Below is the prepared text of the Commencement address by Salman Khan ’98, MEng ‘98, founder of the Khan Academy, for MIT’s 146th Commencement held June 8, 2012.s.
It is truly a deep honor to be here at MIT. Not only did I spend some of the best years of my life here, but it has proven to continue to define my life in countless ways.
Many of you may not remember, but in the late 1990s and early 2000s, many corporations and universities were exploring how they could profit or protect themselves from online education. Then MIT stepped in the mix and launched MIT OpenCourseWare. As powerful as the offering had the potential to be, MIT’s rationale for it was even more powerful. MIT was implicitly saying that some things are more important than profit or any strategic concerns. Even if it would cost the Institute potential revenues, MIT had the moral clarity to realize that if it could give access to knowledge to people around the world for free, it should and would.
I was busy working at a startup in San Francisco when the announcement came out in 2001. I had no idea then that my own life-adventure would be so closely linked, but when MIT had announced OpenCourseWare, I never felt prouder or more inspired by where I had gone to school. When others were exploring what was profitable or how to defend their existing offerings or just watched from the sidelines, MIT had the moral clarity and boldness to just do what it thought was right.
Many universities aspire to teach their students ethics; but nothing is more powerful than when they lead by example. This in no small way inspired what has now become the Khan Academy. And now, MIT has once again put principle over profit by spearheading edX with Harvard. For this and many, many other reasons, I am honored to come here and thank the institution that I love so much for reminding me through its actions what is most important.
But MIT has also affected me on a more personal level. Many of my very closest friends are alumni. My wife went to MIT. The president of Khan Academy was my freshman year roommate in Next House (Room 343). His wife went to MIT. One of our board members went to MIT. His wife went to MIT.
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.
However, there are simpler explanations for all of this MIT-MIT love. The most likely of which is that the admissions office here has a somewhat unhealthy habit of only accepting incredibly attractive people.
But I think it also goes still deeper than that. 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.
More than, I believe, any institution, MIT attracts and admits this type of creative raw potential, these young people with unusual gifts, with the desire to and ability to push all of humanity forward.
And more than any other institution, MIT pushes these incredible young people to realize what they are capable of.
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.