Reading these lucid words, I find myself nodding in constant agreement. As a mathematician, my research has blended art and visualization with studies in cartography, genetics, computer science and geometry—a potpourri that in no small part is due to my years as a liberal arts student. Now my life as faculty at Williams is best summarized by the proverb from Spiderman: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
I am given enormous freedom to design my own courses, develop my research interests and pursue academic excellence. My charge, on the other hand, is to guide, equip and shape our students to interpret and transform the world around them. And I am convinced this begins with the tearing down of academic walls, an intrinsic feature of the liberal arts education.
I am not deluded into thinking lives are transformed when my students understand the gradient of a function or the eigenvalue of a matrix. Nor am I arrogant in believing that mathematics alone holds the keys to unlocking the future. A true liberal arts education equips us not only to understand mathematical form and structure but also to craft a thoughtful essay, to appreciate a performance or painting, to juggle molecules and matter and, dare I say, to compete on the athletic field. Indeed, the extraordinary gift offered by the liberal arts is the ability to reasonably converse in the languages of all disciplines—to focus on ideas across categories and not just the particulars of one.
There is a natural corollary to this perspective, which I pose as a challenge to the reader: Your college major does not matter. From personal experience, having written hundreds of letters of recommendation and having seen the triumphs of these students over numerous careers, what seems crucial to success are the usual traits: curiosity, determination, adaptability. The recent visual graphic showcasing the major-career trajectories of 15,600 Williams alumni highlights this point: Each major branches nearly equally to every career category (see http://bit.ly/Devadoss). The Williams graduate is trained to adjust, conform and thrive in a complex evolving landscape.
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