A mathematics professor challenges first-year students to pursue intellectual engagement.

By Thomas Cassidy

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 acquiring a vast body of knowledge, which we would like to pass 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.

Cognitive research has shown that deep learning cannot be accomplished as a simple hand-off of information. True understanding occurs only when our brains actively struggle with concepts. To absorb and retain new ideas, you need to work and play with them until you own them.

We would love to make learning easier for you, but as E. M. Forster said, “Spoon feeding teaches us nothing in the long run but the shape of the spoon.” At Bucknell, we are more ambitious than that. We want to help you develop the mental agility to grapple with hard concepts, critically evaluate subtle theories and make nuanced judgments.

You may be frustrated because it seems your professor is refusing to give you a straightforward answer or is adding complexity to an already difficult exercise. You are probably right. Our job is not to dispense easy answers, but to pose hard questions.

Nabokov once 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.

Your college education is not something that is going to happen to you. It is something you are going to do. Bucknell will provide an environment where rigorous inquiry is encouraged. We will do our best to present explanations of the great ideas and difficult questions. We will illustrate the wonders of art and the challenges of technology. We will do everything to make apparent the inner workings of the world, but ultimately what we want is for you to get in the game and steal the ball.

Wallace Stevens was a lawyer and a vice president of a major insurance company. But Stevens was more than that. He also was one of the greatest American poets of the 20th century. 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. I leave you with lines from one of his poems:

"... 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."

This essay is excerpted from Thomas Cassidy’s talk to first-year students at Matriculation. Cassidy is associate professor of mathematics. He’s been at Bucknell since 1999 and studies noncommutative ring theory, a branch of abstract algebra.


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