Rote learning and strength training

Over at Ara Maxima, Mark Yuray argues that critical thinking can’t be taught, but that it is what naturally intelligent people do automatically. Legionnaire counters that it can be taught, or at least improved, but that intelligence is a prerequisite. I think they are both on the right track, in that teaching critical thinking without instilling a base of knowledge ranges from a suboptimal teaching strategy to a complete waste of time.

What struck me about this argument is that it seems parallel to something Mark Rippetoe talks about in his proselytizations for strength training. He argues that every athlete has a maximum genetic potential for explosiveness. This potential is measured by the athlete’s standing vertical jump, a measurement that cannot be improved through training (explained here from 38:58 to 42:44, but watch the whole thing). Athletes gifted with high explosiveness have an easier time building strength than other athletes. But all athletes can improve their strength through training. Power, however, is the ability to apply strength quickly, and so can be improved by increasing strength.

The analogies spell themselves out:

  • Explosiveness is akin to IQ, and cannot be improved for normal people.
  • Rote learning is akin to strength training, which are both process for systematic personal improvement. High IQ students can absorb information much more easily than low IQ students and may not even need to spend much time in rote learning; gifted athletes get stronger faster than awkward athletes and some may have great achievements without spending much time in the gym.
  • Final exams are like power exercises (such as the power clean) which are performances that reflect the person’s improvement in knowledge or strength.
  • And critical thinking is like an athletic performance. Using the basic tools of acquired knowledge and IQ, along with training in a specific field, a great thinker can synthesize better arguments, or discover new theorems, or do all sorts of smart stuff. Likewise, using his strength and explosiveness along with much practice in his specific sport, a great athlete can become a top performer on the field, court, or arena.

Not everyone can become a great thinker and not everyone can become a great athlete, but much in life can be made easier by self improvement in both knowledge and strength. Knowing arithmetic makes everyday tasks such as paying bills or avoiding playing the lottery much easier, regardless of IQ. A bigger deadlift makes everyday tasks such as hauling children into the car or not getting hurt when slipping on ice much easier as well, regardless of athletic ability.

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