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Educating Future Leaders with Inspiration

By Paul Sullivan
Georgetown University

I have, unfortunately, endured many boring lectures, panel discussions, debates and more. I also suffered through some terribly boring teachers and professors. It is odd that I don’t remember many of their names. I do remember those who got me excited about ideas and got me thinking about so many things, my head would spin. My college professors were mostly the usual lot of very smart people who were young scholars terrified about tenure. Some of them I remember as real thinkers and truly innovative and inventive people. My graduate school professors often seemed to teach by the rule that the more you throw at students, the more they will learn. Most were excellent writers and researchers.
A few were truly inspiring people. Two of those were Professor William Nelson Parker, IV, my economic history professor, and James Tobin, my macroeconomics professor, who got his Nobel Prize while I was still his student. Professor Parker was a scholar and a gentleman of the highest order, and put a lot of effort into inspiring his students as they struggled through the very tough Ph.D. economics program at Yale. We were once walking about the campus and he stopped at a Latin inscription carved into the wall at Woolsey Hall. He said, “Do you know what that means?” It was in Latin. I knew he knew what it meant. I did not. He said it read, “We all stand on the shoulders of giants”. Throughout my career, I have thought of that small incident and applied it to many things.
Try looking around Mongolia, and see how much of what you see was made by people from many centuries ago, or even recently, that has helped Mongolia become what it is today. When you really think about it, much of what we have is the result of the efforts of giants of invention and their innovation. Consider the telephone, the computer, the automobile, gasoline, and even the simple light bulb. What about heating and cooling systems? Now, think about how difficult it would be to invent all of this and make them within a year. The next time you look at a skyline, a road, an airplane or a power station, think of how many people were involved in developing those ideas and making them happen.
James Tobin and I used to have debates in class. He was brilliant. He won the debates most of the time. The few times I won, he remembered them long after, as if they happened minutes before. He was down to earth. He was not exactly the sort of person one would describe as the typical economics Nobel laureate. He pedaled an old bike to campus. He often wore a sweater with a hole in it. He was completely and intensely involved with thinking. He listened to this, then lowly graduate student, struggling to understand – if not survive – a very tough program.
Another person who inspired critical thinking was Dr. Robert Evenson, someone who literally changed my life one day with a serendipitous turn of the head to ask, “Paul, how would you like to go to India?” I asked him why. He mentioned a big research project I could be part of, that not only would help pay for my graduate degree, but also give me the chance to go to Asia and learn so many things I never knew existed. We met in Asia a few times. He introduced me to Indian scholars. I had three amazing research trips to one of the most interesting countries on earth. With his help and inspiration, I was also able to finish my Ph.D.
There were many mentors and others along the way in my life. I could not mention them all, without writing a book about it. Some others that come to mind include my high school chemistry and physics teacher, Mr. Chick, who showed me the importance of challenging the “obvious”. Then there was Professor Lima in college, who would look quizzically at me if I seemed to accept some off the wall idea he just tossed out in class. I have met princes, senators, leading thinkers, top business people, and some powerful global change makers. Many have left their mark of inspiration and change. We are all the results of the people we meet and what we’ve learned along the way.
Then there are those sparks of inspiration that happen unexpectedly. Like the monk I met on a train in Thailand. The farmers in various parts of the world that showed more wisdom than many of the “great scholars” I have met. There are just so many of them. I have been lucky. My parents and my brothers were also inspiring people. I have also found my wife and children to be inspirational.
If one is aware, then a single sunrise can be inspiration for writing and thinking about things that have nothing to do with sunrises. When I was living in Tennessee, in the United States many years ago, I got inspiration from eight to ten hour hikes, on rough terrain, with a notebook in my hand and the company of squirrels, deer, and the occasional bear.
I have often found sailing to be inspirational. Most would think those moments happen only on calm, sunny days. However, often it was the times I was stuck in a thunder and lightning storm that clarity of thinking arose.
Most of the inspirational people I have met at conferences, I met during those small numbers, closed door conferences with people who think differently to the point that I could feel my brain stretch.
However, the other day, I was with my wife and children at a conference called “The Future is Here”, run by the Smithsonian Institution, one of the premier scientific, artistic, educational, and inspirational institutions in the world. The conference was entertaining, informative, and – yes, here is that word again – inspirational.
The morning session’s speakers prompted me to get tickets months in advance: Eric Green, Director of the National Human Genome Research Institute; Suzan Murray, Chief Veterinarian at the National Zoo; John Mather, Nobel Laureate and Senior Project Scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope; Nick Pyenson, Curator of Fossil Marine Mammals at the National Museum of Natural History; Odile Madden, Materials Scientist and Engineer and head of the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute; Maria Klawe, Mathematician, Computer Scientist, and President of Harvey Mudd College; and Bob Ballard, Ocean Explorer
I kept looking over at my son and daughter to see how they were enjoying the speakers. I could see that spark of thinking that every father likes to see. My 11 year old sat and listened to three hours of lectures with only a 15 minute break. Now that says something. He was taking notes. During the break, my son and I met Bob Ballard, the fellow who found the wreck of the Titanic in the deep ocean and runs an amazing exploration and discovery center at the University of Rhode Island. The center is a real-time, globally-constant discovery machine for understanding the sea, and many other things. It was easy to see that inspirational zap in my son, as he shook the hands of one of his heroes.
We learned how the human genome project was developed, and of its many possible uses in medicine and other disciplines. We learned how doctors and veterinarians can work together for the health of animals in zoos, as well as in the wild – and how that can help human health. We learned about fossils, history, the chemistry of plastics and how computer science can be made more interesting for normal people, and not just the usual “computer nerds” who often intimidate newcomers to the field.
Inspiration is an aperitif for life and learning.
The Smithsonian conference was an odd stroke of luck, but it sure was a fun one. Yes, fun – not just worry and sweat – can be inspirational.
Many of today’s top schools and universities focus too much on perspiration and not enough on inspiration.
Inspiration is a magnifier for the mind.
Sometimes inspiration comes to you, but you have to look for it most of the time. Sometimes it is very hard to find. It’s not always the key under a street light on a dark evening. Sometimes inspiration is in the search itself. The process is often the inspiration, not always the product.
If Mongolia is going to be what it really should be in the future, the younger generations need the sort of inspiration that moves them forward towards those objectives. Some people think money is inspiration enough for people to work hard. Indeed, money is an important incentive. However, to work smart, and to get a person, or a country, to go beyond what they dream and work for today, requires real inspiration, not just a bigger paycheck.
Sometimes the intangibles mean more for a country than all the coal, gold, copper, and uranium in the ground.

Short URL: http://ubpost.mongolnews.mn/?p=4532

Posted by on Jun 30 2013. Filed under Opinion. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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