Category Archives: Philosophy of Learning

James Watt’s Schooling

James Watt was one of the greatest practical scientists the world has seen, his discoveries including the invention of the separate condenser for steam engines (which enabled significant parts of the Industrial Revolution). ‘Watts’ in electricity are named after him.

So, what sort of formal schooling did this eminent scientist and inventor have? 13 years (the typical kindergarten-primary-secondary amount nowadays)? 17 years (add an undergraduate degree)? 21 years (for a Ph.D.)?

Watt was largely homeschooled. From Andrew Carnegie’s James Watt (1905):

“[James] was so delicate [in health] that regular attendance at school was impossible. The greater part of his school years he was confined to his room. [… His mother] taught him to read. […] He was rated as a backward scholar at school, and his education was considered very much neglected. [… His father] taught him writing and arithmetic, but also provided a set of small tools for him in the shop among the workmen.” (pp. 10-13)

At 17, Watt aimed to become a mathematical instrument maker, and so began working for an optician (of sorts) in Glasgow. At the same time, a brother of a school friend, Professor John Anderson, gave Watt unrestricted access to his own library.

He then left Glasgow, moving to London, where eventually he secured apprenticeship with a mathematical instrument maker, at which he spent a year’s work. After becoming ill, he returned home to recuperate. “His native air, best medicine of all for the invalid exile, soon restored his health, and” at 20 “to Glasgow he then went, in pursuance of his plan of life early laid down, to begin business on his own account.” (p. 35) After procuring work on astronomical instruments from the university, he setup shop in a room provided by the university (because a local guild would not allow him to work without 7 years of apprenticeship – the university was exempt from this). He was able to meet various eminent scientists at the university.

A couple themes:

1. Little formal schooling (much less the 21 years most Ph.D.’s now receive). See here for comparison to eminent English men in science in the late 19th century (Watt was active in the 18th and early 19th centuries).

2. An ‘amateur’ scientist. Watt had an autonomous income. See here for more on the amateur scientist model. While still being an ‘insider’ in terms of his ability to meet eminent scientists, he was an outsider in certain respects (this is similar to Faraday‘s early work, for example). See the end of this post for more on the insider-outsider idea.

One thing I liked about the section of Carnegie’s book where this biographical information comes from are passages like the following, describing the tenor of Watt’s early years:

“[V]isits to the same kind uncle “on the bonnie, bonnie banks o’ Loch Lomond,” where the summer months were spent, gave the youth his happiest days. Indefatigable in habits of observation and research, and devoted to the lonely hills, he extended his knowledge by long excursions, adding to his botanical and mineral treasures. Freely entering the cottages of the people, he spent hours learning their traditions, superstitions, ballads, and all the Celtic lore. He loved nature in her wildest moods, and was a true child of the mist, brimful of poetry and romance, which he was ever ready to shower upon his friends.” (p. 16)

Galton’s Men of Science and Contemporary Science

Sir Francis Galton was an English polymath of the 19th century. While doing research into the education of remarkable scientists of that period, I found out that he wrote a book called English Men of Science (1874). It largely consists of the results of a detailed survey that he carried out of 180 of the most preeminent men of science living at that time in the United Kingdom (‘men of science’ is then adopted as a technical term in the book for these preeminent men).

Part of his summary of the survey results as it applies to education is as follows:

[M]y returns show that men of science are not made by much teaching, but rather by awakening their interests, encouraging their pursuits when at home, and leaving them to teach themselves continuously throughout life. Much teaching fills a youth with knowledge, but tends prematurely to satiate his appetite for more. I am surprised at the mediocre degrees [i.e., poor grades] which the leading scientific men who were at the universities have usually taken, always excepting the mathematicians. Being original, they are naturally less receptive; they prefer to fix of their own accord on certain subjects, and seem averse to learn what is put before them as a task. Their independence of spirit and coldness of discomposition are not conducive to success in competition: they doggedly go their own way, and refuse to run races.” (p. 257)

