Saturday, February 15, 2020

Richard Feynman on education in Brazil

From Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! by Richard Feynman:

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”!

Later I attended a lecture at the engineering school. The lecture went like this, translated into English: “Two bodies… are considered equivalent… if equal torques… will produce… equal acceleration. Two bodies, are considered equivalent, if equal torques, will produce equal acceleration.” The students were all sitting there taking dictation, and when the professor repeated the sentence, they checked it to make sure they wrote it down all right. Then they wrote down the next sentence, and on and on. I was the only one who knew the professor was talking about objects with the same moment of inertia, and it was hard to figure out.

I didn’t see how they were going to learn anything from that. Here he was talking about moments of inertia, but there was no discussion about how hard it is to push a door open when you put heavy weights on the outside, compared to when you put them near the hinge – nothing!

After the lecture, I talked to a student: “You take all those notes – what do you do with them?”

“Oh, we study them,” he says. “We’ll have an exam.”

“What will the exam be like?”

“Very easy. I can tell you now one of the questions.” He looks at his notebook and says, “ ‘When are two bodies equivalent?’ And the answer is, ‘Two bodies are considered equivalent if equal torques will produce equal acceleration.’ “ So, you see, they could pass the examinations, and “learn” all this stuff, and not know anything at all, except what they had memorized.

Then I went to an entrance exam for students coming into the engineering school. It was an oral exam, and I was allowed to listen to it. One of the students was absolutely super: He answered everything nifty! The examiners asked him what diamagnetism was, and he answered it perfectly. Then they asked, “When light comes at an angle through a sheet of material with a certain thickness, and a certain index N, what happens to the light?”

“It comes out parallel to itself, sir – displaced.”

“And how much is it displaced?”

“I don’t know, sir, but I can figure it out.” So he figured it out. He was very good. But I had, by this time, my suspicions.

After the exam I went up to this bright young man, and explained to him that I was from the United States, and that I wanted to ask him some questions that would not affect the result of his examination in any way. The first question I ask is, “Can you give me some example of a diamagnetic substance?”


Then I asked, “If this book was made of glass, and I was looking at something on the table through it, what would happen to the image if I tilted the glass?”

“It would be deflected, sir, by twice the angle that you’ve turned the book.”

I said, “You haven’t got it mixed up with a mirror, have you?”

“No, sir!”

He had just told me in the examination that the light would be displaced, parallel to itself, and therefore the image would move over to one side, but would not be turned by any angle. He had even figured out how much it would be displaced, but he didn’t realize that a piece of glass is a material with an index, and that his calculation had applied to my question.

I taught a course at the engineering school on mathematical methods in physics, in which I tried to show how to solve problems by trial and error. It’s something that people don’t usually learn, so I began with some simple examples of arithmetic to illustrate the method. I was surprised that only about eight out of the eighty or so students turned in the first assignment. So I gave a strong lecture about having to actually try it, not just sit back and watch me do it.

After the lecture some students came up to me in a little delegation, and told me that I didn’t understand the backgrounds that they have, that they can study without doing the problems, that they have already learned arithmetic, and that this stuff was beneath them.

So I kept going with the class, and no matter how complicated or obviously advanced the work was becoming, they were never handing a damn thing in. Of course I realized what it was: They couldn’t do it!

One other thing I could never get them to do was to ask questions. Finally, a student explained it to me: “If I ask you a question during the lecture, afterwards everybody will be telling me, ‘What are you wasting our time for in the class? We’re trying to learn something. And you’re stopping him by asking a question’.”

It was a kind of one-upmanship, where nobody knows what’s going on, and they’d put the other one down as if they did know. They all fake that they know, and if one student admits for a moment that something is confusing by asking a question, the others take a high-handed attitude, acting as if it’s not confusing at all, telling him that he’s wasting their time.

I explained how useful it was to work together, to discuss the questions, to talk it over, but they wouldn’t do that either, because they would be losing face if they had to ask someone else. It was pitiful! All the work they did, intelligent people, but they got themselves into this funny state of mind, this strange kind of self-propagating “education” which is meaningless, utterly meaningless!

At the end of the academic year, the students asked me to give a talk about my experiences of teaching in Brazil. At the talk there would be not only students, but professors and government officials, so I made them promise that I could say whatever I wanted. They said, “Sure. Of course. It’s a free country.”

So I came in, carrying the elementary physics textbook that they used in the first year of college. They thought this book was especially good because it had different kinds of typeface – bold black for the most important things to remember, lighter for less important things, and so on.

