Improving and expanding Dogme Teaching

A manifesto implementing the Dogme method to teaching, drawing inspiration from filmmaking and academia alike.

Teaching is arguably the most undervalued profession today. Few can appreciate its impacts, the effort it demands and the challenges it poses to the teacher—when done well. About a year ago, while trying to put what effective teaching is into crisp words, I turned to the dogma manifesto in filmmaking. It is a process I subscribe to (at least in part) and employ while making my own short films. Could it be applied to teaching? Would it even make sense?

Not long after, I found out that this had already been done by others back in the 90s albeit for narrow teaching requirements. And the method, in that context, drew lots of criticism, not all positive. However nobody seems to have expanded the idea outside of its niche (which was language teaching) despite the fact that most of its core propositions hold true for nearly all fields being taught across universities today. This is an attempt to, at best, set up such a teaching method1 or, at least, lay out some ground rules for teachers to follow so that they do not forget the purpose of their occupation while they—as they should—explore exciting new methods of teaching that sprout and grow with the times.

The teacher is an enabler, not an end-all. It is not in the teacher’s place to instruct and seek obedience; rather it is to ensure that students can themselves evolve with the teacher shaping them, guiding them and catalysing the process. These words are more present, physical and immediate in their nature than their floweriness might suggest. And it is with this in mind that I expand upon the Dogme Teaching ideas from the early noughts. Lastly, it is worth mentioning here that over the course of reading about, understanding and building upon the Dogme Teaching method it became clear to me that, besides the name, it shares nothing with Dogme filmmaking manifesto; also any development atop this method that we will be making presently will leave you with an set of ideas that go quite far from the letter of the original while keeping the spirit intact.

The central ideas

There are three main ideas underlying Dogme Teaching: one, that teaching must be primarily conversation-driven; two, that teaching must be materials-light; and three, that learning happens through emergence rather than acquisition. It may be hard to see how these apply outside language teaching but they form wonderful precepts if we give them some free rein.

Using multimedia is all the rage these days, and with good reason: visual learning is known to be more effective than auditory or other forms. Indeed this is why blackboards were originally used; they allowed writing down—visually representing information—which was as much as could be done dynamically in classrooms (besides charts perhaps) in the days before electricity came into our lives. The fact that we still use it today is testament to its everlasting nature.

The fact that most see multimedia as a replacement to the chalkboard is worrying. The only legitimate reason to use multimedia is to exhibit something that is otherwise too complex to produce or describe, such as brief videos of phenomena, structures of organs, large scale organisational charts and so on. Simply using slides to list out points is far less effective than actually writing them out on the blackboard because the fact that things are happening in realtime on the board2 right here and now helps students connect to and absorb the idea—and remember and recall it—much better. This is what comes of the first two ideas: conversation-driven teaching and an approach that sees justified use rather than the overuse of support materials.

The idea of emergence versus acquisition is something I had been practising in some form in my own teaching without explicitly labelling it as such. For instance when someone asked me a question in class rather than answering the question I would nudge them with little clues towards the answer until they came up with it themselves. This was incredibly effective. Not only do students get a surge of confidence and encouragement (which so many classrooms lack so direly) they also tend to remember it as a result of the question–answer session becoming an experience rather than a tennis match.

Whether you are the sort of teacher who encourages questions interrupting a class or prefer questions at the end3 making the the entire class an experience led by the teacher but built and driven by students is always a great way of teaching. In short, this is emergence as opposed to acquisition where you tell them something and ask them to keep it in mind.

A seven-point manifesto

This essay started out as a piece on using technology effectively and sensibly in the classroom. Although I digressed, addressing the issue as part of a larger manifesto not only seemed more worthwhile but also promised to be more meaningful in the long run. This is the old Dogme Teaching manifesto expanded beyond language teaching and improved to accommodate newer classroom tools.

1. Interactivity and dialogic processes

That learning happens through conversations and not one-directional speeches is a central idea of Dogme teaching. However, outside of languages, most subjects do in fact require certain periods of lecturing, where new ideas are put forth before students can begin to discuss them at all and immediate usage is not a realistic possibility. The idea is to strike a balance. Every week try to make space for tutorial sessions that are dedicated to open discussions rather than teaching alone.

In short, while one-way teaching is sometimes necessary always try to build a dialogue with every student, push them into conversation if necessary, and have some form of discussion in class.

2. Engagement and scaffolded conversations

Students learn better when they are interested in a topic and they are interesting in a topic when they came up with it. In other words, and as said before, engage students and nudge them towards the answer—let them come up with ideas. This will go a long way in making them comfortable with the field and interested in reading more about it.

In other words, construct ideas with students so they can get their hands dirty while they learn it from first principles; do not just give them ideas just because those ideas already exist.

3. Emergence over acquisition

One of my favourite beliefs in the Dogme method is that understanding develops from within the learner and is not transferred like a piece of information. This adds on to the previous point and is more a thought to appreciate and keep in mind than a method to adopt. One of the ways of ensuring this happens effectively in the classroom is to focus on components of a lesson. By piecing a topic up into small concepts that all tie together, a student’s understanding of one or few of the concepts can dramatically improve their chances of understanding the rest of the concepts and, in turn, of the entire topic.

In short, focus on making students an integral part of discovering ideas anew in the classroom rather than presenting it to them as existing topics from a canon; focus on topics as palatable chunks rather than huge volumes to better achieve this.

4. Give students a voice

One of the things I used to make clear in my classes, rather explicitly, was that students need not agree with what I say. They were allowed to, nay encouraged to, disagree and debate topics until they were convinced one way or the other. In physics the debate is not so much about right or wrong but about fully understanding a mathematical manoeuvre, a physical interpretation etc.

