A Teacher’s Legacy

I plopped down in an overstuffed chair. Two older ladies carried on about St. Raphael’s Friday fish fry. We all had time to burn before the nurse called our names. I picked up the February 7 issue of Time Magazine. I thumbed through the pages searching for the news makers and obituaries. A bit morbid, I know. A bald man with an ear to ear toothy smile caught my attention. Marvin Minsky, MIT professor and co-founder of the AILab, died January 24, 2016 at the age of 88. Who is this guy? I thought. I read the obituary, an eloquent personal homage from a former student, Ray Kurzweil.

Kurzweil wrote, “When I was fourteen I wrote Marvin Minsky a letter asking to meet with him. He invited me to visit him at MIT and he spent hours with me as if he had nothing else to do.” The year, 1962:  John Kennedy confronts the Cuban Missile Crisis, Algeria gains its independence from France, Rod Laver wins Wimbledon. Melvin Minsky dominates the brave new world of artificial intelligence from the laboratories of AILab at MIT. A pioneer in the fledgling science of computers, “Marvin was one of the very few people in computing whose vision and perspectives liberated the computer from being a glorified adding machine to start to realize its destiny as one of the most powerful amplifiers for human endeavors in history.” Age 35, a busy man in constant demand, Marvin Minsky had every reason to blow off a fourteen year old boy from New York city. But what did he do? Marvin took the time, sat down, and wrote a thoughtful personal letter to a young man he never met. That act of kindness, that afternoon of generosity in the laboratory at MIT changed the lives of a professor and a prodigy forever.

Kurzweil and Minsky continued to correspond over the next three years.  The young Ray Kurzweil oozed brilliance, he always did. In 1965 Kurzweil won first prize at the International Science Fair. He wrote a computer program that recognized patterns in the works of his favorite classical composers. The program synthesized these patterns into unique but similar musical pieces. Ray Kurzweil entered MIT in 1967 to study under Marvin Minsky. Within 18 months he exhausted the entire computer programming catalog. Ray sold the rights to his first software venture for $100,000 plus royalties during his sophomore year. His legend grew exponentially. PBS listed Ray Kurzweil among the 16 most influential men of the past century. The relationship between Marvin and Ray never wavered – it only deepened. Kurzweil said, “He was one of humanity’s greatest thinkers. He was also my only mentor.”

Marvin Minsky, a WWII veteran, entered Harvard after the war. He completed his doctoral studies in mathematics at Princeton University. But Marvin longed for more than the pure science could offer. His boundless curiosity flirted with genetics and physics. Neither satisfied and then it happened. He engaged the question of intelligence. Minsky recalled, “The problem of intelligence seemed hopelessly profound. I can’t remember considering anything else worth doing.” His newfound passion led to a life long pursuit at MIT. Marvin Minsky invited thousands of students to join his journey at the artificial intelligence laboratories of MIT.

Above all else, Marvin Minsky was a passionate teacher. Learning and students never lost their luster. He forever challenged his students, “You don’t really understand something if you understand it one way.” Mastery of content establishes a prequel. Organization, association, and elaboration write the introduction. Defining and resolving a problem constitutes a chapter. Following chapters must construct new questions and novel solutions. Always think big, then think small. Only then dare to write the conclusion of understanding. Minsky’s demands fueled the brightest young minds in the world. They fought to get chairs at his night lectures. Danny Hillis, a former student and transformative figure in his own right, said, “Marvin taught me how to think. He had a style and playful curiosity that was a huge influence on me. He always challenged you to question the status quo. He loved it when you argued with him.”

Minsky lived in the midst of a sea of 140 plus IQs. But this story has little to do with the brilliance of intellectuals. Do we base a love story on the distinction of brown eyes to blue eyes? Of course not. No, this story has everything to do with the conduct and character of education. An adult extends his hand to the extended hand of a child. Engagement bonds a relationship. Its effects last for a lifetime. Teachers, this is your story.


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