The Muppets: Bohemian Rhapsody

My travels and the holidays haven’t left me time to write down my recent profound thoughts. So instead, here’s an interlude especially for my fellow Baby Boomers who grew up with Queen and have raised kids on the Muppets (with a wry ending for us technology users). Go to YouTube to watch it in HD!

Happy Holidays!


Why Study Algebra?

“Why study math?”
This was a question that I, as a math major, asked somewhat rhetorically to K-12 educators in Ohio. I was stunned with the responses I received.
“It’s important that all students know how to do math” was a reply I received from a top state education official. Okay, but then what do teachers do in school after the 4th grade, by which time kids are expected to be able to “do math”? We were in the midst of the state’s efforts to institute standards-based reform, so my question was of serious importance.
I met with the chairs of the mathematics departments of my state’s public universities. They were delighted to speak with a chancellor who was a mathematician and explained that “doing” math was, of course, a foundation skill, but all students needed to learn much more. Algebra instruction, for example, was a way to develop analytical problem solving abilities in students. This problem solving ability goes beyond algebra problems; while the techniques are taught in algebra, they apply to all problems. Their point on algebra was of major significance, because algebra was right at the heart of the standards debate.
So many parents have complained “Why does my child need to learn algebra? I took algebra and I never use it!” This conclusion is so common that it has even been memorialized by Hollywood. In Peggy Sue Got Married, the title character is a housewife and mother who is sent back in time to her high school years. As seen in a 49-second clip from the movie, she blows off an algebra test because, as she explains to her algebra teacher, she knows she won’t ever use it.

While it’s understandable that a typical parent might feel as Peggy Sue did about algebra, I was really shocked when a local teacher’s union representative echoed the same conclusion when he complained in the media that the state’s new high school graduation exam was too difficult, since it tested algebra knowledge.
I believe it’s important to speak plainly and openly with parents and the public. It may be true that few of our kids will have to solve quadratic equations after their school years. But don’t you think they’ll have to solve problems? In fact, most businesspeople I’ve spoken to say that one of the basic abilities they need in their employees is to solve problems they’ve never seen before.
In our school curricula, algebra is the main subject in which our kids are taught to solve problems in a systematic, analytic manner. Unfortunately, algebra taught poorly results in students learning only how to mimic problem solving methods that they’ve been forced to memorize. But algebra taught well gets students on the path to developing that skill of “solving problems they’ve never seen before” that employers are demanding and is an important foundation for further learning.
Might the reason that educators, union officials, and parents haven’t understood the importance of algebra in our kids’ education is that so few of them learned it properly themselves? More thoughts on this to come.

Finding Happiness in What You Do

“Be happy in what you do” is a basic maxim of success. I agree completely. But I’ve learned there are two ways to find that happiness.
When I began my career, I felt I was very fortunate to have found a company in which I really enjoyed working. After 17 straight years of formal education, I would be entering the job market in the depths of the 1971 recession with my newly-minted Cornell MBA degree. There I was, in the Spring of 1971 at the ripe old age of 22, interviewing for jobs. My honors advisor, Prof. Joe Thomas (now Dean of the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University), noted that I was smart and that was a competitive advantage; I should talk to consulting firms, since they look for smart people. After interviewing with the few consulting firms that recruited at Cornell that year, I took the offer of Arthur Andersen & Co. to join their management consulting practice in their NYC office.
Andersen’s recruiting process sold me. I would be working with other young professionals, consulting on the data processing needs of our clients. My mother had been a pioneer in computer systems, having implemented the first international airlines reservations system in the world for Pan American Airways. I had grown up with computers and enjoyed my computer courses at Michigan. I had worked for IBM in my summer between MBA years, and wrote my honors thesis using computer modeling for complex inventory control questions. AA&Co. would train me in the firm’s methodology and other things I’d need to become a successful consultant – they were paying me to learn! I’d work in the Rockefeller Center area of NYC, with my periodic expense account lunches, when not working with broad variety of clients around the world. What a glamorous career! The partners in the firm explained that their job was to help develop the next generation of partners. If I worked diligently, after 10 years or so I might be admitted to the partnership. Everyone was truly supportive. I was really comfortable with my choice of firm and career. I had found a wonderful match and was very happy – and my career progressed as I expected. I was really fortunate to have found an environment in which I was very happy.
After a few years working, I learned an important lesson from one of my mentors. His name was Paul Tom. Paul had started his career with IBM in Texas and then Washington, DC. He took his position as a manager in AA&Co. in NYC and later became a partner. Paul was a wonderfully personable guy who took seriously the task of developing his staff charges. Early on, I was with several other young staff invited to Paul’s bachelor pad apartment, high above Lincoln Center on West 65th Street. Paul waxed poetic about how wonderful it was to live in NYC: The most exciting place in the world to live. Later, Paul transfered to the Stamford, CT office and bought a suburban home in Connecticut. Again, at a social function he hosted in his new home, Paul extolled the virtues of living in suburban Connecticut, with his idyllic home on the Rippowam River. There was no better place to live on Earth. Several years later, Paul transferred to the Toronto office. I visited him in his suburban penthouse apartment with a beautiful view of Toronto in the distance. Again, Paul noted his delight in getting out of the NYC rat race and the wonderful life and clients he had in Toronto.
By then, I had learned my “Paul Tom lesson in happiness.” You can be lucky to find the perfect job and location in which you’ll be happy (my 1st lesson). But you can also decide to be happy in any job and location in which you find yourself (the 2nd lesson, from Paul).
I have shared these two lessons in happiness with all my staff and colleagues at Andersen and subsequent endeavors. One of my staff told me the 2nd lesson – be happy in whatever you find yourself doing – was something he had learned earlier when he participated in “est” sessions with his siblings and parents. After quickly calming my concerns about est’s cult-like reputation, he noted that est put my 2nd lesson very simply: “Happiness is a choice.”
So it’s pretty simple. I’ve learned I might as well be happy, since I can choose to be so instead of choosing not to be happy. Why choose anything else?

