What I’m Learning: Day 12/365

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

Activity VII: Read one brainpickings article

How We Elevate Each Other: Viktor Frankl on the Human Spirit and Why Idealism Is the Best Realism

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

This was a very brief post, but it contained a gem of a video from Viktor Frankl on man’s search for meaning.  Below is my favorite excerpt from that video:

If we take man as he really is, we make him worse. But if we overestimate him … we promote him to what he really can be. So we have to be idealists, in a way — because then we wind up as the true, the real realists. This is the most apt maxim and motto for any psycho therapeutic activity. So if you don’t recognize a young man’s will to meaning, man’s search for meaning, you make him worse, you make him dull, you make him frustrated, you add and contribute to his frustration. If you presuppose in this man, in this criminal, in this juvenile delinquent…there must be a spark for a search for meaning. Let’s recognize this. Lets presuppose it. And then you will elicit it from him and you will make him become what he in principle is capable of becoming.

It’s often supposed that by aiming high, we run the risk of deluding ourselves . But like Frankl, I believe that aiming high, we are being true to who we really are. Perhaps the truly delusional belief is the assumption that we can never rise above our perceived limitations?

Activity VIII: Listen to one EconTalk podcast

Paul Tough on How Children Succeed

From the site description: Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed, talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about why children succeed and fail in school and beyond school. He argues that conscientiousness–a mixture of self-control and determination–can be a more important measure of academic and professional success than cognitive ability. He also discusses innovative techniques that schools, individuals, and non-profits are using to inspire young people in distressed neighborhoods. The conversation closes with the implications for public policy in fighting poverty.

Paul Tough begins the episode sharing his view on how current approaches to education are focusing on the wrong things:

I think that for the last couple of decades, especially, we have been overemphasizing the importance of IQ and cognitive skills when we think about what helps children succeed. I think that’s why we’re so obsessed with test scores, both in terms of individual families and as a nation in terms of our educational policy. And the researchers and educators who I write about in the book are arguing for a different set of skills being at least as predictive of success for kids and arguably more predictive.

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

There were a number of interesting points and claims made by Tough regarding how children learn and succeed. For instance, his claim about the relationship between environment and genes was worth noting:

How much your genes matter actually depends on your environment. So for kids who are in a really positive environment, say stable environment, genetics actually do make a difference in terms of IQ and other results because their environment is not having any kind of negative effect on them. For kids who are in negative environments, low income kids, the environment makes a huge difference.

Tough also raised a number of interesting questions and thoughts related to a variety of issues like delayed-gratification, hard work, studying, literacy, motivation, grit, and group-identity.

While I find Tough’s insights worth further consideration, it seems that many of his proposed solutions have the same shortcoming that many educational policies and philosophies seem to have: they overvalue content (ie. making a better curriculum, adopting better teaching methods, exploring new forms of testing, teaching the right kinds of things, etc.) and undervalue context (ie. compulsory schooling versus school-choice). I can’t honestly say I have much confidence in approaches to education reform that don’t question or challenge the fundamental assumption that children ought to be forced by law to attend government-controlled institutions of learning where political elites decide what they will learn and why they will learn it. This approach to education is not only very recent in the overall scope of human history (there is no historical evidence for compulsory education existing more than 300 years ago), but it’s also historically rooted in a philosophical assumption, namely that socialization is the aim of learning and that politicians should have a greater say than parents in the what/why/how of their children’s education, that strikes me as being fundamentally opposed to true democracy. Education flourishes not when politicians have debates about what our kids ought to learn, but when parents have real options that allow them to make real choices about their children’s educational journey based on their own principles, preferences, and priorities. I also think it’s time for philosophers of education to start questioning the assumption that the goal of elementary and secondary education is to get kids into college. Philosophers and politicians say all sorts of noble things about what elementary and secondary education ought to be, but in actual practice kids are learning very early on to measure the value of everything they learn and practice in school by how much it will improve their chances of getting into a good college? This assumption may have been a reasonable or safe one for the world our parents and grandparents lived in, but is this truly the way to approach learning today and in the future? These are questions worth asking and I intend to keep exploring the issues.

Activity IX: Listen to Philosophy Bites podcast

Rom Harré on What is Social Science?