In other fields similar needs exist to varying degrees but the idea remains the same: give students a voice. You may need to coax them to speak up (there will be some exceptions) but let them know they can communicate freely and comfortably. The thought of being able to express themselves freely empowers students greatly.

In brief, make students feel comfortable in the classroom, let them know they can disagree, let them know they can speak out and participate in open discussions until they are fully convinced of an idea taught in class.

5. Use minimal support materials

Keep in mind that things you offer your students, be it handouts or copies of presentations or even presentations exhibited in class, are all in addition to your teaching, not replacements for it. They are also in addition to your students’ core learning material, not a replacement for that either. The central idea here is that technology must be used to add to the learning process, not for its own sake.

The use of technology can reduce that of paper. However this is easier said than done unless you are fully independent in your teaching; in most other cases your institution will have to take a leading role in this and I have had a bitter experience in this regard myself. Yet there are things you can employ within your class too, such as having assignments e-mailed rather than written, which is something I have had some success with and which received a lot of positive feedback from students.

In other words, use as many support materials you need, no more, no less; there is a thin line beyond which such materials and technology go from being supporting to being distractive—tread carefully.

6. Reading materials have their place

One of the criticisms that Dogme Teaching originally faced was that it shunned the use of textbooks. Perhaps it did make sense to some extent in language teaching but shunning textbooks is hardly convenient in other fields. Indeed textbooks have their place much like any other reading material from websites to articles to magazines to general reading books. Textbooks are, as they have always been, excellent starting points.

Dogme teaching must not encourage textbook reading in class; it must be a purely off-class activity. But its benefits can be drawn inside the classroom by simple time-saver solutions like quickening the laying out of an idea (since students could have simply been assigned this as a reading assignment) and allowing the time saved for actual conversations and discussions. The same is true of all reading materials.

In short, shun textbooks in class but let them be teachers outside the classroom; let reference and reading materials become boosters of efficiency so that repetitive and expositional work can be left to them while you focus on active discussions and enhancements during your teaching rather than using external resources as skeletons.

7. Demarcate opinions and facts

Everything expressed in class is either a fact or an opinion. Opinions, while they have the right to thrive in the classroom, must be marked clearly as such. There is nothing wrong or unnatural about students taking to their teacher’s perspective; this is human and is part of the deal of choosing to studying in an institution or under a certain professor.

However, Dogme Teaching will ideally have developed the student’s presence in communications and the student’s thinking enough to ensure that if they do fall in line with their teacher’s opinion they will have done so of their own will and, additionally, that if they change their mind later they do so sensibly and informedly.

That is to say, informed opinions and facts have a right to co-exist in the classroom and acknowledging possible bias is an essential step since elimination is nearly impossible; but students must be encouraged to think for themselves and follow or oppose an opinion on fair grounds—after all there is nowhere they can go later in life where opinions will not be constantly echoed around them.

Add to the conversation

This manifesto is by no means complete. It is, if anything, a stepping stone for a more exhaustive version that can only be framed with input from teachers from various fields.

There is a lot more I would myself like to add to the manifesto but am weary that beliefs may end up outnumbering methods. Dogme is a teaching method after all. And it must remain, in this new form, something that applies to all fields with nothing too specific about any thereby making for an excellent platform for foundational teaching to develop on.

If you are a teacher or a student or anyone who can add to this discussion do get in touch with me via Twitter (DM preferred) or e-mail with follow-ups.

  1. Dogme teaching, to some, is a movement. I would rather see it as a method because movements, like trends, tend to die out eventually. This is not the nature of the arguments made in this essay. ↩︎

  2. As opposed to something that has already happened before the fact, elsewhere, such as the data on slides. Presentations often work to remove students from the room they are in; with complex animations, charts etc. transporting them away like this can be a great idea, but with straightforward points this can be counterproductive. ↩︎

  3. Although, when I was teaching, I would make it a point to keep reminding my students that they could ask me questions with a show of hands anytime during class and not necessarily at the end, I know of several teachers who prefer the latter method of reserving time at the end for questions. Contrary to popular belief neither method is less effective than the other. The disadvantage in the former case is that the flow of the teacher is sometimes interrupted and in the latter case it is not. But in the latter case the students need only be prompted to write down their questions rather than ponder over them at the cost of the rest of the class. Once a teacher and their students develop a rapport all sorts of pleasant non-verbal communications will develop making both these methods equally convenient. ↩︎

The layman’s perspective

Passing thoughts on why academics should work more on communicating with the layperson and how this can help more than hinder them.

It is deceptively easy for academics to surround themselves with persons of their field to the point where it distorts their view of society. The idea that most of the world does not think like them quickly fades away to the point where certain fairly common traits step into the picture: one, they take for granted that others have a certain knowledge about their field that seems obvious to them; two, they lose connection with a mind that does not possess the basic knowledge that led them to the place where they currently find themselves; three, they assume that others are interested in the finer ideas that lead to the larger conclusions in their field (as opposed to the conclusions alone); and four, they are not open to silly questions coming from outsiders to their field.

Of course this description is not true of all academics but it does describe quite a large chunk of them. The idea is that academics tend to—perhaps unintentionally—look at the world through goggles tinted with shades of their own field. They can hardly be blamed for this: such behaviour is completely natural for someone who has drenched themselves in a particular way of looking at things for at least a few years. But the core of the argument remains that in academia (and possibly elsewhere) the layman’s perspective is often not given its due recognition.


To draw from my own previous experiences, I can name several physicists I have met who despise popular science literature. Despite being a popular science writer myself I used to fall into the same category, often blaming a lot of such books and articles for underrepresenting the complexity and nuances of the field. I used to think this was exclusive to physics and mathematics because we use a language not commonly used by the layman—mathematics—but it turns out I was wrong.

