The Curse of Knowledge

The latest Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal (#3565):

Ah, the Curse of Knowledge.

From my posting on Nathan Heller’s ignorant review of Steve Pinker’s book on (writing) style, an appreciation by Rachel Hadas, in her American Scholar review of the book, of the chapter called “The Curse of Knowledge”, where Pinker argues that

Scholars don’t write in murky jargon because they believe opacity is a requirement for tenure; rather, their fundamental difficulty is “imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know.”

And so it is with fractions. And much else.

2 Responses to “The Curse of Knowledge”

  1. Richard Cobbe Says:

    A problem endemic to professors in both mathematics and my field, computer science.

    Frank Boas, on the occasion of retiring from his position as the editor of the American Mathematical Monthly, wrote a charming little article discussing many of the same issues; you can see a preview of it (with full citation) at — I particularly like the story about teaching a very young child what a “cat” is, in the middle of the first page of the preview.

    He’s primarily concerned with these issues as they pertain to the teaching of advanced mathematics, but most of his points generalize well to other subjects.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Nice. Yes, the point is quite general. At an early stage in my linguistics career, I taught a course that attracted lots of language teachers to it. Periodically they’d appeal to me for help: they got into language teaching because they were “good at languages”, loved to use them, etc., but their students were just mystified at the problems of getting into another language. How to reach them? (Remember that it all comes easy to *you*.)

      Some very nice discussions on this question.

      And in linguistics, things like how to get the idea of the phoneme across. Teacher training in linguistics spends a good bit of time on ways to confront such issues.

      I also used to teach freshman calculus. Another set of challenges, especially for someone like me, who first learned about differentiation in grade school (from an encyclopedia!) and found it just so cool and natural that I had to work to see things through other people’s eyes.

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