Lessons of the Masters

Dec 05, 2013

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Nice article in Nature on Richard Feynman’s lectures:

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about The Feynman Lectures on Physics, the book in question, is that it was nearly strangled at birth. Robert Leighton, chair of a committee tasked with spicing up the physics teaching at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena in the early 1960s, did not think that Richard Feynman was the right man for the job. “That’s not a good idea,” was his original response. “Feynman has never taught an undergraduate course. He wouldn’t know how to speak to freshmen, or what they could learn.” (At around the same time, incidentally, an official at Decca Records decided that “The Beatles have no future in show business”.)

And what is less well known:

The popularity of the lectures and the enduring appeal of the books that grew from them are often attributed to the individual and spontaneous genius of Feynman. But they were painstakingly prepared and practised, and had generous financial backing. (The lectures were part of broader changes to the teaching at Caltech’s physics department funded with some US$1 million from the Ford Foundation.)

This is a lesson that university officials would do well to remember as funding is cut and pressure placed on faculty members to cram more into their timetables. Those who can, teach, but they need support.

BTW, although I have not studied all the Feynman material, Jim Watson’s book’s (which I have studied) also had a major educational impact. There is no substitute for domain expertise in teaching: absolutely necessary, but not sufficient. Which seems a nice way of reminding you of George Steiner’s words in ‘Lessons of the Masters’

“Bad teaching is, almost literally, murderous and, metaphorically, a sin.  It diminishes the student, it reduces to gray inanity the subject being presented.  It drips into the child’s or the adult’s sensibility that most corrosive of acids, boredom, the marsh gas of ennui. Millions have had mathematics, poetry, logical thinking, killed for them by dead teaching, by the perhaps subconsciously vengeful mediocrity of frustrated pedagogues.

Post by Jonathan Rees

Clinical academic and skin watcher at the University of Edinburgh

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