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What I’m Learning: Day 4/365

Activity IV: Read for one hour

Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling by John Taylor Gotto.

I read for an hour covering pages 51-72.

Gotto has a lot of thought-provoking things to say in this book. This was my favorite excerpt from yesterday’s reading:

Whatever an education is, it should make you a unique individual, not a conformist; it should furnish you with an original spirit with which to tackle the big challenges; it should allow you to find values which will be your road map through life; it should make you spiritually rich, a person who loves whatever you are doing, wherever you are, whomever you are with; it should teach you what is important: how to live and how to die.  What’s gotten in the way of education in the United States is a theory of social engineering that says there is one right way to proceed with growing up.

For the last one hundred and ten years, the “one right way” crowd has been trying to figure out what to do with the children, and they still don’t know.

This notion that there is only one right way to educate a person, although obviously fallacious, is still very seductive because it offers the promise of ease to educators and administrators. Many of the rules and customs we observe around us (ie. no chewing gum in class, walking in single file straight lines) are not based on a consideration of what’s best for each individual student, but are instead born out of an need for authority figures to have simple stress-free systems for managing groups of people. The good intentions of good teachers aside, children often find themselves being conditioned to think and act in accordance with rules that have no relation to their own self-interests. The goal of education should not be about making it easier for teachers to manage people. It should be about making it easier for students to develop a sense of autonomy, self-awareness, and creative intelligence. In our efforts to streamline pedagogical processes, we should not forget the individuality and interests of the human beings who give meaning to processes.

Activity VII: Read one brainpickings article

Teenage James Joyce’s Beautiful Letter to Ibsen, His Great Hero

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

There was one excerpt of Joyce’s letter that resonates with me deeply:

Do not think me a hero-worshipper — I am not so. And when I spoke of you in debating societies and so forth, I enforced attention by no futile ranting.

But we always keep the dearest things to ourselves. I did not tell them what bound me closest to you. I did not say how what I could discern dimly of your life was my pride to see, how your battles inspired me — not the obvious material battles but those that were fought and won behind your forehead, how your willful resolution to wrest the secret from life gave me heart and how in your absolute indifference to public canons of art, friends and shibboleths you walked in the light of your inward heroism. And this is what I write to you of now.

This sentence: “your willful resolution to wrest the secret from life gave me heart and how in your absolute indifference to public canons of art, friends and shibboleths you walked in the light of your inward heroism.”

Last week I read these similarly themed words from Herman Hesse:

Gaze into the fire, into the clouds, and as soon as the inner voices begin to speak… surrender to them. Don’t ask first whether it’s permitted, or would please your teachers or father or some god. You will ruin yourself if you do that.

This understanding and recognition of one’s own inner compass combined with the unapologetic determination to adhere to the truth that speaks from within is what I consider to be the foundation inner freedom and creative autonomy. As Joyce looked admiringly upon Ibsen, so do I extol and emulate the virtue of those who exhibit the self-knowledge and strength to follow their own way.

Activity VIII: Listen to one EconTalks podcast

McCraw on Schumpeter, Innovation, and Creative Destruction

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

One insight I found interesting was Schumpeter’s notion of competition as a process. According to Schumpeter, the common fear of big businesses exploiting the masses through monopoly is grounded in short-sightedness. When arguing for Schumpeter’s view, McCraw used the titanic as an example saying,

you can’t judge the fate of the titanic by how it looks on the quayside of Southampton before it starts its voyage across the Atlantic. You absolutely have to put the dimension of time back into economic analysis….Schumpeter thought of economics as an evolutionary process. He sees capitalism as an endless process, something that never has an end.

Large powerful businesses may not fall as quickly as we like, but competitive forces take time to show evidence of their reality. Ultimately, competitive and disruptive forces will always tend towards less monopoly, more innovation, and greater opportunities for the average person to great wealth.

According to Roberts, one of Schumpeter’s major contributions was his presentation of capitalism as a biological evolutionary organism that can’t be modeled formally.