Right away somebody said, “You’re not going to say anything bad about the textbook, are you? The man who wrote it is here, and everybody thinks it’s a good textbook.”

“You promised I could say whatever I wanted.”

The lecture hall was full. I started out by defining science as an understanding of the behavior of nature. Then I asked, “What is a good reason for teaching science? Of course, no country can consider itself civilized unless… yak, yak, yak.” They were all sitting there nodding, because I know that’s the way they think.

Then I say, “That, of course, is absurd, because why should we feel we have to keep up with another country? We have to do it for a good reason, a sensible reason; not just because other countries do.” Then I talked about the utility of science, and its contribution to the improvement of the human condition, and all that – I really teased them a little bit.

Then I say, “The main purpose of my talk is to demonstrate to you that no science is being taught in Brazil!”

I can see them stir, thinking, “What? No science? This is absolutely crazy! We have all these classes.”

So I tell them that one of the first things to strike me when I came to Brazil was to see elementary school kids in bookstores, buying physics books. There are so many kids learning physics in Brazil, beginning much earlier than kids do in the United States, that it’s amazing you don’t find many physicists in Brazil – why is that? So many kids are working so hard, and nothing comes of it.

Then I gave the analogy of a Greek scholar who loves the Greek language, who knows that in his own country there aren’t many children studying Greek. But he comes to another country, where he is delighted to find everybody studying Greek – even the smaller kids in the elementary schools. He goes to the examination of a student who is coming to get his degree in Greek, and asks him, “What were Socrates’ ideas on the relationship between Truth and Beauty?” – and the student can’t answer. Then he asks the student, “What did Socrates say to Plato in the Third Symposium?” the student lights up and goes, “Brrrrrrrrr-up” – he tells you everything, word for word, that Socrates said, in beautiful Greek.

But what Socrates was talking about in the Third Symposium was the relationship between Truth and Beauty!

What this Greek scholar discovers is, the students in another country learn Greek by first learning to pronounce the letters, then the words, and then sentences and paragraphs. They can recite, word for word, what Socrates said, without realizing that those Greek words actually mean something. To the student they are all artificial sounds. Nobody has ever translated them into words the students can understand.

I said, “That’s how it looks to me, when I see you teaching the kids ‘science’ here in Brazil.” (Big blast, right?)

Then I held up the elementary physics textbook they were using. “There are no experimental results mentioned anywhere in this book, except in one place where there is a ball, rolling down an inclined plane, in which it says how far the ball got after one second, two seconds, three seconds, and so on. The numbers have ‘errors’ in them – that is, if you look at them, you think you’re looking at experimental results, because the numbers are a little above, or a little below, the theoretical values. The book even talks about having to correct the experimental errors – very fine. The trouble is, when you calculate the value of the acceleration constant from these values, you get the right answer. But a ball rolling down an inclined plane, if it is actually done, has an inertia to get it to turn, and will, if you do the experiment, produce five-sevenths of the right answer, because of the extra energy needed to go into the rotation of the ball. Therefore this single example of experimental ‘results’ is obtained from a fake experiment. Nobody had rolled such a ball, or they would never have gotten those results!

“I have discovered something else,” I continued. “By flipping the pages at random, and putting my finger in and reading the sentences on that page, I can show you what’s the matter – how it’s not science, but memorizing, in every circumstance. Therefore I am brave enough to flip through the pages now, in front of this audience, to put my finger in, to read, and to show you.”

So I did it. Brrrrrrrup – I stuck my finger in, and I started to read: “Triboluminescence. Triboluminescence is the light emitted when crystals are crushed…”

I said, “And there, have you got science? No! You have only told what a word means in terms of other words. You haven’t told anything about nature – what crystals produce light when you crush them, why they produce light. Did you see any student go home and try it? He can’t.

“But if, instead, you were to write, ‘When you take a lump of sugar and crush it with a pair of pliers in the dark, you can see a bluish flash. Some other crystals do that too. Nobody knows why. The phenomenon is called “triboluminescence.” ‘ Then someone will go home and try it. Then there’s an experience of nature.” I used that example to show them, but it didn’t make any difference where I would have put my finger in the book; it was like that everywhere.

Finally, I said that I couldn’t see how anyone could be educated by this self-propagating system in which people pass exams, and teach others to pass exams, but nobody knows anything. “However,” I said, “I must be wrong. There were two Students in my class who did very well, and one of the physicists I know was educated entirely in Brazil. Thus, it must be possible for some people to work their way through the system, bad as it is.”

