Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading Edward Teller's Memoirs.

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Sunday, March 15, 2015

Further prelude: My own views on experts and sages

Since my motivation for reading and blogging about Hofstadter's book is to understand Americans' ambivalent views about sages on stages, I should say a few things about my own views about sages:

First, I don't want to delve much into my family background right now, but suffice it say that like a great many children of divorce I have tremendously complicated Daddy issues.  I suspect that my reverence for my college professors, my cherished memories of the better lectures, and my particular reverence for some of the sterner mentors that I encountered, might stem in part from that.  Of course, there are plenty of academics in my generation who were children of divorce; I suspect that most of them react to sages on stages in the exact opposite way that I do, so I don't know how much one can generalize from my experience.

Second, one thing that I love about lectures is that I think a good lecture is one of the few times when a novice can see truly expert reasoning "in the wild."  Reformed pedagogical approaches in the classroom are all about getting the students to do things that they are ready to do.  Textbooks, regardless of which school they come from, are distillations.  The older ones are often too clean, too tidy, too perfect.  They are what an expert presents when they have finished figuring something out.  The more progressive ones mostly try to clean things up while making them simpler.  There are noble exceptions, like Matter and  Interactions by Chabay and Sherwood, or Moore's Six Ideas.  Also, I really like Schroeder's thermal physics book.  Mostly, though, textbooks fail to convey how an expert actually thinks about the field.  One reason why every physicist loves Feynman's lectures is that they are among the few books out there to have the rough and unpolished feel of an expert thinking through something rather than an expert presenting a perfect, finished package (or a teacher presenting a perfect, simplified package).  Feynman's lectures are sub-optimal for a first reading, and sub-optimal for figuring out how to do homework, but an indispensable supplement for somebody who wants to see the subject from more than one angle (and how else will you really learn a subject, if not by reading more than one viewpoint?).  Likewise, a well-done lecture can straddle the balance between the simplicity that a beginner needs and the sophistication that an expert brings, and really bring out the process that an expert follows.

Perhaps one reason why I am in a seeming minority faction in STEM is that walking the freshman through expert reasoning is the archetypal humanities approach to teaching, while STEM (along with many social science fields) has focused on polished textbooks.  In humanities, you don't typically have the freshmen read somebody's simplified synopsis of Plato; you have them read Plato.  You don't have them read somebody's synopsis of a classic essay; you have them read the essay.  The denser books are typically not assigned to freshmen, and the freshmen might be expected to write essays that give less in-depth responses to the texts, but they are reading the primary sources.  They are encountering the experts, not textbooks distilling and simplifying responses to the experts.  Of course, humanities courses also include ample discussion (and always have), so there's a natural balance between the reasoning of a sage and active participation.  STEM, however, seems to be fighting a war between an old school "lecture, lecture, and more lecture" approach and a hip, progressive "Sit in a circle and do activities while the expert stays on the sideline" approach.

Finally, since I have said that new pedagogy seems to be striking some sort of psychological chord amongst many of my colleagues, I should offer a story from my own past, to give some insight into the biases and experiences that I bring to this:

When I was in fourth grade I changed grade schools.  I hated my new school.  I had spent k-3 in a Franciscan grade school, and then I moved to a snooty suburban public school.  The Franciscan school was liberal in its social outlook (the priests and teachers mostly focused on Jesus's teachings on charity) but fairly traditional in its approach to reading, writing, and math.  The suburban public school, though, was all about visual learning.  At the time I didn't really know what an education workshop was, but I knew that somebody had done something to these teachers, and what they had done was not good.  Everything had to have an art project attached.  Everything.  I could read well above grade level, but I was getting mediocre grades in reading class because we had to make 3D mobiles and stuff for reading assignments.  Seriously?  I can read and discuss any book that you throw at me and you're going to grade me down because I don't like making mobiles?  I thought mobiles were for a baby's crib, not reading class. (To be fair, some of the teachers were at the same intellectual level as a baby in a crib, so, yeah, I guess it made sense.)

Anyway, eventually somebody got a clue (the public school bureaucracy moves slowly) and moved me to the more advanced reading class.  The number of art projects didn't diminish, but the teacher did get more annoying.  (I kind of wished I'd stayed in the less advanced group; that teacher introduced us to Shel Silverstein, which is more than I can say for the idiot that they assigned me to in the "advanced" reading class.)  At some point we got to discussing encyclopedias.  Now, I knew everything that there is to know about encyclopedias.  I loved encyclopedias.  I'd been reading encyclopedias since second grade.  I had probably read more encyclopedia pages than the idiot teacher.  So when the teacher asked us what we knew about encyclopedias, I was able to raise my hand, spout off umpteen million facts, and even correct her on a few points.  She was not impressed.  But then this little ass-kisser raised his hand.  She called on him.  He said "Sometimes encyclopedias have color pictures in them."  She was in ecstasy; she practically had an orgasm. (I didn't know what an orgasm was, but I did know that the teacher was taking inordinate pleasure in this.) "Good!  Sometimes they have colored pictures in them!"  She was loving it.  And the little ass-kisser was beaming.  He knew exactly what he'd done.  I knew exactly what he'd done.  The girl sitting next to him knew exactly what he'd done and was clearly impressed. (I didn't yet get the significance of that fact.) But me?  I was fuming.  He'd gotten praise, the ultimate coin of the realm, for using the most simplistic bullshit imaginable to push the buttons of somebody who had drunk the kool-aid, while I had gotten a dismissive look for citing hard facts.

This may play some role in my continuing distaste for progressive educational reforms.  But enough about me; let's move on to what Hofstadter says about American views on intellectuals.

1 comment:

Laura Meyerovich said...

An idea that the same method works for all students is similar to the idea that the same diet works for all people - it works for some, but even then you have no idea what else was going on with them.
I agree completely about the "dirty process" - students need to be exposed to the method at least as much as to the result. Of course, it is not universal, and some students, especially in applied sciences, need only the results. As Aleksey Krylov said, you do not teach zoology to the naval architects because the sofa in the messroom on the ship is covered in leather.