Silver in the mine, jade unpolished

For the holidays, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes, which is by Benjamin Franklin:

Genius without education is like silver in the mine.

And because all grand thoughts are timeless, they must re-appear in an eternal return.

So this quote, too, must have antecedents. Let’s work backwards in time, to savor even more of the same wisdom:

First stop: Song Dynasty

From my daughter, who is currently reciting the 13th-century Sanzi Jing (the Three-character Classic, a Confucian poem-treatise), I hear the beautifully rhythmic:

Which means (Number 7 here):

Jade that has not been polished

cannot be used.

[a] Person who has not studied

cannot know righteousness.

Second stop: Rome

By Rome I mean Latin. Let’s see: to educate = ex-ducere = to lead out

Lead out? As in: get out what is already there, as in silver or jade? Where might that idea have come from?

Third stop: Socrates

We haven’t talked about Socrates for a while here on The Hannibal Blog. (Here are all my old posts about him. He is not in my book, by the way).

The old man had his own silver/jade/education theory: He called it (in the Meno and Phaedo) “anamnesis”. And he demonstrated it by … helping a slave to remember (= “teaching”) that the blue square below has twice the area of the yellow square:

The lesson

And now for Kluthian axiom number whatchammacallit:

It’s in there. Get it out.

Happy holidays.

A learning revolution: Khan Academy

Where have I been, you may have been wondering. Well, this chart above shows you where I’ve been. I used to take my coffee breaks blogging, but for the past month I’ve been taking them (ie, a couple of 10-minute breaks a day) at the Khan Academy, which is the subject of this post.

The chart shows my time logged watching chemistry-lesson videos during the past month. (Notice that I’ve earned some meteorite badges, and even a moon and an earth badge. 🙂 This boy — his name is Sal Khan — knows how to motivate kids of all sizes.)

Now, you too should care about this (ie, the Khan Academy), and I am about to tell you why. But first…

1) Credits

I don’t know how it’s possibly that I only discovered the Khan Academy last month, but that’s what happened. And I discovered it because Dafna, a frequent commenter here on The Hannibal Blog, mentioned it in passing, apropos of something else, and I clicked through and was hooked.

Dafna: You get more than a fist bump, you get a chest bump or body flop. Now…

2) “Revolution”: definition and polemic

I used the word revolution in the title of this post, so please indulge me in another brief tangent, concerning that word.

I can’t tell you how sick I am of it. And the verb, to revolutionize, is even uglier. Practically every PR pitch I get in my inbox (and I get many) announces that something or other is being “revolutionized”. How yucky. And how ludicrous.

By definition, revolutions are extremely rare in human history. I myself have, as a journalist, proclaimed precisely one revolution in fourteen years (and that was the ongoing media revolution, which I put on a par with the Gutenberg printing press.)

So I don’t use the word lightly. But I think there is a revolution underway, and it is in learning. So now I might have your attention.

3) What is Khan Academy?

I was tempted to summarize it here, but why would I distract from Sal Khan explaining it personally? So watch this talk below, and then come back here to read the rest of the post:

4) Revolution or rotation? How Sal flips education

Now that you know what Khan Academy is, you’re ready to contemplate what makes it (or things like it, such as future iTunes U courses et cetera) revolutionary.

A revolution is technically a circumnavigation of something (as that of our planet around the sun). But we usually think of it, in human affairs (the French Revolution, say), as a rotation, a turning upside down of something.

This is what Sal thinks Khan Academy can do to education as it is traditionally practiced in schools.

In this piece in the Wall Street Journal, he argues that Khan Academy can

“flip” the traditional classroom: Students can hear lectures at home and spend their time at school doing “homework”—that is, working on problems. It allows them to advance at their own pace, gaining real mastery, and it lets teachers spend more time giving one-to-one instruction.

Ponder this for a while. And then you see why this might be revolutionary.

On a personal note: Sal, with his approach, epitomizes a lot of my own worldview. He:

  • loves — clearly adores — learning for its own sake;
  • takes the pomposity out of it; and
  • makes learning playful and intimate.

In due course, you will hear more, much more, from me on this subject.

Humor, education and creativity

You probably remember the old chestnut of Philosophy 101, Metaphysics: If a tree falls in a forest and nobody is there to hear it, did it make a sound?

Well, enjoy Ken Robinson’s twist on it, 14:40 minutes into the talk at the end of this post:

If a man speaks his mind in a forest, and no woman hears it, is he still wrong?

The talk is another great example of the British humor that I love and am often surrounded by at The Economist. But humor is best with substance, as a vehicle that delivers a serious point more memorably.

Does Robinson have such a point? Yes. It is:

Schools kill creativity.

As he says,

If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’re never going to be original.

But we–first in our schools, then in our companies–stigmatize “mistakes”. We do, don’t we? Even on this blog, I am sometimes so worried about saying something stupid that I end up saying nothing at all. As Robinson says, we “educate people out of creativity.”

Well, let’s stop doing that, certainly here on The Hannibal Blog. Watch the whole thing:

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