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

On What is Social Science:

…we could start with the idea that everybody lives in a society, that is, they live in families, they live in towns, they live in nations, and of course they want to know what it is they’re living in. And suddenly, about two thousand years ago, someone, Aristotle, stepped back and asked himself, let’s look at this world that we live in. It’s a bit like fish discovering the sea. There we are, living in the society – suddenly we can start to ask ourselves what is it and how does it work.

On what distinguishes Social Science from Natural Science:

Both are in the same kind of enterprise, that is, they’re trying to give us a picture of how things are in some domain of the universe. The difference is the social sciences are concerned with something we make ourselves: we create societies but of course we don’t create the solar system, we don’t create the Hadron collider – or we do create that, but we don’t create the particles its studying. But in sociology we’re looking at our own work, our own artefact: we make it.

On the importance of understanding language:

There’s one enormously important problem in dealing with sociology and social sciences generally. Because we create this, we have to ask yourself what’s the instrument with which we create it. In the last 50 or 60 years language has come to be seen to be the key element in all of this. Now, once again sociology and some other aspect of the human sciences, particularly linguistics – sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics – gets into the story. You can’t drawn a sharp separation. For example, if you want to understand the sociology of life in France you’d better understand the grammatical difference between ‘tu’ and ‘vous’.

On the similarities between Social Science and Natural Science:

Well it’s first of all it’s a matter of method. By and large social scientists and natural scientists are into the same game. They’re trying to find or develop a system of classification: the sort of categories that you need to identify what it is you’re studying. Then you need to try to develop an explanatory theory, how it came about that things happens the way they do. And, of course, in the natural sciences you build working models, either in the laboratory or in your head, as to how the world goes. In social sciences you try to do the same thing; however, you are part of the operation. So if you’re making a working model of some aspect of social life, say family life, or, say, diagnostic activities in a clinic that in itself is a piece of social life. The first thing you have to learn if you are trying to do social science is the art of stepping back – stepping forward and stepping back. You have to be a participant observer in one sense to have a sense of what’s going on; and then you have to step back and pretend you’re not part of that reality to take a bird’s eye view of it. This is why I think it’s so important to think back to Aristotle who was the first to step back and study the constitutions of the Greek states as an enterprise – but he was a member of a Greek state and he was seeing it within his own frame of reference, and of course within his own language.

On the importance of acknowledging variation and appreciating nuance when applying scientific thinking to social science:

Well there’s a long running controversy – became quite bitter – in social psychology about whether the experimental method has any place at all in the social world. I’m one of those who is very suspicious of the attempt to hammer social life into shape in a laboratory with three or four people to try to replicate the social behavior of millions. I think it’s just a huge mistake. Of course that throws the ball back in your court, how do you produce useful, valuable material that’s not other than just vignettes of the passing scene. So you’re trying to slide upwards a little bit towards some sort of level of generality. The way that people act in families – it’s enormously different all over the world – but there are going to be certain sorts of commonality. The great mistake in the past I think, particularly in social psychology, was to presume that you knew what the commonalities were and then you could simply go around and see how many cultures fitted those commonality, the nuclear family. Take the nuclear family to New Guinea, we’ll take it to Zimbabwe – it’s not much good doing that because when you get there, there isn’t anything really very much like the nuclear family. All the boys in New Guinea or the Celebes or somewhere like that, when they’re nine they leave mum and go to live with dad and they don’t see mum again for years and years. It’s a very different sort of life. So we have to be very cautious about the extent to which we generalize.

On the value of social science research:

Well I think it does give you a grasp of the world as it is at this moment, or rather as it was a little while ago. And, of course, that’s not a bad thing: those who know no history are doomed to repeat it. But there’s no guarantee that that is going to function like Newton’s laws of motion. There is a kind of intuition that really brilliant social analysts or brilliant politicians are able to draw on in which they’re drawing on millions and millions of tiny pieces of data, organizing it somehow, coming up with a sense of what’s going to happen.

On the value of storytelling to social science:

Well yes the great sociologists can tell stories. In fact it’s another aspect of contemporary sociology: the idea of narratology, looking at the way in which people can build their life around stories, story lines. So, one of the most recent specialities is called Positioning Theory: the sociologist studies the way people are assign rights and duties to each other in terms of the stories that they persuade each other to believe and tell. For instance, if you’re thinking about a family quarrel then you might think about it in terms of the story of that particular family, how mum and dad came to meet, what’s the history of their ancestry, the sort of things you see on the television, people going back, they find a family story – ‘gee, isn’t it amazing: this is the story of my family’ and of course that is going to feed into a family itself and transform it as discovering your ancestors is a way of changing the lives of your successors because now there’s a whole new story to tell.

