Devlin's Angle

September 1996

Dear New Student

This is the month when, all across the nation, and indeed around the world, a new generation of students enters college or university for the first time. Among them, I hope, are large numbers of mathematics majors, or at least students with sufficient interest in mathematics to be regular readers of MAA Online. This month's column is directed at those students. At least, that is my overt audience. One of the aims of a regular column such as this is to be provocative and controversial from time to time--to take an alternative look at something familiar and relevant (in this case relevant to MAA members). You may not agree with what I say below. If so, please e-mail me with your views, and I'll try to pass on your views in a future column.

Dear New Student:

What awaits you in the coming years--your college years?

My college freshman year was 1965, in London, England. I came from Hull, a city of a third of a million people some two-hundred miles to the north. The year before I left for college, the local newspaper carried a story that Hull University had just received delivery of its first computer, the first in the entire city. (It was a large, room-filling beast with a gigantic 8 kilobytes of memory.)

With computers just on the horizon, there was no way, in my freshman year, that I or anyone else could have envisaged the kind of world I would be working in five years after graduation.

Today's college freshman takes it for granted that he or she will make regular use of a personal computer, both as a student and then later in employment. PCs are so ubiquitous, it seems they have always been with us. But they are little more than fifteen years old.

As an entering college student, the likelihood is the job you will be doing ten years from now does not yet exist. You will be doing something that at present no one is doing, or hardly anyone.

After you graduate, the chances are you will have as many as five or six different careers in your lifetime. That's not jobs. It's different careers. Your individual jobs might last only three or four years. Then that job will disappear.

How can you possibly prepare for such a future? How can we, as college educators, help you to prepare for that future?

The first thing is not to think of a college education as training for a particular career. Think of it as helping to prepare you for the remainder of your life. For part of that life you will be employed, though no one can be quite sure in what. For other parts, you may not be "employed," at least in the traditional sense of the word.

For many universities, this represents a major change. For the liberal arts colleges, this is how they have always viewed their educational mission. In any event, what I am saying does not apply to just a few college or university students; these days it applies to most of them; probably to you.

What about the major? How important is that choice? Well, despite the uncertainty of people's career paths, some things are as true today as they always were. A science major or a business major will have a broader choice of careers than, say, an English major, and a statistically greater chance of getting a good job early in their career. But I would never advise a student to choose a major on that basis. That would have been poor advice for my generation, when steady careers were expected. So it certainly would be poor advice for today's student.

My strongest advice would be to value the breadth of the education available to you. Choose your major according to what interests you most, and realize that it is only a part of your education. Don't fall into the trap of regarding all your other courses as just "graduation requirements" to be gotten out of the way as quickly as possible. It is the entire spread of your courses that will be of value to you in your later life and careers.

If you downgrade your non majors courses, you will be effectively throwing away a significant part of your education. [As an aside, I should remark that, to the best of my knowledge, education is the only business where many of the customers complain if they are given more of what they have paid for.]

Let me get back to careers after graduation. There is one ability that you will need above all others in your various careers. If you think about it, it's obvious what it is. The ability to adapt to new conditions and to learn new skills rapidly and effectively. If you ever find yourself using public transport (trains, subways, airplanes) at the same time as professional people, take a look round at what they are doing. Many of them will be reading instructional books or training manuals. If you were to visit them at them homes in the evening, you would find them doing the same thing. Many of the major cities in the United States now have huge convention centers that cater to the multitude of professional conferences that people attend to learn new skills and keep up to date with their rapidly changing work environment. A significant part of their job is learning. All the time.

The main key to being successful in the professional world of today or tomorrow is an ability to learn. Not to be taught, notice. To learn. At high school you had a teacher. When you are out at work and you need to acquire new information or learn a new skill, you will probably have to go it alone--at least if you want to get ahead. College is a half-way house. The professors are there to help and guide you. But as teachers, the main thing they are trying to "teach" you is how to learn. Your mathematics professor is not there to teach you mathematics. He or she is there to show you how to learn mathematics, and to help you in the process. That's a big difference from high school. And the sooner you realize the distinction, the sooner you will start to get the most out of your college or university education.

Second piece of advice. Which course should you put the most effort into? Well, if you follow my logic about future life and careers, what will count for most in the long run is your ability to learn a new skill in an area that is quite unfamiliar to you, which you might not like (at least at first), and which you find hard and are sure you can never master. So my advice is to work hardest at those subjects you don't like or think you can never do.

Though it pains me to say it as a mathematician, I realize that for many students, that subject will turn out to be mathematics. However, since this letter is being published on MAA Online, the chances are you are a future math major. But what I am saying applies just as well to you, when you find yourself faced with a language requirement or a performing arts class or a creative writing class. Colleges and universities don't have all those graduation requirements in order to make you suffer. They are there to help you broaden your mind and your horizons, and to prepare you to live your life to the fullest.

One final piece of advice. (Sorry about all this advice. But one of my two children has already graduated and the other is a college sophomore, and I still have that overwhelming parental urge to give advice, regardless of whether it is asked for or not.) I often hear people say that college is not the real world; that the purpose of your college years is to prepare you for your subsequent life "in the real world." That's just nonsense. You won't stop living for the next four years. Your time at college or university is not pre-life. It's four years of your life. For four years, it will be your "real world." So my final piece of advice is, enjoy your time as a student and live your new "real life" to the full.

-Keith Devlin

Devlin's Angle is updated at the start of each month.

Keith Devlin ([email protected]) is the editor of FOCUS, the news magazine of the MAA. He is the Dean of Science at Saint Mary's College of California, and the author of Mathematics: The Science of Patterns, published by W. H. Freeman in 1994.