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The Deception of Difficulty

Abstract.

The current educational system, and the ways we mythologize great thinkers, shrouds certain fields of study such as math and science, in a veil of false difficulty. I outline a few reasons I think drive society to make things seem more difficult than they are. This deception of difficulty is unfortunate because it stops many from pursuing study in those domains.

I remember when I was growing up, roughly around the fifth grade, I would occasionally hear older people mention the field of TRIGONOMETRY.

“TRIGONOMETRY”

What an awe-inspiring word that is to a fifth grader. It makes them shudder in their seat trying to imagine what such an impassable realm of thought might contain. There was an aura about it that suggested it would be some sort of mental and spiritual transcendence. Then, a few years later, in the glorious awakening, it turned out to be triangles - triangles….. three-lines connected at three points. (slow clap)

Throughout my life, I’ve always marveled at what the next level of life and of knowledge would hold. And, upon climbing to that next level, I have almost always been met with disillusionment. The next level of knowledge to be attained, the next experience to be had, always turned out to be somewhat less magical than I expected. The times when I did feel a sense of magic while attaining new knowledge came not from the difficulty of its content, but instead from its surprising simplicity. Far too often society has a tendency to take simple things, and veil them in difficulty: to make things seem harder than they actually are.

Let me be clear and say that this post is not me trying to be arrogant. On the contrary, what I am trying to get across is that sometimes people are deceived into being impressed by certain realms of knowledge, which, when explained with clarity, actually turn out to be far less complicated than they’re portrayed to be. Most of the sciences fall into this category, and this is unfortunate.

I believe that one of the greatest ails of society is making things seem more difficult than they actually are. There is an immense disservice that we do to ourselves, collectively, by instilling in our shared consciousness the belief that certain realms of thought are inaccessible to the majority of the population. Exaggerating and mythologizing the achievements of our great thinkers and their works does nothing but to provide us with a sense of awe. This in turn demoralizes the ambition of too many capable individuals.

Most magic is not as magical as it may seem.

So, why does this happen? Why do realms of though like math and computer science get veiled in mystery? I’m not sure, but here are what I think some of the causes are:

A tradeoff between accuracy and interestingness.

Often times it is more ‘interesting’ to portray something as excessively complex, to portray someone as a genius, rather than to be accurate about the true contents of the subject, or the individual.

Laziness or bad teachers - leading to more bad teachers

Deceptions occur when people cast something as difficult because they did not take the time to understand it, or because they had a teacher who did not have clarity themselves. When people don’t understand something, they try to make it seem more complicated than it actually is. This leads to a vicious cycle where people who don’t understand, end up teaching others, making it seem even more difficult to their successors.

Starting at the wrong place

Sometimes the basics of a given topic, and its assumptions, are not adequately covered. People are pushed to deal with levels of abstraction that are too deep, and haven't been explained, leaving them uncertain about the fundamentals. This is manifested in the lack of history that is used to teach many topics. For example, we learned calculus without learning how it came about, without grasping what problems it was intended to solve. It was not until 2nd year of university that I had a good understanding of how calculs emerged, and the motivations behind its discovery. By that point I had already been studying it for about 4 years. Seeing how problems and their solutions unfold is probably the best way to learn, but this happens rarely.

Wanting to sound distinguished

When something is simple, but people want to seem important and indispensable, they wrap simple concepts in words and language that make those concepts difficult to distill. This achieves their desire to sound distinguished, but harms the ability for others to get to the root of things.

The consequence of all this is that people approach new fields of knowledge with two things: fear, and an expectation for magic.

The fear is unfortunate, because it scares many people off before they even begin. It makes people discount their own abilities, and leads them to strive for less than they are actually capable of achieving. How many people have shied away from math all together because they were made to feel like they could not understand it? Perhaps, it was those who were teaching them that did not understand.

The expectation of magic is unfortunate, because it leads people to constantly question themselves, and their comprehension of the subject they are studying. It is a disillusionment and questioning after the fact of comprehension. When something turns out to not be as complicated, or as magical, as it was portrayed to be, they are not sure if they actually understand it. This type of disillusioned self-doubt leads to listlessness, and a lack of certainty in one’s own uncertainty. People are quicker to question their own deficiencies if something doesn’t make sense, rather than question the thing which does not make sense. We should constantly question the assumptions and contents of what we learn. If something doesn’t make sense, we should examine its basis with honesty. It could well be that you are right, and the material is wrong - so take a moment to consider this possibility. Be bold.

I do believe that there is substantial value gained by making things seem less magical, and in turn more attainable. It would be empowering for people to know that things are not as far out of reach as they may think. This applies to experiences as much as it does to knowledge. The next realm of knowledge you dive into, or the next life experience, may turn out to be less magical than you thought it would be. This just means that there is more possibility for you to now make real magic, to try to locate that subtle process through which true magic is created.

March 2012

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