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Friday, April 27, 2012

Formal Education as Stultification

It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education. -- Albert Einstein

Einstein much disliked school regimen and rote learning. His interest in physics was initially extracurricular. He was working as a clerk in a patent office when in 1905 he wrote the papers that would lead to his winning a Nobel Prize in physics in 1921.

Benoit Mandelbrot, although an established mathematician, was ridiculed for “wasting time” on “useless, non-traditional mathematical monsters,” which Mandelbrot called “fractals.” Like Einstein, he lived to see his insights come to be accepted as major contributions to his field.

Formal education can be stodgy and stultifying, both in process and product. I suspect, from my own experience, that that is true for most people a good portion of the time.

Have you ever thought about why the “Books for Dummies” is such a well-selling series? The answer is obvious, if you’ve ever used them. They get to the point. They give you reasons for the theory by showing applications. They don’t go into detail for its own sake. They even use humor to illustrate a point. They are written for the customer, most likely the student!

In contrast, junior and senior high school texts are written to pass review by school system book reviewers on the lookout for anything local politicians might consider offensive to their constituencies. Neither student interest, nor even usefulness to the teacher, is of high, if any, priority. The texts may be filled with factual errors, for which the publishers will pay a fine, if caught. But the errors needn’t be corrected afterward. School boards treat the fines as a discount. (See Beyond the Textbook.)

College texts are written for professors, who will have their students buy them, even if they are scarcely used in the course. For this reason, the writers of college texts worry more about the response of their professional colleagues, than about what the students might think.

In general, school texts are careful to avoid controversy, to seldom, if ever, offer criticisms about the disciplines or about those who practice them. Publishers tend to dissuade authors from leading learners to think “outside the box”: it may put off prospective buyers. (See Reason and Authority in Education)

University life is filled with quaint traditions and cultural practices. Knowing your place and acting accordingly is are two of the more difficult ones to acculturate oneself to. But it is most dismaying to realize that conformity in the pursuit of knowledge is a major desideratum.

For references and to examine these issues further, see Evaluating Learner Strengths and Weaknesses: 
the Impediments of Formalism

--- EGR