A couple of weeks ago, while my fiancée and I were waiting for our pickup at an airport, I happened to buy a book that I found rather interesting: Psy-Q by Dr Ben Ambridge, a psychologist at Liverpool University. It was a book that promised to explain various psychological analyses through simple tests the reader could undergo and it promptly started with the pop culture Rorshach/inkblot test that is often misleadingly shown to be the be-all and end-all of psych eval in mental institutions in films and on television.

Even as my puny non-psychologist self started wandering around the airport looking to buy a pencil and start taking those tests my fiancée picked the book up, skimmed through it and put it aside with a single remark that went something like, ‘This book makes psychology seem like a joke’. And I completely understood her perspective. ‘It’s simplification that’s useful for the layman’, I explained. Neither of us bothered to debate the issue any further, but this brief exchange has stayed with me ever since.

There are two perspectives commonly held among people: the truth of the complexity of their own field and that of the perceived simplicity of another’s. Nobody is to blame for this. The reason most people perceive physics as difficult is not because they recognise the intricacies of the field but because they know a lot of rigorous mathematics is involved and mathematics has long been synonymous with complexity for some reason. It cannot be overstated how impossible it is for a physicist to imagine a field that exists without mathematics, a field that is purely based on verbiage. This has the reverse effect of perceived simplicity where we tend to perceive another field as considerably simpler.

Undoubtedly all fields can always be ranked by simplicity and physics and mathematics would probably be right at the bottom of such a list but what about other fields? While most perceive physics as ‘difficult’ do, say, historians perceive literature as simpler than their own? Or do psychologists perceive their field as more nuanced than, say, forensic science? That each person appreciates their own field is a given. How they perceive other fields which all speak the same language—as opposed to physics or mathematics—now remains a mystery to me.


In the midst of all this then where does the layman come into play? To the pop science book in my hand I was the layman. To a popular physics book somewhere else a psychologist may be the layman. The most immediate effect is building bridges. The isolation of any academic field does it little good. Long term isolation risks being misinterpreted as irrelevance.

If someone never hears of, for example, radiology, they are likely to assume either that it is a distant, little-used field or that it is some fancy new line of study. Why am I only hearing about it today? On the other hand introducing every single inch of radiology to a layman would not only be a futile waste of time but possible also extremely off-putting. When popular books reduce a field just enough to explain the pith to a layperson they help readers connect with the field enough to like it and take interest in it. Whether this leads the reader to explore a more accurate version of the field or not it does bring the field close enough to the reader that they are now aware of it and perhaps even care about it on some level.

If such a long-term strategy does not appeal to you consider something with a more direct connection: funds. Most academic sectors draw funds from either private donors or the government. There is the rare benefactor but those are exceptions that are otherwise motivated. It so happens that neither party has anything close to a proper knowledge of the field they are investing in and therefore, like anyone ignorant, they talk in terms of immediate, usually tangible, benefits. Private companies look for profits and governments—representing the taxpayer, a layperson—intend to be answerable; both of them seek explanations that water down a field and skimp over the intricacies. At this point making a field simplistic becomes a dire necessity.

There is a third, somewhat idealistic need to pay heed to the layperson. Perhaps ‘idealistic’ is a strong word and does not accurately describe the problem at hand, but, semantics aside, the idea is that questions a layperson may raise can sometimes lead to interesting discussions. Of course nothing dramatically new may come of such talks but the mental flexing is sometimes its own reward—not to mention an exercise academics can never have enough of.

Perhaps it is a reflection of my own (lack of) knowledge in my field but I consider talking with laypersons and answering their questions about fundamental physics (often mistaken for ‘dumb questions’) a good test of my hold over my subject. If you can simplify something and explain it to someone you probably have a good enough idea about the thing. Laypersons in this sense are a self-checking mechanism we can all benefit from.


Everything discussed so far has been centred around academia, but the final reason why communication with the layman is important is a more general one: it is important for the sake of communication itself. Any academic field communicates on two levels: to other academics of that field and to everyone else. The former is well taken care of, perhaps too well. The latter, not so much. This lack of communication has dangerously mutated into outright miscommunication.

An idea that may be commonplace in academic circles can have dizzyingly varied ‘opinions’ among laymen. Medical health research is particularly susceptible to this trend; take coffee as an example: combing over about seven to eight years of reportage will likely end up giving you the opinion that coffee is both good and bad for nearly every health condition you can think of. Ian Musgrave of the Pharmacology department at the University of Adelaide wrote an interesting article addressing this issue nearly five years ago—it is worth reading for this line alone: ‘Look up the abstract (not the press release) associated with the study, it may be in technicalese, but you should be able to get a feel for whether the article reporting the study is going off the rails. This may seem like a lot of work, but how much is your coffee worth to you?’

The question worth asking here is whether the layman can read abstracts at all. Here is an example from a paper I read earlier today:

Optical mixing experiments show the ability of amplifying a weak optical signal by superposing it with a stronger one. This principle has been demonstrated also for weak signals at the quantum level, down to a single photon. In the present communication it is suggested that the sensitivity of optical mixing between a strong macroscopic source and a single photon can be further enhanced as to allow the sensing the wavefront of the photon’s mode simultaneously at two or more locations. Key conditions for that detection is reducing the active size of the detectors below the typical size of the transverse modes, and performing an optical intensity correlation measurement of the Hanbury Brown and Twiss type. Due to the inherent amplification effect of the mixing process, a macroscopic signal is extracted, out of which the photon wave-front characterization at more than one location is achievable with good fidelity even for a single photon emission event. A basic scheme is proposed for the demonstration of the effect, which is analyzed based on a simple quantum model. The validity of the model is confirmed by comparison with previous theoretical and experimental reports involving single photon sources.

