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What I’m Learning: Day 8/365

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

Activity IV: Read for one hour

Free to Learn by Peter Gray
Chapter 3 (Pages 42-66)

The gravity of this chapter is still sinking in for me. Gray provides an overview of how schooling, as we’ve come to know it, became what it is today. He debunks the notion that we’ve always had schools or that we’d be disoriented and disorderly without them. He opens the the third chapter, “Why Schools Are What They Are: A Brief History of Education,” with this provocative thought:

How did we go from conditions in which learning was self-directed and joyful to conditions in which learning is forced on children in ways that make so many of them feel helpless, anxious, and depressed.

Perhaps if we didn’t force children to go to school, or if schools operated differently, children would grow up to be incompetent in our modern world. Perhaps educational experts have figured all this out, or perhaps alternative methods of allowing children to develop have been tested and have failed.

The reality, as I will show later, is that alternative ways have been tested and have succeeded. Children’s instincts for self-directed learning can work today as well as they ever did. When provided with freedom and opportunity, children can and do educate themselves marvelously for our modern world. The schools that we see around us are not products of science and logic; they are products of history. History is not logical; it is not directed toward any planned ends; and it does not necessarily produce progress in the sense of improved human conditions. Yet, to understand why things are as they are today, we must know something about the history that created them.

After providing a plethora of historical references and stories demonstrating the somewhat suspect and anti-learning origins of compulsory education, Gray closes the chapter by urging us to overcome our status quo bias concerning modern schooling:

Today most people think of childhood and schooling as indelibly entwined. We identify children by their grade in school. We automatically think of learning as work, which children must be forced to do in special workplaces, schools, modeled after factories. All this seems completely normal to us, because we see it everywhere. We rarely stop to think about how new and unnatural all this is in the larger context of human evolution and how it emerged from a bleak period in our history that was marked by child labor and beliefs in children’s innate sinfulness. We have forgotten that children are designed by nature to learn through self-directed play and exploration, and so, more and more, we deprive them of freedom to learn, subjecting them instead to the tedious and painfully slow learning methods devised by those who run the schools.

Activity VII: Read one brainpickings article

Ursula K. Le Guin on Where Ideas Come From, the “Secret” of Great Writing, and the Trap of Marketing Your Work

I read a short story several years ago by Le Guin called The Rule of Names. Since then, I have been in love with the mind of Ursula K. Le Guin. So I was excited to find this particular article and I must say it’s one of my favorites. She has much to say about the creative process. Here are a few of my favorite highlights shared by Popova:

On the process of inspiration and the myth of “getting” ideas:

I would say that as a general rule, though an external event may trigger it, this inceptive state or story-beginning phase does not come from anywhere outside the mind that can be pointed to; it arises in the mind, from psychic contents that have become unavailable to the conscious mind, inner or outer experience that has been, in Gary Snyder’s lovely phrase, composted. I don’t believe that a writer “gets” (takes into the head) an “idea” (some sort of mental object) “from” somewhere, and then turns it into words and writes them on paper. At least in my experience, it doesn’t work that way. The stuff has to be transformed into oneself, it has to be composted, before it can grow a story.

On the relationship between reading and writing:

Beginners’ failures are often the result of trying to work with strong feelings and ideas without having found the images to embody them, or without even knowing how to find the words and string them together. Ignorance of English vocabulary and grammar is a considerable liability to a writer of English. The best cure for it is, I believe, reading. People who learned to talk at two or so and have been practicing talking ever since feel with some justification that they know their language; but what they know is their spoken language, and if they read little, or read schlock, and haven’t written much, their writing is going to be pretty much what their talking was when they were two.

On maintaining a healthy sense of independence from one’s actual or anticipated audience:

While planning a work, the writer may and often must think about readers: particularly if it’s something like a story for children, where you need to know whether your reader is likely to be a five-year-old or a ten-year old.* Considerations of who will or might read the piece are appropriate and sometimes actively useful in planning it, thinking about it, thinking it out, inviting images. But once you start writing, it is fatal to think about anything but the writing. True work is done for the sake of doing it. What is to be done with it afterwards is another matter, another job. A story rises from the springs of creation, from the pure will to be; it tells itself; it takes its own course, finds its own way, its own words; and the writer’s job is to be its medium.

