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  • Aerodynamics, Art History, and the Assignment of Names

    Posted by David Foster on June 19th, 2013 (All posts by )

    Several years ago, I was having lunch on the restaurant deck at my local airport. At the table next to me was a couple with a young girl, maybe about 4 years old.

    “What makes the airplane fly?” asked the mother.

    “Buh..buh,” said the little girl.

    “That’s right,” the beaming mother completed the phrase, “Bernoulli’s principle!”

    Now, I give this couple credit for taking the kid to the airport and trying to encourage cause-and-effect thinking about why things happen. But I really don’t think that teaching a 4-year-old to parrot “Bernoulli’s Principle” is the right way to do it. Far better, IMO, to say something like “When the airplane goes fast, that makes a wind under the wings, and that holds the airplane up.” This explanation would not pass muster with an aerodynamicist, but is far more useful, in terms of actual understanding, than giving the girl a keyword as explanation. To tell someone that Bernoulli’s Principle makes airplanes fly, when they don’t know what Bernoulli’s Principle IS,  is no more useful than telling them that lift is generated by friendly invisible fairies under the wings. (And the fairies are much more charming.)

    I was reminded of this little incident by a story in the Nov/Dec 2011 issue of Scientific American MIND. The headline says that “the trend in early education is to move from a play-based curriculum to a more school-like environment of directed learning.” An excerpt from the story:

    On a perfect Southern California morning not long ago, a gaggle of children gathered in the backyard of a million-dollar home in an upscale Los Angeles neighborhood to celebrate the birthday of twin four-year-old girls…Most of the kids at the party attend the same preschool. The father of one child enrolled there, where tuition is $14,300 a year for half a day, was asked what he likes about it.

    “I like that my daughter can tell me what kind of whale it is we see in a movie,” said the man, sporting a seersucker jacket. “They seem to be teaching things that other schools don’t.”

    “You ask them what they did in school today,” chimed in another day, “and they’re like, ‘Oh, today we learned about pointillism.’ There’s a whole series on Picasso, a four-month project on Klimt.”

    I submit that, for a four-year-old, it would be much, much more valuable to spend time doing their own painting and drawing than on learning to categorize well-known works according to the accepted categorization scheme. Having them also view the works of great artists is also fine, but should be done with an emphasis on seeing, not on name and category recognition.

    Forty years ago, in The Age of Discontinuity, Peter Drucker commented on the role of the arts in education:

    Today music appreciation is a respected academic discipline (even though it tends to be a deadly bore for the kids who have to memorize a lot of names when they have never heard the music). Playing an instrument or composing are considered, however, amateurish or “trade school.” This is not very bright, even if school is considered vocational preparation for the scribe. When school becomes general education for everyone, it is lunacy.

    The art program in the preschool described above sounds a lot like the kind of music appreciation courses that Drucker was criticizing.

    I’m afraid that American society is increasingly dominated by a kind of faux intellectualism that values “smartness” very highly (Smart cars! Smart diplomacy! Smart power!) but defines such smartness largely in terms of being able to fit everything in the world into approved categories.

    Moliere, in The Imaginary Invalid, mocked a group of physicians whose “explanation” of the effects of opium was that the drug induced sleep because it contained “dormative powers.”  There is still plenty of this kind of “thinking” going on today.

     

    12 Responses to “Aerodynamics, Art History, and the Assignment of Names”

    1. Mike K Says:

      I’m still rocked at the tuition for pre-school. What a racket !

    2. renminbi Says:

      The term “trade school” brought to mind snobbery. Isn’t that a part of what lies behind
      this “faux intellectualism”? This is self-aggrandizement at its most pitiful. WE don’t dirty our hands with mundane matters. This extends beyond the Liberal Arts; I know many mathematical types brag about how their work has no practical application. At any rate,much of Academia has made itself as obscure and worthless as any Madrassah.

      Yes, it is good to think in abstract terms, but unless this is connected to concrete reality, it is merely intellectual onanism. Employers would do well to consider that much higher education is worthless as a screening device.

      James R Flynn’s “Are We Getting Smarter ?…” is well worth a look, though I don’t share his optimism.

    3. dearieme Says:

      As the Aussie critic Clive James remarked, it was Kennedy who prattled about culture, it was Nixon who could play an instrument.

    4. Jimbino Says:

      Though I appreciate that knowing Bernoulli’s name does not confer any understanding of his principle, I disagree that such lacks usefulness in learning.

      Just like “half of life is about showing up,” it’s true that half of learning seems to depend on organization and categorization. For me, they have worked fine for me in language, geography and history.

