Undisciplined and irreverent: Richard Feynman on education

Spending time with a great mind is time well spent. And reading Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track allows us a glimpse inside one of the greatest minds of the 20th century. The book is a collection of letters that Richard Feynman wrote throughout his career to scientists, fans, family members, students, politicians, and the public. Richard Feynman was a theoretical physicist who won the Noble Prize in 1965 and was famous for popularizing science for the masses. In this piece, we reflect on Richard’s perceptions of his own schooling and how we might help students be a little more creative in theirs.

Feynman emphasized that what we teach children should be pragmatic and have a clear use. He recounts the following story as to why he shifted his own course of study to electrical engineering and physics:

I think I entered MIT in math (course XVIII). After a bit I went to Franklin (then head of the Math Department) to ask, “What is the use of higher mathematics besides teaching more higher mathematics.” He answered, “If you have to ask that then you don’t belong in mathematics.” So I changed [my course of study] to electrical engineering (course VI), but soon oscillated part way back to Physics (course VIII) and stayed there.

Clearly, Feynman had an emphasis on the practical. If his instructor couldn’t tell him what something was good for, he felt he was better off studying something else. On a related note, Feynman had this to say about unnecessarily complicating the curriculum we use in schools:

Students have a resilience and a skill at recognizing “all that jazz” as just “jazz.” It was a child who understood the emperor’s clothes. I believe that a book should be only an assistance to a good teacher and not a dictator. Please have confidence in your common sense and protect the children from being intimidated by the unnecessary abstractions and pseudo-sophistications of the school books. Stay human, and on your pupil’s side.

Many teachers have gotten better at helping students appreciate the connection between topics and understanding why things work. But there’s still a lot of room to go. Feynman is critical of teachers who accept one word answers to problems without having students explain their thinking. He says:

One gets the impression then that science is to be a set of pat formulas to standard questions. “What makes it move,” quickly all hands are eagerly raised, the lesson is learned, they are to say “Energy makes it move,” “Gravity makes it fall,” “The soles of our shoes wear out because of friction.” Just words, nothing is explained. It is just like saying “Because of God’s will” and having nothing left to look into.

Feynman also gives a little advice on how to respond to children who seem bored or perform below average in certain subjects. Often, our approach is to bring more focus and attention to a student’s weaknesses. A different way to “fix the problem” is to focus more time on the positives. Here’s an excerpt from a letter he wrote to a parent asking for advice:

Do not be too mad at Mike for his C in physics. I got a C in English Literature. Maybe I never would have received a prize in physics if I had been better in English.

And here’s an excerpt from a letter he wrote to an old teacher who recognized Feynman as being bored in his class:

Another thing I remember as being very important to me was the time when you called me down after class and said “You make too much noise in class.” Then you went on to say that you understood the reason, that it was that the class was entirely too boring. Then you pulled out a book from behind you and said “Here, you read this, take it up to the back of the room, sit all alone, and study this; when you know everything that is in it, you can talk again.” And so, in my physics class I paid no attention to what was going on, but only studied Woods’ Advanced Calculus up in the back of the room.

As a closing thought, the following excerpt is from one of Feynman’s letters in response to a woman who had written to him with great admiration of his lectures. It gives us the perfect glimpse into Richard’s process for how one should go about learning anything:

It seems to me that there is some chance that you may be successful since you say you have not studied physics in a disciplined fashion. So much the better, but study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent, and original manner possible.

Be undisciplined. Be irreverent. Be original. Work hard. And focus on what you love. It doesn’t get any simpler than that.