On the importance of what Steven Pressfield calls “doing the work.”

First myth: There is a secret to being a writer. If you can just learn the secret, you will instantly be a writer; and the secret might be where the ideas come from….I will dispose of the first myth as quickly as possible. The “secret” is skill. If you haven’t learned how to do something, the people who have may seem to be magicians, possessors of mysterious secrets. In a fairly simple art, such as making pie crust, there are certain teachable “secrets” of method that lead almost infallibly to good results; but in any complex art, such as housekeeping, piano-playing, clothes-making, or story-writing, there are so many techniques, skills, choices of method, so many variables, so many “secrets,” some teachable and some not, that you can learn them only by methodical, repeated, long-continued practice — in other words, by work.

Activity VIII: Listen to one EconTalks podcast

The Economics of Sports w/ Skip Sauer

Given that sports is one of my favorite pastimes, I was excited to listen to this episode and get a feel for how various economists approach this topic. This episode did not fail to meet my expectations. From the topic of stadium subsidies and the influence of socialistic thinking in sports culture to the economic implications of the small-market/bi-market franchise distinction, this was was a good introduction to some of the repeating themes of this topic. With a run time of less than fourty minutes, this episode was also much shorter than the average EconTalk conversation (most are an hour or longer). I look forward to zooming in on this particular aspect of economic thinking a lot more. By the end of the year, I hope to go through at least 30-40 podcasts, talks, and articles on the economics of sports. This episode was a nice place to start.

Activity IX: Listen to Philosophy Bites podcast

Barry Smith on Wine

Nigel Warburton begins this episode by offering a few examples of philosophical questions one could ask about wine:

Are there objective standards of wine or is my opinion just as legitimate as yours? When I drink wine and savor its looks, smell, and taste, am I identifying independent characteristics of the wine or is the taste of wine just inside me?

This was a fascinating discussion about the ability to bring philosophical analysis to the wine experience. One such example of this, according to Smith, is the concept of tastes:

The idea that we can’t be right or wrong and that everything is purely subjective in the sense of “there’s only how it appears to me here right now,” I think is mistaken. We all know that if we just brushed our teeth or sucked a lemon, we’re not going to get the real taste of this fine meursault you just brought me to drink.  So we know that there’s some condition we have to be in and that the wine has to be in, in order to get things right. That’s already a start to get rid of the idea that there’s just only my sensations at the moment.

(Warburton) So the taste of the wine isn’t just in the wine. It’s about my relationship with the wine, the kind of senses I bring to bear on the wine as I put it in my mouth.

Yes, but there’s also a fact, perhaps, about how the wine tastes that might elude you if you’re not in the right condition. And it might also be, in certain wines if they’re closed down, as we say, and they’ve gone into sleep, you can taste, if you’re an expert taster, that there’s something there, all the parts are there, and they’re just not performing well, they’re not behaving properly. And that makes us think that a taste is something out there, something we try to reach for, something we don’t always get our hands on, rather than thinking that a taste is just a sensation occurring in us.

(Warburton) So I’m getting a bit confused now. If I had to summarize your view, should I be saying the taste of wine isn’t objectively our there in the wine nor is it completely  subjectively in me?

Perhaps it’s a relation between the wine and me, but in saying that, that doesn’t mean it’s only available to me. If this is a relationship between this wine and certain sensations and experiences I have, then maybe it will affect other people similarly. Just as we suppose that the color of red is for us a certain experience, a certain way things look, but if we’re near enough alike in our color vision, then the very same objects will give us the same experiences. So I’m hoping that the very same wines will give you and me the same experiences and that these are really sharable experiences.

Further elaborating on the nature of taste and tasting, Smith continues:

Tasting is actually a very complicated experience. It involves smell. It involves the texture of the wine in your mouth. It involves the taste. And we don’t always pay attention to all of the parts of an enormously complex product at once. But if you say to me ‘did you get the fig? Did you taste the pear?’ I can look back and think, ‘yes.’ Even without taking another swallow, I can suddenly realize that was there without being attended to. And so you can bring out or bring my attention to aspects of my own experience which I had overlooked.

