Quote of the Day

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Richard Feynman and Becoming a Statesman

Okay, so I think we've made it clear on this blog that George Wythe is poorly managed, struggles with transparency, is essentially a money hole for anyone looking for a good education, blah, blah, blah. Yes, the school may sputter along, but it will never be what it claims because of its terrible foundation.

Which brings me to Richard Feynman. When I was in college--GASP, not George Wythe College!--I read a great essay by Feynman for a critical writing class. Below is an excerpt from that essay followed by my discussion of how it applies to a college seeking to "Build Statesmen."

Feynman was a visiting physics professor at a university in Brazil when he had the following experience, related in his essay "O Americano, Outra Vez!":

"In regard to education in Brazil, I had a very interesting experience. I was teaching a group of students who would ultimately become teachers, since at that time there were not many opportunities in Brazil for a highly trained person in science. These students had already had many courses, and this was to be their most advanced course in electricity and magnetism - Maxwell's equations, and so on.

"The university was located in various office buildings throughout the city, and the course I taught met in a building which overlooked the bay.

"I discovered a very strange phenomenon: I could ask a question, which the students would answer immediately. But the next time I would ask the question - the same subject, and the same question, as far as I could tell - they couldn't answer it at all! For instance, one time I was talking about polarized light, and I gave them all some strips of polaroid.

"Polaroid passes only light whose electric vector is in a certain direction, so I explained how you could tell which way the light is polarized from whether the polaroid is dark or light.

"We first took two strips of polaroid and rotated them until they let the most light through. From doing that we could tell that the two strips were now admitting light polarized in the same direction - what passed through one piece of polaroid could also pass through the other. But then I asked them how one could tell the absolute direction of polarization, for a single piece of polaroid.

"They hadn't any idea.

"I knew this took a certain amount of ingenuity, so I gave them a hint: 'Look at the light reflected from the bay outside.'

"Nobody said anything.

"Then I said, 'Have you ever heard of Brewster's Angle?'

"'Yes, sir! Brewster's Angle is the angle at which light reflected from a medium with an index of refraction is completely polarized.'

"'And which way is the light polarized when it's reflected?'

"'The light is polarized perpendicular to the plane of reflection, sir.' Even now, I have to think about it; they knew it cold! They even knew the tangent of the angle equals the index!

"I said, 'Well?'

"Still nothing. They had just told me that light reflected from a medium with an index, such as the bay outside, was polarized; they had even told me which way it was polarized.

"I said, 'Look at the bay outside, through the polaroid. Now turn the polaroid.'

"'Ooh, it's polarized!' they said.

"After a lot of investigation, I finally figured out that the students had memorized everything, but they didn't know what anything meant. When they heard 'light that is reflected from a medium with an index,' they didn't know that it meant a material such as water. They didn't know that the 'direction of the light' is the direction in which you see something when you're looking at it, and so on. Everything was entirely memorized, yet nothing had been translated into meaningful words. So if I asked, 'What is Brewster's Angle?' I'm going into the computer with the right keywords. But if I say, 'Look at the water,' nothing happens - they don't have anything under 'Look at the water'!"

So what does this story have to do with George Wythe University?

One of the things Feynman wondered about was why a country like Brazil had so many physics students, yet virtually no physicists. It turns out that the students were taught what to think, but not how to think. Not surprisingly, their education bore little fruit.

George Wythe College was founded to systematically produce statesmen. (DeMille himself said his vision was to put people in Congress.)

Where are the statesmen? Yes, a while ago some students went to a UN conference. Yes, there is some work going on in Africa that is loosely connected with the school. But these are isolated cases with negligible impact.

Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence 9 years after he finished reading law under George Wythe. This school has been around for 17 years.

Where is the fruit? Where are the statesmen?

(public domain image: Nobel Foundation)

7 comments:

R.C. said...

If you remember how impressed Glenn Beck was when he asked about the 5,000 year leap. The GW students were able to answer exactly what the book described. You would think that if a school was truly educating statesmen, there would actually be one to emerge from there.

I think that they have to stretch the definition of "statesman" to count them from among their graduates. Doing so only diminishes the strength of the word.

The same thing occurs with the definition of "classics". When you can consider Robert Kiyosaki's "Rich Dad" a classic, you are a just playing word games, and cheapening the word "classic".

James F. said...

I don't know if you've caught this yet RGW:
http://teachingselfgovernment.com/worlds-strictest-parents-video-part-1_482/

British reality show featured Utah TJED mom. In the last video segment of the link posted they go to the fundraising gala at the Capitol. :)

R.C. said...

Thanks James F. That was a good show. I think they represented TJED homeschoolers well. The Pecks seem like very classy people.

Anonymous said...

Apparently the statesman they intend to produce is Oliver DeMille. He's apparently running for Congress against Jim Matheson.

R.C. said...

Anonymous: DeMille against Jim Matheson? Where did you hear that?

R.C. said...

Dear Anonymous: If DeMille really is going to run against Matheson, then he will have to beat his own student, Casey Anderson:

http://www.cityweekly.net/utah/article-9034-casey-anderson-nominee-for-congress-in-utahrss-2nd-district.html

http://www.campaignforliberty.com/profile.php?member=Casey_Anderson

http://www.caseyanderson2010.com/

Make said...

>Where is the fruit? Where are the statesmen?

Have you set the example? If not, why not?