In the same essay I discussed in my last post, “What is Science” by Richard Feynman, the great physicist describes his childhood introduction to science.
My father did it to me. When my mother was carrying me, it is reported–I am not directly aware of the conversation–my father said that “if it’s a boy, he’ll be a scientist.” How did he do it? He never told me I should be a scientist. He was not a scientist; he was a businessman, a sales manager of a uniform company, but he read about science and loved it.
Feynman’s father bought “a whole lot of rectangular floor tiles from someplace in Long Island City.” Father and son played with the tiles, and Mel taught his son to make patterns with the different colored tiles. In telling this story Feynman makes his assertion that “mathematics is looking for patterns.”
In a parenthetic note, Feynman continues:
The fact is that this education had some effect. We had a direct experimental test at the time I got to kindergarten. We had weaving in those days. They’ve taken it out; it’s too difficult for children. We used to weave colored paper through vertical strips to make patterns. The kindergarten teacher was so amazed that she sent a special letter home to report that this child was very unusual, because he seemed to be able to figure out ahead of time what pattern he was going to get, and made amazingly intricate patterns. So the tile game did do something to me.
I read this, but it wasn’t until I was waking up the following morning that I realized that ‘paper weaving’ rang a bell. I sprinted to my bookshelf and pulled down one of my favorite books, Inventing Kindergarten by Norman Brosterman. Brosterman describes the educational thought and innovations of Friedrich Froebel, the visionary German with a background in crystallography, who invented the original Kindergarten system. Active during the first half of the 19th century, at a time when children younger than seven rarely had a formal education, Froebel developed a series of physical materials and activities designed to expose young children to fundamental ideas of form and relationship. Best known today are the beautiful wooden blocks in geometric shapes, but there were many other materials as well, including the “peas work” with it’s small spheres and toothpick-like rods (an inspiration to the young Buckminster Fuller) and paper weaving.
The first half of Brosterman’s book is a fascinating and thoroughly-researched account of the development and spread of Kindergarten, first under the inspired and committed hand of Froebel, then under the leadership of his disciples, who established not only Kindergartens but also teacher training programs. But it’s the second half of Inventing Kindergarten that is truly revelatory: Brosterman makes an extraordinarily compelling case, in words and images, for the impact that the Kindergarten system had on art and design in the 20th century. Many of the top figures of art, architecture, and design attended or were exposed to, as Brosterman documents, Kindergartens: from the pioneers of the Bauhaus, to architectural titan Frank Lloyd Wright, to the creator of “design science” and the geodesic dome Buckminster Fuller. In text and in remarkable images, which place the work of anonymous Kindergarten students and teachers side by side with pictures of the strikingly similar work of leaders of Modernism, Brosterman creates a tour-de-force argument for the impact of Froebel’s system.
By the time Feynman was born in 1918, Kindergarten was very widely established not only in Europe but also in the United States. His attendance at Kindergarten, and his instruction in paper weaving, are directly attributable to the remarkable innovations of the man who was active a century earlier. Brosterman’s focus is on innovators in the arts; can a similar argument be made about 20th century scientists who are known to have gone to Kindergarten? Suggestive evidence is probably all we will ever have, but I would argue that in Feyman’s case the suggestive evidence is strong. And there is a crucial piece of evidence whose significance is invisible to biographer James Gleick as well as to Feynman himself. Early in his book on Feynman, Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman, Gleick mentions in passing that before her marriage, Feynman’s mother Lucille trained as a Kindergarten teacher at Felix Adler‘s Ethical Culture School in New York. Eureka!
Happily for me, Norman Brosterman is easy to find on the Web. I sent him an email asking him his thoughts about the influence of Kindergarten on scientists. His gracious reply included the following:
I always assumed modern physics was influenced by Froebel but never had proof…If Feynman’s mother was a trained kindergartner you can be 100% certain she used the gifts, the system, and the philosophy with him at home when he was a boy. Remnants of the original system were still widespread in public schools but would not have been as “pure” as what he got from his mother.
Two things strike me immediately: The first is the complete absence of Lucille and her influence from Feynman’s account. Her only appearance in Feynman’s 1966 talk is as the wife who says to her husband, “Mel, please let the poor child put a blue tile if he wants to” (instead of following the rigorous patterns Feynman’s father was determined to teach.) I’m sure Mel and his aspirations had a profound impact on his son, but Feynman’s gift at paper weaving that so amazed his Kindergarten teacher surely come as much from his mother’s influence. Here again, as in the previous post, we witness the invisibility of women’s intelligence and women’s minds to both the young and the mature Richard Feynman.
The second striking thing I have already foreshadowed. Was the remarkable, visual, unorthodox Feynman’s way of seeing the world profoundly influenced by the Kindergarten system as he encountered it in his own home? Feynman was the first-born, and a boy for whom his parents clearly had ambition. It’s hard to imagine that he was not decisively shaped by a way of thinking and doing that had attracted his mother, even before his birth.
It is worth quoting at length from Inventing Kindergarten (but you should also read the entire book):
In effect, the early kindergartners created an enormous international program designed specifically to alter the mental habits of the general populace, and in their capable hands nineteenth-century children from Austria to Australia learned a new visual language. While focusing on kindergarten’s many educational and social benefits, these pioneers overlooked a potentially radical outcome of their efforts that is obvious in retrospect: kindergarten taught abstraction. By explicitly equating ideas, symbols, and things, it encouraged abstract thinking, and, in its repetitive use of geometric forms as the building blocks of all design, it taught children a new and highly disciplined way of making art. Like spokes on a wheel–separate at the rim, but connected at the hub–every lesson of the original kindergarten led from diverse vantage points to a central truth. Simple linear thinking was to be superseded by a more sophisticated, genealogical approach to knowledge that valued relationships as much as answers. The grid of the kindergarten table was symbolic of a type of inquiry that drew from multiple sources, cut across and connected seemingly unrelated data, and had the potential to result in more than one ‘correct’ conclusion. By emphasizing abstraction, kindergarten encouraged the value of unconventional reasoning. (p. 106)
Although Brosterman’s emphasis is on the Froebel system’s impact on the arts, it is no reach to think that Froebel, a trained scientist, would have been drawing at least as much on the fundamentals of science and nature as he developed his system. Was Feynman, the unconventional and deeply visual thinker, inventor of the abstractions known as Feynman diagrams (in addition to many other important contributions) influenced in essential ways not only by his father’s doting tutelage but also by the Froebel system in which his mother was steeped? The shoe fits; let’s walk a mile in it.
Feynman diagram (source http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Feynman-diagram-ee-scattering.png#file; accessed 18 March 2012)