Last week I decided to ask the smartest man I’ve met three questions. The man, who will remain unnamed, is someone I once organized a talk for. He is an elite academic achiever who’s risen to the pinnacle of his field in a very short time.
My three questions were these:
1. Which principles guide/have guided your approach to learning?
2. I noticed when you gave (an unstructured speech I witnessed) that you have a remarkable ability to compartmentalise knowledge. How do you approach the task of organising your knowledge?
3. You mentioned in (one of his other talks) that the Socratic method is vital in teaching students how to think. Can you please expand briefly on this point, and suggest any other practical activities/exercises to improve the lucidity of one’s thinking?
His response was as follows:
The three questions that you ask have a vast amount of literature written on them. It really would take a book on each for me to set out a coherent answer. Also, although I have thought about these issues for many years I can’t pretend to be able to answer these questions precisely and clearly and in a way which will not raise dozens more questions. You are right that the papers of mine which you read really just scratch the surface. But I think that your further research would be must [sic] more profitably directed to the specialist literature. Any attempt by me at a comprehensive answer would just regurgitate large parts of the better literature on this. In law, for example, these type of issues have been debated for nearly 2 millennia.
Sorry not to be of assistance.
Reading between the lines, he gave me two valuable lessons.
The first lesson is to be precise. If you are going to explain something, explain it accurately. If you can’t, point your students in the right direction.
The second, more important lesson, is to do your own thinking. I asked this man how to think. His answer was “by thinking.”
In this digital age, there is so much information available that the temptation becomes to “outsource” our thinking. But real thinking – researching theories, putting them into practice, reflecting, comparing and making decisions about what to keep and what to abandon – is something that only I can do for myself.