Both Roberts and McCraw point out that many economics textbooks fail to fairly capture the dynamic nature of capitalism. As Roberts points out, profits attract competition, competition produces innovation, innovation makes goods and services more affordable, more available, and more useful. The fact that we can still point to areas where competition and innovation are lacking is only evidence of the evolutionary nature of economic progress.

One distinction that seemed particularly important to Schumpeter was invention versus innovation. Invention is the process of producing something original or creative. Sometimes people invent things, but nothing ever comes from them. History is filled with inventors whose ideas fail to spread or impact culture. Innovation only happens when inventions become a part of people’s lives. Inventions need to be effectively implemented before attaining the status of innovation. This idea reminds me of a post I read on the FEE blog about how Science & Technology depends on entrepreneurship in order to have widespread impact. In that article Matthew McCaffrey writes,

Science doesn’t necessarily mean progress until it moves out of the lab and into the market.

Consider graphene: This major scientific breakthrough was discovered by Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov. They were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010 for their work on the substance. Graphene is a layer of pure carbon just one atom in diameter, making it the thinnest existing material — essentially two-dimensional. And it’s remarkable in other ways, as well: it’s the lightest known substance, the strongest compound, the best conductor of heat at room temperature, and the best conductor of electricity. Because of these special properties, graphene, along with similar materials, is being touted as the Next Big Thing in science — and maybe in business too.

Since the initial results were produced, research to commercialize graphene has taken off in a big way; for instance, the University of Manchester announced it will be devoting £60 million to develop applications of the technology, and other universities and firms are following suit with similar ventures.

The story of graphene is a useful heuristic for scientific achievements in general, because when it comes to human progress, people tend to overlook one enormously important point: scientific discoveries and technological advances do not in and of themselves improve the welfare of humankind.

We live in an age where the hard sciences are celebrated so greatly that we even have terms like “physics envy” to express the almost desperate desire of academicians to make their disciplines seem as technical and mathematical as possible. Schumpeter’s ideas are a reminder that the entrepreneur, whose role in societal progress is less often celebrated, is at the center, not the periphery, of much of our ability to enjoy the fruits of scientific achievement.

Activity IX: Listen to Philosophy Bites podcast

John Cottingham on The Meaning of Life

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

Speaking on “the interior cultivation of certain kinds of virtue” as pivotal practice in the pursuit of a meaningful life, Cottingham makes the distinction between spiritual praxis and spiritual belief. He defines praxis as “engagement in disciplines and traditions of action and practice, for example meditation, which are aimed at the cultivating of these virtues…”

Now many people think that belief comes first, that in order to embark on a program of spiritual praxis, for example, you’ve got to first get all your beliefs sorted out. But Blaise Pascal, the great Frence philosopher in the 17th century, had a different view. He thought that you should embark on the praxis, or the practice, first and the faith would come later. And that seems to me the right way around. You can’t secure your beliefs in advance because the sort of things we’re talking about –faith and hope and so on— come as a result of immersion in traditions of spiritual praxis. They come, as it were, after you’ve embarked on the path further down the line.

I advocate a similar idea when discussing the topic of positivity, creativity, and self-confidence. We often stop ourselves from taking risks, embarking on new ventures, or trying new things because we think we need to have positive beliefs and high-levels of faith before taking action. In actual experience, however, we gain the knowledge and experience that leads to confident optimism by taking action before we feel ready, prepared, and qualified. Instead of trying to force ourselves to be positive as a prerequisite for action, we’d be much better off by simply maintaining an open mind and adopting an experimental approach to learning and creating. People who are positive and confident are very often the same people who were once nervous and uncertain. Their confident optimism was the reward and effect, not the cause, of their decision to take new forms of action.

I also like Cottingham’s idea here because it opens the way for people to derive benefits from certain practices heavily associated with spirituality (ie. meditation) without getting hung up on what Marcus Borg calls the pressure of “meeting a belief requirement.”

Activity X: Educational lecture/talk

Economics in One Lesson: Part 3 | Jeffrey M. Herbener

Herbener discusses the value of Hazlitt’s book by underscoring it’s power to present economic thinking in an non-intimidating commonsense fashion. Like the two interviewees before him, he emphasizes the value of recognizing the unseen and not merely the seen effects of economic policy. He also discusses how certain institutional/political changes (ie. taxation) result in reduced incentives for productive labor.

