It is with a profound sadness that I witness Georgetown students and faculty debate the wisdom of making math and science a part of the SFS core curriculum. Many years ago, I was an undergraduate, sitting in the Ohio State University philosophy lounge, watching others debate whether math is or is not useful for this or that end. After a fair time, one of my professors spoke:

“I think you are all missing the point,” he said. “The reason to study math is not that it is useful for something. It is so that one will, at least once in [his or] her life, experience genuine beauty.”

Doubtlessly that sounds amusing to many of you, certainly to those who sit in the back of my intro classes, staring at the floor, minds a hundred miles from my attempts to show you the beauty of Kant’s conception of freedom. It is amusing because a leap of faith is called for here.

I cannot convince someone who is blind – or worse never has opened his or her eyes – of the power and majesty of Picasso’s Guernica. Words cannot make you hear Stravinsky, read James, or taste the subtle depth of a meal by a master chef.

All of these take work, take commitment, take desire. And one needs all of these to feel the impact, the power, and the beauty wrought by Galois, Goedel or Einstein.

Without that work, I’m telling a blind man about red. So all I can do is offer this university to you on faith. If we are debating requirements, we are already in the realm of the absurd and the self-defeating.

No requirement will force you to care, to desire, to open yourself to realms of beauty to which you are now blind. We can only teach, in the end, those who demand to learn. And for the rest, one can only mourn over a life never exposed to the emergence of staggering complexity out of crystalline simplicity.

But students of Georgetown, this is my offer to you, an offer that is still implicit in the whole idea of a university, however far it might be buried under the muck of professionalism and an offer many of you will ignore but which nonetheless I and my colleagues have trained for years to present to you:

Your life need not be bounded by your career.

Job training need be no large part of knowledge.

Sight can be so much more than you ever imagined.



FEB. 9, 2005

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