On how stories can be used to test social theories and on the notion of Shakespeare as Sociology:

Well again that’s very difficult to do. There’s very little place for the methods you would use in the natural sciences. One way that has been talked about quite a bit over the last 20 or 30 years, is bringing it back to the people who you are investigating and asking them ‘Does this illuminate your life?’ It’s a kind of psychiatry on a large scale, where you bring the story back to the person who came to you with anxiety or suffererings of various kind, and the person becomes convinced. It doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not: it’s a matter of conviction or making sense of things. Years and years ago a group of us began to ask the question about plays. Are plays sociology? A very well known sociologist the late Stanford Lyman thought they were, and he devoted quite a lot of time to studying the plays of Shakespeare, seeing Shakespeare as sociology. His idea was that the people of the time found Shakespeare convincing because he was telling stories that they recognized as the stories of their lives. So the way Hamlet and Ophelia behave is something that they recognized. So that’s one way in which we can tell good sociology from bad. If you don’t recognize it as part of your life, or life of people you know, it’s not much good.

On what unites various fields within Social Science:

Well, the one thing there is in common is their attempts to understand a group of people and how they behave. Human societies are very complex, so there are any number of different aspects of this. We’ve said nothing about medicine, you said nothing about epidemics: epidemics are a phenomenon in biology, but they have profound social consequences. A chemical discovery will transform the lives of millions of people socially. Look at what’s happening now because we now have ways of keeping people alive much longer than they were: that’s a bit of medicine, that’s a bit of biology – profound social consequences. So the one item that is in common is the social world: it’s got millions of aspects, say linguistics, history, economics, anthropology, geography, even geology is all part of sociology in a certain sense. The object of study is the same but the methods of study are vastly different.

On truth, objectivity, and relativism in the Social Sciences:

Well certainly let’s say 50 years ago the natural scientists were gung- ho, going ahead going for the truth and it didn’t matter where you did it or who you were or which laboratory you worked in – you were ‘on the road to the truth.’ But in sociology gradually it became clear that the societies you were looking at were really very different from one another. What counted as a good marriage in Namibia wouldn’t have counted as a good marriage in New York. So the idea that there were different societies so different that each one had to be tackled separately, that was an important insight. But suddenly about 40 /50 years ago natural sciences began to ask themselves the question, ‘If I’d been brought up in a different way and worked in a different laboratory with a different set of instruments with different assistants helping me, would I have come up with the same answer?’ What we’re getting is a series of snapshots around a common core – which is the world out there. So in physical sciences I’m notorious as a philosophical realist: I think we’re studying reality but we’re taking shots from different points of view. It’s not true in the social sciences because there isn’t a world out there: there are any number of different practices that people are engaged in, it’s not that there’s a series of snapshots. The snapshots are the object of enterprise as I said at the beginning the social world is a world we create and in studying it we’re continuing to re-create it. Karl Marx sat in the British Museum studying British industrial society: of course what he then wrote down in Das Capital became an instrument for the transformation for society itself.

Activity X: Educational lecture/talk

Economics in One Lesson: Part 11 | Joseph T. Salerno

Activity XI: Watch One Stanford E-corner Talk

Experience is Your Reward

Activity XII: Read one Farnam Street Blog Post

Andy Warhol: Don’t Make a Problem of your Problems, How a Person Gets Disciplined, and The Value of Time on Values

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

Shane Parrish begins by quoting Warhol’s perspective on not making a problem out of our problems:

Everybody has problems, but the thing is to not make a problem about your Problem. For example, if you have no money and you worry about it all the time, you’ll get an ulcer and have a real problem and you still won’t have any money because people sense when you’re desperate and nobody wants anything to do with a desperate person. But if you don’t care about having no money, then people will give you money because you don’t care and they’ll think it’s nothing and give it away—make you take it. But if you have a problem about having no money and taking money and think you can’t take it and get guilty and want to be “independent,” then it’s a problem. Whereas if you just take the money and act spoiled and spend it like it’s nothing, then it’s not a problem and people keep wanting to give you more.

