Cramming vs curiosity—SATs, J.S. Mill and the secret to original thinking.
Should children learn facts or train their minds?
The current row about whether the SAT exams taken by eleven-year-olds are too hard is part of a bigger debate: should we cram children with facts or ignite their curiosity? Not just children. If you are reading this blog, you are interested in your own self-education. The paradox of knowledge versus originality continues into adulthood. It also touches the question of talent—what defines a genius and original thinker?
In 1832, John Stuart Mill wrote an impassioned letter to the Monthly Repository. Mill was a lifelong autodidact and original thinker, who believed strongly that education could be improved, and later wrote his Autobiography to record his unusual homeschooling and encourage others to raise their aspirations.
That which has been known a thousand years may be new truth to you or me. There are born into the world every day several hundred thousand human beings, to whom all truth whatever is new truth. What is it to him who was born yesterday, that somebody who was born fifty years ago knew something? The question is, how he is to know it. There is one way; and nobody has ever hit upon more than one—by discovery.
The world is full of school children who have committed something to memory but don’t understand it. Real understanding means thinking or experiencing truth for yourself. We all know the feeling of finally understanding something we had only known as a fact before.
whosoever, to the extent of his opportunity, gets at his convictions by his own faculties, and not by reliance on any other person whatever—that man, in proportion as his conclusions have truth in them, is an original thinker, and is, as much as anybody ever was, a man of genius
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