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:
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.
Developing 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.