It is safe to say at this point that abstracts of this sort are best left for other academics. But it is equally true that the onus is on these same academics to communicate their field properly with the layperson and encourage at least a brief debate once in a while. Inaccessibility and the press’s role as the middle-man has open the doors to miscommunication and it is nobody’s fault—certainly not on purpose. Perhaps an article like Dr Musgrave’s is the best long-term solution after all.

In any case the incredibly valid idea remains that academics and laypersons have to communicate better; the latter will have to make sincere attempts to skeptically reason out whatever pieces of information they come across and evaluate the trustworthiness of their sources and the former will have to make more attempts at swallowing the pride nursed by the complexity of their field and dumb things down cleverly enough for laymen to fully understand an issue and have their voice heard in a debate.

In praise of coursebooks

Writing a coursebook is both a lot harder and a lot more rewarding than one might imagine.

Two months ago (or so) I was contacted by the physics department of the Regional Institute of Education, India, who asked me if I would be interested in writing a coursebook for secondary schools. It seemed like an exciting thing to do so, after going over the specifics and discussing the entire project, I accepted.

How it all started

The Institute had the purpose of the book set up right from the start (it was supposed to be a teacher’s resource) but, as I began to plan the contents of the book and draw up an outline, I felt myself gravitating towards making it slightly different from a regular teacher’s resource.

Part of the project involved updating existing resources that had been published in-house exclusively for the Institute but we quickly moved past that and expanded the scope of the project: rather than simply updating material (some of which I was not comfortable with anyway), it was finally decided that I would start from scratch, define my own scope, and get a completely free rein. I only had to ensure that I covered as much physics as (and, perhaps a little more than) we expect students to be familiar by the time they apply to undergraduate colleges.

Of course there is a committee of physicists going over every word I write, as there should be. Part of academia, for better or worse, is peer review and it helps keep things grounded, promotes arguments, prevents errors (at least better than what one man alone can do) and, as a whole, is expected to improve the quality of such works.

I also decided, at this point, that I would not write a teacher’s resource to accompany existing texts alone but, rather, re-write the coursebook itself, producing a single, combined text that would serve as both the coursebook for sixth form students and a teacher’s resource. I wanted it to be something both students and teachers could use in a classroom as well as something that was designed to enable self-teaching.

Bringing in a new perspective

Among the many things I was hoping to do, perhaps the most difficult was to think like potential student or teacher readers might. Standing about halfway through the first of two volumes now, it has been difficult to think about what questions they might have and what they might not think about that they should. I think it helps that I am young enough to still remember modern, early education compared to a fifty-year-old professor who has, in all likelihood, lost touch with being a student1 in the traditional sense of the word.

Writing a coursebook is ‘infinitely more work than you think, and it’s also much more satisfying’, says Anne Houtman of the Rochester Institute of Technology; this is a thought I am more than inclined to agree with.

I do have readers (who will go unnamed) who are helping out by reading the book as it is being written and questioning sections of the content, offering advice, pointing out errors et cetera, all of which have been incredibly helpful for me so far. I think it has bettered the textbook in a way I could hardly have done by myself.

The layout and approach is also something I have given considerable thought to. I finally decided on arranging the book as a main text and several side notes, the former being exclusively for students and the latter for teachers and readers teaching themselves. Keeping in tone with the older volumes (which my new volumes are intended to succeed) I have included several classroom activities that, besides regular laboratory sessions, will make physics more ‘hands-on’.

The philosophy behind the book

Although I would prefer to steer clear of big words like defining a ‘philosophy’ behind my book I do think it is important to be clear on the whys and on what problems I hope my book addresses.

Right from the start my biggest question was how I would handle mathematics in the book. Introducing mathematics as a standalone chapter and then moving onto physics, while appealing, is hardly the most effective method of learning in my opinion. Mathematics has to be taught in context to physicists rather than in the gloriously abstract regime so many mathematicians seem to prefer.

My solution was to have a sort of referential chapter at the start of the book that would outline all the mathematical tools a reader of the book would need. The introductions were all done in the context of physics, with examples they would have come across by then or would come across soon. More importantly, though, rather than being a dictionary of mathematics for physicists (which was what I was against) the chapter is intended to be something readers would turn back to constantly throughout their reading of the rest of the text.

This means most of the chapter invokes physical ideas from elsewhere in the book and, mutually, the two chapters would strengthen the notions introduced by each other. This has called for a constant revision of that particular chapter as the rest of the book is written, which is something I am fine with.

Also, on a deeper level, I want the book to address some problems I have, myself, seen many students experience. It could be something as specific as a calculus shock, where students are shoved into the manner of thinking and the ideas of calculus rather than eased into it2, or a complete lack of grip on the structure of a physics course, or worst of all, an examination-focussed, type-of-problem based learning rather than learning directed towards appreciating the ideas and thinking that underlies most of physics3 I will not bore you with the details of how I am addressing these, but if there is anything I have left out, I always appreciate ( text:a helpful e-mail).

The other major challenge has been problems. Problem solving is at the heart of physics and thinking up new problems creatively is notoriously difficult. In fact, all of this has given me a newfound respect for all the coursebooks we read and tossed aside during our formal education. Criticise a book all you want, but you cannot deny the effort that went into writing one4.

In praise of coursebooks

Says Anne Houtman, a behavioral ecologist and head of the School of Life Sciences at the Rochester Institute of Technology, that writing a coursebook is ‘infinitely more work than you think, and it’s also much more satisfying’. This is a thought I am more than inclined to agree with.

