How Lincoln Learned to Read

I started reading this book because it was about education. My wife and I have 2 boys, one five-year-old and one 16 month old.  I’ve been thinking a great deal about their education. My wife and I are both scientists. We feel that while this line of work is intellectually rewarding, the road is hard. For one to reach the top, one has to make sacrifices. My wife and I are more interested in making sure that the boys grow up to make a comfortable living.

I would consider myself a lifelong student. I spent my 12 years in primary and secondary school. Four and a half years of collegiate learning (the extra semester came because I spent a yearlong exchange in Germany, and I decided to take some more courses to receive at least an International Studies minor). [This was followed] by 10 years of doctoral and post-doctoral training.

I have had the opportunity to learn in many settings. The modes of learning included both defined coursework and independent study. I did fine with both, although I think I had the advantage of being extremely interested in just about everything. So much so that on occasion I welcomed the structure imposed by instructors and their syllabus, plotting out a course of study that I may not have bothered with, on my own.

My graduate and post-doctoral work focused on olfaction, specifically on the physiology of olfaction as assessed using optical indicators of neural activity. I basically focused on recording brain responses in the “smell processing pathways” in the brain.

I didn’t have any affinity for the sense of smell. I applied to a neuroscience graduate program because I wanted to understand how the brain worked. It mattered not one wit whether the system was smell, taste, hearing, vision, or touch. I had a general question that I wanted to answer, and the specifics did not matter to me.

More recently, and this has some bearing on the book by Daniel Wolff, I had to find a second post-doctoral position because I decided that my skills were not marketable. I guess you can argue that I failed in convincing human resources that I can be productive for their company. However, it is also the case that biotechnology companies are not looking for a neurophysiologist who records in vivo neural responses using conventional microscopy. Instead, they look for electrophysiologists, scientists who do imaging in cell cultures, or deep tissue scanning using fMRI, CT scans, or PET scans.

Regardless, I couldn’t make myself fit into their bucket, and they weren’t willing to accommodate someone with my skill set and who could possibly bring something unique to their company.

The point is that I consider myself a professional student. Since I started my new post-doc in flow cytometry, I am learning new techniques, a new system, and getting to know the intimate lives of single cells. The strategy is simple: my boss has certain ideas he wants implemented. He left it to me to work out the specifics. So I am currently identifying attributes of my technique (UV spectroscopy), understanding the life cycle of a cell, identifying subcellular organelles, and learning how to make them stick to slides so I can look at them under a microscope. Most of these things I can find in published literature. The key thing is that I look for ways to combine my [new] technique ([involving] UV microscopy) and established ways of looking at cells.

In my previous post-doc, I had to determine the best way to preserve a “cranial window” through which I can look at brain responses, in the same animal, over a period of months. I adapted and extended previous work, and brought some newer techniques, to help me accomplish this goal. I also established a method to mimic natural breathing patterns in anesthetized mice, and so I had to learn LabView and MatLab to write software to control various devices and to analyze data.

So yes, I have some experience with learning new things.

And for the life of me I cannot think of a so-called best way for my boys to learn.

Thus I became interested in books like How Lincoln Learned to Read. It seems, from my reading, that the book confirmed  a few things about how kids learn. That is, it may not be clear until much later what exactly kids learned in school. Daniel Wolff took a snap shot of how 12 famous Americans were educated. He selected one child from each era and wrote about the formative years of each. Of course, these people may have become famous despite, and not because of, their education. One could tell that all of the young people were driven. Driven to achieve greatness, or driven to just do whatever it is that they became famous for.

In a way, the formal education was not all that important for each child. Some did in fact thirst for knowledge for its own sake. Wolff shaped his descriptions in terms of both pragmatic outcome and post-hoc analysis. We know where they ended up, so it becomes a way for us to interpret and identify the steps that led the children to their destiny. However, what he also noted was that the kids had the balls to chase the learning they needed. There is certainly an individualist streak, strongly evident in Lincoln’s and [Henry] Ford’s backgrounds; [both boys avoided farm work and] both boys were considered lazy for their time. [This was true given the focus of their times on the importance of farm work.] [Lincoln and Ford] were not layabouts. Lincoln read, and Ford tinkered. They learned what they wanted to know.

