If you have looked at The Pattern of Knowledge you may wonder how I was able to fill in that wide-ranging table. In that time before the Internet, when I did most of it, such research was not easy. As I describe in Elegantly Simple, I found the big pattern, the periods without a lot of difficulty once I knew what to look for. The phases, well that was another matter.
I spend many nights reading and searching, several years in part-time research, and nearly two years looking for this pattern nearly full-time. At first, I did not know what I was looking for, thinking that each period had a different pattern. But as I searched and thought further, I found all of the periods had a common pattern. I searched first in compilations of breakthroughs in subjects in appendices, art books, and history of the subject books. But I soon found them wanting. I had to go to original sources and actually read what the great inventors themselves wrote. In this endeavor I was most fortunate.
I took my undergraduate degree in physics at the University of Chicago. My physics education was first class but traditional. The rest of my education was not. Undergraduate studies, the so-called liberal arts courses at the U of C are in the College. In a tradition dating back to the Hutchins’ era, these courses in the humanities, social sciences, and even in the sciences are seminars based on using the Socratic method on original works. We rarely if ever studied pre-digested content. We had to read and understand the great thinkers themselves. We had to ask what the author meant and why.
This very non-traditional education changed my life, for it built the confidence to tackle any and every original work I cared to. I have found this a generally rare kind of confidence. I read hundreds of works and parts of works from the pre-Socratics through Einstein, Plato through Wittgenstein, Sophocles through Joyce.
Confidence is perhaps the most important quality students can build. For without confidence, we do not concentrate well. If we don’t think we can understand something, we will find it hard to keep our focus on it and we will not learn it. Today, schools may talk of grit and sticktoitiveness, but preaching grit is not learning confidence. And while we do want students to practice working on problems until they solve them, they build that grit through building confidence.
Confidence may indeed be the most important 21st century skill. My friend George Blakeslee calls it the 5th C and the basis for the four 21st century skills, creativity, cooperation, critical thinking, and communication. It is measurable attitudinally. And true confidence, not bravado, is the mark of a student who can concentrate and who has the skills and perseverance to learn anything she or he wants to learn. Should confidence be the goal of education? Well it certainly was what enabled me to develop Elegantly Simple and all my other inventions.. It lets me think out-of-the-box, work cooperatively, communicate effectively, and think critically. And I gained this confidence as we gain every skill, through practice.