Brains not as Vital as a Passion for the Subject (Polanyi)

A typical university research group consists of 10 students - about the size of the crew of the earliest Viking ships. There is a similar peril of mutiny in either case, since the person in front is gambling with the lives of those behind.

If this leader does not set his sights high enough, the team endures hardship only to reach a barren shore. If, however, the leader sets his or her sights too high, they all drown. The leader drowns with them, but since he is old that is of little consequence. What matters is that the crew's future is forever tarnished.

As you can imagine, students watch their research director carefully, to see whether he knows where they are going. It is not an easy question to answer. And yet, recently, an incoming graduate student paid me the compliment of joining my research group. What could be the reason?

A similar decision is being made every day by young people throwing in their lot with faculty at all our universities. Their choice has much to do with the academic environment. But the environment is an abstraction; the faculty member is the reality.

There is something the students should not expect from their instructor, namely, to gain in intelligence. If intelligence were catching, the instructor would by now have caught it. No such luck. It is innate.

Happily, it is in varying degrees common, and is less critical than we suppose.

Take the case of Erwin Schroedinger, a scientist who ranked not with Einstein and Aristotle but, impressively, with the lesser lights of Archimedes and Copernicus.

By chance I holidayed with Schroedinger in the Austrian Alps. I arrived in Austria from Princeton, where I was studying, with a scientific puzzle. Given five identical objects of which one is heavier, how can you identify the heavy one in a minimum number of operations, using a two-pan balance? (I can no longer vouch for the details.) My friend John M., a student at Princeton, had solved the puzzle in half an hour. I cheekily presented it to Schroedinger who, having nothing better to do, after a day-and-a-half solved it.

John M. - he of high intelligence - became a modest servant of the British crown, in the Foreign Office. Schroedinger, the slow learner, established himself as Archimedes' equal by discovering the equation that describes the wave-nature of matter. Perhaps Schroedinger was the less intelligent, but he had other qualities.

What are those qualities that a student might perhaps hope to learn from his instructor?

The first is a passion for the subject. That is worth encountering, since it is catching. The life of the catcher is then enriched. It may even be extended. Members of bodies that celebrate scholarship - like the French or the British Academies - live, on average, longer. Like infants, whom they happily resemble, they understand that life is about experience, about risk-taking, about questioning, and even, occasionally, about comprehending.

Students also hope to learn a style of scholarship. This has to do with knowing what is important. It has to do, therefore, with how one sees the world.

There is, of course, plentiful evidence that the best learn their style from the best. This need for close association with a master indicates how subtle is the nature of style.

Central to this question of style, is the skill of asking questions that matter. This is something that only those who stand at the frontier of their field can do. In trying to emulate the style of those lonely figures, we come to share their vision.

There is a third thing that advanced students take from their teachers. This is a degree of bloody-mindedness, called, less prejudicially, "strength-of-mind." It evidences itself in a willingness to ask questions that may be foolish, and propose solutions that may shock.

By-and-large, all new ideas shock. This is true even within a tight professional community. Scientists do not go to meetings to applaud one another's ideas, but to tear them apart.

Every new idea must go through this test by fire. A student is in the right institution if it gives him the strength to stand the heat.

Passion, style and strength are different aspects of the need for daring. To have passion is to dare to commit. To have style is to embrace a vision bravely. To have strength-of-mind is to dare to be wrong, for only then does one stand a chance of being right. Daring is, however, something that must be carefully learnt, for in the absence of learning it is folly.

There is something else a good student seeks: a measure of responsibility. In choosing scholarship as a career, young people are not entering a monastic order. The world, they know, will press in on them, and they must attend to it.

The qualities of passion, style and toughness will help them to do so. Their university will have failed them if it does not encourage them to make this connection between knowledge and human betterment.

The academic life is of value in itself, paying dividends in terms of the understanding that distinguishes us as being human. Let us proclaim this, putting excellence ahead of relevance in our universities not only in rhetoric but in fact. Subsequently, the successes of academe can be brought to bear, by many of the same people, upon the world's problems. This involvement is not a burden but a satisfaction, since as scholars we seek to be alive not adrift.

Paul A.S. Ward
Last modified: Mon Feb 21 12:25:16 EST 2011

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