By Dr. Harry Tennant


by Harry Tennant
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Entries with keyword: Isaac Asimov
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Monday, August 24, 2015

Was Isaac Asimov an educator?

"Isaac must have been one of the greatest educators who ever lived, with his almost a half thousand books on virtually every aspect of science and culture."
                                              --Aurthur C. Clarke on Isaac Asimov

I am one who learned a great deal from Isaac Asimov's many books. But I am uncomfortable with thinking of Isaac (as my friends and I always referred to him, we thought we knew him so well) as an educator. He was a first rate explainer, to be sure. And his writings were so interesting to me I always wanted to read more. And I always came away from reading his work with some new information, new insights and even new inspiration.

I wanted to be like Isaac. I wanted to know as much as he did and be able to come up with clear explanations and clear and convincing insights like he did. And did again and again and again.

But I am uncomfortable about the word "educator". I don't think of an education as being a miscellaneous collection of facts tossed into memory, regardless of how affectionately you recall the source of the facts.

An education, to my way of thinking, is more like a mental tool or a machine in your brain to be put to use. In my chosen field, engineering, the putting to use is pretty clear: the engineer uses the knowledge, skills, habits, etc. to make things that work. But the same applies to one whose education is intended only to make her a better citizen: an education should help her understand, reason about and influence others in deciding what to do about the issues of the day.

Can a miscellany of facts do that? Random facts can give the illusion of an education, especially if there are a lot of them. But random facts can't do the job that a structured body of knowledge can.

Teachers, schools and boards of education provide the guidance of a curriculum, a structured body of knowledge sufficient to the task (ideally) of putting that knowledge to work. That's how they differ from Isaac and his books. They go beyond the quick job of making a subject entertaining. They make the learned subject useful.

Of course it doesn't always work out that way. I have taken too many courses that were neither entertaining nor useful. So the mere fact that material was presented by a teacher or presented in a classroom does not necessarily mean it will end up being educational.

It works the other way too. You can start with the entertaining and inspiring works of Isaac Asimov or another author of your choice and decide to create an education on your own. For example, you could start with Isaac's robot stories and expand your learning to the point where you build your own robots.

I do not want to diminish the reputation of Isaac Asimov in any way. I admire him and envy him and appreciate all the great times we spent together through his books. He has easily been one of the most influential people in my life. But his skill in learning and explaining does not make him a plumber or a chef...and it doesn't make him an educator either.

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Keywords: education, Isaac Asimov

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