Monday, March 28, 2011

We have come to equate erudite and obscure with competent and intelligent.

It's a note I scribbled on the back of a business card.  I don't remember why or when I wrote it, but the note has stayed next to my computer for several weeks.  I'm not opposed to big words, complicated theories, or the need for scientific-mathematical accuracy, but I'm frustrated by the tendency to confuse obfuscation with knowledge.

Distilling the essence of a thing accurately and precisely requires far more understanding than endless writing or talking about the fine points or meandering through the complications and details, until all hearers, readers, or followers are lost or befuddled.  Einstein's brilliance is represented both by the details behind and the summation of  E=mc².  The details of Einstein's theory may be difficult to grasp and follow, but the distillation hooks us, allows further exploration, and anchors what we do learn.

Stephen Hawking, the theoretical physicist, may be one of the greatest minds of my lifetime.  One of my favorite things about Professor Hawking is his ability--and desire--to explain his insights in language that most adults can grasp.  That, and the fact that he has chosen to author books for children.  Yep, he writes for children.  Stephen Hawking writes children's books.  So did Rudyard Kipling, T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis and a host of other competent and intelligent men and women.

Perhaps it's not so far-fetched, then, for me to insist that students be able to explain what they know using terms and words that a 12-year-old can understand.  To delve into a subject, wrap ones mind around the nuances, wrestle the subject matter into submission, then master it fully by explaining the subject simply and elegantly is the goal of education.  It's my goal, anyway, and I think there are adequate examples throughout history that greater thinkers than I have used this method of assessing mastery.

Erudition and obscurity are overrated; competence and intelligence are not.  We need the hooks that lead us to explore and the anchors that allow us to retain.  True genius lies in that direction.


  1. Like most things I can offer, this is only 1/3 useful, 1/3 useful, and less than 1/3 related:

  2. The second 1/3 should've said "funny". The universe is mocking me.

  3. "It is simplicity that makes the uneducated more effective than the educated when addressing popular audiences." Aristotle

    "When thought is too weak to be simply expressed, it's clear proof that it should be rejected." Luc De Clapiers

    It was true then, it is true now. We all know it, some of us understand it and many of us forget it.

    Yana's post sounds like some of the well educated who walk the hallways around me but forget how to walk across the hall to have a conversation. Thank you Yana. The universe would never dare to mock you, only laugh with you.


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