Friday, 3 August 2012

"a different box of tools"

The title of this entry is taken from "Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman!" by Richard Feynman where he refers to his thinking style, his way of looking at the world (the book was a gift from my aippakuluk recently). In the chapter of the book called, O Americano, Outra Vez!, he talks about his ten-month stay in Brazil during his sabbatical where he taught theoretical physics to Brazilian students. Earlier in the book he talks about his style of learning that is comprehension- or understanding-based when he realizes that most people "learn" by rote memory (which he labels as "fragile learning").

But it is in the chapter where he is in Brazil when he really talks about the "fragility" of memorizing text rather than seeking understanding of the subject. This "learning" style is sadly familiar to Nunavut so I'm going to quote the book exactly:

In regard to education in Brazil, I had a very interesting experience. I was teaching a group of students who would ultimately become teachers, since at that time there were not many opportunities in Brazil for a highly trained person in science. These students had already had meany courses, and these was to be their most advanced course in electricity and magnetism - Maxwell's equations, and so on.

I discovered a very strange phenomenon: I could ask a question, which the students would answer immediately. But the next time I would ask the same question - the same subject, and the same question, as far as I could tell - they couldn't answer it at all! For instance, one time I was talking about polarized light, and I gave them all some strips of polaroid.

Polaroid passes only light whose electrical vector is in a certain direction, so I explained how you could tell which way the light is polarized from whether the polaroid is dark or light.

We first took two strips of polaroid and rotated them until they let most of the light through. From doing that we could tell that the two strips were now admitting light polarized in the same direction - what passed through one piece of polaroid could also pass through the other. But then I asked them how one could tell the absolute direction of polarization, from a single piece of polaroid.

They hadn't any idea.

I knew this took a certain amount of ingenuity, so I gave them a hint: "Look at the light reflected from the bay outside."

Nobody said anything.

Then I said: "Have you ever heard of Brewster's Angle?"

"Yes, sir! Brewster's Angle is the angle at which light reflected from a medium with an index of refraction is completely polarized."

"And which way is the light polarized when it's reflected?"

"The light is polarized perpendicular to the plane of reflection, sir." Even now, I have to think about it; they knew it cold! They even knew the tangent of the angle equals the index!

After a lot of investigation, I finally figured out that the students had memorized everything, but they didn't know what anything meant. When they heard "light that is reflected from a medium with an index," they didn't know that it meant a material such as water. They didn't know that the "direction of the light" is the direction in which you see something when you're looking at it, and so on. Everything was entirely memorized, yet nothing had been translated* into meaningful words.

[*Jay's note: "translation" of knowledge here means being about to extend a principle to other instances]

One other thing I could never get them to do was to ask questions. Finally, a student explained it to me: "If I ask you a question during the lecture, afterwards everyone will be telling me, 'What are you wasting our time for in the class? We're trying to learn something. And you're stopping him by asking a question.'"

I explained how useful it was to work together, to discuss the questions, to talk it over, but they wouldn't do that either, because they would be losing face if they had to ask someone else. It was pitiful! All the work they did, intelligent people, but they got themselves into this funny state of mind, this strange kind of self-propogating "education" which is meaningless, utterrly meaningless!

[he is now giving a talk to the Brazilian faculty and student body about his reflections on his experience in Brazil]

"I have discovered something else," I continued. "By flipping the pages at random, and putting my finger in and reading the sentences on that page, I can show you what's the matter - how it's not science, but memorizing, in every circumstance. Therefore I'm brave enough to flip through the pages now, in front of this audience, to put my finger in, to read, and to show you."

So I did it. brrrrrrup - I stuck my finger, and I started to read: "Triboluminescence. Triboluminescence is the light emitted when crystals are crushed..."

I said, "And there, have you got science? No! You have only told what a word means in terms of other words. You haven't told anything about nature - what crystals produce light when you crush them, why they produce light. Did you see any students go home and try it? He can't.

"But if, instead, you were to write, 'When you take a lump of sugar and crush it with a pair of pliers in the dark, you can see a bluish flash. Some other crystals do that too. Nobody knows why. The phenomenon is called "triboluminescence."' Then someone will go home and try it. Then there's an experience of nature." (pp. 211-218)

Even proud nations, such as above for Brazil; the age of wandering in the wilderness for English maths after Newton published his Magnus Opus up to Hardy's time; Japan in the 1970s with English courses, are not immune to this systemic laziness. Richard Feynman is not just criticizing for criticizing's sake, he is pointing at the erstaz nature of education in Brazil at the time. This is criminal for it robs the students of their potential and self-confidence.

This type of chauvinism goes both ways: it gives an inferiority complex to those robbed of education, and "confirms" the prejudice of the "outsider" who is often unkind and dismissive of that strange "other": 'Brazilians are this... English are that... Inuit are something else..." as if they're not really persons but types to confirm one's classification schemes.

Like Feynman, I have an irrepressible urge to learn and comprehend. I consider memorization a Sisyphean effort as a means and ends to learning. Rote memorization creates disingenuity and robs the self of integrity at the existential level. Knowledge, in this case, cannot translate into other areas of concern: it is said of our current Prime Minister that it took him ten years to acquire his masters in economics; the treasure and intervention spent to "educate" him did nothing for his capacity to empathize nor retain in his memory the lessons of history and principles of politics (the art of the possible). He clearly is the creation of the type of "education" Feynman criticizes - apparently only interested in the accoutrements of power and prestige but not the reasoned responsibilities that go with the position.

If we look at Canada as it is now through Feynman's eyes we'd see the sad state of affairs are not isolated to Nunavut and the aboriginal communities - this aboriginal experience is a precursor to what's in store for Canada, and the ersatz nature already shows in the aging public infrastructure, the dismissing of scientific knowledge and rational discourse (which is beyond the purview of the "ruling class" so they can only show derision), the racist and ignorant vitriol and intolerance we see in comment sections on the media websites, bureaucracies that are failing under the weight of their own ineptitude.

To address this long-term prognosis we need a "different box of tools": we need that balance I'm so fond of speaking of: sophia and phronesis; the balance between technical know-how with liberal arts education. Humanity is unsustainable without the humanities.


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