I asked my father about education. He believed in it but not necessarily in the classical sense. He seemed unusually retrospective and moody. I paid rapt attention because this seemed like one of those special revelation moments.
“I was born left-handed,” he said—something, of course, I was well aware of—and he went on, “That was a very bad thing for my schooling. I don’t know about schools today but back then the writing part of the seat-desk was only available on the right side. The teachers were awful. I refused to write right-handed so they made me contort and write with my left hand on the right side.”
“Weren’t things better in college?” I asked.
“No,” he went on. “All through school and college, the teachers and professors were always trying to force me into uncomfortable and unproductive conformity. None of them except one lone high school teacher was interested in what interested me—art, geometry and creativity. I quit Harvard in my sophomore year.”
Years later, he admitted that he should have finished Harvard. Both his brothers did. One was an architect and the other a research doctor, and both were very successful.
My father never lost his interest in intellectual things that related to creativity, invention and design. These abilities were all embodied in his greatest hero, Leonardo da Vinci, another lefty. Left-handed people seem to be right-brained which matches the strengths of Leonardo who is one of the greatest thinkers and doers in art, mechanics, invention and probably all right-brain things. My father’s strengths were in the same areas.
Inevitable to this discussion is Leonardo’s “mirror writing.” He wrote right to left. You could read it if you understood Italian and if you looked at a mirror reflection of the writing showing the writing going the conventional left to right.
My father didn’t use mirror writing. He used a simple solution: print. It is awkward for a left-handed person to write script smoothly from left to right, and Leonardo and my father each developed his own solution. Viewed in this way, it seems unlikely that Leonardo wrote in mirror script to make it hard to read his notes and to hide his ideas as has been commonly proposed.
My father’s suspicion of over-reliance on higher education shows up in one of his favorite stories. A farmer was lamenting to his neighbor about his son going to the university. Somewhat taken aback, his neighbor asked, “Isn’t that good—won’t he be something?” “Maybe,” the farmer replied, “But the trouble is, he’s learning all there is to know, but he don’t realize nothin’.”
To be curious and inventive and to think outside the box of our formal education, we have to constantly strive to maintain our drive for independent reflection and thinking. We must thoroughly understand what we are talking about.
This issue becomes more serious in this age of the Internet and Google. We can log in and instantly generate heaps of data. Do we have the tools and discipline to develop insights from all the data, and do we know the truth when we see it?
In the mid-1950s mother took me around to interview at several New England boarding schools. She was serious about broadening my education. I was doing very well in our local public school, but it was a simplified basic curriculum. Almost all the boys joined the Army before high school graduation and the girls had long since been married. The audiovisual equipment in the schoolhouse was a windup 78 rpm record player. We boys took turns shoveling coal into the school's furnace.
Still, I could visualize settling down locally with a shop like my father’s, only making electronic products instead of machinery. Mother said, “No, you must learn how to write, you must meet people from many places and countries, you must learn behavior that important people will expect of you.”
I had an exceptionally good interview with the headmaster of Moses Brown, a highly selective Quaker school in Providence, Rhode Island. Their academic standards were very high, they had excellent athletic programs, and their students came from all over the country and abroad. Best of all, they offered me almost a full scholarship in return for some token work like waiting on tables in the boarding students’ dining room. Mother had a small inheritance put away which covered the remaining costs.
Moses Brown would provide my high school education and it is where I would form friendships with classmates who were very important to me in later life. The same thing happened to my father when instead of high school, he went to a private day school near Boston. We will learn more about the consequences for him later in my story.
Whether it’s quality high school or the military, you probably will be forced to learn subjects you didn’t think you needed to know or wanted to learn, and you meet people who become valuable lifetime friends. This is a key growing up phase that both my father and I had in common.
The first year of boarding school was tough because I had to change my study habits for real academic competition. By the second year, tenth grade, I was doing very well and began to think about getting a summer job in an industry where I might eventually work. Fortunately, there were many technology companies of interest nearby.
So while I was home in the summer of 1958 I sat down with my father as he was taking a coffee break at his drawing board. After a silence, while I was searching for words, I said, “I’m thinking I should do something better in the summers than doing odd jobs for neighbors. I’d like to work for an electronics company.”
“I think you’re on the right track,” he said, “but how can I help you?”
“Well, could you give me a recommendation letter to give to potential employers?”
He beamed with his wonderful warm smile which said, “I understand. I know what you’re feeling. Let me help.”
“Help your mother move the sheep, and I’ll work on this.”
He knew I didn’t like pushing the messy, stubborn, and dumb sheep around, but my dad clearly wanted some time alone to write something. He was not a prolific writer, and when he did write, he pecked it out on a clunky typewriter because of his left-handedness problem. The next day, he handed me a letter of introduction. It began:
I sometimes wish that people would be supplied with a card of information such as is provided with oil burners and other mechanical equipment. As I look at the card before me describing my oil burner, it lists the dos and don’ts, as well as the name of the serviceman to call and simple remedial measures that can be taken to correct faults. I am sure I could make out a set of directions for Lawrence Kilham that would be of assistance to anyone for whom or with whom he works. I trust the following will take the place of a set of directions.
Written over 60 years ago, his description of me is still right on target:
Lawrence is basically a theoretical person, more interested in abstract ideas than in the execution of them. If he carries an idea to completion in material form, it is the embodiment of an idea rather than a mechanical marvel. In carrying out an idea he does it in the most economical form and in the shortest time possible. Fortunately, this method is of great value in development work although, unfortunately, his finished work is seldom a pleasure to look upon. If he is required to do a good complete job, he will do so, but continual urging is necessary.
I believe Lawrence will be extremely valuable to the person who can realize what his abilities are and who has the problem to which Lawrence can be applied. I believe electronic circuits to be his major field, and would appreciate anything you can do to give him a steer in the right direction.
Peter Kilham, President
This letter shows that my father recognized that we came from the same mold but as design engineers, we chose separate paths. I preferred studying the relevant theory and then building something practical based on the theory and available resources. His limited education offered him no theory, and he approached design as a craftsman, always improving his art.
Leonardo da Vinci, my father’s greatest hero in art and design, believed that theory and empirical study should both be done in developing a machine or system. This is especially interesting because Leonardo had no formal education in the sciences. My father, however, remained a dedicated cut-and-try empiricist.
Soon he would confront his greatest challenge.
Larry Kilham is an award-winning author who has traveled extensively overseas for over twenty years. He worked in several large international companies and started and sold two high-tech ventures. Larry has written books about creativity and invention, artificial intelligence and digital media, travel overseas, and four novels with an AI theme. He looks forward to hearing from readers at email@example.com.