Getting Admitted to a Good College

I’ve been asked many times for help in getting friends’ kids into a good college, given my long involvement with Cornell as an active alumnus, and my work as a Trustee of the SUNY system and as Chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents. I’ll offer these disclaimers at the start: I’ve never been a college admissions officer nor do I have inside information to offer; I also have never had children so haven’t gone through the college selection process with my kids. However, I have talked to a number of college admissions officers and have worked with many who have been fellow Trustees of the College Board. Given that exposure, I have some observations and advice to share.

First, it’s really important to understand that “a good college” shouldn’t be defined in terms of parent’s or grandparent’s generations ideas of prestige. The objective should always be: Will the student (I’ll call him/her “Stu”) get a good education there? Will Stu learn the important things needed to in order to start out well in life after school?

When you focus on the learning, you get into the more important questions: What does Stu want to study? What kind of learner is Stu? Is Stu highly self-motivated and a well-disciplined learner or not so much so? If the former, the resources of a large university, with its many choices of majors, minors, courses and activities, can provide a wonderfully broadening experience. If the latter, Stu may get lost and easily distracted in a big university; Stu may do better in a smaller setting with more personal and caring attention by the faculty and staff. Ultimately, chances for success are better when the student is happy with the campus he/she’s at. The big objective shouldn’t be getting INTO a college, it should be on getting OUT! Focus on success through college, not just getting in the door!

The traditional college experience of those fortunate to go away for a residential 4-year undergraduate experience from age 18 or so is about “formative education” (as Jim Duderstadt, former president of the Univ. of Michigan has said). It’s about growing, but not just the mind. When I went to Michigan at age 16, I knew I was pretty smart, independent, and hard working, but I needed to grow up socially and mature too. So I needed a campus where I could be learn through my extra-curricular activities as well as my studies. (Of course, my parents thought I spent too much time in extra-curricular activities, but that’s another story.) Amongst the Ivy, I’ve long said if you just want to study, go to Harvard or M.I.T. (technically, not an Ivy, but it’s elite); if you need to study AND be involved in other activities, go to Cornell. Cornell looks at activities as well as grades and admits students who excel in both. However, formative education is about stretching and growing, so just because Stu hasn’t been involved in extra-curricular activities in high school doesn’t mean Stu should pick a school where he/she’d just be studying all the time. College should be about educating the whole person and helping ensure development into a well-rounded individual.

So how to determine if Stu will be happy at a campus? If Stu’s school’s college counsellor really knows his/her students, listen to his/her advice. Campus visits — especially weekend ones where Stu can live with current students — seem to be very helpful. Talk to friends and students from Stu’s school who are currently there or have recently graduated. Some of the chatty college guides that give the straight poop from current students (like the College Prowler), might be helpful. (I met the fellow who started College Prowler when he was a student — a nice guy who saw a market need and looked to fill it!)

Getting to know a campus and making the match in Stu’s own mind will be helpful in the admissions process. Highly competitive schools such as Cornell are now getting 10 applications for every available place they have. The admissions folk at Cornell tell me that for every student they admit, there are 4 others who are virtually indistinguishable from the one admitted in terms of grades, class ranking, leadership activities, SAT scores, etc. One difference is that the admitted applicants have taken the trouble to learn more about Cornell and have demonstrated they really believe they’ll be happy there. At that level (after screening out those who just wouldn’t do well at their campus), admissions officers are really looking to make the good match between what a student may be looking for and is willing to work hard for, and what their campus has to offer. They want students to succeed, but they don’t know the applicants well; when the applicants have done their research and determined they will really be happy at that campus, they make the admissions officers’ jobs easier.

I’ve also been asked for advice on what kind of summer job Stu should take to improve his/her chance of getting into a good college. I look at the summer jobs as part of the formative education process. What would Stu like to learn more about? If Stu is fortunate enough that he/she doesn’t need the job mainly to save money (though learning about hard work and money is always an important lesson), that increases Stu’s options. Taking a job — even as an unpaid intern — related to Stu’s area of academic interest would be good. Working in a field in which Stu thinks he/she may have interest as a career would help him/her see the reality vs. the romance (I’m thinking of kids who think they’d like to help people as a doctor, only to learn much later that they can’t stand the sight of blood or being around a lot of sick people!). Broadening Stu’s perspectives by working in areas he/she’s less familiar with — for example, volunteer work with people in poverty — can be life changing. The breadth of choice in summer jobs is probably as large as the breadth of choice in colleges; alas, it’s one I have far less expertise with. Summer jobs might have some impact on college admissions, but I would think that the impact on the student of the experience is of far greater importance.

4/9/09: Just read an interesting blog with other helpful thoughts: