I first heard this story told by Neil deGrasse Tyson, one of the world’s greatest contemporary physicists.
Who would you employ?
As he tells it, a university professor is interviewing two candidates for a job at the university. With a view to gaining meaningful insights into the thinking of the candidates and thus, their suitability to the job, he asked them both a series of questions, the last of which was: ''How tall is the spire on the top of this building?''
The first candidate answered the question by suggesting that he had an interest in architectural history and, as a result, had studied all the spires in the town. He remembered reading that the spire on the building was 155m high. He was precisely correct.
The second candidate said she had no knowledge but, given a moment, would offer an estimate. She then went outside, paced out the length of the spire shadow, then measured the length of her shadow from the same point and, using ratios, estimated that the spire was 150m high. She was 5m off.
Based on this question alone, who would you hire?
Would you employ the candidate with the good memory, or the candidate with the skills to estimate with a high degree of accuracy?
While such a decision should never be based on the answer to just one question -- and we have no knowledge of the nature of the job, and whether an interest in architecture is an advantage -- on the basis of this question and these responses, I would employ the candidate who worked out the answer.
Tyson makes the point that, setting aside its imperfections, this story addresses a critical issue -- namely the distinction between a candidate who can remember and a candidate who can think. Else>>>oadly, it looks at the relative importance of knowledge, and the capacity to think.
I would back the candidate who can think over one who just knows, every time! Knowledge based on study is important, but it is much less important than the capacity to work through the problem, even if the outcome is less precise. What if the question related to the height of a spire that the candidate had not memorised? The second candidate would still have been able to provide an estimate, while the first would be stumped.
The capacity to think and work through problems is almost always more useful that the ability to remember. Consider, for example, the changing job market. The candidate who has memorised facts relevant to a particular job will be unemployed when that job no longer exists. On the other hand, the candidate who can think through issues will be more able to think through the challenges of the new job.
In some instances, immediately accessible knowledge is important, but in most cases the ability to think through issues, whatever the issue, is far more important, particularly in the longer term.
This being the case, it is important to ask about the priorities of our education system. I believe that learning multiplication tables and maths formulas by rote is about knowledge, while learning how to work out mathematical challenges is about thinking. I also believe the primary focus of our education system is knowledge, not thinking.
This is why, in the course of a day, I meet so few people who can think. They all know stuff, or think they do, but few of them can work issues through by applying objective, critical and even socratic thinking. Most people I know rely on facts learned, to avoid having to think, even though the facts are so often out of date or even irrelevant.
Bertrand Russell once said: ''Most people would rather die than think…..and most people do.''
Sometimes this is because they are lazy, others it is because they lack the ability. Very often it is because they don’t know how, as the result of the people in their life placing a higher priority on knowledge than thinking.
What do you think?