10 Lessons of an MIT Education

This is an article written by Gian Carlo Rota, who taught mathematics and philosophy at MIT. I didn’t get the chance to meet him since he passed away in 1999.

As an undergraduate, I had heard many people in our department talking fondly of Professor Rota, praising his generosity, passion and contribution to mathematical research and teaching.

One summer I bought a book by Rota called Indiscrete Thoughts (no, that’s not a typo, it is a reference to his field, combinatorics a.k.a discrete mathematics). Suffice to say that it is one of my favorite math books of all time, up there with Hardy’s Apology and Littlewood’s Miscellany.

Anyway, here is Rota’s article.


10 Lessons of an MIT Education

by Gian-Carlo Rota

Lesson One: You can and will work at a desk for seven hours straight, routinely.

For several years, I have been teaching 18.30, differential equation, the largest mathematics course at MIT, with more than 300 students. The lectures have been good training in dealing with mass behavior. Every sentence must be perfectly enunciated, preferably twice. Examples on the board must be relevant, if not downright fascinating. Every 15 minutes or so, the lecturer is expected to come up with an interesting aside, joke, historical anecdote, or unusual application of the concept at hand. When a lecturer fails to conform to these inexorable requirements, the students will signify their displeasure by picking by their books and leaving the classroom.

Despite the lecturer’s best efforts, however, it becomes more difficult to hold the attention of the students as the term wears on, and they start falling asleep in class under those circumstances should be a source of satisfaction for a teacher, since it confirms that they have been doing their jobs. There students have been up half the night-maybe all night-finishing problem sets and preparing for their midterm exams.

Four courses in science and engineering each term is a heavy workload for anyone; very few students fail to learn, first and foremost, the discipline of intensive and constant work.

Read more here.


My comment:

Lesson One is the only lesson you’ll ever need. The rest are just commentary.

3 Responses to 10 Lessons of an MIT Education

  1. Siddhartan Govindasamy says:

    Hi Suhaimi,

    Stumbled upon your blog recently.
    Hope you are well.

    Rota was very eloquent and crystal clear
    in his lectures. Check out this other interesting
    piece by him:


    Best wishes,


    • suhaimiramly says:

      Hello Sid!

      Nice to get in touch again. Hope things are going well in your academic life.

      Thanks for the article. By the way, which class did you take with Rota?


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