[Humanist] 23.279 on learning

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Wed Sep 9 07:03:45 CEST 2009

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 279.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Tue, 08 Sep 2009 09:01:23 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: learning

Here is a typically inspirational passage from an after-dinner speech by 
Warren McCulloch -- multi-authored, but his is the voice speaking -- 
"The Fun of Failures", Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 156.0 
(April 1969): 963-8, most of which I find head-breakingly difficult to 
follow. But the first bit, an anecdote about Norbert Wiener and 
commentary on it, is not.

> A quarter of a century ago, when a handful of us hazarded time and
> reputation on guesses about the behavior of closed loops, including
> computers, none of us dreamed of the proliferation of these ideas,
> which Norbert Wiener christened "Cybernetics." He and I guessed that
> his book would sell about one thousand copies in the first year, and
> John Wiley & Sons took a chance on what turned out to be a best
> seller. Like us, the gods must have loved Norbert, for he died
> between lectures on two new themes. He taught his students how to
> build theories and invent new theorems; many of whom have said, "He
> taught me my business." One day, he came splayfoot and triumphant
> from one of his inspiring lectures, but stopped abruptly in the hall,
> took his cigar from his mouth, and with a look of astonishment said,
> "My God! I’ve proved too much. There are no prime numbers," and
> returned to the blackboard before his students had departed, to try
> to find his mistake. They did. Such was the teacher who considered
> the proofs of theorems in the textbooks "a way of hiding how
> mathematics is made." Our proofs are afterthoughts and have little to
> do with the art of conjecture and discovery. Teaching and learning
> are not what Donald MacKay calls competitive monologue, but dialogue
> in which each exposes the inadequacies of his map of the world for
> his partner to complete or correct. (963)

Willard McCarty, Professor of Humanities Computing,
King's College London, staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/;
Editor, Humanist, www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist;
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, www.isr-journal.org.

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