Well, after I gave the talk, the head of the science education department got up and said, “Mr. Feynman has told us some things that are very hard for us to hear, but it appears to be that he really loves science, and is sincere in his criticism. Therefore, I think we should listen to him. I came here knowing we have some sickness in our system of education; what I have learned is that we have a cancer!” – and he sat down.

That gave other people the freedom to speak out, and there was a big excitement. Everybody was getting up and making suggestions. The students got some committee together to mimeograph the lectures in advance, and they got other committees organized to do this and that.

Then something happened which was totally unexpected for me. One of the students got up and said, “I’m one of the two students whom Mr. Feynman referred to at the end of his talk. I was not educated in Brazil; I was educated in Germany, and I’ve just come to Brazil this year.”

The other student who had done well in class had a similar thing to say. And the professor I had mentioned got up and said, “I was educated here in Brazil during the war, when, fortunately, all of the professors had left the university, so I learned everything by reading alone. Therefore I was not really educated under the Brazilian system.”

I didn’t expect that. I knew the system was bad, but 100 percent – it was terrible!

Since I had gone to Brazil under a program sponsored by the United States Government, I was asked by the State Department to write a report about my experiences in Brazil, so I wrote out the essentials of the speech I had just given. I found out later through the grapevine that the reaction of somebody in the State Department was, “That shows you how dangerous it is to send somebody to Brazil who is so naive. Foolish fellow; he can only cause trouble. He didn’t understand the problems.” Quite the contrary! I think this person in the State Department was naive to think that because he saw a university with a list of courses and descriptions, that’s what it was.

Saturday, February 01, 2020

Bumbling accumulation of neuroses

Each one of us is just a different bumbling accumulation of neuroses we’ve developed from childhood or adulthood babbling about the three things we’re interested in trying our best to get by. — Brad Evans

Saturday, January 11, 2020

The point of economics

"The point of economics as a discipline is to create a language and methodology for governing that hides political assumptions from the public." -- Matt Stoller

Monday, January 06, 2020

Why neoliberalism is untenable

Let's take the neoliberals at their word: neoliberalism is about using markets to achieve maximum productivity and (maybe) some social democratic ends, while using the power of government to regulate markets and provide what markets cannot. As stated, this idea cannot work because markets contradict government. Neoliberalism calls for freedom and regulation, distribution and centrality, elitism and egalitarianism. At best, neoliberalism simply handwaves over these inherent contradictions; at worst, it is just a cover for libertarianism.

Economists understand that markets have inherent problems that stem from the individualistic competitive nature of markets. First, sellers, both firms selling goods and services and households selling their labor power, have a powerful market incentive to create and maintain monopolies, which economists understand are inefficient. Second, absent the police, it is always easier and cheaper to "cheat" rather than "play fair", and again, the individualistic nature of markets embeds an incentive to cheat. Third, a market economy concentrates and refines the class struggle between rentiers (bourgeoisie) and workers (proletariat), always to the detriment of workers. When markets are used everywhere possible, market competition becomes a life-and-death struggle for everyone, bourgeoisie and proletariat; when everyone's life is on the line, the incentive to monopolize, to cheat, to oppress and enslave others, overwhelms any sense of social or civic value.

Opposing these market incentives, the neoliberals vaguely wave their hands and say, "The government will regulate these markets, break up monopolies, punish cheaters, and protect the proletariat from slavery." But how? Whatever neoliberals think they're trying to do to corral markets for social democratic ends does not seem to be working. Yes, neoliberals can say, with perhaps some deserved pride, that a global markets-in-everything economy has doubled the income of the desperately poor, from \$2 per day to \$4. But it's not enough, and helping the desperately poor shouldn't be mutually exclusive with creating a decent society for working people.

There are, I think, two reasons for this. First, government regulation of a market economy is both as practically difficult and ideologically illiberal as a centrally planned communist economy. Neoliberal economists, like central planners and literally everyone else, are never as smart as they think they. And, fundamentally, any government regulation entails coercing individuals for the sake of the collective. Second, people with political power decide government regulation, and a market economy gives political power to those who can successfully accumulate wealth. Why would such people give up their own power? For the sake of abstract "liberal" principles and altruistic public spirit? Grow the fuck up and re-read Machiavelli.

Libertarians understand these tensions, and, while they dissemble (because why not fool people if fooling them is profitable), they understand that libertarianism is just liberalism without the fuzzy-headed sentimentality. The race may not always be to the swift, nor the battle always to the strong, but it often enough is. If we are going to compete, it makes no sense to punish the winners nor reward the losers.

