Notes for speech to be given when winning an honorary degree
(I'm not going to get an honorary degree,
but it's always good to be prepared.)
1. I have never regretted having learned something. People who say they have had such regrets usually mean they regret the thing exists, that they subsequently learned or learned of, but not the knowledge itself. Sometimes they go through a lot of pain to acquire it, after all; they hire detectives to discover things they say they would rather not know. Well, even so, I cannot be sure there are not some people who really do prefer ignorance to knowledge. Yahoos.
2. We professors are condemned to teach for a living before we have learned anything. I don't know any cure for this, life being so short. In my case I had the advantage of serving 3.5 years in the army between my sophomore and junior years in college. I learned some useful things about human nature and radar, though I don't think it advanced my knowledge of mathematics particularly. Well, some; but mathematics wasn't the only thing I was destined to teach, and anyhow, I didn't even know then that mathematics was going to be my official trade. I thought it would be physics, and I went so far as to get a Bachelor's degree in physics before I discovered my mistake. That mistake. I discovered other mistakes in my life later, and they are still turning up.
3. When I came to the University of Rochester in 1952 I was appointed Instructor at a salary so shamefully small that I don't want to embarrass the University by mentioning the figure here. On the other hand, there were items of what economists used to call "psychic income". It cost no money at all to attend the lectures of Howard Merritt on the history of Western art (painting, mainly) from Sienese Madonnas to the Hudson River School (Howard's specialty); and I attended and learned a lot. One time he showed a slide of El Greco's Funeral of the Count of Orgasz, which is in Toledo (the other Toledo). He knew I had been there, and after he got done telling the class all he could think of that made the painting a masterpiece he called on me, in the audience, to add something. I was shocked into silence. I thought Howard was supposed to be the expert, not me. But he was older, and knew more about the expert game than I realized.
I also attended some of Hayden White's grandiose lectures on European history -- Hayden was an expert on the grandiose, if not exactly on Europe -- and students flocked to his lectures. Marvin Becker's Delphic lectures on medieval history led to a lifelong friendship, after thirty years of which I began to understand what he was thinking about. Becker was an expert, but not the spellbinder our history department of that era most cherished. After a while he left us for Ann Arbor. And -- I would go to the occasional class of some professor of English or physics. I once tried to sit in on a quantum theory class, but didn't understand it any better than I did when I was an undergraduate myself, imagining I was going to be a physicist.
4. Then I got busy, too. I had to finish my PhD for Michigan, and did, a year or so after the birth of my second daughter. I had to write papers in functional analysis for the professional journals, and did. Learned something there, but not clear what I taught the world with that rather arcane literary output. My professional work was well written but not of great importance. I had four PhD students, the first of whom flunked out, but the other three were o.k., two of them still professors of mathematics somewhere and one of them quite gratifyingly a better mathematician than I ever was.
I got administrative jobs around here, and for a while was a sort of chief judicial officer of the University, sometimes in charge of student uprisings (as in the antiwar 60s and black power 70s), sometimes in charge of academic dishonesty among undergraduates, which flourishes in all decades. I was Associate Dean for Graduate Studies for eight bleak years, and got to know all the department heads and how none of them had nearly enough money for graduate student fellowships and assistantships and what was I going to do about it, by like yesterday. I was later made Chairman of a bankrupt department named sociology, for three years, during which I learned a lot of sociology, including the information that I should no longer call myself “chairman”, but rather “chair”. They thought I was using the word "chairman" from ignorance, or maybe misogyny. Well, that's sociology; my own language was English.
Indeed, I taught English composition (defiantly non-creative) three separate times, back in the days when my brand of English was permitted. I also taught the history of math. Sometimes I taught nothing, or nothing much, though the course I gave had a name and number. One time I taught a course called Measure Theory – a graduate course -- and fifteen or twenty years later I got a letter from a student who praised me for that course. He had become a computer softward designer, he wrote, and in a small way a business entrepreneur in his specialty. But his letter – the words he used – indicated that his memory of the subject matter of the course was thin, if any. For one thing, he didn’t remember that it was about measure theory (I looked him up); but he did say that he was grateful for having learned from me the meaning of mutatis mutandis, and he teaches that to his subordinates himself, and with great satisfaction. You can never tell when a course in measure theory will come in handy. One of my undergraduate students here later became President of the University of Chicago. He had taken Linear Algebra from me. Got a B, I think. I'm not quite sure if it was a B or a B+, though when he became famous I looked it up and sent him a copy of that page of my class book. It had all the names of his classmates, and the grades they had received, too. He never said he was grateful, or quoted any Latin or Greek I might have taught him. I'm not really sure about that grade, either. I know I looked it up, but my memory for these things is shaky. I’m a bit shaky myself, or I’d climb on a chair to reach where those classbooks are, and make sure for this speech. Not worth it. Either a B or a B+; that’s the best I can say right now.
5. Then I retired, and decided to devote my declining years to learning something at last. I took, over three successive semesters, the three main theoretical undergraduate courses in economics: Micro, Macro, and International Trade, all from professors who had earlier thought I knew all about these things, because I sounded so confident in lunch table conversations with them. And maybe also because I generally agreed with them on public policy in discussions economical. Don't ever underestimate the power of agreement, when it comes to persuading people you are wise.
In taking these courses, I learned all over again the terror of sitting in an exam room wondering what the professor would think of me when I displayed my ignorance. I did get a handy A in Micro and a decent A in Macro (though the subject was a bit fuzzy at the edges, I thought), but only a charitable A in International Trade from my old friend Ron Jones, who probably simply didn't believe I was as ignorant as my final exam paper indicated. I then began a graduate course in equilibrium theory, which had been my purpose all along when I began the road of recapitulating economics ab initio, general equilibrium being quite a mathematical theory, and one I had long wanted to understand, but I dropped out after the second session. It was too much, though mainly (I told myself) because by then I had got into other things, i.e. mathematics education in the schools. I think this K-12 school math business (on the highest theoretical level, of course; I'm too old and tired to actually teach) is the last racket I will ever profess. Most of it is politics, having little to do with either teaching or mathematics, yet it is strangely interesting trying to do something about it.
6. When you get old your mind doesn't work as well as it used to. I haven't called myself a mathematician in many years. I used to be a mathematician, and I have to permit the newspapers, and the outfits that still hire me to do this and that in connection with school exams and curricula, to call me a mathematician when the title seems useful for persuading people I'm an expert; but the truth is that the more you learn the more you realize that the real experts are very few and usually very narrow. Me, I'm few all right, but I'm not narrow; that’s not enough to prove me no “real expert”, but it comes close. It's been fun, especially these last years of learning things without really having to make a living or even face an exam; but -- you know -- to accomplish something long-standing in the history of the world, to be classed with Newton or Bach (their kind may never be seen again), or with the ten thousand lesser giants of our culture, one is not also entitled to have the kind of fun in learning that I have had. It takes all kinds to make a world. I've been another kind.
I've had my time, and I owe a lot of it to the University that has given me a home for so many years, especially these recent years when the cost of the office and other facilities that I am given as Professor Emeritus probably exceeds the debit they incurred in paying me those starvation wages of 1952. But I'm not sure; maybe I'll ask Ron Jones. There's interest due, too, you know: fifty-five years' worth.
Ralph A. Raimi
May 22, 2001
Slightly revised July 23, 2007