a Waldorf graduate. I felt overwhelmed when I got to college and took neuroscicence and chemistry classes. With several hundred students in a lecture hall, I felt my peers had almost no academic experiences in common with the science I had loved here. The course always revolved around a huge textbook filled with cell parts and equations to memorize. In physics, there was a technician whose full-time job was just to be sure that all the demo experiments worked exactly as the textbook said they should. Even when we got to go to the lab, we never got to ask our own questions. To be honest, I got dangerously close to failing some of those early courses, and I felt let down – why hadn’t I learned REAL science at Waldorf? Why hadn’t Dr. Carini and Dr. Burket prepared me to be a scientist? 

Fortunately, even out of a textbook, neuroscience was pretty cool, and I stuck with it. As a sophomore, I started participating in research myself—looking at brain activity in people as they learned to copy complex movements off a computer screen. But things weren’t as tidy in the lab as they had been in the textbook. The computers would crash in the middle of an experiment; we’d lose big chunks of data. There were even subjects who were just really bad at learning the tasks. And the numbers we got in the end didn’t really tell us anything. After a year, I moved to another lab where we looked at how frogs regenerate their cranial nerves after injury. But again, nothing quite worked as planned. Some of the frogs died. Sometimes we weren’t sure if a particular dot under the microscope was a newly growing cell or just dirt. And our data? Sometimes we proved ourselves right. But just as often, we found that we were wrong. Real science, it turned out, looked a lot more like Dr. Carini’s physics class than an Ivy League course. And it’s the kind of science that you all learned. 

Dr. Carini and Dr. Burket, I was wrong.

Real science—the stuff that’s conducted in basement labs and informs what we actually know about the world isn’t about knowing the equation or getting the experiment just right. That makes you a good student, but not a scientist. Being a scientist is about repeatedly setting yourself up to be proven wrong, about valuing the truth over your own rightness. Good science requires unflinching honesty—even about your own tendency to want to be right. That’s why we run blind experiments and why we try to adjust things for the biases we know we have. This honesty, even if it means being wrong, is what makes a scientific mind. 
You all are a phenomenally creative group of people. The art in the hallways, the poems that were read yesterday, and the vast diversity of ideas that you expressed in the papers I read—I don’t exaggerate when I say that you are a force to be reckoned with as you go out into the world. But if you want to be of true service, and indeed if you want to avoid doing harm, that creativity needs to be combined with a kind and gentle skepticism, a willingness to realize that you might be wrong.  So, foster a scientific mind even if you never sit through another physics lecture in your life. 

Of course, there’s another way to avoid being wrong, and some of you may have taken this approach earlier. Maybe you’ve always been bad at math, or you didn’t feel it was worth the effort, but for whatever reason you never risked being wrong. You didn’t try. Needless to say, with that approach you also won’t be right, and you certainly can’t change the world. So with all this talk about being wrong, maybe you’re wondering what I’ve been wrong about. Well, both my mother and my husband are sitting in the audience, and I’m sure they could come up with a long, long list. I’m sure a lot of the teachers here could throw in a handful of reminiscences as well. But in the interest of time, I would like to talk about one thing that I was very wrong about when I was sitting in your seats 10 years ago, and that was this: I really thought that like me, no matter what the circumstances, every child in our society has a fair shot at getting a good education and realizing their dreams. I didn’t quite believe that race or money could be a legitimate barrier to these things, since everyone has the right to a free education in this country.  It took two years of teaching special education at an under-served middle school in San Jose for me to understand that this could not be farther from the truth. 

My students, like you, were in the class of 2012, and I admit that they were on my mind a lot as I thought about talking to you today. But many of them aren’t graduating this year. Some never will. Don’t get me wrong, most of them worked harder than I ever did in school. And their parents hoped for their success at least as much as mine and yours did. But these children grew up in a world where they felt the only way to safely hang out outside their home was to join a gang.  Eighth grade graduation was a huge deal because some of the parents had only made it to third grade – and to them, high school was really just icing on the cake. But the most disheartening thing wasn’t the violence in the neighborhood or the financial struggles of the families – because honestly those two challenges are not why the students aren’t graduating today. These students aren’t graduating because the school system itself never had any faith that they could. My administrators cared more about whether I turned in paperwork on time than the fact that my seventh graders, who had started the year at a 2nd-grade math level, were working on algebra.  The teacher who replaced me walked out after 2 months – never giving notice and leaving no record of the students’ performance or progress. Whether it was because of the students’ race, their socioeconomic status, or their learning disabilities, there were teachers and administrators who expected them to fail. And if there’s one thing that students are good at, it’s meeting their teachers’ expectations. Compare this to the love and unconditional support you have gotten from your faculty here, and I am sure you will agree that the students I worked with in San Jose did not have a fair shot at an education.

Maybe you have had the privilege of taking today’s milestone for granted. All of you have the privilege of being supported by a community that not only cares about you, the way every community cares about their children – but that also has the resources and knowhow to get you to this day. Cherish that. 
As you go away to college – or wherever life takes you next – you’ll run into people who are different from you. People who have not had the same opportunities, people you will be tempted to judge, even people you disagree with wholeheartedly. Don’t just write them off as ignorant; welcome them as a reminder that you just might not be as right as you thought. 

I want to close with another quotation. In the 5th century, long before Descartes famously proclaimed, “I think, therefore I am,” St. Augustine said, “Fall or, ergo sum.”  I err, therefore I am. And so, I dare you to question your own thoughts and opinions as enthusiastically, as critically, and hopefully as kindly as you do the thoughts and opinions of those people whom you disagree with most.  And when you find that you’re wrong, set aside that uneasy feeling and rejoice not just in the fact that you had an idea and took a stand worth being wrong about, but that you had the courage and the clarity of mind to question your beliefs. And when you change the world, you will know you have changed it in the right direction. Considering you as Waldorf students, and as the impressive young adults you have proven yourselves to be, I know you have all the tools you need to do so. I wish you all the best and, again, congratulations.