By Donal O’Shea
Originally published in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune
On Thursday, March 1, I gave a talk with Anne-Marie Russell, the executive director of Ringling College’s Museum of Modern Art, entitled “Art, Math and Orange Peels: The Legacy of Dr. William Thurston on Math and Fashion.” The talk examined the link between art, mathematics and science by examining the work of Bill Thurston, a 1967 graduate of New College, and his interaction with Dai Fujiwara, creative director of the fashion house Issey Miyake.
Thurston revolutionized 20th century geometry and topology by thinking fearlessly and deeply about the simplest questions, the sort that a curious child would ask.
While preparing the talk, I came across a commencement address Thurston had given at New College in 1987, 20 years after his own graduation. By that time, he had won nearly every honor that the mathematical world bestows, including the Fields Medal, math’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize.
Thurston had always credited New College with providing him with the freedom and the encouragement to think and explore. In the talk, he mentioned the allure for him and his fellow students of the College’s core educational principles that, “In the final analysis each person is responsible for her or his own education” and that “The best education comes from the active confrontation of two first-class minds.” Despite the dated language, these principles still undergird the New College experience.
What struck me most, however, about Thurston’s address was the puzzlement and hurt caused by some letters to New College and the local newspaper condemning his class, the college’s first cohort of students, which entered in 1964. He quoted at length from one letter.
“It was from New College that three students hitchhiked to Alabama to participate in the recent civil rights disorder and got themselves thrown into jail when refusing to get up off the sidewalk when ordered by a police officer.” After noting that one of the three, another brilliant mathematics student, was his wife, Thurston went on reading: “Apparently they have not yet been expelled for their actions. If these students represent the best New College can attract, then I for one suggest that Manatee and Sarasota counties would be better off if the whole kit and caboodle were loaded onto an appropriate vehicle, in this case a garbage scow, and hauled to the middle of the Gulf of Mexico and sunk.” Twenty years later, after completely upending our conception about how we think about our universe and achieving professional success beyond anything he could have imagined, Thurston still couldn’t comprehend the letter writer’s rancor.
The letter he read demonstrates that today’s polarized rhetoric is not new. It also reminds me that the impatience of the young contributes much to our society. Who, today, would take the side of the letter writer? Who today would countenance a society in which state universities denied admission to black and brown high school graduates? Youth energetically pushing for change have led to some of the most important accomplishments of our time.
Today is another such moment when the energy of youth is driving change. The Parkland shooting tragedy and the actions of its survivors have resulted in a fresh look at a very polarized debate. Yet many high school students across the country have expressed concern about their college admissions status if their high school has taken — or threatens to take — disciplinary action against them for participating in peaceful protest, such as a walkout. We assure them, of course, that they would never be denied admission or access to scholarships from New College for exercising their civil right to legally protest what they view as wrong.
Of course, the students have reason to be anxious. Very little is private. In the ’60s, students might have had to deal with a night in jail or a nasty letter to the newspaper. Today’s students have to deal with the barrage of hate and misinformation streaming from their social media accounts. But these students have already shown themselves as more adept at using social media than the members of my generation, and have used these outlets as platforms for reform.
Not only will there be no negative consequences impacting their admission to New College, we welcome such students. They are like our current students, and they will contribute much. Free speech is not just tolerated, but encouraged, at New College. Without a free and open exchange of ideas, our society will stagnate.
Our democracy needs individuals who question the status quo and who will stand up for what they believe is right. These are the individuals who will change their disciplines and professions, who will invent new jobs, and who will shape the future. And, hopefully, as these students look back 60 years hence, they and their peers and their children will wonder what the current gun debate was all about. The right course will be then as obvious to all as protected civil rights are today.