Birthday Ramblings - Teaching Students Of All Ages About Life


Paw Prints: Writings of the maddog

Aug 07, 2011 GMT
Jon maddog Hall


Tonight is the eve of the anniversary of my sixty-first birthday. It is late at night and some birthday well-wishers on the other side of the world are already sending me birthday greetings.


This has been a hard year for me, with both my mother and father having died within a few months of each other, so tonight I have been going through some of my Orkut and Facebook accounts looking at some of my friends in each.


Many of the people in these “networking sites” I have never met, and some I have met only briefly. Others I know quite well, from either past jobs, past conferences or past associations. Many I only talk to through email or (even rarer occasions) telephone calls (including VoIP), but in many ways these online people now constitute part of my “family”. If you are reading this, you too are part of my “family”.


While going through Orkut and Facebook I found a couple of videos that I had bookmarked. I had watched them several times in the past couple of years, but I watched them again tonight.


The first one is called “Sunscreen”. The version I watched tonight is in English with Portuguese subtitles, and is marked as being uploaded to YouTube April 10th, 2006. It is only seven minutes and nine seconds long, but if you have not seen it then it is probably the best use of the next seven minutes and nine seconds that you can spend. I will remind myself to watch it each birthday.


The second video is longer, but just as relevant. It was a lecture made by Carnegie Mellon Professor Raudy Pausch on September 18, 2007 called “Achieving Your Childhood Dreams”. If by now you do not recognize his name or the theme of the talk, Dr. Pausch was a computer science professor dying of pancreatic cancer at the time he gave this lecture, and his upbeat view of life and death made him so admired that over thirteen million people have watched this lecture on YouTube alone. Time magazine listed him as one of the “100 most influential people of the year” before he died on July 25th, 2008.


Now, three years after his death I watch his video again, and I am reminded of his ideals. He tells us to “Have Fun, and enjoy every day....we can not change the cards we are dealt, but we can control how we play them.” These are philosophies that many who I admire share with Dr. Pausch and myself.


There was another message however, hidden a bit deeper in his lecture, which was displayed by his love for his students and some of his philosophies about teaching them. These messages resonated with me because I felt the same way about my students, and continue to feel this way about the “students” of Free Software.


For many years now I have been telling faculty and administration at universities that we should not be teaching “products”. Universities should not be teaching people how to “do Cisco” or “do Microsoft” or “do Oracle”. Despite the dubious assertion that “these will be the tools that students will be using when they get out of university”, it is not the function of a university to “train a student for a job”. It is the function of an undergraduate degree in a university to train an individual to be a thinking, decision-making, self-teaching leader. From that the student graduate can carve their own future no matter what office package, tool chain or “products” they need to use.


You can not tell me that students are intelligent enough to build bridges and do brain surgery, but are too stupid to pick up a book and be able to learn how to use an office product in less than a day.


Dr. Pausch also believed in a Master's Degree course that had no “book-learning”. He felt that by the time you went for a Master's Degree program you had “read all the books.” I would temper that statement a small amount. I would say that there is no “book-learning” that someone else could assign to you that would help you in the pursuit of the Master's, but as part of your undergraduate training, you already should know how to find the books (magazines, web articles, people) that would help you complete your Master's program...and later on complete your life. Your Master's program is about finding problems to solve and solving them. Dr. Pausch's Master's program did this rapidly and repeatedly.


I have been advocating for some time that universities bring together different disciplines, including computer science, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, design, marketing and business to formulate ideas for products to manufacture, to formulate a prototype and then bring it to market as a “class project”. This type of project would teach the real-life skills that students need.


I had forgotten that Dr. Pausch had the same philosophy, and at Carnegie Mellon he had brought together five different disciplines from five different colleges to work together on a Virtual Reality program, giving each group two weeks to create a project, then switch off to form different groups and create another project, and do this again and again. It was so successful that the students exceeded his wildest dreams for creativity not just once, but again and again. Dr. Pausch had inadvertently forgotten to set an upper limit for the project, and the students continued to shoot past what was “reasonable” to expect.


If you do not watch all of Dr. Pausch's video, please at least watch the video from time stamp 00:32:00 to 00:45:00 to see what I mean. Thirteen minutes is not a long time for such an important message, and while an hour, sixteen minutes and twenty-seven seconds might seem like a long time in our busy lives to watch a video, for those that have the time I can recommend watching Dr. Pausch's “Last Lecture”.


Actually for those people who feel they do not have the time to watch his entire lecture, I think you are the ones who need it the most.


Carpe Diem!


  • Happy Birthday!

    Happy birthday to you, a legend in the Linux world!!!!!!!!!!!!!
  • The Last Lecture of Randy Pausch

    I intended to only watch your recommended thirteen minutes of Professor Pausch's last lecture, but it was so interesting I continued watching to the end and then I went back and watched the first 32 minutes.
    Thanks, it was that good.
  • Happy birthday! :-)

    Happy birthday, Jon!
    Nice post - I watched (again) the sunscreen video and the entire "last class" from Dr. Pausch - very good, too.

    See you. []s
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