Monday, September 14, 2015

A Brief Account of Young Michael Faraday’s Successful Quest for Education

[I was greatly impressed with the following story of young Michael Faraday’s successful quest for an education. As a boy Faraday was an apprentice in a book binding shop and allowed to read the books he was working on in his off hours.]
One evening he read an encyclopedia passage on the most recent discoveries of electricity, and he suddenly felt as if he had found his calling in life. ... Somehow, he would transform himself into a scientist. 
This was not a realistic goal on his part and he knew it. In England at the time, access to laboratories and to science as a career was only open to those with a university education, which meant those from the upper classes. How could a bookbinder’s apprentice even dream of overcoming such odds? Even if he had the energy and desire to attempt it, he had no teachers, no guidance, no structure or method to his studies. Then in 1809 a book came into the shop that finally gave him some hope. It was called Improvement of the Mind– a self-help guide written by Reverend Isaac Watts, first published in 1741. The book revealed a system of learning and improving your lot in life, no matter your social class. It prescribed courses of action that anyone could follow, and it promised results. Faraday read it over and over, carrying it with him wherever he went.
He followed the book’s advice to the letter. For Watts, learning had to be an active process.  He recommended not just reading about scientific discoveries, but actually re-creating the experiments that led to them. And so, with Riebau’s blessing, Faraday began a series of basic experiments in electricity and chemistry in the back room of the shop. Watts advocated the importance of having teachers and not just learning from books. Faraday dutifully began to attend the numerous lecturers on science that were popular in London at the time.  Watts advocated not just listening to lectures but taking detailed notes, then reworking the notes themselves–all of this imprinting the knowledge deeper in the brain.  Faraday would take this even further
Attending the lecturers of the popular scientist John Tatum, each week on a different subject, he would note down the most important words and concepts, quickly sketch out the various instruments Tatum used, and diagram the experiments. Over the next few days he would expand the notes into sentences, and then into an entire chapter on the subject, elaborately sketched and narrated. In the course of a year this added up to a thick scientific encyclopedia he had created on his own. His knowledge of science had grown by leaps and bounds, and had assumed a kind of organizational shape modeled on his notes.(1)
Let’s think together again, soon.


1.  Robert Greene, Mastery (New York: Penguin Books, 2012), pp. 96-97.  Watts's book is available for download at the Internet Archive and is available in a number of reprints at

No comments:

Post a Comment