Seeing the beauty and meaning in math

Education as a Life-Long Journey

John Melloy

(Editor's Note: Upon completion of his Calculus MOOC course in fall 2013, John Meloy sent this note to the course instructors.  It is republished here with his permission)

Dear Bart, Jim, and David.

This is and eventful day, a sad day, and a thankful day. The calculus One final exam, all the quizzes, lectures, exercises, and the joy and frustration of learning are, for now, done. It is time for a giving of thanks to you and everyone who contributed to make your invaluable course a reality. Thank you.

When you’re old and your professional career has ended, one’s perspective changes to an evaluation of the journey rather than preparation for the future. Learning is a wonderful journey, and when it has no tangible goal, it is a thing to be enjoyed. Oh that I had had that insight all those years ago when each subject was a hurdle to be jumped rather than a mass of wisdom and knowledge to be bundled into “me”. Thank you for a wonderful journey through the initiation to calculus. Maxwell and Heaviside will be more meaningful and useful than ever with the fresh insights and meanings of their work. So, you see, you have brought more beauty and meaning to tools used all my life. Those tools are works of art in themselves, and your teaching has allowed me to see them not only as the defining equations of electromagnetic fields, but as things of beauty.

My daughter, Trena, called one day in late August and said, “Dad, I just signed up for a calculus course. Have you ever heard of Coursera?” Well, that started it. I thought that maybe I could help her if she needed some insight. Well, she is 25 years closer to calculus 1 and is much smarter than I, and is motivated by planning to re-enter the work force when the kids are a little older, this time in economics rather than her field of microbiology. We both struggled at times, both spent much more time than either originally estimated, and both have found a new joy. She called today with the news that she had finished the final exam and broke into tears when we discussed how much we were going to miss it. You have become family, and we’ll miss chuckling over “intragals” and, “Let’s do some more MATH!” Today’s news was that Jim is going to offer a multivariate calculus course this Spring. We plan to be amongst the student body.

I will have completed 77 years in February and want you to know that you have brought an old man a fresh completeness. Life is not over until it’s over, and there is no reason to stop learning, even if that learning will not forward your career. It’s about self esteem and a renewed sense of accomplishment. I hope that you do not consider us a waste of your time in that educating us uses resources that could better be employed on the young. Coursera has provided a social service beyond what the founders probably envisioned. You have brought me, and undoubtedly other seniors, a renewed sense of worth and value-to-the-community, a sense that is all too often lost when faced with ever increasing aches, pains, illness, and the realization that your productive years are past. We may now help our grand children with their math, physics, and many non-science topics with our accumulated life experience—something that they will not appreciate until they too reach this stage of life. You have made a very positive impact on people of all ages.

David, take heart. In a few years you will no longer be an indentured servant, err ... graduate student, and will have your own forum from which to spread your knowledge. My days in your shoes, painful at the time, are now very fond memories. Bart and Jim, thank you for your energy and commitment to a thing that reaches farther than and touches more people than you probably can imagine. One day I hope that you can look back on your labors and realize just how much you have contributed to enriching peoples lives through your efforts. You have made a mark that will endure forever. You love mathematics, and it shows. You have conveyed to us a glimpse of the beauty of the structure that explains all things and weaves disparate subjects together. I can once again simply and accurately explain how the atmosphere refracts, scatters, and absorbs waves of different frequencies, and amuse myself on long drives working out optimal strategies for getting the best fuel mileage. Thank you for giving us the tools for understanding and, perhaps, solving some of the seemingly complex problems that we face every day. It is my sincere wish that I can somehow repay you and Coursera for what you have made available.

This Thanksgiving holiday I am especially thankful for people like you.