Air and Space Museum Apollo 40th Celebration (200907200054HQ)

“In fact our academic system rewards people who know a lot of stuff, and generally we call those people smart. But at the end of the day, who do you want: the person who can figure stuff out that they’ve never seen before, or the person who can rattle off a bunch of facts? At the end of the day, I want the person who can figure stuff out.”

Education is an incredibly powerful and empowering thing, but I’m not entirely sure if we’re going about it the right way. I’ve never been one for rote memorization, instead preferring to be a concept learner who can then apply knowledge in novel situations. And that’s the kind of intelligence that Neil Degrasse Tyson describes above.

While he may be better known now for being an Internet meme, Tyson is actually an American astrophysicist and the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York. He is also the author of such books as Space Chronicles and Death By Black Hole. He’s pretty passionate about space, but he’s arguably even more passionate about knowledge and intelligent discourse.

In fact, you could say that folks like Neil Degrasse Tyson and Dr. Michio Kaku are the people who are working the hardest to popularize science. Yes, there are “geeks” out there who “nerd out” about this type of material, but it is important that the mass populace gets a better grasp of scientific principles and skeptical thought.

“In the schools, I don’t have a problem with the fact-memorizing. But don’t equate that with what it is to be wise or what it is to be smart. Smart should be some combination — of that, yes, but also: what is your lens on the world? How do you figure things out? And you promote that by stimulating curiosity. And I don’t see enough stimulating curiosity in this world.”

Before we are able to partake in a fruitful conversation and a thought-provoking debate, we must first start with base knowledge. Yes, memorizing facts is necessary, but there is so much more to education than that. Education grants us the ability to question the world around us. It feeds our imagination. We need to be curious and it is only through curiosity that we will be motivated to seek the answers to our questions.

I’ve written before about the nature of true intelligence and how academic performance does not necessarily indicate that someone is “smart.” Instead, it is through innovation and seeing things that no one else has seen before, even if it has been in front of them the entire time.

We, as human beings, are creatures of instant gratification and that is why it is becoming increasingly difficult to fund scientific inquiry. Specific, practical applications of science–like the more fuel-efficient car–more easily get money than the less direct science done by organizations like NASA. That’s why a longer time frame needs to be considered.

“Investing in the frontier of science, however remote it may seem in its relevance to what you’re doing today, is a way of stockpiling the seed corns of future harvests of this nation. And those seed corns, what they do is, whether or not you know it today, advancing a frontier, history has shown, has advanced the culture.”

It’s not just about a nation, Mr. Tyson. It’s about human civilization as a collective. We share our knowledge and we advance as a species. And that starts by encouraging little Billy in elementary school to wonder, to be curious, and to seek answers.

The video below is almost an hour and a half, but if you like either Stephen Colbert or Neil Degrasse Tyson, it’s well worth your time. Colbert is even a little out of character for this interview!