To learn, to teach, to understand…

500004277-03-01At the Institute for Advanced Study where I spent a sabbatical some years ago, the photograph on the left was in the hallway outside my office: Oppenheimer with von Neumann, standing in front of the computer that they had built in a shed on Olden Lane, where the Crossroads Nursery School and Infant Center now stands.

Few American scientists have been publicly as deeply introspective as J. Robert Oppenheimer. Or as eloquent. His knowledge of the Bhagavad Gita stood him in good stead, when just before testing the bomb, he is said to have taken inspiration from the verse:

In battle, in the forest, at the precipice in the mountains,
On the dark great sea, in the midst of javelins and arrows,
In sleep, in confusion, in the depths of shame,
The good deeds a man has done before defend him

although where precisely in the Gita this appears is in some doubt. Nevertheless, the lines capture the angst of someone coming to grips with what must be done, however distasteful that might be. Later, when speaking to the Association of Los Alamos Scientists in November 1945 he drew attention to the value of a scientific approach.

I think that we have no hope at all if we yield in our belief in the value of science, in the good that it can be to the world to know about reality, about nature, to attain a gradually greater and greater control of nature, to learn, to teach, to understand. I think that if we lose our faith in this we stop being scientists, we sell out our heritage, we lose what we have most of value for …

Of course the context was different, and the times were morally complex, Hiroshima and Nagasaki having happened a short while earlier then, but the sequencing- learn, teach, understand- seems so apposite. After so many years of working in an University, and after countless discussions with colleagues across disciplines, I think that this is true of all areas of study and not just the sciences, that true understanding comes only after teaching.

Today this is a particularly fine message to share. Happy Teacher’s Day!

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3 thoughts on “To learn, to teach, to understand…

  1. Sir, this is the Sanskrit equivalent of the verse ‘In battle, in the forest, at the precipice…’

    वने रणे शतृजलाग्निमध्ये महार्णवे पर्वतमस्तके वा ।
    सुप्तं प्रमत्तं विषमस्थितं वा रक्षन्ति पुण्यानि पुराकृतानि ।।

    This is a popular subhashita in Sanskrit, but not from Gita.
    Happy Teachers’ Day!

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