Associate Professor, Thomas Cassidy
Department of Mathematics
Friday, August 22, 2008

My name is Tom Cassidy and I am a professor of mathematics. My role in this ceremony is to welcome you to Bucknell University on behalf of the entire faculty. My fellow professors and I are looking forward to meeting you next week, and to working closely with you over the next four years. On the faculty here you will find experts in the neuroscience of music, the plays of Sam Shepard and the indigenous peoples of the North Pole, along with scholars of Greek literature, industrial automation, and aquatic ecology. As a group we have spent decades in avid study acquiring a vast body of knowledge and skills, and now we would like to pass these on to you. Bucknell’s highly selective admissions process has guaranteed that you, the class of 2012, are talented, capable and ready to learn, so you might expect this transfer of knowledge from us to you to be an easy task. Unfortunately, it is not.

The problem lies in how the human brain works. Cognitive research has shown that deep learning cannot be accom- plished as a simple hand-off of information. True and useful understanding occurs only when our brains have actively struggled with concepts. In order for you to absorb and retain new ideas, you will need to play with, and work with these ideas until you own them. Learning is something you must participate in, and it is your engagement in the process that makes it work.

Of course we would love to spare you the agonies we went through and make learning easier for you. But as E. M. Forster once said, “spoon feeding teaches us nothing in the long run but the shape of the spoon.” And here at Bucknell we are much more ambitious than that. We want to help you develop the mental strength and agility to grapple with hard concepts, critically evaluate subtle theories and make nuanced judgments.

So at some point this year you may be frustrated because it seems your professor is refusing to give you a straightforward answer, or that she is deliberately adding complexity to an already difficult exercise. If you think this is happening in your class, you are probably right. Our job as professors is not to dispense easy answers, but to pose hard questions, to point in particular directions and to offer critiques that will drive you to dig even deeper.

Nabokov once wrote an essay about how to be a good reader of literature, and I think his comments apply to the entire learning process. He said: “a wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much even with his brain, but with his spine.” I like this quote because it indicates how much the life of the mind is a demanding, almost physical activity. An intellectual endeavor can engage you to the point that it seems your whole being is involved in the effort.

Your college education is not something that is going to happen to you here. It is something you are going to do here. Bucknell will provide you with a nurturing environment where rigorous inquiry is encouraged and where the interplay of ideas is the very substance of our days. We on the faculty will do our best to present you with lucid explanations of the great ideas and difficult questions in human history. We will illustrate for you the wonders of influential art and the challenges of new technology. We will do everything we can to make apparent the inner workings of the world, but all of that is merely the context, the background, because ultimately what we want is for you to get in the game and steal the ball.

Let me conclude with a quote from Wallace Stevens. As you may know, Stevens was a lawyer and the vice president of a major insurance company. I am sure that as a corporate executive he was very well paid and I am also sure that as such he would have been completely forgotten twenty years after he died. But Stevens was more than that. He was also one of the greatest American poets of the 20th century, and for that he will be remembered as long as English is spoken. That double life, as a rational man of business and as a brilliant modernist poet, makes Stevens a wonderful exemplar of a liberal arts education. Stevens wrote:

"…my ears made the blowing hymns they heard. I was myself the compass of that sea: I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw Or heard or felt came not but from myself; And there I found myself more truly and more strange."

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