Today, we talk about a pleasure that America cannot
do without. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
I teach a course in the
history of technology to both technical and
nontechnical students. It's a lot of fun for me.
The engineers have to read history and the
nonengineers have to understand how the engines of
our ingenuity actually operate.
Neither group has any natural advantage. What one
person can do, another can also do. But the
nontechnical students sometimes panic when they
find that they're expected to understand things
like clock escapements and steam engines.
When I was little, I thought airplane pilots had a
peculiar God-given gift of flight -- that a few
people could fly, while most of us could not. Too
many students think that math, science, and
engineering are like that. That notion is one that
America has let run, unabated, far too long.
Those students dispose of me by saying, "Oh, I
can't do mathematics," or "I'm not able to
understand machinery." They expect the same
immunity that a blind student has when a class is
asked to analyze the colors in a painting. You
don't force a person to overcome a limitation that
clearly cannot be overcome.
I have reason to feel sympathy for those students.
I was quite hopeless in high-school mathematics.
Only when I started college did common sense tell
me that mathematics was no more beyond me than
flying an airplane or riding a bicycle. I signed up
for college algebra and then sat up 'til three in
the morning trying to find the essential simplicity
that was evident to other people. One night I did
find it -- my fear fell away and the obviousness of
those manipulations came clear.
I was luckier than some. Too many young people wrap
themselves permanently in that mantle of fear. And
the fear of math usually precedes the fear of
science, the fear of technology, and ultimately the
fear of original thinking.
We teachers have to share the blame for letting
hard thought be terrifying instead of fun.
Sometimes we hide the pleasure of mental sport
behind stultifying formalisms. Some elementary
schools are asking if they can use games to bring
back the element of mental play. Can you think of a
better way to teach probability than by letting
students play gambling games!
Students will never know any pleasure like the
pleasure of finding that a door is open to their
minds when they thought it was closed. Everyone
should know the exhilaration of finding a
capability he didn't know was there. Self-assurance
has been America's most important resource. It's
endangered today, yet it's a resource that we
absolutely have to sustain.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds