The story about George – my speech at our Academic ceremony

Dear students, members of the university board, ladies and gentlemen, dear all new professors and doctors!

For more than 20 years, University West has developed Work Integrated Learning (WIL) both as a pedagogical method and research area. When I started to immerse myself in WIL, I was surprised that stories have such an important place within WIL. They can be philosophical or more or less fictional, they can be about other people or about ourselves. But in the WIL-context, stories are not only an issue of humanistic education in general, but rather a question of opening up rooms of understanding (“förståelserum”).

So, now I would like to tell you a story about George, who was born in 1914 as a son of Jewish immigrants in Oregon, USA. George grew up like any other boy, but he initially had problems with mathematics in ’high school’. However, his father and teachers encouraged him to not give up, but rather take a greater interest in mathematics. With great effort he eventually improved and even continued with mathematics at university level, and then with statistics as a PHD-student at Berkeley.

At the university he often arrived late for lectures, once a full 20 minutes late to Professor Jerzy Neyman’s lecture on statistics. George snuck into the auditorium and took notes from the blackboard, where the professor already had written two mathematical problems. George believed this to be their homework. According to himself, they seemed to be ”a little harder than usual”, however a few days later, he handed in completed solutions for both problems. After a few weeks, he is called to the professor’s office, and he gets slightly nervous about the fact that all the university’s professors of mathematics and even the dean are gathered. ”Congratulations, George, you’ve solved the two problems! Say, have you solved them by yourself or has someone helped you?” A surprised George eventually learns that the two tasks had not been homework. The professor had merely presented two mathematical problems that no scientist in the world had yet solved. But George had missed that information because of his late arrival to the lecture.

What can we learn from this story, the story about George B. Dantzig (1914-2005) who became a famous mathematician?  Whose work was of great importance to industrial engineering, operations research, computer science, economics and statistics? Well, what I take from this story is that presumption and attitude matter. Not many students feel challenged or motivated by tasks that are claimed to be unsolvable. At least, none of George’s fellow students seemed to have even tried to solve them. And would George have taken them on if he had known that all the world’s mathematicians had not been able to solve them? Probably not!

The question then becomes: how can we turn our students and doctoral students into curious solvers of today´s seemingly unsolvable problems?

Dear fellows! Today, you have been appointed professors, associate professors and doctors! It is now Your duty to figure out how to encourage and motivate our students into becoming the brave academics of tomorrow! Let me be clear: You have the power to influence our future!

Speaking about the future and unsolvable problems! The latest UN climate report is a very final wake-up-call for the future of mankind on our planet. The problems are described in apocalyptic terms. The challenges of today and tomorrow therefore are complex and global. They require cross-border, cross-disciplinary, cross-professional, and cross-generational interaction.

There is no time to wait until one of our students arrives late for one of our lectures to solve them. In a sense we are already late, – all of us. Time is a luxury we no longer have. So let´s all forget that the problems seem to be unsolvable and solve them together with courage. Because together with our students and surrounding society, and with the tools provided through WIL, we can become game changers. And that will be our story to tell future generations

I congratulate you on your appointments and wish you the best of luck!

Picture from Albertsalen and our ceremony.
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