Do neoliberals understand these tensions? Are they merely better than libertarians as dissimulation? Or are they merely more naive? I don't think it even matters. Liberals — classical and neo- — are either fellow travelers or useful idiots for the right. They are not part of the left.

Friday, January 03, 2020

Neoliberalism and libertarianism

Noah Smith and Brad DeLong want to distinguish neoliberalism from libertarianism. Smith, as always, comes off as a pompous douchebag, capable of only the most superficial analysis; DeLong thinks a little more deeply and identifies the core problem with neoliberalism, that neoliberalism is just libertarianism with good intentions. And that's not enough, not enough to distinguish neoliberals from libertarians, and not enough to earn neoliberalism a place on the left.

Smith points to DeLong's defense of neoliberalism, summarizing it as an ideology policy program that "protects markets as the basic engine of production [emphasis added]" with a welfare state (somehow) added "on top" of these markets.

DeLong expands Smith's summary, citing John Stuart Mill's and Adam Smith's deep and probably sincere concern with the poor. It's telling, perhaps, that DeLong chooses not to cite anyone in the twentieth century.

In contrast, DeLong argues that libertarianism holds that a market society embodies justice whatever distribution of income exists, whatever poverty people might suffer. DeLong asserts that libertarians hold that today, "poverty is probably your own fault", either your own moral fault or your "bad genes". DeLong fails to cite any sources (bad), but his understanding broadly matches my own: libertarians are reluctant to put their ideology so baldly, but the "I've got mine, Jack, so fuck off, loser" subtext is pretty clear to anyone who looks with any degree of critical thought at libertarianism.

But good intentions is not enough to distinguish neoliberalism from libertarianism. There are, of course, always fine distinctions within any school of thought or policy practice. There are Rothbard anarcho-capitalists, Nozick minarchists, Randians, etc., all of whom could be called libertarians, an all of whom fall on the "right", broadly defined. These fine distinctions are relevant to scholars and political scientists, but for practical leftist political purposes, they're all just slightly different flavors of asshole, and we can leave the fine distinctions to academics.

DeLong admits that neoliberals do not behave very differently from libertarians. There might be a few differences of degree — neoliberals wring their hands most piteously when Trump cuts food stamps (but heaven forbid they should actually, you know, fight back) — but hand-wringing aside, neoliberals are difficult to distinguish from libertarians. I cannot argue the point better than DeLong. DeLong asserts that "'neoliberalism' has gotten itself tied up . . . with using markets for social democratic ends whenever that is appropriate," (an assertion I find dubious), he admits that "neoliberalism" has also
approv[ed] of whatever distribution of income and wealth that market then produces. Neoliberals in power have been—sometimes—willing to soak the rich by raising taxes on them and using the revenues to spend on infrastructure or to strengthen the "safety net" [Do we have to go back to, er, Nixon for that? -LRH], but they have been unwilling to even whisper about raising taxes on the upper middle class. And neoliberals in and out of power have spoken only in whispers about policies that need to be taken to generate a societally-acceptable market distribution of income.
Let me add that the neoliberals, at least since Clinton, have done nothing at all to give power to workers, to households, to the bottom 80% of the income distribution. They have destroyed unions, rolled back workers' rights, homeowners' rights, consumers' rights, immigrants' right. They have overseen the mass incarceration and judicial murder of black people. The neoliberal Obama administration gave millions to the libertarian bank owners while allowing millions of working-class Americans to lose their jobs, their pensions, their homes. At best the neoliberals have ensured that the bosses who squeeze every drop of blood from the workers are a little more diverse.

I have nothing but contempt for Noah Smith. DeLong at least has the decency to entertain the idea that the neoliberals have not been as successful as he might have hoped. (We know they just failed miserably, but DeLong isn't going to risk tenure at Berkeley to say that out loud.) But neither of them are on the left, and when world they and their ilk is drowning in its own shit, I won't shed a tear when some psychopath eats them both.

The essence of geek

[T]he true sign of a geek is a delight in sharing a thing. It’s the major difference between a geek and a hipster, you know: When a hipster sees someone else grooving on the thing they love, their reaction is to say “Oh, crap, now the wrong people like the thing I love.” When a geek sees someone else grooving on the thing they love, their reaction is to say “ZOMG YOU LOVE WHAT I LOVE COME WITH ME AND LET US LOVE IT TOGETHER.”

-- John Scalzi, King of the Geeks