The manner in which an idea is introduced, the harmony between ideas across pages and chapters and volumes, and the thought that the words you put to paper will define how someone views the field for a long time are not so much daunting as constant reminders of the huge responsibility that comes with writing a good quality book. More localised concerns include ensuring the same notation across chapters and the same approach to making statements, offering proof and putting the mathematics in a physical perspective.

As Dr Houtman points out, coursebooks will effectively be reviewed by more peers and for longer in its lifetime than more than most research papers. Also, unlike papers again, coursebooks will likely be critiqued and reviewed by students and the public too (but in a manner different from most scientists’ reviews).

Although my intended audience are sixth form students, I have ensured that they are introduced to ideas they will encounter in higher studies too, and not merely verbally. This means, unlike older volumes of books from the Institute targeting students, my two volumes do not treat calculus as optional. There is some hand-holding but no spoon-feeding, although, by the end of every chapter the learning becomes more independent. I also managed to add in some external references for students and teachers interested in further reading because, just as there will be students who find the book hard to cover, there will be those who cover it with ease and may look for more reading materials.

All-in-all, perhaps this has been the only thing I have constantly looked forward to working on everyday besides my research; and I was right in my thinking the day I was first contacted by the Institute: this is exciting work. But it calls for more thought than I had ever expected and I like that too because it makes my work that much more meaningful for me and that is something I value greatly. Also, taking a moment like this to put my thoughts into words has been somewhat encouraging (not that I have ever had any shortage of that). And if you will excuse me now, I have a coursebook to write.

  1. All scientists are students, but not in the classroom sense, which is an entirely different thing from the constant self-teaching that most of us in academia are wont to do. ↩︎

  2. This is funny to some extent: schools rarely introduce arithmetic to young kids by calling it arithmetic, likewise with algebra. They are both is introduced as part of mathematics rather than as some complex technique supposedly important in the grand scheme of things. Calculus, on the other hand, walks onto the stage with an aura of toughness and complexity most people cannot understand. This is silly. It has, all through history, worked against calculus and left us with students who never could wrap their head around it because they were told it was difficult. And this is also why most non-scientists end up criticising higher level maths and physics as something they do not need in their daily lives: when one never learns to appreciate the nuances of calculus or trigonometry, they will never realise how often they can potentially make use of it to gain a different perspective on situations. ↩︎

  3. That last point felt nonsensical even to describe. ↩︎

  4. There are exceptions to this: some books are clearly devoid of effort and originality while others were written by ghost writers. These are both little more than disgraces and we should all probably agree to never speak of them again. ↩︎

What does it mean to be educated?

Education should be much more than a degree or the amassment of knowledge.

Around June this year, a couple of weeks before my 23rd birthday, I expect to be handed my master’s degree in physics. Besides extensive specialisation and research for a doctoral degree, this is the highest honour a person can obtain to signify his mastery in a particular field. In essence, there is no doubt that I, and the many others in my graduating class, would be looked at as ‘educated’ people.

Things and behaviours will be expected of us now that a formal closure has been made to a two-decade-long journey of learning. But, two decades later, what does it all mean? As holders of such a degree, and, more broadly, as educated people, what should education really mean to us? I think there are a series of characteristics which describe what a truly educated mind is and it takes more than a simple list to understand these. Then again, perhaps it takes one educated mind to appreciate another, but I digress.

This is a republishing of an old article from the archives in part due to its popularity and in part because I think it will prove to be a worthwhile and timely read, especially for someone hoping to graduate soon.

A look at the etymology of said academic degree takes us to Latin: the word ‘magister’ meant a master, a scholar who was proficient enough in a field to teach at a university. There are, strictly speaking, only two master’s degrees in the world: Master of Arts (MA, or AM in some countries), and Master of Science (MS or SM in the US, MSc in the UK, India etc.). Everything else (MBA, MFA, MPhil etc.) are ‘tagged’ degrees specific to various fields and any discussion beyond this quickly gets messy. But, that said, I think this is a wrong approach to the question at hand because it deals not with the fundamental aspect of learning, but instead works towards defining an acceptable level of proficiency in a particular field. To really understand education one will have to go deeper, to its roots, and back in time over 2,300 years.

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it. Aristotle

Aristotle was a man with remarkable insight into a lot of things. He would have had the equivalent of a master’s degree in an array of disciplines if the concept existed back then; and, although all his theories about the universe were wrong, it was his manner of thinking scientifically that really pushed the boundaries of schools back in his time. As wrong as his science was, his philosophies were spot on: ‘It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it’, he once said, and it really takes a couple of readings to grasp the full meaning of his words.

To me, this statement by Aristotle has often been the cornerstone of a scientific and educated mind. Life is full of decisions waiting to be taken, full of debates to be argued, as well as agreements and disagreements to be had. In life one is presented with a plethora of choices, an array of approaches to a task, several manners and ways in which a thing can be done and it is easy to be influenced by others, which brings me to my first characteristic: the educated mind can think independently. It should be able to take in everything around it, facts, rumours, observations, and biases, then it should be able to make sense of everything, weigh everything, and finally arrive at an objective conclusion, unadulterated by the noise all around.

Does it mean, then, that educated people know facts? A seemingly valid argument can be made that facts help in decision making. I do not believe this is true. A distinction needs to be made between ‘facts’ and ‘information’: knowing the remarkable fact that Jupiter is hundreds of thousands of times more massive than the Earth does not help me decide if I should or should not buy groceries today. What helps is knowing relevant information as to, for example, whether my refrigerator is stocked or not, or whether I have a dinner reservation elsewhere today or need to cook at home. In other words, facts by themselves are often useless until they are put in context; and when they are, they become information.

