Education and Discovery
“Discovery consists of seeing what everybody else has seen and thinking what nobody has thought.” Albert Szent-Gyorgi, 1937 Nobel Prize in Physiology
Each September as my kids were off to begin a new school year I would paraphrase Gyorgi’s quote, setting the standard for a successful year. Success, I would say, is not just packing your brains full of dates and formulas to get good grades but instead to think a thought that no one has thought before. Sure, it’s great to have the ability to recall the words of others but thinking critically and creatively is the sign of a highly functional mind.
The goal of all education is to understand, then evaluate what is already known and to treat that knowledge as a stepping stone to innovation and the improvement of the human condition. Along the path to discovery and change divergent thinkers always encounter resistance.
Some resist change because we humans are creatures of habit, reluctant to suffer disruption to our routines. Some agonize due to cognitive dissonance, becoming stressed when confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs and teachings. Often, we resist and even fear change because it introduces uncertainty and some risk.
It is incumbent upon both student and teacher to pursue knowledge with an open mind, one prepared to examine not only generally accepted ideas but a wide variety of alternative thoughts. In the interest of innovation and improvement in existing knowledge there are instances when old ideas are deemed limited or obsolete. This is what economist Joseph Schumpeter referred to as “creative destruction”, the act of phasing out the old in favor of the new. Creative destruction is at the heart of evolutionary capitalism, and the remarkable improvement in the human condition seen in the past 20 years.
Creative destruction is a double edged sword that involves progress and can be particularly tough on those engaged in industries and business models that are moving toward obsolescence. In some industries, creative destruction represents an existential threat and produces incentive to resist change in favor of survival.