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Andrew Zimmerman Jones

The Importance of Education

By May 17, 2011

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I believe that education is the single most important activity there is. If there is good education, then I think everything else takes care of itself, on every level: personal, family, business, community, state, regional, and national levels. I have faith that most of our problems - economic disasters, international and intercultural strife, and even climate problems - can ultimately be solved by a well-educated populace. Education is the cornerstone to growth and there are many reasons to study physics as part of a well-rounded education.

Yesterday, President Obama gave a speech at Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis, Tennessee, where he echoed some of my own thoughts on the matter. You can read the whole speech or watch it on video, because it contains a lot of good stuff about the service provided by teacher, and how education helps inspire you, but I'd like to focus now on some of his words which I think are especially true of science and mathematics education:

President Obama from 2009
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks
to the National Academy of Sciences on April 27, 2009 in Washington, DC.
Source: Dennis Brack-Pool/Getty Images

Through education, you ... learn how to learn -- how to think critically and find solutions to unexpected challenges.  I remember we used to ask our teachers, "Why am I going to need algebra?"  Well, you may not have to solve for x to get a good job or to be a good parent.  But you will need to think through tough problems.  You'll need to think on your feet.  You'll need to know how to gather facts and evaluate information.  So, math teachers, you can tell your students that the President says they need algebra.  (Laughter.)

Education also teaches you the value of discipline -- that the greatest rewards come not from instant gratification but from sustained effort and from hard work.  This is a lesson that's especially true today, in a culture that prizes flash over substance, that tells us that the goal in life is to be entertained, that says you can be famous just for being famous.  You get on a reality show -- don't know what you've done -- suddenly you're famous.  But that's not going to lead to lasting, sustained achievement.

I consider myself something of a Renaissance man, and I read widely in literature, history, philosophy, and even religion, and even advocate for these areas being taught in cross-disciplinary ways with science (a rant for another time), but I think the above two paragraphs speak especially strongly to the merits of a scientific education. They resonate with the words of Richard Feynman (which I quoted in another post just a few days ago):

Science is a way to teach how something gets to be known, what is not known, to what extent things are known (for nothing is known absolutely), how to handle doubt and uncertainty, what the rules of evidence are, how to think about things so that judgments can be made, how to distinguish truth from fraud, and from show.

The Quantum ManDeveloping this sort of understanding takes time and discipline. The ideas of President Obama and Richard Feynman become more practical in this passage by physicist Lawrence Krauss (culled from the text of his new Feynman biography Quantum Man):

Physical intuition is a fascinating, ephemeral kind of skill. How does one know which avenue of approach will be most fruitful to solve a physics problem? No doubt some aspects of intuition are acquired. This is why physics majors are required to do so many problems. In this way, they begin to learn which approaches work and which don't, and increase their toolkit of techniques along the way.

These benefits aren't limited to the study of physics. That is part of the point of all the years of school: developing intuition in a wide range of areas and solving a wide range of problems.

According to some studies, becoming an expert at something takes 10,000 hours. If you assume that a student is actually learning for 5 hours a day in school (a generous estimate for many schools), 180 days a year, then 12 years of school results in 10,800 hours, but at what are our students becoming experts?

One would hope that it's the general art of thinking, of analyzing ideas, of dissecting concepts to discern their individual merits and flaws, of developing strategies for dealing with problems, and of articulating clear opinions about these things. An education like that, to be sure, requires discipline and will yield the benefits of character that President Obama outlined in his speech.


May 18, 2011 at 7:08 pm
(1) PhysicsProf says:

Your position would be more convincing were Mr. Obama not a glaring refutation of it. Despite extensive formal education, he has repeatedly demonstrated an understanding of economics vastly inferior to that of any of the many high-school dropouts that run small businesses.

Nor can he fathom, as any child might, that the essence of any foreign policy is the opposition of evil and the support of good. His educational milieu, steeped in intellectual fashion, has actually acted to cripple his capacity for ethical reasoning.

Education, moreover, is no substitute for virtue. Remember that it was the educated of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that championed the intellectual causes of their day, e.g. eugenics (implemented by the Nazis) and communism (resulting in 100 million unnecessary deaths).

May 23, 2011 at 10:00 am
(2) Samuel Jacobsen says:

Can anyone who calls himself PhysicsProf have credibility?

May 23, 2011 at 10:12 am
(3) Raghunathan Kadangode says:

What the President of the US said and your appreciation of that are all with good intentions. I am very sorry to say that even in the US, so far as I know, Education is taken as a cut throat competition depriving it with all its inquisitive happiness and fact finding challenge. The praise given by your President to Asian parents in another context also is misused. Some very enthusiastic teachers in the Bay Area have made education a mechanical mugging up of innumerable facts. They seem to want to take the most psychological child-oriented education that made the US a model in the world till a decade or so back to a challenger circus that makes children mugging machines.
We talk tall keeping our feet in dangerous mud [qualifying it as practically successful!

May 24, 2011 at 7:41 pm
(4) Del says:

Hey thanks, this really is inspiring. I’ll go and finish my physics home-work. (laughter)

May 27, 2011 at 5:41 pm
(5) kenkoskinen says:

I have to agree with your great post! I would like to further add that we live in an amazing universe, full of wonders and as I like to say “little miracles.” We all live within “all that is” i.e. ATI and we just have to look around for something that is interesting to study.

I graduated several decades ago and cherish my college days. Its hard to believe now but when I was student we typed our research papers. I’d advise anyone to get all the formal education they can!

I also think that some of the best learning occurs when a person gets inspired to do a self study. I’ve never stopped learning and love to especially study physics/cosmology. The modern world is great in that we now have the internet which is full of great information. There are lectures you can view on line. There is the Science Channel, Discovery and History channels viewable on TV & so much more. This life is so interesting and oh boy I hope to live for hundreds of more years! There’s so much to learn and to share with others.

June 29, 2011 at 9:21 pm
(6) Laura says:

I agree whole heartedly with Physicsprof…It is very important to remember that Obama is a good reader and that his speeches were written by othr people who research what it is he should be saying!

November 26, 2012 at 10:09 am
(7) Pierre says:

I can understand other people research what Mr. Obama has to say in a stamp speech, That’s part of their job descriptions, but that does not mean he isn’t a very educated man.

June 24, 2013 at 2:59 pm
(8) Marjory says:

Act Smart and leave your personal politics out of this great message and posting. Obama’s point supports the importance of educated individuals and too sad that others don’t realize its importance as one matures.
Great article!

April 11, 2014 at 3:14 am
(9) Raul says:

Wonderful, what a blog it is! This webpage provides helpful data to us,
keep it up.

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