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Attacking the Myth of Genius

By Peter L. Clateman

AROUND World War II, Harvard University began to take seriously the need to ensure that its graduates achieved a certain level of competence. The measures the Physics Department took to achieve this goal, however, have left us with an obnoxious system that has by now become an enshrined tradition.

When I read the suggestions of Kevin D. Katari to reduce attrition among first-year physics students ["Why Physics Is a Repulsive Force, Feb. 2], I was reminded of the luncheon the Physics Department holds at the Faculty Club each year for new concentrators.

I attended this luncheon as a first-year student with Sophomore standing, having chosen during Orientation Week to major in physics. Most of the other new concentrators were also first-year students with advanced standing--a bright crowd. After eating lunch interspersed among faculty members, the students were asked to comment on their experience so far in the department.

The complaints and suggestions that came up were very similar to those made in Katari's article: the first year is drudgery; you learn the math after you are required to know it for physics; better section leaders are needed; the teaching is lousy. Professor Francis M. Pipkin, chair at the time, mediated the discussion with overt sympathy.

However, after listening to complaints that were a familiar chorus to the faculty members, my Physics 55 professor asked, "Who ever said we wanted to maximize the number of physics concentrators anyway?"

Everyone laughed, but it was no joke. No more complaints were entertained. Discussion degenerated into a debate about whether a sign should be posted in the Science Center informing undergraduates of colloquia so that they could hear about current research. It was decided this was a bad idea since undergraduates might flood the colloquia and eat all the refreshments without even being able to follow the lecture.

The method the Physics Department employs to insure the competency of its grads and preserve the Harvard reputation is attrition. Here are some of the tactics employed to ensure Harvard "produces" only the best and the brightest:

The farce of lectures: I have never learned any physics of any significance from a lecture. Yet, there is an insistence that professors be pedagogues who reveal the world and from whom knowledge flows. Even the best lecturers are useless when they merely perform lengthy derivations on the blackboard that you will just have to read at home anyway. Less spectacular would be showing you a few examples or discussing the general approach. Everyone knows that lectures are a farce, so professors don't worry when they are unprepared or only lecture on material weeks after assigning homework on it.

Switching the books: Often physics students are told to buy one book while the course is taught from another. The underlying pretension here is that the truths of physics are independent of which book you learn them from. However, some books emphasize and illuminate some topics better than others. Once, half-way through the semester, the professor accidently wrote a formula on the board in a notation that I recognized as peculiar to a certain textbook.

When I checked this book, I realized that all of the homework problems had been copied from this book. Such switches have occurred in almost half of my physics courses.

Applications are simple: The tactic here is to lecture on general formulas and theory all semester and then give important applications as problems on the exam. This assumption is that this exercise is a good simulation of real physics.

But this is nonsense. Solutions on undergraduate exams are a closed, finite set. Nobel prizes are not won by reasoning, "if the professor gave us this question, it must be answerable from the material in Chapter 3 and take less than three blue book pages to compute." What is being tested is whether you guessed right and read the chapter on applications that was not assigned or used another book on the side that emphasized applications.

The pretension of closure: It is a tradition, even in advanced courses, to start teaching the material from first principles so there is a chain of proof from the physical postulates to the most complicated formulas derived in the last lecture. However, starting from scratch does waste time so that the difficult and important material must be crammed into as few lectures as possible.

THE weeding out system is based on what I call "the myth of genius." It is not only harsh but unfair and a failure. The process of "separating the men from the boys" mainly separates those who have had the material before from those who have not.

What this says to the first-year student is: don't major in physics unless you knew you wanted to be a physicist at age 12. The grade distributions have two peaks: one for the population of students new to the material and another for the "ringers." Many professors will readily acknowledge that this is the explanation for such grade distributions, but the process of weeding out continues.

Another result of "separating the men from the boys" is that women may be disproportionately weeded out. Although a female scientist at Harvard may face little discrimination severe enough to damage her career, there is little chance that there will be many female physics graduates at Harvard under a system that makes most first-year students ineligible to study physics before they arrive. The discrimination is carried out by parents who are less likely to encourage their 12-year-old daughters to shun their friends and other interests to study physics and math and go to math camp. This should not be required of children of either sex.

The obnoxiousness of the system does not end after the weeding out during the first two years. Although other departments have outside factors that affect student performance, in the Physics Department, these factors are intentionally maximized. Most harmful is the poor teaching because without adequate teaching, there is no hope for those who start from behind.

The myth of genius says that if you're smart enough to be a physicist, you don't need to be taught. Too many students believe this--some relish the masochism, others are too cowered to admit their difficulties and so never complain. I hope this article encourages other to complain or at least not to take the department personally.

The myth of genius is harmful not just to students, but to the field itself. What percentage of graduating seniors in physics are geniuses? I'll avoid the question by setting a safe upper bound of one genius each year. In other words, almost all physicists are not geniuses.

After realizing this fact, the system appears even more pretentious and ludicrous. Most scientists work within one field their whole careers and accept a large body of knowledge which changes little even in this fast-paced century.

In a sense physics is like a language. The students who speak Spanish at home will do better in Spanish A than the one who never took Spanish before. This is no mark of genius. The idea that the Romance Languages Department should weed students out by using poor teaching materials or lecturing too fast for students to comprehend is ridiculous. Almost every Harvard student has the potential to learn fluent Spanish.

The assumption should also be that most Harvard students could be competent physicists. Therefore, the same attention to teaching techniques and materials found in Boylston should be found in Jefferson. I believe successful techniques in teaching both disciplines would be very similar.

Some people may take my attack on the "myth of genius" as an attack on elitism. I could not reconcile being anti-elitist with being at Harvard. However, elitism must serve its purpose: to be an incentive for excellence and to help group excellent people together so that they may be more productive. The Physics Department, as currently structured, does neither.

Peter L. Clateman '90 concentrates in Physics.

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