Much of what Galton says here fits with the conclusions I have been drawing from my ongoing inquiry into the educations of various historical scientists and engineers (Charles Darwin, Michael Faraday, John Herschel, Percy Spencer, and most recently I started looking at Alexander Bell), where I was struck by the pattern forming from my very limited sampling: little or no formal schooling in their areas of research, absenteeism when they were in school, and either dropping out of school or being removed from the school by their parents due to problems (Darwin and Bell due to lack of interest, Faraday after he was beaten by a school teacher after consistent problems between himself and the schoolmaster).

When Galton says that “[m]uch teaching fills a youth with knowledge, but tends prematurely to satiate his appetite for more,” this probably happens because it tends to destroy a sense of curiosity that might develop more naturally about something, such as chemistry (Faraday), astronomy (Herschel), biology (Darwin), acoustics (Bell), or radio (Spencer), where the sparks for curiosity and personal motivations are diverse and not conducive to being established by fiat by compulsory schooling. If the curiosity is already developed, then my guess is that some limited, voluntary schooling in that area may be an (significant) asset. (My guess is that even here, meeting like-minded individuals and accessing expensive equipment may be one of the biggest advantages to schooling in this sense – not the curricula, or grading, and so on.) Compare where Galton says “men of science are not made by much teaching” to our current day, where a typical scientist has 20 years of ‘teaching’, i.e., schooling, if not more.

The idea that more schooling = more scientific advancement, or that more funding for schooling is the answer to the question of how to increase scientific advancement, is more and more clearly becoming fatuous to myself. The low “advancement : money + time” ratio we now experience relative to 19th century England is probably partially due to the rise of formal schooling in the early 20th century, and is now perpetuated by entrenched interests (an interesting counter-development is the relatively rapid increase in home-schooling rates in the United States very recently).

The Uselessness of French – Schooling and Post Hoc Justifications

Many parents tell their children that schooling is important. Otherwise, why would they be forced to go?

French is taught in elementary and high-schools in Canada in large part because the country is officially bilingual. Although decisions are made largely on a provincial basis, the federal government provides funding incentives for provinces to encourage bilingual education. Not surprisingly, then, the decision to teach French is largely a political one, not one based on the immediate practical concerns of students who might be spending hours upon hours learning it.

Parents, for their part, engage in post hoc justifications for this. (A post hoc justification is one made after the fact.) Why are their children being forced to learn French? “You are forced to spend hours learning this language not because of a political reason, but because it’s useful.”

French is useful the way learning any language is useful. The large majority of people in Canada outside of Qu├ębec don’t speak French. In a place like Vancouver, for example, it is more useful to know Mandarin, Cantonese, Punjabi, Korean, Japanese, Spanish, and probably several other languages before one gets to French. That is, relatively speaking, learning French is useless for someone living or working in Western Canada.

Consider: one might be able to have some conversations with people in one’s own province in French once in a while. One might be able to travel to a country and better navigate the place or have conversations with people. One might be able to read literature one otherwise would not be able to. Yet, these sorts of considerations could be said for almost any language, and in many cases more so, depending on someone’s situation.

The usefulness of schooling in general is also often a sort of post hoc rationalization. Many parents think the idea of having several hours of free time away from their children is attractive (especially with something that has no extra marginal cost such as public schooling), as this will allow them to make more money, clean the house, or so on.

Since they like this idea, they then look around for justifications for sending their children to school: it teaches important and useful things in a better way (largely false – there are much better ways to spend one’s time), it’s important for proper socialization (largely false), it’s required so you can get into university (nowadays, this is false), and university is important so that you can make good amounts of money (again, largely false – what universities teach is largely inapplicable to generating money, and there is a large selection effect which skews average incomes for people with university degrees up, i.e., people who get into university tend to be more motivated and so on, and so tend to make more money – the causal chain is largely opposite of what most people think).