And even when the children were forced into limited opportunities for learning – such as for Thomectony, Abigail Adams, and Sojourner Truth – they did not let that education define them. They, as they should, got what they needed from books or their teachers, or even from their everyday observations. They did not let the limits of their so-called education prevent them achieving their ends.

Of all the characters, I felt the strongest affinity for W.E.B. Dubois, especially the view he took of education as uplift, in his younger days. A learned man is a rational man. The emphasis on books and abstract learning is the hallmark of civilization. Through reason and the sheer force of intellect and action, others cannot help but look past surface appearance to admire the man beneath. Education, simply, gives man and woman choice, so they do not have to sell their work cheaply.

But [the mass education] system seems broken to me. I have, and I hope this doesn’t turn readers off, thought for a long time now that education – and especially higher education – is not suited for everyone. I don’t think I am being elitist; I just happen to think that higher education is as useful to [most] people the way that knowing carpentry is useful to a plumber. It might be [handy] to know, but one certainly doesn’t require it to succeed in the job at hand. I will elaborate some more.

I’ve concluded that a university education is something that prepares students… to do research. For scientific research, the goal is to identify mechanisms underlying observed phenomena. The use may in fact not be obvious – this is more of the knowledge of the sake of knowledge [mode]. To me, it seems a destructive idea to [use] a university degree as a form of uplift. It cheapens education to the point that one thinks a degree is in fact a commodity to be bought. This cannot be further from the truth: to pay for an education should mean that one has decided that the resources of a university helps expand his knowledge, whether by working with specific machines and tools or with specific professors. This is active knowledge seeking.

The alternative is to think of college as a paid for experience, at the end of which one is conferred a piece of paper that acts as a passport to a job. In this mode, I can see how students and parents may impinge on faculty, outraged that the instructor dared to fail the lazy student. [I detest students who blame their own lack of academic success on the teacher wh odid not engage his interest], when in fact all they have paid for is access. The rest is up to the student to provide.

And so I was left with this: each of the subjects Wolff discusses had the common attribute of being presenters. These were all men and women who grew famous as politicians, orators, writers, or entrepreneurs. In a sense, each of these people excelled at internalizing and then espousing what they knew. Rachel Carson wrote about her Romantic-era like visions of her bucolic home, an ideal that was nowhere near the [reality] of her growing up near a glue factory. Elvis Presley spent time in school, sure, but he certainly did not shy from joining quartets or cutting demos. Ben Franklin, Helen Keller, and Andrew Jackson learned a fair bit about finding popular topics to write or talk about.

This theme, whether Wolff intended or not, has dovetailed with my own thinking about the type of education I want my sons to have. I think, most of all, they need to read proficiently. Not in the cheap post-modern way where all language simply reflects one’s preconceived notions and thoughts. No, I mean to read and to understand and internalize the writer’s point of view. To engage him honestly. The second thing would be to then tell an audience what he understood, and how he extends or refutes the idea. I think this second point is something that needs to be emphasized explicitly. By telling, one learns.

It is a bit of a cliche, in graduate school, that the best way to learn is to be forced to teach someone else. Only [by] actually thinking about the audience will one truly begin to understand. I have found the hard way that this is in fact true. One should aspire not to understand something, but to make it so that he can help a second person understand what he [now professes] to know. I realized I have been implementing this in a soft way. I keep asking my older son questions, helping him develop details to his stories. I am always amazed and gratified when he can put together sentences with subclauses, declaring a proper sequence of events.

Part of it is just joy in hearing him talk, in seeing him learn. [I] am glad to see that there are precedents for such [a] type of education.

Update 4/9/2010: Ick. I know blogs are meant to be fast, first drafts sort of posts, but I just can’t stand seeing obvious mistakes and not correct them. I placed the edits in brackets (I’m not sure if the strikethroughs I see in other blogs are real corrections or if it’s another tool to convey snide comments – I think usually the latter…. So, I am going with brackets.)

1 comment
  1. Daniel Wolff said:

    Ah, this is very gratifying. And I feel pretty confident, your sons are gonna do just fine. Thanks.

    Daniel Wolff

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