Two More Things to Unlearn from School

In Three Things to Un­learn from School, Ben Cas­nocha cites Bill Bullard’s list of three bad habits of thought: At­tach­ing im­por­tance to per­sonal opinions, solv­ing given prob­lems, and earn­ing the ap­proval of oth­ers. Bullard’s pro­posed al­ter­na­tives don’t look very good to me, but Bullard has surely iden­ti­fied some im­por­tant prob­lems.

I can think of other school-in­cul­cated bad habits of thought, too many to list, but I’ll name two of my least fa­vorite.

I sus­pect the most dan­ger­ous habit of thought taught in schools is that even if you don’t re­ally un­der­stand some­thing, you should par­rot it back any­way. One of the most fun­da­men­tal life skills is re­al­iz­ing when you are con­fused, and school ac­tively de­stroys this abil­ity - teaches stu­dents that they “un­der­stand” when they can suc­cess­fully an­swer ques­tions on an exam, which is very very very far from ab­sorb­ing the knowl­edge and mak­ing it a part of you. Stu­dents learn the habit that eat­ing con­sists of putting food into mouth; the ex­ams can’t test for chew­ing or swal­low­ing, and so they starve.

Much of this prob­lem may come from need­ing to take three 4-credit courses per quar­ter, with a text­book chap­ter plus home­work to be done ev­ery week—the courses are timed for fran­tic mem­o­riza­tion, it’s not pos­si­ble to deeply chew over and leisurely di­gest knowl­edge in the same pe­riod. Col­lege stu­dents aren’t al­lowed to be con­fused; if they started say­ing, “Wait, do I re­ally un­der­stand this? Maybe I’d bet­ter spend a few days look­ing up re­lated pa­pers, or con­sult an­other text­book,” they’d fail all the courses they took that quar­ter. A month later they would un­der­stand the ma­te­rial far bet­ter and re­mem­ber it much longer—but one month af­ter fi­nals is too late; it counts for noth­ing in the lu­natic uni­ver­sity util­ity func­tion.

Many stu­dents who have gone through this pro­cess no longer even re­al­ize when some­thing con­fuses them, or no­tice gaps in their un­der­stand­ing. They have been trained out of paus­ing to think.

I re­call read­ing, though I can’t re­mem­ber where, that physi­cists in some coun­try were more likely to be­come ex­treme re­li­gious fa­nat­ics. This con­fused me, un­til the au­thor sug­gested that physics stu­dents are pre­sented with a re­ceived truth that is ac­tu­ally cor­rect, from which they learn the habit of trust­ing au­thor­ity.

It may be dan­ger­ous to pre­sent peo­ple with a gi­ant mass of au­thor­i­ta­tive knowl­edge, es­pe­cially if it is ac­tu­ally true. It may dam­age their skep­ti­cism.

So what could you do? Teach stu­dents the his­tory of physics, how each idea was re­placed in turn by a new cor­rect one? “Here’s the old idea, here’s the new idea, here’s the ex­per­i­ment—the new idea wins!” Re­peat this les­son ten times and what is the habit of thought learned? “New ideas always win; ev­ery new idea in physics turns out to be cor­rect.” You still haven’t taught any crit­i­cal think­ing, be­cause you only showed them his­tory as seen with perfect hind­sight. You’ve taught them the habit that dis­t­in­guish­ing true ideas from false ones is perfectly clear-cut and straight­for­ward, so if a shiny new idea has any­thing to recom­mend it, it’s prob­a­bly true.

Maybe it would be pos­si­ble to teach the his­tory of physics from a his­tor­i­cally re­al­is­tic point of view, with­out benefit of hind­sight: show stu­dents the differ­ent al­ter­na­tives that were con­sid­ered his­tor­i­cally plau­si­ble, re-en­act the his­tor­i­cal dis­agree­ments and de­bates.

Maybe you could avoid hand­ing stu­dents knowl­edge on a silver plat­ter: show stu­dents differ­ent ver­sions of physics equa­tions that looked plau­si­ble, and ask them to figure out which was the cor­rect one, or in­vent ex­per­i­ments that would dis­t­in­guish be­tween al­ter­na­tives. This wouldn’t be as challeng­ing as need­ing to no­tice anoma­lies with­out hints and in­vent al­ter­na­tives from scratch, but it would be a vast im­prove­ment over mem­o­riz­ing a re­ceived au­thor­ity.

Then, per­haps, you could teach the habit of thought: “The ideas of re­ceived au­thor­ity are of­ten im­perfect but it takes a great effort to find a new idea that is bet­ter. Most pos­si­ble changes are for the worse, even though ev­ery im­prove­ment is nec­es­sar­ily a change.”