Could we teach general relativity like we teach reading?

A while ago I got into an argument with a friend when I made the assertion “If you can learn how to read, you can learn general relativity.” My point was is that I frankly thought that mastering the intricacies of written language or just language in general, with its highly variable rules and opportunity for innovative expression, seemed like a far deeper and grander achievement that understanding the logic and mechanics of the general theory of relativity. It is after all a physical theory, and thus highly constrained in its logical and mathematical form. Compare the free form of a poem to the iron laws governing the orbits of planets.

My friend’s reaction was what you’d expect, of course: “That’s obviously not true. I know some pretty stupid people and they can all read and write, whereas I couldn’t imagine any of them learning something as complicated as general relativity.”

I think the argument boiled down to a question of innateness versus education. I felt and feel that the variability in human intelligence for abstract reasoning can’t be that great, given that I find our capacity for language so awesome, so the issue must be one of how we teach. Think about it like this: How do we teach people to read? We start when they’re very young, around 5-years-old, with very basic works and then utterly immerse them in a literate culture. People are constantly reading, and as you advance in years you quickly reach the common level of newspapers, street signs, and menus. Contrariwise, we teach general relativity by waiting until students are in their 20s, sit them in a lecture hall for a few hours a week, have them copy down notes form the board, have them buy expensive and mathematically dense textbooks, and then have them work on a few assignments over the term. Job done, GR learned.

When you put it like that, it seems fairly clear why so many regardless of our assumptions should learn to read and write but not learn higher physics. The reason why it is so is that literacy is a far, far more useful skill than being able to calculate Christoffel symbols. The core thesis of mine is that if you taught GR the same way you teach reading, by starting early with very simple works and immersing them in a culture of such, then people would probably think GR was a piece of cake compared to reading.

Another friend of mine while discussing the same issued said “When you start reading, you do it with really simple books, like The Three Brown Bears. I want a Three Brown Bears of GR.” I think the reason we don’t have books like that, which would be extremely useful since we vastly underestimate how hard it is to explain things, is because in our culture the default mode for math is that we expect it to be hard. You can’t teach calculus to children, you have to wait until the end of high school or college. I mean, when I took calculus, it was hard, right?

You need calculus in order to do general relativity, and in order to do calculus you need algebra. I think, though, that you can get the essential bits necessary to move on far faster than most people expect (the actual calculus you usually use when doing undergraduate physics is pretty basic). I see no reason why, with properly basic texts and guides, 10-year-olds couldn’t be doing calculus and junior high students (if they wished) learning the actual mathematics of general relativity or quantum mechanics or natural selection. I just don’t think it can happen with schools as they are now, though.

EDIT: In the meantime, however, I think there are better ways forward.

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