A Culture of Curiosity
– Speech by Peter Salovey, President of Yale University, at the Yale College Opening Assembly, Class of 2023
August 24, 2019
Good morning! To all Eli Whitney students, transfer students, visiting international students, and first-year Yale College students: Welcome to Yale! On behalf of my colleagues here on stage, I extend a warm greeting to the families here today and thank you all for joining us. Please remember these first moments of your loved one’s college career are very special, and I’m glad you can share them with us today.
Usually in an opening address, university presidents tell undergraduates that they are amazing individuals, selected from the…among the most talented high school students in the world today. This is, of course, true, but it is not the point I want to make. Instead, I want to encourage you to approach college unimpressed by how impressive you are; have more questions than answers; admit to being puzzled or confused; be willing to say, “I don’t know…but I want to find out.” And, most important, have the courage to say, “Perhaps I am wrong, and others are right.”
This is how you will learn the most from your teachers and classmates. And this is why we have all come to this place. We are here to ask questions – questions about one another and about the world around us. We are here at Yale to nurture a culture of curiosity.
This summer, I read a story about Isidor Isaac Rabi, one of this country’s most extraordinary scientists. He remembered an important question his mother asked him. Brought to this country as an infant, Rabi conducted research into particle beams that led to the development of the MRI and many other scientific advances. And he won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1944.
Rabi’s parents ran a small grocery store in Brooklyn. His mother had no formal education. The other moms, he remembered, asked their children every afternoon if they had learned anything in school. “Not my mother,” he recalled. “She always asked me a different question. ‘Izzy,’ she would say, ‘did you ask a good question today?’” He believed her reminder to ask good questions helped set him on a path to becoming a distinguished scientist.
So, to all the families here today, when you call your Yale students – when you ask them about their classes and their roommates and the food – remember also to ask them about their questions.
Imagine all the great discoveries that have come from asking a question – from Newton’s theory of gravity to the astonishing breakthroughs in quantum science – some of which are happening here at Yale. When a musician experiments with a new melody, or a sociologist observes a social interaction, they ask “why” and “what would happen if…?” Their curiosity lights up our world and points us in new directions. Self-discoveries come from asking questions, too. What do you learn when you ask yourself, “Why do I believe that?” … “Why do I believe that?” or “Why did I do that?”
I think of these lines from the poet Billy Collins: “the trouble with poetry is / that it encourages the writing of more poetry.”
I would say the same of asking questions. One leads to another, which opens doors to still another. Sometimes our questions lead to a dead-end. We realize the question we asked wasn’t quite right, and a door closes. But along the way, we have learned something. Perhaps in the future, we will ask better questions.
In a well-known scene in the movie “The Pink Panther”, Inspector Clouseau checks into a hotel in Germany. He sees a dachshund in the lobby, and he asks the hotel owner, “Does your dog bite?” The owner replies, “No.” When Clouseau goes to pet the dog, it bites his hand – hard! Shocked, he tells the hotel owner, “I thought you said your dog doesn’t bite!” The owner replies, “That is not my dog.” Inspector Clouseau simply hadn’t asked the right question.
So, years ago, I taught an undergraduate seminar. And one of the questions on the application to the course was, “What is the most important thing you’ve changed your mind about?” We were surprised that quite a few students reported that they had not changed their minds about anything at all! So we decided to accept to the class only students who had changed their minds about something important.
Be willing to change your mind. Ask questions and embrace Yale’s culture of curiosity. Be open to different viewpoints and experiences, see them as opportunities to learn – even if sometimes you get your hand bit.
Now I am a social psychologist. Then as a graduate student at Yale, my curiosity was sparked by the study of emotions, and by a question my undergraduate advisor had asked me: “Peter, why do you think humans even have emotions? What do they do for us?” One of my major areas of research ever since has been emotional intelligence.
In our earliest work, we described emotional intelligence as a set of skills that one can learn that helps you extract the information – the “data” – contained in emotions, either your own or somebody else’s. After a few years of research, it was obvious to me and my collaborators that we weren’t asking exactly the right question. We needed to be able to show that emotional intelligence predicted outcomes in life – the ability to form friendships, succeed in school, work as part of a team, and the like.