(Warburton) If we start thinking too much about the subtleties of tastes and how we’re going to describe them, does that deflect away from our enjoyment of the flavor and taste of the wine?

I think it would be a danger if we became stamp collectors and we were simply looking to catalog wines or classify them and perhaps even build up blind-tasting abilities to recognize them out of any possible range of wines offered to us. It’s the fact that it gives us pleasure. It’s the fact that in tasting, talking about, discriminating, we’re getting pleasure from it, and pleasures that we want to share which is probably quite a fundamental part of our nature, being human, being social animals. I don’t think that we actually want to just be interested in what the properties of the wines are. I think it’s got to be the experience of drinking the wine that really matters to you.

This was a fun episode. There were no simple, conclusive answers nor was there a clearly pragmatic lesson offered at the end. Nevertheless, these kinds of conversations capture what I love most about philosophy: it gives us the ability to appreciate, and be in awe of, the mysteries that surround and support all the everyday realities we ordinarily take for granted. Whether it be wine and chocolate, love and basketball, or space and time, the possibility always exist for us to ask uncommon questions about common things.

Activity X: Educational lecture/talk

Economics in One Lesson: Part 7 | Mark Thornton

Mark Thornton discusses the unintended consequences of economic policies and talks about the importance of the classic “what is seen and what is unseen” distinction. He affirms Frédéric Bastiat’s classic expression:

There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.

According to Thornton, it’s not the finer points of economic analysis that creates so many problems, but rather a lack of understanding of the basics concerning how institutional changes affect individual incentives in a way that’s not entirely unpredictable or mysterious. He also discusses how special interest groups, and the high incentive they have for focusing primarily on their own specialized agendas to the exclusion of a careful consideration of negative externalities, create more problems than they resolve.

Activity XI: One episode from the future of education podcast

I was interested in listening to his interview of Peter Gray since I’m currently reading the book, but I was unable to download podcast episodes from the site all day, so I spent an extra 30-45 minutes reading Peter Gray’s Free to Learn in place of this activity today.

Activity XII: Read one Paris Review Interview

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Art of Fiction No. 221
Interviewed by John Wray

On the importance of incorporating overlooked sciences in her Science-fiction literature:

LE GUIN

The “hard”–science fiction writers dismiss everything except, well, physics, astronomy, and maybe chemistry. Biology, sociology, anthropology—that’s not science to them, that’s soft stuff. They’re not that interested in what human beings do, really. But I am. I draw on the social sciences a great deal. I get a lot of ideas from them, particularly from anthropology. When I create another planet, another world, with a society on it, I try to hint at the complexity of the society I’m creating, instead of just referring to an empire or something like that.

INTERVIEWER

Might that be why your fiction has been more readily admired in so-called literary circles—that it’s more engaged with human complexity and psychology?

LE GUIN

It’s helped to make my stuff more accessible to people who don’t, as they say, read science fiction. But the prejudice against genre has been so strong until recently. It’s all changing now, which is wonderful. For most of my career, getting that label—sci-fi—slapped on you was, critically, a kiss of death. It meant you got reviewed in a little box with some cute title about Martians—or tentacles.

On the influence of Taoism & Buddhism on her life and writing:

Taoism gave me a handle on how to look at life and how to lead it when I was an adolescent hunting for ways to make sense of the world without going off into the God business. Returning to Lao-tzu throughout the years, I’ve always found—and find—him offering what I want or need to learn. My translation, version, whatever it is, of the Tao Te Ching is a by-product of that long and happy association.

My knowledge of Buddhism is much scantier and more recent, but it’s become indispensable in showing me how to use meditation usefully and in giving a steady north to my moral compass.

On being an explorer of ideas, rather than a believer, person of faith, or seeker of truth:

LE GUIN

I’m not a quester or a searcher for the truth. I don’t really think there is one answer, so I never went looking for it. My impulse is less questing and more playful. I like trying on ideas and ways of life and religious approaches. I’m just not a good candidate for conversion.

INTERVIEWER

What it is that draws you to this “trying on” of other existences?

LE GUIN

Oh, intellectual energy and curiosity, I suppose. An inborn interest in various and alternative ways of doing things and thinking about them.

