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Navigational Tools For a Lifetime

  • Date: 08/18/2001
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: UA Commencement (p.m.), E. J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
  • Let me offer one final University of Akron lesson, as you embark on a new journey.

    As you no doubt are aware, we are constantly bombarded with new information -- some designed to make our lives better and easier, some to help us make intelligent decisions, and some designed to sway our opinions or to interest us in purchasing one or another product.

    One of the most pervasive media is advertising, and so much so that commercials have become ubiquitous in our lives.

    Most of you know, I am sure, that each year the advertising contest of all contests is waged during the Super Bowl! Even non-football fans will tune into the Super Bowl, just to watch the new commercials. And no doubt you may have noticed that The University of Akron's commercials have also aired during the Super Bowl.

    One of the more evocative commercials in recent history was done in London in the mid-1980s for a prominent newspaper, and I would like to share a verbal description of it in words written by Jon Steel. I quote:

    ". . . this commercial was shot in grainy black and white, more like a documentary than a commercial. With the exception of a simple voice-over, it is silent. It opens on a slow-motion scene of a rough-looking skinhead sprinting down the sidewalk of a dull terrace in an old industrial town. A car slows menacingly at the end of the street, perhaps in pursuit. A woman, standing on her doorstep, flinches as the skinhead runs past her, and a calm, matter-of-fact voice-over says, ‘An event, seen from one point of view, gives one impression.'"

    "We now see the same scene from a different angle. The skinhead darts past the woman, and this time we see that he's headed toward an old man, who is wearing a long overcoat and hat and carrying a briefcase. The old man raises his briefcase to defend himself as the thug makes a grab for him. The voice-over speaks again. ‘Seen from another point of view, it gives quite a different impression.'"

    "The commercial fades to a third scene, another replay of the same action, but this time shot from high up on a building across the street. We see that right above the old man, who is completely oblivious to the fact, a large tray of bricks is being hoisted up the side of a building. It is swaying dangerously, and the skinhead has spotted it. He races down the street. The voice-over continues, ‘but it's only when you get the whole picture that you truly understand what's going on.' The skinhead grabs the old man and pushes him back against the wall to protect him as the bricks crash to the sidewalk. The commercial fades to black, and the name of the newspaper appears, still in silence. ‘The Guardian, the whole picture.'"
    (John Steel, Truth, Lies and Advertising: The Art of Account Planning, John Wiley & Sons, February 1998)

    Each of us sees things differently, and each of us develops different points of view. It is helpful to have the benefit of multiple perspectives, because a single perspective is often the wrong one.

    As a sailor, I can tell you that this is also the case in navigation - namely in knowing how to find your position on a marine chart or map.

    Let us say that you don't know where you are, but that you have a map of the area and that you are able to identify a prominent feature, both on the map and on the ground.

    If you then take a compass bearing from that feature, and draw a line on the map reflecting that information, you will then know that you are somewhere along that line, although you will not know exactly where along the line.

    To obtain your exact position, you need to employ a technique called triangulation -- a simple navigational approach used to help you pinpoint your location.

    The technique requires that you identify two landmarks that are visible, obtain their relative compass bearings, and transfer them to the map or chart by drawing two pencil lines.

    The straight pencil lines that you draw will cross, and the point where they cross "pinpoints" your exact location.

    That is triangulation! And it is a practical exercise in simple geometry, as I am sure you will remember.

    Right?

    Right?

    Yes, cried the class!

    Of course... because the two features you identified form the base of a triangle that you then construct from the angles measured by the compass.

    The apex of that triangle is exactly defined by the two angles you measured, and because you measured those angles relative to where you are, that apex "fixes" your position on the map.

    If you can observe other features and include their relative bearings in your calculations, you will have added degrees of certainty.

    As you will agree, triangulation is very much like obtaining separate perspectives on an issue, because, as a rule, in geometry and in life, the more perspectives we obtain, the closer we are likely to approximate the truth of the matter.

    And there are corollary rules in life, as there are in geometry.

    One such rule is that our perspectives are sometimes limiting, like blinders on a horse. They can restrict our attention in ways that narrow our ability to see important aspects of our environment.

    For example, as the driver of a car, you know the streets you use to get home or to work. But if you ride as a passenger down those same streets, or if you walk, you suddenly see things you never saw when you were the driver. It is, indeed, as if you are seeing things for the first time.

    Science, as you know, also proceeds by making multiple observations to gain new knowledge.

    In a recent and fascinating book entitled, The Map that Changed the World, Simon Winchester tells us of the contributions of a 19th-century Englishman, William Smith, a talented surveyor of his time.
    (Reviewed by Amanda Foreman in The Wall Street Journal, August 17, 2001, p. W6)

    The long and short of it is that in the course of his many surveying jobs, William Smith accumulated perspectives enough to give birth to the science of stratification in geology, and also to revolutionize the then prevalent and limited conceptions about the age of our planet.

    He began as many a young boy of the day might have, when he observed dairymaids using "pound stones" as counterweights on the butter scales.

    The pound stones, which invariably weighed 22 ounces, are actually long-dead sea urchins that were commonly gathered in those days from many fields.

    We are not sure what happened with his relationship to dairymaids, but we know that he fell in love with rocks and became a surveyor, in part because no one could explain how these things got to be inland, away from the sea.

    While he was involved in the building of large canals, Smith discovered that different layers of rock produced different fossils. He coined the term "strata" and was the first to deduce the fact that the layers of the Earth represent a passage of time.

    Moreover, no matter where he dug, the different layers of rock were always in the same order, which led him to deduce that certain types of rock, located in widely different areas, would be of the same age.

    So, you see, the principles used by Smith to gain new knowledge and understanding of the Earth are much the same as those used in triangulation or in gaining a better perspective.

    Your experience here at The University of Akron has repeatedly given you new observations and, undoubtedly, you have formed new perspectives and connections on your own.

    But the message of this final lesson from your university is that you take notice that something else is now also a part of you, because - in addition to the mathematics and sciences and language and other subjects you learned here - you had one lesson offered over and over again. And that was the lesson on learning how to learn.

    So, as you now continue forward with an open mind and a bold imagination, triangulate what you now know with what you will soon learn.

    Be assured in knowing what you do know, yet be open to discovering what you do not know.

    Be assured that learning how to learn will serve you for a lifetime,

    And, above all . . . Be cheerful, and plunge ahead!

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