Trouble was, how do you go about measuring the skills of emotional intelligence? We asked ourselves a series of questions starting with, well, “How are personal…how are personal characteristics typically measured by psychologists? The answer is by asking people to rate themselves – these are called “self-reports.” But this led to approaches that disappointed us: How would someone know if they were the kind of person who was especially good at identifying emotions, or understanding them, or managing them, or using emotions? Perhaps thinking that you had spectacular emotional intelligence was a sign of not having much of it at all!
So that door closed, we asked ourselves another question: If we wanted to know if someone possessed the skills of a great baseball player – hitting, throwing, catching the ball; running bases effectively – how confident would we be of self-report? The answer is – not very: All ball players think they are going to be the next A-Rod! When I was a child, I thought I’d be the next Carl Yastrzemski on the Boston Red Sox, while my brother played in the backyard, but, in fact, I barely got out of Little League with my pride intact.
Why would emotional intelligence be any different than baseball? If we wanted to know whether someone had high E.I., we needed to assess these skills as abilities. And what would an ability measure of emotional intelligence even look like? So, asking ourselves these questions led to an answer that made more sense, and our ability-based measure of emotional intelligence has now been used in hundreds of studies. Knowing that we didn’t have all the answers and taking an inquisitive, curious attitude allowed us the opportunity to create something relatively new.
So, what questions will you ask? What will spark your curiosity?
Not long ago, I received an email from a very proud Yale College parent. He told me about his son, who heard seventy-seven different speakers during his first year at Yale. Seventy-seven! He had learned from thinkers and leaders across the political spectrum; he attended events organized by a wide range of campus organizations. What a way to spend a first year! Could you do this and not change your mind about something important?
And it turns out this student is also very good at asking questions: He’s doing a project where in the past year, he has interviewed dozens of people – scholars and activists, and journalists, and entrepreneurs from many different sectors. Like so many students, faculty, and staff, he is nurturing a culture of curiosity at Yale.
Indeed, the Yalies who have come before you have asked a dazzling array of questions. I think of the pioneers of coeducation. Fifty years ago, in 1969, 588 women came to study in Yale College. They entered what had long been an all-male institution, and they asked questions that hadn’t been asked before. We will commemorate this milestone – along with the 150th anniversary of women entering Yale’s School of Art – throughout this year.
I think of Margaret Warner, Class of 1971. An award-winning journalist, she knows how to ask brilliant questions, and has reported from warzones for decades, witnessing history firsthand, trying to understand our world.
I think, too, of Alice Young, also Class of 1971. She looked around this campus and asked why there weren’t more students from public schools, so she became an ambassador for Yale back in her home state of Hawaii. And she was also one of the founders of the Asian American Students Alliance, which also celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.
And we remember other important anniversaries and the curious students who were part of these changes. In 1969, thanks to student efforts, the Afro-American Cultural Center, known as “the House,” opened, and what is now the Department of African American Studies was created. That same year, students established the Yale chapter of MEChA. And I believe we owe a debt of gratitude…a debt of gratitude to all the courageous pioneers, throughout our history, who have made Yale what it is today.
What questions will you ask? And how will your questions transform Yale and improve the world?
Your time at Yale is an unparalleled opportunity to engage with a wide range of people, ideas, and experiences. More than at any other point in your life, you will have the means and opportunity to hear from – and converse with – world-renowned experts in many fields. You will have the chance to create knowledge through rigorous research, and attend arts, literary, and athletics events that challenge and inspire you. You will spend time with peers whose lives have been wildly different from your own.
What if you nurtured your own curiosity by pushing yourself beyond the familiar and the comfortable? What would that look like for you?
It might mean attending a talk on a topic you don’t know much about or by someone who doesn’t share your beliefs. Or conducting research in a Yale laboratory or collaborating on an exhibit at one of our amazing museums. Or perhaps your curiosity will be sparked by having coffee with a classmate who comes from a different part of the world or a different place on the political spectrum.
And when you do these things, when you take advantage of the opportunities Yale makes possible, what questions will you ask?
There is so much we don’t know. Let us embrace, together, our humility – our willingness to admit what we have yet to discover. After all, if you knew all the answers, you would not need Yale. And if humanity knew all the answers, the world would not need Yale.
So, what questions will you ask today? Tomorrow? The next day? And in the days, months, and years after I have shaken your hand at Commencement, let me know…let me know what questions you’ve asked that have changed your life.
Good luck, Class of 2023!