That could be part of what led me to write more about possible worlds than about the actual one. And, in a deeper sense, what led me to write fiction, maybe. A novelist is always “trying on” other people.

I very much identify with Le Guin’s approach here in the way I practice philosophy. For me, philosophy is a form of play. I don’t see the need to approach ideas and big questions with an attitude of seriousness and sobriety at all times. While philosophy is certainly a way of refining our thinking and getting at truth, I also see it as way of experimenting with new focal settings and vantage points. In addition to being a quest of truth, philosophy can be experienced as a game, an adventure, and an experiment. Just as a surfer rides the waves of the ocean with no particular destination in mind, the philosopher, acting as an ideological surfer of sorts, can ride the waves of concepts by asking “what if?” without pressuring him or herself to draw definitive conclusions.

On when she knew she wanted to be a writer:

INTERVIEWER

When you were starting out, did you know that you wanted to write speculative fiction?

LE GUIN

No, no, no. I just knew from extremely early on—it sounds ridiculous, but five or six—that writing was something I was going to do, always. But just writing, not any mode in particular. It started as poetry. I think I was nine or ten before I really wrote a story. And it was a fantasy story, because that’s mostly what I was reading…But when people say, Did you always want to be a writer?, I have to say no! I always was a writer. I didn’t want to be a writer and lead the writer’s life and be glamorous and go to New York. I just wanted to do my job writing, and to do it really well.

On comparing herself to other writers and the value of using competitiveness as a way of challenging yourself:

LE GUIN

How else can you judge? It has to be, in a sense, competitive or comparative.

INTERVIEWER

Against whom were you measuring your work?

LE GUIN

Writers I’d have liked to be as good as, although not like?

INTERVIEWER

Right.

LE GUIN

Charles Dickens. Jane Austen. And then, when I finally learned to read her, Virginia Woolf. Shoot for the top, always. You know you’ll never make it, but what’s the fun if you don’t shoot for the top?

On the experience of self-doubt concerning her ability to find audience and professional success as a writer:

It took me so long to get my fiction published—years and years of submitting and rejection, submitting and rejection—that I was getting a little desperate. I was beginning to wonder, Am I just writing for my attic?

On the influence of Philip K. Dick on her thinking and writing:

LE GUIN

Yes. And his style—he’s a real puzzle stylistically. But oh man, of course he was a huge influence on me.

INTERVIEWER

What was it about Dick’s work that caught your attention?

LE GUIN

Partly it was that he and I had similar interests in certain things, such as Taoism and the I Ching—after all we were both Berkeley kids of exactly the same generation. And then, his sci-fi novels were about ordinary, unexceptional, confused people, when so much sci-fi consisted of Campbellian or militaristic heroes and faceless multitudes. Mr. Tagomi, in The Man in the High Castle, was a revelation to me of what you could do with sci-fi if you really took it seriously as a novelist.

On finding her voice as a female writer in a male dominated genre:

INTERVIEWER

On the subject of being a woman writer in a man’s world, you’ve mentioned A Room of One’s Own as a touchstone.

LE GUIN

My mother gave it to me. It is an important book for a mother to give a daughter. She gave me A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas when I was a teenager. So she corrupted me thoroughly, bless her heart. Though you know, in the 1950s, A Room of One’s Own was kind of tough going. Writing was something that men set the rules for, and I had never questioned that. The women who questioned those rules were too revolutionary for me even to know about them. So I fit myself into the man’s world of writing and wrote like a man, presenting only the male point of view. My early books are all set in a man’s world.

INTERVIEWER

And featuring male protagonists.

LE GUIN

Absolutely. Then came literary feminism, which was a tremendous problem and gift to me. I had to . . . handle it. And I wasn’t sure I could, because I’m not much good on theory. Go away, just let me write. But the fact is, I was getting stuck in my writing. I couldn’t keep pretending I was a man. And so feminism came along at just the right moment for me.

INTERVIEWER

Would you say that the women’s movement compelled you to change?

LE GUIN

It said to me, Hey, guess what? You’re a woman. You can write like a woman. I saw that women don’t have to write about what men write about, or write what men think they want to read. I saw that women have whole areas of experience men don’t have—and that they’re worth writing and reading about.

