As an undergraduate who is just receiving his physics degree, I have never seen such naked arrogance as that in my physics program. J. Murray Gibson’s discussion of his undergraduate training was very enlightening: I now see that the trial I went through is the rule rather than an unjust aberration. I had a teacher who was tyrannical, and I found the totalitarian classroom nearly intolerable. I learned that, although physicists are very smart people, they just don’t get the idea of “human being.” Perhaps the mathematical models on this subject are still not adequate for physicists’ understanding. Gibson writes, “For the real physicist, this trial by fire is not quite enough to extinguish interest in the field.” Ah, yes, an analogy that conjures the tempering of steel—you see, just a hardening process. You need lots of heat, and no emotions. Who needs emotions? They’re not objective! Those physicists may be “real,” their interests having survived, but they will be emotional cripples, looking to cripple others.
A different analogy may serve as a better model for the physicists trying to acquire a feel for this “human” stuff. The forester will tend seedlings in the nursery and provide the right environment for growth. When they are ready, they will be transferred to the ground where they may thrive. The forester cultivates them and does not force the issue. You will not find the forester hitting the seedlings with a hammer when they first break through the soil.
Perhaps the physicist might try to see potential in the undergraduate who can be cultivated. Of course, that variety of teaching is an art. I have found that there are two jobs one can get without experience. One is parent; the other is college teacher. Most physics professors have never cracked a book on learning theory and don’t understand different learning styles. Gibson recasts arrogance as a virtue, but I think it is an archaic and unproductive teaching posture in dire need of updating. It is probably psychologically damaging and apt to arouse American students’ intrinsic questioning of authority. If physics professors regarded undergraduates as sentient humans who get blown out of the field when confronted by poor treatment, then physicists would see the danger of arrogance and educational facilities would not need hubris monitors stationed outside the classroom next to the fire extinguisher.