      I lay no claim to special ability or training in those, but I know that I far surpass my fellows in performance on all standardized tests and other measures of competence when it comes to those topics.

      For example, it’s clearly not necessary to understand what noun, verb, and preposition signify in order to speak a language fluently, but it sure helps in learning both artificial and foreign languages.

      Likewise, the numbers 323, 456, 1066, 1095, 1453, 1517, 1776, 1848, 1923 and so. though of no interest to most, surely ring a big bell for those interested in history.

      Indeed, some have gone so far as to say that organization and categorization lie at the basis of understanding science and math.

    5. Mike K Says:

      “WE don’t dirty our hands with mundane matters. This extends beyond the Liberal Arts; I know many mathematical types brag about how their work has no practical application.”

      One of the great burdens on India is the attitude, left behind by the British, that manual skilled work is beneath them. There are great shortages in such areas as auto mechanics and plumbing. Imagine if there were as many men interested in clean water, and doing something about it, as in medical school or other intellectual pursuits.

      My Chinese medical student a few years ago, told me that her mother was a university professor but her father, who was trained as a physicist, worked as an auto mechanic because he was Christian. Interesting set of cultural priorities.

      “Likewise, the numbers 323, 456, 1066, 1095, 1453, 1517, 1776, 1848, 1923 and so. though of no interest to most, surely ring a big bell for those interested in history.”

      I can come up with most of them but not all. I’m not sure this is a true test of knowledge, even of history. How are you on BC by the way ?

      Standardized tests are an interesting subset of knowledge. When I took part I of my National Boards in Medicine, the Pharmacology test had two pages on a drug family I had never heard of. It was in our textbook but I had only skimmed it and missed that section. I went ahead and finished the exam, then went back to the section on “Veratrim Alkaloids.” They were a minor antihypertensive at the time.

      By analyzing the questions and comparing the ABC, AC or AB type answer sets, I answered all the questions and found out when I got home that my answers were all correct. The chief of medical education at USC shortly after, Steve Abrahamson, who became a mentor later, was distinguished by the fact that he had passed the American Board of Pathology exam without ever attending medical school.

      Maybe my background as an engineer helped but my attitudes toward exam structures never changed after that.

    6. dearieme Says:

      By the way, the common “Bernoulli” explanation of how an aerofoil works is rubbish.

    7. David Foster Says:

      Jimbino…I agree that knowing the name “Bernoulli’s Principle” is worthwhile once you actually know what the principle IS. But learning the name without the principle is mere gold-star-hunting.

    8. dearieme Says:

      “One of the great burdens on India is the attitude, left behind by the British, that manual skilled work is beneath them.” You’d have to be very ignorant of the caste system to believe that: it predates the British by a few millenia I’d think.

    9. David Foster Says:

      Dearieme….NASA page on how airfoils REALLY generate lift:

      http://www.grc.nasa.gov/WWW/K-12/airplane/wrong1.html

    10. Gringo Says:

      Mike K
      Standardized tests are an interesting subset of knowledge. When I took part I of my National Boards in Medicine, the Pharmacology test had two pages on a drug family I had never heard of….

      When I took the GRE, 15 years after taking the SAT, I encountered some reading passages with answers I didn’t know. I decided to choose the answer most suited to Sociology-type language: choosing the answer with the highest degree of obfuscation. My GRE Verbal score ended up a bit higher than my SAT-Verbal, so I will assume my obfuscation approach worked.

    11. Mike K Says:

      ” You’d have to be very ignorant of the caste system to believe that: it predates the British by a few millenia I’d think.”

      You may well be correct as my knowledge of the caste system is limited. I just go by what my Indian friends tell me.

      I will add that the British, while the founders of the Industrial Revolution, and much of science with the Scottish Enlightenment, fell behind around the time of the British Raj in India and lost out to the French and then the Germans. The “Gentleman amateur” theory which handicapped much British science. Many of the later great British scientists, like Max Perutz were German refugees. Not all but many. British medicine was rather backward in the early 20th century. The developer of penicillin was Howard Florey an Australian. Fleming discovered it and then ignored it. Ernst Chain, the chemist of the group, was another German refugee.

    12. Bill Brandt Says:

      I would assert that many high grade students have mastered how to take tests but don’t really know how to apply the knowledge.

      Sticking with an aeronautical theme I never will forget my FAA examiner.

      He gave me a Sectional map (do they still use those?) and simply said, I want to go from here to here – what is the best way of doing it given the aircraft’s performance parameters?”

      No BS

      No relying on rote recitals – just a demonstration of knowing the material and how to apply it.