Reading Walter Isaacson’s biographies on Benjamin Franklin and Leonardo da Vinci underscores the most important trait a place of learning must develop within students. Before naming what the trait is, let’s examine some excerpts from the books.
Franklin excelled in writing but failed math, a scholastic deficit he never fully remedied and that, combined with his lack of academic training in the field, would eventually condemn him to be merely the most ingenious scientist of his era rather than transcending into the pantheon of truly profound theorists such as Newton. — Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin
Franklin created stoves, musical inventions, charted the Gulf Stream, produced America’s first political cartoon, and drew electricity from the sky. He accomplished all of this (and much more) despite the fact he had a math deficit he “never fully remedied.” The most important question that arises in my mind is this: how can a person excel in so many intellectual pursuits without remedying a deficiency in such an important subject?
Leonardo da Vinci had a similar intellectual experience.
In fact, Leonardo’s genius was a human one, wrought by his own will and ambition. It did not come from being the divine recipient, like Newton or Einstein, of a mind with so much processing power that we mere mortals cannot fathom it. Leonardo had almost no schooling and could barely read Latin or do long division. His genius was of the type we can understand, even take lessons from. It was based on skills we can aspire to improve in ourselves, such as curiosity and intense observation. — Walter Isaacson, Leonardo da Vinci
Notice how Isaac Newton is mentioned in both books. This is to drive home the fact Benjamin Franklin and Leonardo da Vinci weren’t blessed with minds the other 99.999% of the population could never comprehend. Both men were geniuses–no question, but their genius was not a mystery based upon perfect minds bestowed upon them. Instead, the success of their scientific and artistic pursuits can be summed up in one word that comes toward the end of the excerpt above.
The job of an educator is to promote the curiosity of learning. Curiosity is the rocket fuel for any worthwhile pursuit, and the most precious gift that can be given to a student is multiple opportunities to investigate the aspects of the world he or she finds interesting.
We often think a student’s deficiency in a subject is detrimental to future success. Franklin and da Vinci show us these perceived failings are inconsequential when a person encounters interesting problems to investigate and solve. Franklin and da Vinci had weaknesses, but their curiosity helped them overcome these deficiencies. This is because their interests spurred them toward difficult pursuits despite their lack of God-given abilities. Leonardo da Vinci may have barely been able to do long division, but he still designed a tiburio for Milan’s Cathedral, the Vitruvian Man, and a rhombicuboctahedron. Despite failing at math, Benjamin Franklin is now remembered for inventing the lightning rod, bifocals, and the Franklin stove.
To our modern minds this sounds just plain wrong. We focus each day on how we can “fix” students’ deficiencies. Instead, perhaps we should teach them the very basics and then allow opportunities to pursue what feels natural to them. As so often happens, learning one thing leads to learning another, which then leads to another–and another. The teacher helps facilitate this continual cycle of learning, pursuing, and creating. That’s why the job of an educator is so important.
The most important gift we can give students is curiosity.