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Feynman on Education


"Cargo Cult Science", by Richard Feynman
But then I began to think, what else is there that we believe? (And I thought then about the witch doctors, and how easy it would have been to check on them by noticing that nothing really worked.) So I found things that even more people believe, such as that we have some knowledge of how to educate. There are big schools of reading methods and mathematics methods, and so forth, but if you notice, you'll see the reading scores keep going down -- or hardly going up -- in spite of the fact that we continually use these same people to improve the methods. There's a witch doctor remedy that doesn't work. It ought to be looked into; how do they know that their method should work? Another example is how to treat criminals. We obviously have made no progress -- lots of theory, but no progress -- in decreasing the amount of crime by the method that we use to handle criminals.
Schools say they know how to educate people. Feynman says they don't! They are like witch doctors who claim powers they can never demonstrate if you investigate it carefully.

-- Elliot Temple

Elliot Temple on January 10, 2009

Comments (2)

I loved that paragraph when I read it, but didn't like the one that followed it. In it he quietly and non-explicitly justifies coercion and schooling... but I might be misinterpreting.

"Yet these things are said to be scientific. We study them. And I
think ordinary people with commonsense ideas are intimidated by
this pseudoscience. A teacher who has some good idea of how to
teach her children to read is forced by the school system to do it
some other way--or is even fooled by the school system into
thinking that her method is not necessarily a good one. Or a parent
of bad boys, after disciplining them in one way or another, feels
guilty for the rest of her life because she didn't do "the right
thing," according to the experts."

Anonymous at 1:02 PM on April 12, 2011 | #2115
He doesn't justify them. He mentions them. His point about a teacher is clearly correct: it is good if teachers innovate and are not forced to teach by methods they think don't work. You shouldn't have teachers who don't believe in the methods they are using. And the authority of pseudoscience shouldn't be used to intimidate teachers -- without rational argument -- into doubting there own ideas about how to help students.

About discipline, one can maybe guess he didn't oppose it (perhaps due to not thinking about it much). But that's different than advocating it. I doubt he did very much of it.

The point he's actually making is, again, correct. And I don't think we should complain too much when people make correct points!

His point is that parents shouldn't be intimidated by the false authority of pseudoscience. Experts shouldn't make them feel bad for not doing the thing the expert advocates. Parents need to use their own best judgment, and have some confidence, and not be pushed around by some jerks who claim specious, scientific authority.

Elliot at 1:53 PM on April 27, 2011 | #2127

What do you think?

(This is a free speech zone!)