When discussing taxes, Herbner invokes Murray Rothbard claiming that all taxes are income taxes. He shows how any form of taxation, even when we tax consumption (ie. sales taxes on beer and cigarettes), we are merely shifting costs around. By raising taxes (costs) in one area, people are forced to reduce costs in other areas.

Activity XI: One episode from my favorite podcasts list

Remarkably Human Podcast w/ Roderick Russell
Episode: A Pill To Make You Smarter : A Candid Discussion About Smart Drugs

Roderick Russell (host) discusses cognitive enhancement and brain nutrition with Jesse Lawler (host of Smart Drug Smarts podcast).

Early on in the discussion, Lawler addresses a lot of the misunderstandings associated with smartdrugs. He contends that Nootropics are often defined or characterized in a way that makes it impossible for them to be look upon in a positive light. One example of this is the commonly abused drug Adderall. Lawler says it’s unfortunate, but drugs like Adderall are what comes to mind for most people when smart drugs are discussed. Lawler accepts Russell’s description of a smart drug as “anything in your diet that enhances cognition” and he also points out that we sometimes that “dumb drugs” by consuming foods that don’t support healthy brain function.

Lawler comments on how generation after generation of college students engage in binge drinking of alcohol in spite of its proven toxicity. Yet, he contends, because of the negative connotation surrounding the word “drug,” we have a status quo bias that makes it difficult for us to learn about nootropics with an open objective mind.

This topic, albeit fascinating, is very new for me. I didn’t recognize most of the terms they names, but it definitely has be interested in doing further research. Lawler is the host of a podcast entirely devoted to this topic, so I plan on looking into his work more.

Activity XII: Read one Blog Post from Favorites List

Getting out of a bad place by Derek Sivers

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

This post was originally written by Sivers as a private email to a friend who was going through tough times. His friend and many others found it so helpful that they encouraged him to share it with others. Here are a couple of my favorite passages:

When you’re feeling down, Sivers advises,

Raise standards. Say no to anything less than great. Every person that doesn’t rejeuvenate me and make me feel better, say no. Blacklist them. Banned. Not allowed in, not even for a minute. No explanation needed. No compromise. No favors. Done. Gone. More fountains, less drains. Every thing I’m doing that isn’t good for me. Every thing I’m eating or drinking that isn’t making me more healthy. Stop. Say no. This even means saying no to half-ass conversations that are not whole-hearted and unconflicted. People that are “fine” and I “kill time” with, but don’t actually love and actively enjoy? Nope. Not good enough. Doing this gave me a huge feeling of self-worth. Setting the bar really high for something to take my time. It means more empty time, but that leaves room for POSSIBILITY! Empty time has the POTENTIAL to be filled with nourishing and awesome new actions and people, whereas filling it with half-ass things and people kills all that potential and possibility.

As a method for maintaining perspective and keeping your energy flowing, Sivers writes:

Do ALL the daily mundane stuff. This sounds silly, simple, and shallow, but it’s surprisingly effective: When I’m upset, I don’t feel like doing anything but wallowing in it. But despite feeling that way, I brush, floss, go to the gym, make healthy meals, take the kid out to play, do the dishes, clean the house, pick up clutter, vacuum, pay my bills, answer my emails, take my vitamins, do the laundry, play with the kid some more, brush and floss again, turn off the computer early, turn off the phone, and get to bed early. It’s so mundane, but it really helps to feel on top of things. Things in life well-sorted so I don’t need to worry about them. (And when I ask, “What’s wrong right now?” — it really helps me say “nothing!” when I look around and see this clean house, paid bills, happy child, and have a good night’s sleep.) It’s really peaceful to go through the motions, even though I don’t really feel like it. It’s more time to think and process. It’s a great reminder that I have to eat, even if I’m not feeling hungry. I have to clean the house, even if my mind is a mess. I have to sleep, no matter what! Like #1, above, it separates the mental anguish from the physical reality. Keeps me focused on what’s real versus what I’m just imagining.

To see the spreadsheet documenting all the activities I completed yesterday, click here.

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