On the surface, this may sound like magical thinking, but I think Warhol is correct here. One doesn’t need to posit the existence of a metaphysical principle like The Law of Attraction in order to recognize that there is a very meaningful sense in which neediness attracts more neediness. The sense of feeling desperate, frustrated, and powerless has a powerful effect not only on the choices we make, but they also affect the way others perceive us. A sales clerk who wants to close a deal too badly, may appear suspect in the customer’s eyes, thereby driving them away. In his classic Handbook for the Complete Sales Professional, Zig Ziglar echoes this very point:

Think about it. If you love the profession, have genuine concern for people, and believe in the product you’re selling, then you’re going to feel a moral responsibility to persuade people to buy for their own benefit. You can’t help acquiring a missionary zeal and believing that if everybody knew what you knew about your product, everybody would buy your product. That feeling is transferred to an ever-increasing number of prospects who rapidly become customers because “selling is a transference of feeling.” It’s true. If you can transfer that “feeling” to the prospect…, the the prospect will become your customer if ownership is within the boundaries of the possible.

This idea seems to not only be true in matters pertaining to money and business, but to social life as well. In How To Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie seconds Warhol’s idea with an emphasis on the social side of life:

You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.

If one were to suffer from the problem of not having friends, they can make an additional problem out of the fact that they don’t have friends or they can act confidently in spite of not having friends. This latter approach, according to Warhol is most likely to lead to a solution. In my own life, I have often hesitated to attend some social function alone because I didn’t have friends to accompany me. Had I treated my aloneness as if it were a problem, I would have created a self-fulling prophecy of being staying at home by myself. By being confident and making no big deal out of not having friends, however, I’ve made plenty of good friends after deciding to go out alone. As with any problem, there’s usually more than one factor involved. Nevertheless, I think Warhol is correct to say we are more likely to find solutions if we don’t make too big of a deal out of the fact that we have difficulties.

Parrish also shares a passage that contains a neat three-rule technique Warhol uses to get through difficult tasks:

“No, I’m not disciplined, really,” I said. “It just looks that way because I do what people tell me to do and I don’t complain about it while it’s happening.” That’s a three-part rule of mine: (1) never complain about a situation while the situation is still going on; (2) if you can’t believe it’s happening, pretend it’s a movie; and (3) after it’s over, find somebody to pin the blame on and never let them forget it. If the person you pin the blame on is smart they’ll turn it into a running joke so whenever you bring it up you can both laugh about it, and that way the horrible situation can turn out to be fun in retrospect. (But it all depends on how mercilessly you hound the person you’re blaming, because they’ll only make a joke out of it when they’re desperate, and the more desperate you make them by hounding them, the better the joke they’ll make out of it.)

Warhol’s first rule complements his advise to never make a problem out of having a problem. While complaining may have its benefits (and I happen to think there’s plenty of room for questioning that very popular assumption), it usually just makes everything more difficult if its practiced in the middle of doing what needs to be done. People who “try not to complain” often do so for moral or religious reasons. They see complaining as a bad thing and since they wish to be a good person, they try to avoid doing things they think are bad. I think a pragmatic approach is much less complicated. To cease complaining, so long as one does not engage in the equally damaging process of lying to themselves or unhealthily repressing their feelings, frees time and creative energy that could be used on activities that would likely lead to the diminishing of the very things that provokes complaining or to an increased ability to cope with the things that are unpleasant.

Warhol also offers a very interesting insight about the stories we tell ourselves about what we want:

“It’s not discipline, B,” I repeated. “It’s knowing what you really want.” Anything a person really wants is okay with me. “All right. But let’s take champagne. All my life I wanted as much champagne as I could drink, but now that I’m getting all the champagne I ever wanted and more, look what I’m getting—a double chin!” “You’re also finding out that champagne isn’t what you really want, since you don’t want a double chin. You’re finding out that champagne isn’t what you want, it’s beer you want…Look,” I told him, “you realized when you ended up with a double chin that your values were misplaced. Right? It takes time to find out, but you’re finding out.

In this scenario, Warhol’s friend challenges his contention that discipline is about knowing what you really want. Using his overindulgence of champagne as an example, he argues that doing what you want can lead to bad consequences. Warhol responds by showing him that his ability to recognize those consequences as bad is proof that he truly wants more than what he says he wants. According to Warhol, the knowledge of what we want isn’t always obvious. Sometimes it takes time, experimentation, and failure to develop refined ideas about what we want.