Monday, November 25, 2013

Cal Lecturer's Letter of Encouragement to Students

Alexander Coward teaches a math class for undergraduate students at UC Berkeley.  On its face, his letter encourages students to attend class rather than support the UC workers' strike.  I am pretty sure he meant to encourage students to value their education regardless of whether or not they choose to participate in this particular strike.

I was really moved by many parts of the letter.  Perhaps if I were to make a compressed version of his letter, it would be this.

If I’ve learned one thing about politics since I was your age, it is this: Politics, like most things in life worth thinking about, including mathematics, is very big, very complicated, and very interconnected.
I’ve discovered that there is no unique or obviously best way of setting up society. For every decision and judgement you reach, there are people who benefit and people who lose out.  
Every judgement you make in life is a question of balancing different interests and ideals. are not going to be able to avoid making these kinds of judgments, just as I cannot avoid making a judgment about whether to strike or not. all need to know that there is not some great pool of amazing people in some other place who are going to shape the way our species navigates the coming decades. 
In order for you to navigate the increasing complexity of the 21st century you need a world-class education, and thankfully you have an opportunity to get one. I don’t just mean the education you get in class, but I mean the education you get in everything you do, every book you read, every conversation you have, every thought you think. 
Society is investing in you so that you can help solve the many challenges we are going to face in the coming decades, from profound technological challenges to helping people with the age old search for human happiness and meaning.  
I like that he mentions that being apolitical is basically impossible.  Any system will have winners and losers.  Not having a policy is a policy!

I also found it really touching when he addressed the insecurities of the students.
One of the things you can lose track of when you attend a top tier university like Berkeley is just how exceptional and amazing you really are. 
I’m not just talking about some of you. I’m talking about all of you. It’s a privilege to be your professor. Sadly, however, I know many of you don’t feel that way. The difficulty you all face is that as you look around at all your fellow students, it’s easy to have your eye drawn by people doing better than you. Or rather, I should say people who look like they’re doing better than you. In reality the true extent of how much people are learning can be difficult to measure. Sometimes failures and adversity are better preparations for long term success than effortless progress.
As an undergraduate, you are still trying to figure out how your abilities compare with others'.  Sometimes the professors or graduate students seem so much more polished and accomplished, you feel like you could never be like that.  To you, the professors are like the "adults" in the world who will solve the big complicated problems, which is sort of a secure feeling.

I find it kind of sad to realize now that that's not really the case.  On the one hand it's motivating, but on the other hand, I feel sort of sorry for the world that it is partly up to me to come up with solutions.  I know that nobody will really blame me or anything like that, but I know I'm not always trying my hardest and that I miss opportunities. I didn't cause all the problems so it's not my responsibility in the direct sense.  However, since not having a policy is a policy, perpetuating the current system while being just as qualified as the next person to change it makes me partially responsible.  I feel a desire to compensate those who will inevitably be affected by my and others' inability to do better, but knowing that we can't is kind of sad to me.  I take solace in the fact that we can only move forward and do what we can.  ...And maybe future talented people really will emerge as the adults, and then the rest of us will be off the hook again...

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