Another long-but-absolutely-worth-it video: Neil deGrasse Tyson talks with Stephen Colbert (out of character!) about all things science. If you’re a Tyson junkie like me, you’ve heard much of this before — the Titanic story, Apophis, how he fell in love with the universe, the NASA budget, the importance of letting kids feed their curiosity, the value of being at the frontier of discovery, the poetry of science — but it’s always wonderful to see him make his arguments with such passion and wit, and a joy to see him sparring with Colbert here. (And if you’ve never seen Tyson before, clear your schedule for an hour and a half and watch. You’re welcome.)
Here are a couple of exchanges that particularly interested me, as my family goes through the middle school application process for our daughter and we reexamine our ideas of what education should be for. At around 30 minutes in:
Colbert: If I have a lot of facts in my head, if I can absorb a lot of facts, am I a scientist?
Tyson: No. No, you’re a fact-memorizer. In fact our academic system rewards people who know a lot of stuff, and generally we call those people smart. But at the end of the day, who do you want: the person who can figure stuff out that they’ve never seen before, or the person who can rattle off a bunch of facts? At the end of the day, I want the person who can figure stuff out.
And at around 1:15:
Tyson: In the schools, I don’t have a problem with the fact-memorizing. But don’t equate that with what it is to be wise or what it is to be smart. Smart should be some combination — of that, yes, but also: what is your lens on the world? How do you figure things out? And you promote that by stimulating curiosity. And I don’t see enough stimulating curiosity in this world.
Indeed. Kids should be learning not just what to think, but how to think; and as much as possible they should be encouraged to do so for themselves. And they are not served well by an educational system that emphasizes rigid rules and tests — and stifles innovation and joy as a result.
I also love this (at around 26 minutes, in the middle of a discussion of the most beautiful truths in science):
Tyson: Some of the greatest poetry is revealing to the reader the beauty in something that was so simple you had taken it for granted. That, I think, is the job of the poet. And so the simplicity of the universe [as revealed by Einstein's equation E=mc2] — I think if it doesn’t drive you to poetry, it drives you to bask in the majesty of the cosmos.