Is it then possible to argue that anyone with sufficient information can take good decisions? This logic falls flat for the same reason why anyone given a chessboard and a rule book cannot magically start winning at chess: information is the starting point, but knowing information is different from handling information, which brings us to the second characteristic: the methods and skills of using information to our best advantage is something an educated mind has acquired.

You say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work. Sherlock Holmes

It is important to note the use of the word ‘acquired’ here. Not ‘learnt’, but acquired. A lot of the skills an educated mind possess cannot simply be taught; they are slowly developed and improved over a long period of time with constant dedication (even halfhearted dedication can yield better results than someone who sits mum at home)—which is why the entire process of education lasts at least ten–twelve years.

That is where Jupiter comes in. To 97% of the people1 graduating with a degree that signifies their ‘education’ is complete, knowing absolutely anything about Jupiter is of no use in their daily life, but, for the last ten years, the use of such facts, situations, circumstances, and examples are what helped them develop their mental abilities. Every single fact that one learnt need not be of direct use to us everywhere, everyday, but you can rest assured that they each played an important role at one point in developing your mind.

Consider, for example, what the writer and speaker Alfie Kohn says of his wife—

She (is) a successful practicing physician. However, she will freeze up if you ask her what 8 times 7 is, because she never learned the multiplication table. And forget about grammar or literature… So what do you make of this paradox? Is she a walking indictment of the system that let her get so far—29 years of schooling, not counting medical residency—without acquiring the basics of English and math? Or does she offer an invitation to rethink what it means to be well-educated since what she lacks didn’t prevent her from becoming a high-functioning, multiply credentialed, professionally successful individual?

The wonderful Mrs Kohn is not the only one. The accomplished detective, Sherlock Holmes2, for all his powers of deduction was rather ignorant in most matters that did not directly concern his work. His friend and colleague, Dr Watson, once said of him—

His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing… My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System… That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth traveled round the sun appeared to me to be such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.

The commonality between Sherlock Holmes and Mrs Kohn is that they both knew whatever they needed for their job perfectly. This is how a lot of one’s education ultimately goes down: we end up forgetting, to various extents, the things we learnt that are no longer useful to our jobs, and we slowly become experts at whatever we learnt that is playing an important role in our day jobs3.

However, to get where they did, they likely needed a lot of the forgotten knowledge, and, in any case, having all that knowledge broadened their horizons enough long before they settled on their current, highly focussed jobs. This is what I like to call peripheral knowledge—hazy stuff you once knew but have no need for at the moment—and you could have gained it from anywhere: school, books, newspapers, intelligent conversation with peers et cetera. It is the usefulness of this peripheral knowledge that leads us to the third characteristic of the educated mind: while such knowledge most certainly does not impart expertise, it cannot be denied that because of it the educated mind can think multidimensionally and hold discussions across a wide network of interdisciplinary ideas and enrich any conversation.

A lot of our world has been shaped by a steady flow of ideas, most brilliant, few world-changing, and almost all of these have been brought out by educated minds. I foresee several people wanting to point out that some great inventors and scientists never had formal education, but that has never been the point: nowhere have I directly linked education and formal schooling as exclusive.

For a mind to be educated, from everything I have said, the key requirement is exposure to ideas, which is something that can be had with no formal schooling whatsoever. Perhaps one must have to be extraordinarily talented to both read about ideas and sprout them with little exposure to an inspiring peer group or an environment of rigorous learning, but, for the vast majority, formal schooling often simply proves to be more effective. That said, it is worth noting that although said inventors and scientists never had ‘formal education’, they were all still self-taught, which would make it a manner of schooling nonetheless, just not one by formal definition. What John Dewey said about education, in my opinion, sums it up beautifully—

(Education cultivates) deep-seated and effective habits of discriminating tested beliefs from mere assertions, guesses, and opinions; to develop a lively, sincere, and open-minded preference for conclusions that are properly grounded, and to ingrain into the individual’s working habits methods of inquiry and reasoning appropriate to the various problems that present themselves.

But what causes the initial spark? One could attribute it to a lot of things, but it would be shortsighted not to give a huge chunk of the credit to one’s curiosity. To accept the status-quo is not always a bad thing, but if all we do is accept the status-quo, then we have put an end to our social and scientific evolution, and will soon cease to exist. If we stopped at wheels and never built the horse cart, if we stopped at sparking fire and never cooked on it, if we stopped at caves and never built villages, we would have died a long while back.

We have come far enough that we can survive considerably long even if innovation simply ceased altogether, but the end, while delayed, is nonetheless the same. Mr Dewey, in his book, How we think4 speaks of how curiosity, save in some people, can easily be dulled and how education helps keep it kindled. Curiosity and the habit of questioning leads to innovation and change; embracing change and exploiting it to better our world is not something only the educated mind can do, but it takes an educated mind to make the change rapid and voluminous enough to make a difference. Our fourth characteristic is then simple, but supremely effective in life: an educated mind is a curious and probing mind.

We discussed how an educated mind improves the chances of sparking ideas in society and helps drive an idea from its inception to its realisation. Everything said so far cascades in a manner so as to allow better thinking, better decision-making, and better execution to bring an idea to life. Can, then, a robot or AI of any sort—programmed with all the information it may need and all the logic it may wish to derive from—take these decisions just as well?

As much as I want a robot maid like the Jetsons, I would not be hasty in giving them duties along this line. This is where the so-called ‘human element’ comes in. Problem solving is multidimensional and cannot be programmed absolutely5 without thinking of every possible outcome, which, the larger a problem becomes, the harder it gets, tending towards impossibility.

