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Senior Letter 2012

Senior Letter 2012

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Published by Sam Shah

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Published by: Sam Shah on May 31, 2012
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Thursday, May 24, 2012Dear ____________________,Your time at Packer is over. And I’m sure you’re either numb, and it hasn’t hit you (and maybe it won’t), oryou’re a fibrous bundle of nerves and excitement. Either way,
you’ve finished what is probably the most transformative intellectual journey you will undertake in your life
. It is in these four years that you have comefrom the primordial ooze as freshman, O Lowly Frosh!, who could barely write a reasonable thesis sentence inEnglish, who didn’t know about the realm of imaginary numbers, who didn’t know how to balance a simplechemical equation, who didn’t know the nuances of Reconstruction or the Renaissance… to someone who hasacquired a ridiculous amount of knowledge.
what you knew then what you know now 
I ask you to take a step back from where you are today and to look at your work in ninth grade. (Have yousaved any of it?) See what sort of essays you wrote and what sort of math you were doing. I honestly think youshould take a moment and do it. (If you aren’t nostalgic yet, it might be just the trick to turn on thatwistfulness!) But I posit to you that in these four years you’ve learned more about the world than you willprobably learn in
four years hence – college included. (College is where you start to specialize, tunnelinginto your intellectual world, from the broadening of your world that happens in high school.)Think about it. List all the places and time periods you’ve studied in history, list all the books you’ve devouredin English, list all the topics in mathematics, list all the main ideas from the sciences. I’m serious about this.Start by writing down the list of books you read for your English classes: __________________________________________________________________________________________ __________________________________________________________________________________________ __________________________________________________________________________________________ __________________________________________________________________________________________ __________________________________________________________________________________________ __________________________________________________________________________________________Okay, I’m not an idiot. You aren’t going to do that. You’re seniors and you’re
and it sounds dumb. But I betyou in 5 years from now you’re going to read this and regret that you didn’t fill this year.What’s my point here? When I was a senior graduating high school, my English teacher handed me anenvelope with a thank you letter for something I gave him. His act of writing this letter imparting words of wisdom meant something to me. I keep the letter ensconced between the pages of my yearbook and eachyear around this time I bring it out and re-read it. And in honor of him, each year I write a letter to my seniors,my dear dear seniors, and it always has the same theme.
Treasure knowledge.
My favorite quotation is notfrom a classic of literature. It was uttered by Richard Feynman, physicist extraordinaire:
I was born not knowing, and have had only a little time to change that here and there.And I know as you go marching off into your lives as adults, you’ll have moments where you wonder what thepoint of it all is. There will be points of crisis where everything around you will appear lackluster. But I ask youto remember the thing that makes human life so extraordinary: our capacities to
know things
. And here’s thesecret:
what you actually know what you don’t know
Life gets more exciting and is much fuller when you recognize this. There’s so much you can know – so manythings, anything you are remotely interested in! – and there’s only a lifetime to figure it out. And I mean it –only a lifetime. So revel in things that interest you! Pursue them! Jump from one island of knowledge toanother! Become a Renaissance person.This is why I am so passionate about teaching in the quirky way I do… I understand that you aren’t going off tocollege thinking “hey! I’m going to be a mathematician.” But I’m glad that you have been exposed to onepinnacle of human thought: calculus. Calculus is the study of things changing, and by the simple act of findingthe slope of two points
close to each other, we can precisely find how fast it is changing at thatmoment in time. And if we wanted to find the area of things (anything!), we simply had to add together an
number of 
thin rectangles together.And with calculus, I saw you transform from being mathematical kids to mathematical adults. Before youcould only find the slope of a
– the steepness of a line. But soon, with calculus, you could find slopes of curves and not just lines. And by finding slopes, you could find maxima and minima, which meant that youcould find the solution to “how optimized is this can?” (in addition to many other questions). And then whenwe started playing around with anti-derivatives, we learned that an anti-derivative actually is intimatelyrelated to the area under a curve. Curious. Unexpected. And suddenly, we were able to find areas of thingsthat weren’t circles or simple polygons. And we expanded our knowledge to find the volumes of strangeobjects…… like this one. And then finally we did a short unit onwealth inequality in the United States, and realized wecould use areas under curves to come up with a
 for how unequally wealth is distributed. And we evenfound convincing evidence that the wealth inequality wasincreasing over time.All from playing around with two simple ideas. The slope of 

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