The pleasure of finding things out

In the excellent book The Pleasure of Finding things out – Richard Feynman writes

All the kids were playing in the field and one kid said to me, “See that bird, what kind of bird is that?” And I said, “I haven’t the slightest idea what kind of a bird it is”. He says, “It’s a brown throated thrush,” or something, “Your father doesn’t tell you anything.” But it was the opposite: my father had taught me. Looking at a bird he says, ” Do you know what that bird is? It’s a brown throated thrush; but in Portuguese it’s a … in Italian a …,” he says “in Chinese it’s a …, in Japanese a …,” etcetera. “Now,” he says, “you know in all the languages you want to know what the name of that bird is and when you’ve finished with all that,” he says, “you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You only know about humans in different places and what they call the bird. Now,” he says, “let’s look at the bird.”

In school all I learnt was the name of the bird. When a definition is asked in the examination, I would write what I memorized. I would be graded full marks on the exam. This gave a false sense of mastery on the subject. In Psychology of Human Misjudgment – Charlie Munger writes

Well we all know people who’ve flunked, and they try and memorize and they try and spout back and they just… it doesn’t work. The brain doesn’t work that way. You’ve got to array facts on the theory structures answering the question “Why?”. If you do not do that, you just cannot handle the world.

Richard Feynman writes about how his cousin learned algebra. It reminds me how most of us learned it in school.

My cousin, at that time, who was three years older, was in high school and was having considerable difficulty with his algebra and had a tutor come, and I was allowed to sit in a  corner while the tutor would try to teach my cousin algebra, problems like 2x plus something, I said to my cousin then, “What’re you trying to do?” You know, I hear him talking about x. He says, ” What do you know 2x + 7 is equal to 15,” he says “and you’re trying to find out what x is.” I says, “you mean 4.” He says, “Yeah, but you did it with arithmetic, you have to do it by algebra,” and that’s why my cousin was never able to do algebra, because he didn’t understand how he was supposed to do it. There was no way. I learnt algebra fortunately by not going to school and knowing the whole idea was to find out what x was and it didn’t make any difference how you did it – there’s no such thing as you know, you do it by arithmetic, you do it by algebra – that was a false thing that they had invented in school so that the children who have to study algebra can all pass it.

There is a huge difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something. Richard Feynman learnt the difference between the two very early from his father.

One thought on “The pleasure of finding things out

  1. I don’t wonder what happens with those that don’t fit through the edu-funnel; they are lost children who are told it’s their fault, or they didn’t work hard enough, or worse that they are just dumb twits that will never amount to anything mostly because the teachers didn’t make contact except their one-way jose.

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