One of the requirements in such a scenario is being able to change perspectives; the ability to look at a problem from someone else’s shoes and to understand and appreciate the views of another person by looking at the situation from their stand is neither simple nor easy. This form of empathy is something education cultivates. Added to it are the usual traits of understanding, sympathising, helping, and encouraging. All of these add up to good habits that help lead people in any manner towards any common goal. This is precisely what our next characteristic is: an educated mind cam empathise with, encourage, lead and bring out the best in others.

With ideals and practicality merged, education should, undoubtedly, prepare students for a better life, and for an independent life in general. I have come to believe, sincerely, that the effect of education is not always immediately obvious, but will show itself when the need arises—and particularly while in the company of the uneducated. An article in the Washington Post last year puts in judiciously: ‘Education should prepare young people for life, work and citizenship.’ These are the material aspects which hide the deeper characteristics we have described so far; they merge uncomfortably with the perks of literacy, but they cannot—and should not—be overlooked.

There are other, simpler sides to what makes someone educated. As my friend, Manu, puts it, the work educated people do will ‘help the world’ and educated people find ‘simple ways’ of finishing complex tasks. While these are not exclusive to educated minds—anyone with sufficient expertise can simplify complex ideas, for example—they are nonetheless smaller prerequisites.

Education leads to enlightenment. Enlightenment opens the way to empathy. Empathy foreshadows reform. Derrick Bell

Lastly, in addition to having discussed everything that education is, an equally important topic that merits discussion is what education is not. Education is not literacy. Learning to read and write gives you certain capabilities but this is too often confused with education. A college degree, therefore, signifies both education and literacy, but a lot of graduates, sadly, are merely literate and not educated. Education also varies by subject. For instance you could hardly call yourself ‘educated’ in C programming if you know 28% of it, but the brilliant mathematician, John von Neumann, when asked how much mathematics a person can hope to learn replied just this: twenty-eight percent.

Some disciplines are vaster than others, older, more developed, larger, more complex and harder to understand and master. Of these physics is the oldest, largest, and the fastest developing subject on earth, which means it is that much harder for one to fully master it. This is precisely why I shied away from attributing to one’s knowledge of their discipline a great deal of responsibility in describing the level of their education. It is important, but not important enough. For me, as a physicist, this marks a point in my journey: an extremely important point, and one that I will treasure, in a journey that will last no less than a lifetime.

  1. The other three percent of us become astrophysicists. ↩︎

  2. Forgive me for resorting to a figment of our imagination, but most of us probably know Holmes better than any living person I can name in his place. ↩︎

  3. Holmes goes so far as to purposely forget anything he learnt that does not make a difference to him. ↩︎

  4. Dewey’s How we think is free to download as a pdf, so you have no reason not to read it. ↩︎

  5. At least not at the moment. I would certainly be weary of living in a world where it can. ↩︎

Making a case for the liberal arts

The importance of STEM does not imply the unimportance of the liberal arts.

Although I have been critical of the liberal arts — often jovially, at times not — there can be no question that having the liberal arts as part of our society can be enriching in more ways than one. Some narrow-minded politicians have, of late, been making rather nonsensical statements about scrapping the liberal arts altogether and having only science, or STEM to be specific, as a ‘real’ college degree.

If they were expecting any support from any self-respecting member of the scientific community, they will probably not get it. In fact, the scientific community has been extremely outspoken about its support for the liberal arts and in recognising its place in society. It would be both short-sighted and dim-witted to claim otherwise and yet, for some strange reason, I was not the least bit shocked when I heard a bunch of politicians go on about exactly this. (Perhaps Mr Trump has set the bar so high that little, if anything, surprises us today.)

Science is not enough is an excellent editorial on why a nation needs as many students of the arts as of the sciences. The article too stems from the wild statements of many politicians, beginning, most notably, with Kentucky governor, Matt Bevin, who ‘wants students majoring in electrical engineering to receive state subsidies … [but not] those who study subjects such as French literature’. Mr Bevin himself has a BA in East Asian studies, was a student of Japanese in college, and his education was, by his own statement, funded in part by external financial aid.

Scientific American ran an article in its last issue, written by the editorial board, called ‘Science is not enough’, which put forth some valid points in support of a liberal arts curriculum. ‘Is the US focusing too much on STEM?’ asked The Atlantic two years ago, pointing out that STEM can quickly become a buzzword adversely affecting students who do not get a ‘quality, well-rounded education’. This is precisely what SciAm argues in favour of the liberal arts as well, and when you think about it, there is almost no other argument one can think of.

Science is, undoubtedly, important. How important it is ought to be decided on an incident-by-incident basis, but the backdrop of such an argument remains the same: sciences (and engineering) and the liberal arts go hand-in-hand to make a multidimensional society. And only such a society can even survive in the long run. If you had only weapons facilities and a bunch of guys interested in using weapons, there would be havoc and we would end our own race in the blink of an eye. While one might blame the liberal arts idea of ‘patriotism’ for inciting wars in the first place, it should not be overlooked that it is the same liberal arts that can help us avoid war and live peacefully in the first place. Much like science, we can both spark and diffuse a war with this, and not having it can consaiderably reduce our chances of having a peaceful society.

Of course, science alone can also drive a peaceful society, and we need scientists today more than ever, but not at the cost of the humanities. A lot of people who write about this issue (including SciAm and SlashDot) quote Steve Jobs, who put it rather poetically: ‘it’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — that it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.’ And Steve Jobs was no engineer, yet he led Apple to become one of America’s richest companies.

Identifying interested candidates and investing heavily in their interests, whether in science or in the arts, is simply a much cleverer way of going about things.

