Fragile Knowledge

Many people are unable to apply things they learn in textbooks to things in the real world. Richard Feynman calls such textbook learning “fragile knowledge”. Here he gives an example:

“The French curve is made so that at the lowest point on each curve, no matter how you turn it, the tangent is horizontal … All the guys in the class were holding their French curve up at different angles, and discovering that, sure enough, the tangent is horizontal. They were all excited by this ‘discovery’ — even though they had already gone through a certain amount of calculus and had already ‘learned’ that the derivative (tangent) of the minimum (lowest point) of any curve is zero (horizontal). They didn’t put two and two together. They didn’t even know what they ‘knew’ … I don’t know what’s the matter with people; they don’t learn by understanding; they learn by some other way — by rote, or something. Their knowledge is so fragile.”

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