So then I went back and really read Virginia Woolf, and then I read all the books that the feminists were offering to us, books that other women had been writing for centuries. I saw that women can write like women, that they can write about different things than men—why not? Duh! It took me years, really, to climb on board.

On literary realism, idea writers, and the importance of style in her work:

INTERVIEWER

I want to ask about a sentence from your book of essays The Wave in the Mind— “Narrative fiction has for years been going slowly and vaguely and massively in one direction, rejoining the ocean of story: fantasy.” Remember writing that?

LE GUIN

No! I wonder when I wrote that. But what I must have meant is that we could no longer believe that realism was the only literary form for fiction.

INTERVIEWER

It seems as though the trend in literature in recent years may have borne you out.

LE GUIN

At the time I was probably thinking of writers like Calvino or Borges, whereas genre writers deliberately cultivated an attempt to be styleless, to write a very flat, journalistic prose.

INTERVIEWER

Why do you think that was?

LE GUIN

I rather suspect it had to do with the temperaments of the men writing it. And also the fact that they would probably admire the ostentatiously clear, flat style of someone like Hemingway as quintessentially masculine.

INTERVIEWER

Many readers with a snobbish attitude toward sci-fi use the question of style to justify their snobbery.

LE GUIN

And in some ways they’re right. Or they were. Particularly in the thirties and forties, science fiction could be embarrassingly badly written. Shamelessly badly written.

INTERVIEWER

Because the books were vessels for ideas.

LE GUIN

That’s it. And when I came into the field, some of the older men still prided themselves on writing that way. They were idea writers and they weren’t going to fiddle with the feminine frippery of style. To me the style is the book, to a large extent. Take Borges. When he experiments with ideas, he is experimenting with form, too. He was as much a poet as he was a prose writer.

On the sharing culture of sci-fi writers:

And one nice thing about science fiction—I think it’s still true, it certainly was when I came into the field—was that we could steal from one another quite freely, not in the plagiarizing sense, but in the ideas and how-to-do-something sense. What I always compare it to is baroque composers, who used to pass their ideas around all the time, even pass tunes around. It’s a kind of inter-inspiration. You’re all working at the same thing.

On how form shapes style:

When you work in form, be it a sonnet or villanelle or whatever, the form is there and you have to fill it. And you have to find how to make that form say what you want to say. But what you find, always—I think any poet who’s worked in form will agree with me—is that the form leads you to what you want to say. It is wonderful and mysterious. I think something similar happens in fiction. A genre is a form, in a sense, and that can lead you to ideas that you would not have just thought up if you were working in an undefined field. It must have something to do with the way our minds are constructed.

On the value of fiction:

A lot of twentieth-century— and twenty-first-century—American readers think that that’s all they want. They want nonfiction. They’ll say, I don’t read fiction because it isn’t real. This is incredibly naive. Fiction is something that only human beings do, and only in certain circumstances. We don’t know exactly for what purposes. But one of the things it does is lead you to recognize what you did not know before. This is what a lot of mystical disciplines are after—simply seeing, really seeing, really being aware. Which means you’re recognizing the things around you more deeply, but they also seem new…Fiction—and poetry and drama— cleanse the doors of perception. All the arts do this. Music, painting, dance say for us what can’t be said in words. But the mystery of literature is that it does say it in words, often straightforward ones.

On how the aging process has affected her approach to writing

The whole process of getting old—it could have been better arranged. But you do learn some things just by doing them over and over and by getting old doing them. And one of them is, you really need less. And I’m not talking minimalism, which is a highly self-conscious mannerist style I can’t write and don’t want to. I’m perfectly ready to describe a lot and be flowery and emotive, but you can do that briefly and it works better. My model for this is late Beethoven. He moves so strangely and quite suddenly sometimes from place to place in his music, in the late quartets. He knows where he’s going and he just doesn’t want to waste all that time getting there. But if you listen, if you’re with it, he takes you with him. I think sometimes about old painters—they get so simple in their means. Just so plain and simple. Because they know they haven’t got time. One is aware of this as one gets older. You can’t waste time.

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