Home > Uncategorized > The Three-Legged Stool of Understanding

The Three-Legged Stool of Understanding

While asking questions of how to learn, and what is education and what are its legitimate goals, it is important to ask what we should learn.

One of my favorite authors of fiction was the great Robert A. Heinlein, known as the Dean of science fiction. If you know of him through movies based on his work, you don’t know squat.

His greatest novel, in my opinion was “Stranger in a Strange Land.” I first read it in the early 90s, from a new, expanded and uncut hardback edition published by the Science Fiction Book Club. Copies of it in paperback, both of the expanded uncut version and the originally published version fill bookstores throughout the US, even in rural backwaters. As Heinlein was one of the most popular science fiction authors of the sixties, seventies and eighties.



Some of the best serious essays and some valuable autobiographical information on Heinlein can be found in the book, “Expanded Universe,” a collection of many previously published, and a few unpublished short stories and essays.

Some of the essays in “Expanded Universe” make incisive criticisms of the troubles with education that have been growing in the US for decades, and according to Heinlein, perhaps all century.


One of his central observations about knowledge was that the three-legged stool of human understanding is held up by history, languages and mathematics. It was his idea of what made a well-rounded person, as opposed to one educated only well enough to be a farmer, or low-level technician. These branches of knowledge greatly expand our natural capacity, orienting us in time, allowing analysis of current events according to experience, from those like us and through the eyes of those who lived different lives in different parts of the world, and by precision understanding of quantities, even those far beyond those we are equipped to experience.

Do you think Heinlein’s concept of these three legs makes sense? If not, how would you characterize the kinds of knowledge that make the best understanding available to us?

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