22 Nov 2005

is a messy thing

At any rate, it should be. Richard Feynman made an observation about two different microscopes or partical accelerators (or some kind of physics toy). One school had a sleek, shiny one that was handled by technicians. Very impressive! An other school's was a mess of wires and tape, with students swarming all around. Well, probably not swarming, but you get the drift. At first, he was impressed by the first, shiny one. Then he realized that if the students wanted to try something (switch a magnet, tweak some component) those at the first school wouldn't have an easy time of it. They would have to plan it, tell the technicians how to do it, and so on. Not the sort of thing you would do if you just had a little idea. At the second school, however, the students would have no problem. It would take work on their part, but if it's your idea and you're exploring something interesting, what's one more late night? They had a mess on their hands, but learning was easy.

Schools should be messy, too. Teachers don't do much good if they're closeted far from the students. A library whose books are locked behind glass isn't much of a library. If talking to a professor requires you to think up some reason to book a meeting with him, it's not likely that you'll ever have a casual conversation with him. If reading a book requires you to know about it in advance, the chances are pretty slim that you'll pick up something just to flip through it.

In a messy school, ideas don't get tidied up. They're lying around, waiting for someone to pick them up and look them over. Ideas live in people: professors, technicians, students and librarians. Sometimes ideas are packed away in books, in journals, in so many other other things.

Please, please, please: don't lock up your ideas. Don't tidy them up. If you want people to learn--to expand their minds--then leave a mess of ideas, of people, of books. It's really the only way to give an education.