Broad education is important and I cannot stress this enough. One must be both scientifically and emotionally intelligent to not only survive but also contribute to and be an integral part of society. Social reason is as important as scientific reasoning, and robots — a classic example of what only science without a drop of liberal arts can do to you — are proof enough that STEM alone is pointless. As a man of physics myself I most certainly support and push for better education in physics, particularly everywhere around the world, but never as a replacement for any other field. In effect, saying STEM-only is the way to go would be like saying we can all be replaced by robots. We have, in fact, long since established that while robots may replace some (or most, depending on your outlook and the advent of technology in the coming days), it will not replace everyone — the so-called ‘human factor’ simply plays a huge role in society and the development of humans and robots cannot give us that. The liberal arts, to some extent, can.

It would be just as much a fallacy to claim that liberal arts alone can teach this: a lot of people simply acquire such skills by living in society. But then what brought those skills to society in the first place? A teaching of the liberal arts in some capacity: in school, by professors, from parents to children etc. The education policy of any country would be ill-served and crippled if you clip off one of its wings. ‘An exclusive focus on STEM is unhealthy’, says Jalees Rehman, writing on Richard Dawkins’ website, ‘because students miss out on the valuable knowledge that the arts and humanities teach us.’ He also points to a few objections he has to Fareed Zakaria’s old article on this issue, published in the Washington Post, which, to some extent, sparked this debate about STEM and brought it to the mainstream, garnering a lot of opposition to STEM-only education from the scientific community itself.

On a more practical note, as SciAm points out, there are plenty of jobs for non-STEM students. This point about there being fewer jobs is something a lot of politicians and blind advocates of STEM have used time and again. A graduate with knowledge of physics and poetry is often the more preferred candidate for a job, the magazine points out. Many scientists encourage philosophical, even humanities-based discussions in their laboratories because the solution to a problem in the humanities may well lie in how science approaches it anew. And, conversely, almost every great scientist in history has been well-educated in the humanities, or at least has had an open-mind to discuss, contribute to and voice opinions on issues most would believe to be strictly outside the domain of science. It comes down to being a well-rounded human being, and for that science is important and the liberal arts are important too.

The Issues in science and technology magazine once ran an article by Robert Atkinson where he puts forth a valid point: there is futility in a ‘some STEM for all’ approach, and it should instead be ‘all STEM for some’ if science education should be useful to any degree. I am inclined to agree with him. The reason why the former approach is often taken is because STEM is seen as a driver of economy. This reasoning is hollow because an arts or humanities education will put a sufficient number of jobs before students. Further, some science education is no better than no science education. One might argue that it is worse. However, once you get past non-issues like powering national economy and whatever else, it becomes clear that the only reason that should drive a STEM-based education — the ‘all STEM for some’ approach — should be the same reason that drives any scientists: curiosity, a thirst for knowledge and a desire to understand nature. Anything else would undermine both arts/humanities and science alike. I particularly like this paragraph:

Saying that the nation should pour resources into K–12 because everyone needs to know STEM is akin to saying that because music is important to society, every K–12 student should have access to a Steinway piano and a Juilliard-trained music teacher. In fact, because very few students become professional musicians, doing this would be a waste of societal resources. It would be far better to find students interested in music and give them the focused educational opportunities they need. STEM is no different.

Some people have proposed STEAM, or Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics, a mashup between STEM and the arts. One key trend of late is that a lot of STEM graduates tend to go into management a decade down the line. Most no longer keep working in the labs, involving themselves in science. This is a big argument in support of producing lots and lots of STEM graduates, in hope that some will stay.

This is an uneconomical way of looking at it. It is akin to blindfolding yourself and randomly throwing paint all over the room, hoping the one wall you want will get painted. Mr Atkinson’s idea of identifying interested candidates and investing heavily in their interests, whether in science or arts, is simply a cleverer way of going about things. Even industries are not benefitted by simply engineering-oriented development because it often (not always, but quite often and to a considerable extent) reduces the practical usability of the machines in daily life. Some of this is once again related to ‘emotional intelligence’, of not simply making devices more powerful, but visualising how someone would use their device, what circumstances they would be in, and what the most comfortable approach to a problem would be. This empathy in a product is a direct result of good design and not improved technology alone, and is something that does not necessarily come as a result of STEM education, and certainly not from STEM-only education.

As the Hechinger Report points out, the problem could be a more fundamental one: a lot of this push for STEM-only education is a direct result of ‘an unfortunate misreading of what the value of a college education is’. I have long been an advocate of students in the humanities studying a little mathematics. I would just as readily support a curriculum that introduces STEM students to considerable thoughts and philosophies from the humanities. The practicality associated with some STEM fields (particularly, I refer to how engineering is often considered to be more practical than, say, astrophysics) and, subsequently, the impracticality associated with a non-STEM education are both short-sighted and dismissive of the long-term benefits of these fields — not unlike a lot of academia. And it is precisely because these fields have long-term benefits that we tend not to realise the value they slowly but constantly add to society, prioritising, instead, the quick and broken bursts of technological advancement afforded by something like engineering.

Lastly, to say having more STEM graduates means brining about a proportional increase in participation in STEM-related fields and, in turn, a proportional betterment of the economy, would quite simply be silly and misinformed. There is almost no solid evidence of this being true — at least not truer than the benefits of the liberal arts to humanities. It is not to say that studying science does not make a person human or that studying the liberal arts does not teach one to think logically. It is just that the two ought to and have often always gone hand in hand. Scientists have enjoyed the occasional dip into humanities, and philosophers have often indulged in some science and both fields have been welcoming to each other. The most beneficial way forward would be to let them both thrive, let jobs carve their own spaces, and let people pick what they are interested in studying. The establishment — and certain politicians — must stop meddling. If they simply let STEM and the liberal arts grow harmoniously, they will quickly be able to afford the luxury of sitting back and watching the economy boom.