Herbert A. Simon Award for Teaching Excellence 2009
School of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University
Pittsburgh PA 15213-3891
(412)268-8525 . (412)268-5576 (fax)

The Swordsmith

Klaus Sutner

According to legend, the swordsmith Masamune had an outstanding student, Marumasa. When challenged by the emperor to demonstrate their skill, they both worked night and day and created outstanding blades. In fact, the only way to tell their swords apart was to hold them into a stream: Marumasa's blade cut everything coming its way in half, including fish and leaves. Masamune's blade, on the other hand, cut nothing at all, things just flowed gently around it. Of course, everyone immediately agreed that Masamune's work was infinitely superior.

Putting aside history, physics and general scepticism, this story points to an interesting aspect of the student-teacher relationship. Everyone agrees that imparting technical knowledge lies at the core of any educational undertaking. The most tangible goal is for the student to reach or, better yet, surpass the mechanical skill of the teacher. Alas, though Marumasa's skill is beyond reproach, he ultimately fails because of a disconcerting lack of higher understanding and purpose. It is this somewhat elusive form of learning that I find the most captivating.

I am honored to receive this award; no doubt my students deserve most of the credit.

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