S P A C E || Sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov’s ‘bits’ on education

S P A C E || Sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov’s ‘bits’ on education

THERE HAVE BEEN GOOD discussions lately in the Mirror about eduction. A big topic! To supplement some of the ongoing conversation this week in Notes, below are some paragraphs from Isaac Asimov’s ‘Those Crazy Ideas.’ But first, a little about how I got into Asimov.

Learning through doing

I WAS MAYBE about 12 or 13 when I started reading the sci-fi books of Asimov’s. A sharp contrast to all the usual pre-teen stuff, his stories about different worlds, out there in space, and the way we can imagine what might happen out there, on those worlds, became more interesting to me than the day-to-day drama of books about the things girls and boys think about in early teenagerhood. Reading this stuff early on influenced S P A C E quite a lot. (You kind of know what you’re interested in, most, when you’re young, right? Following that up and doing what you feel is interesting work, later, is harder because there are so many people and programmes telling you, ‘That’s not a good idea.’ Even if, you know, secretly, it’s the only thing that makes you feel like something cool is going on every day.)

Spaciousness. Yeah. I come from a very inquisitive and curious lot, my family just let me read whatever whenever. Encouraged it, even. I remember that. How I could just go to the library and pick out ten or twenty books at a time and nothing was a ‘no.’ I liked this freedom; now that I look back, I see that this isn’t usually how things go. You are educated by the people who decide what you will read, and your early days and your first impressions are molded by what those people think is important for you to know (or not know). Choosing for ourselves what we want to learn about is a big part of self-education, isn’t it? Making space to self-educate isn’t always encouraged, for so many reasons… We’re easier to deal with and manipulate, if we’re just sheep. Right?

The books that stuck with me most of Asimov’s (I’ll give you a general impression since I’m in the middle of Malaysia and not reading or referencing much these days), but what I recall about what stuck in my mind were the stories about computers starting to think. Fascinating and creepy, even back then, but now, well. What’s going on, anyway? I heard about something at a big Internet search company that had to be shut down because computers were starting to do things that people didn’t understand. A rumor? Real? We don’t know. (I am supposed to watch more films and read more books, my friends tell me, about this, but the technology has gotten so… I don’t even know…) Technology! Another huge topic. Bunches of shifts since those days when people wrote dystopic stories about humanity losing their heart to the ice-cold meticulous and calculating nature of machines. Will humanity make it? Would it matter? Does it seem arbitrary to you, too, that we’re even here? And so on. Pop up, these questions, once in a while. To this, my friend CN says, helpfully: ‘Why are you thinking about it so much? If the world’s gonna end, the world’s gonna end.’

!*

I’ll cut to the important part: choosing how to add ‘bits’ to our knowledge collection… But for that to make sense, I need to now share the excerpts, about bits..

Different kinds of education

EXCERPTS. Here’s a couple of passages from Asimov’s essay, “Those Crazy Ideas:”

‘Every man [and woman*] in his lifetime collects facts, individual pieces of data, items of information. Let’s call these “bits” (as they do, I think, in information theory). The “bits” can be of all varieties: personal memories, boys’ or girls’ phone numbers, baseball players’ batting averages, yesterday’s weather, the atomic weights of the chemical elements.

‘Naturally, different people gather different numbers of different varieties of “bits.” A person who has collected a larger number than usual of those varieties that are held to be particularly difficult to obtain—say, those involving the sciences and the liberal arts—is considered “educated”.

‘There are two broad ways in which the “bits” can be accumulated. The more common way, nowadays, is to find people who already possess many “bits” and have them transfer those “bits” to your mind in good order and in predigested fashion. Our schools specialize in this transfer of “bits” and those of us who take advantage of them receive a “formal education”.

‘The less common way is to collect “bits” with a minimum amount of live help. They can be obtained from books or out of personal experience. In that case you are “self-educated.” (It often happens that “self-educated” is confused with “uneducated.” This is an error to be avoided.)

‘In actual practice, scientific breakthroughs have been initiated by those who were formally educated, as for instance by Nicolaus Copernicus, and by those who were self-educated, as for instance by Michael Faraday.

‘To be sure, the structure of science has grown more complex over the years and the absorption of the necessary number of “bits” has become more and more difficult without the guidance of someone who has already absorbed them. The self-educated genius is therefore becoming rarer, though he has still not vanished.

The ability to combine “bits” with facility and to grow consciously aware of the new combination is, I would like to suggest, the measure of what we call “intelligence.” In this view, it is quite possible to be educated and yet not intelligent.

Obviously, the creative scientist must not only have his “bits” on hand but he must be able to combine them readily and more or less consciously. Darwin not only observed data, he also made deductions—clever and far-reaching deducations—from what he observed. That is, he combined the “bits” in interesting ways and drew important conclusions.

*Editor’s notes.

IF YOU ARE READING, and you are part of The Mirror, we can continue talking about this in Notes.

Hat tip: D. Thanks for the good conversation. Will start the foundation work, tomorrow.