I’ve recently entered the mind of a genius. It’s a book called Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, a weird amalgam of biography and autobiography of Richard Feynman. Feynman, Nobel prize winner and popular science communicator, was an insatiably curious character – my train trip home was spent in wonderment at a series of experiments he did on ants, using Rube Goldberg-esque tests to try and figure out how they communicate with each other. But his antics extended far beyond this, to safe cracking, bongo playing and much more.
But it’s a short anecdote from early in his studies that really grabbed my attention this morning. Feynman, then a graduate physics student at Princeton, decided to take a course in biology. Because of course he did. Given a paper to read and present to the class, his reaction is brilliant.
”When it came time for me to give my talk on the subject, I started off by drawing an outline of the cat and began to name the various muscles.
The other students in the class interrupt me: ‘We know all that!’
‘Oh,’ I say, ‘you do? Then no wonder I can catch up with you so fast after you’ve had four years of biology.’ They had wasted all their time memorising stuff like that, when it could be looked up in fifteen minutes.’”
That the way we educate, test, live and learn is broken, is not a new argument on this blog. But consider the context of this reaction. This is Feynman in the early 1940s. When knowledge was still locked away in expensive books, guarded by jealous librarians. Long before search engines, hyperlinks, the mass digitisation of books and online encyclopaedias. Yet Feynman was already decrying our fetishisation of memorisation over understanding.
What excuse do we have now?
”I don’t know what’s the matter with people: they don’t learn by understanding; they learn by some other way—by rote, or something. Their knowledge is so fragile!”