What I’m Learning: Day 17/365

“Self-education is, I firmly believe, the only kind of education there is.” ― Isaac Asimov

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 (Pgs 171-191)

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

On the superiority of learning through play over learning through compulsory schooling:

(pg 175) Play is nature’s way of teaching children how to solve their own problems, control their impulses, modulate their emotions, see from others’ perspectives, negotiate differences, and get along with others as equals. There is no substitute for play as a means of learning these skills. They can’t be taught in school. For life in the real world, these lessons of personal responsibility, self-control, and sociability are far more important than any lessons that can be taught in school.

On the value of age-mixing in education:

(pg 182) The free mingling of children who differ broadly in age is a key element to childrens’ abilities to educate themselves successfully, on their own initiatives. Children learn by observing and interacting with others who are older and younger that they are. Yet education professors have paid almost no attention to the educative value of free age mixing; they are hooked on the idea that education is controlled by teachers and that it occurs most efficiently in settings where the students are all at the same level. They rarely, if ever, think about the idea that children can learn from one another in settings where they differ widely in age, skills, and levels of understanding.

(Pg 185) In age-mixed groups, the younger children can engage in and learn from activities that would be too complex, difficult, or dangerous for them to do on their own or only with others their own age. They can also learn simply from watching the more sophisticated activities of older children and overhearing their conversations. And they can receive emotional support and care beyond what age-mates could provide.

This chapter is filled with many anecdotal stories and various accounts of psychological experiments illustrating the ways in which age-mixing in education results in more sophisticated forms of learning that when children are serried into separate groups based on age. One particularly interesting concept he mentions is “the zone of proximal development.”

(pg 186) In the 1970’s, Lev Vygotsky…coined the term zone of proximal development to refer to the set of activities a child cannot do alone or with others of the same ability but can do in collaboration with others who are more skilled. He suggested that children develop new skills and understanding largely by collaborating with others within their zones of proximal development. Extending Vygotsky’s idea, the Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner and his colleagues introduced the term scaffolding as a metaphor for the means by which skilled participants enable novices to engage in a shared activity. The scaffolds consist of the reminders, hints, encouragement, and other forms of help that lift the child up to a higher form of activity….In age-mixed play, where abilities differ considerably, scaffolding occurs continuously and naturally, often unconsciously, as a way of pulling the younger children up to a level that makes the game fun for all.

Activity VII: Read one brainpickings article

The Art of Stumbling: David Brooks on Character, “Résumé Virtues” vs. “Eulogy Virtues,” and the Humility Code of Living a Meaningful Life

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

David Brooks on the two categories of virtue:

I’ve been thinking about the difference between the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the ones you list on your résumé, the skills that you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success. The eulogy virtues are deeper. They’re the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being — whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed.

Most of us would say that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé virtues, but I confess that for long stretches of my life I’ve spent more time thinking about the latter than the former. Our education system is certainly oriented around the résumé virtues more than the eulogy ones. Public conversation is, too — the self-help tips in magazines, the nonfiction bestsellers. Most of us have clearer strategies for how to achieve career success than we do for how to develop a profound character.

To this distinction, Popova adds,

Brooks argues that we live in a constant tussle with these two contradictory parts of ourselves that rip the psyche asunder with their conflicting demands — the ambitious and status-oriented achiever, driven by the “résumé virtues” and stimulated by external rewards, and the moral aspirant propelled by the “eulogy virtues,” which offer their own internal satisfactions. The former is goaded by cultivating and showcasing our personal strengths; the latter by contemplating and confronting our inner weaknesses.

Brooks on struggle as sanctification:

We are all stumblers, and the beauty and meaning of life are in the stumbling — in recognizing the stumbling and trying to become more graceful as the years go by.

The stumbler scuffs through life, a little off balance here and there, sometimes lurching, sometimes falling to her knees. But the stumbler faces her imperfect nature, her mistakes and weaknesses, with unvarnished honesty, with the opposite of squeamishness. She is sometimes ashamed of the perversities in her nature — the selfishness, the self-deceit, the occasional desire to put lower loves above higher ones.

But humility offers self-understanding. When we acknowledge that we screw up, and feel the gravity of our limitations, we find ourselves challenged and stretched with a serious foe to overcome and transcend.

The stumbler is made whole by this struggle.

I have often thought that success can easily lead to vice not because it exposes us to a greater number of temptations, but because it conceals the flaws in our character and often deceives us into believing that our moral failings are the actual basis for our achievements. While I do not romanticize struggle, I do agree with Brooks that it is usually in the struggle that we find our way to wholeness.

Brooks on the necessity of finding a sense of purpose in one’s work:

No good life is possible unless it is organized around a vocation. If you try to use your work to serve yourself, you’ll find your ambitions and expectations will forever run ahead and you’ll never be satisfied. If you try to serve the community, you’ll always wonder if people appreciate you enough. But if you serve work that is intrinsically compelling and focus just on being excellent at that, you will wind up serving yourself and the community obliquely. A vocation is not found by looking within and finding your passion. It is found by looking without and asking what life is asking of us. What problem is addressed by an activity you intrinsically enjoy?

This last excerpt on vocation is what I take to be the most important. We live at a time when many people fear being workaholics because they believe that working too much is the thing that stands between them and a passionate fulfilling life. I think the problem is the exact opposite. We are so bored and overworked not because we work too much, but because we don’t work hard enough at at developing a robust philosophy of work. That is, most of what we call “work” amounts to things we think we need to do in order to avoid being homeless. We work out of fear and necessity rather than out of a sense of mission and calling. We then use this fear and necessity as the basis for avoiding the kinds of creative risks and daring acts that might help us find meaningful work. We indefinitely delay the importance of pursuing fulfilling work because of the perceived urgency of doing necessary work. Then rather than identify our alienation from vocation as the problem, we hastily pin the blame on all forms of work and we uncritically pursue a false nirvana of endless vacation.

Activity VIII: Listen to one EconTalk podcast

Friedman on Capitalism and Freedom

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

In this episode, Milton Friedman discusses the relationship between free market thinking and principles of liberty.

One interesting comment by Friedman was pointing out of the fact that capitalism is good to business people, but business people are often not so good to capitalism. Contrary to the conventional view that business people would normally be against socialistic ideas, Friedman argues that they’re frequently in support of those ideas because they protect them from competition and accountability to the marketplace.

If free markets weren’t so damned efficient, they could never have survived because they have so many enemies and so few friends. People think of free market capitalism or free markets as something that would obviously be supported by business, that if there were a business party in politics, they would promote free markets. But that’s wrong. Because it will be in the self-interest of individual businesses to promote a tariff here and a tariff there. It’s so much harder to repeal anything a government is doing than it is to get it to do it.

Activity IX: Listen to Philosophy Bites podcast

Lucy Allais on Forgiveness

Lucy Allais shares some interesting insights on what forgiveness it, why she finds it philosophically interesting, how forgiveness differs from accepting, justify, or making excuses, and whether we have a moral duty to forgive those who’ve wronged us

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

It’s one of those subjects which you think isn’t puzzling, but as you as you start thinking about it philosophically, it becomes more and more puzzling until you almost can’t understand how anybody can make sense out of it. So a lot of philosophers think that forgiveness is essentially paradoxical, that it’s essentially a religious notion that we can’t make sense of it at all.

On the two things that make the topic of forgiveness philosophically puzzling:

One is to really take seriously that forgiveness is something distinct from excusing, justifying, and accepting. Quite often, in interpersonal life, we aren’t really distinguishing those. And what we take ourselves to be doing quite often when we think we’re forgiving is actually excusing, justifying, or accepting. But the reason that’s important that those aren’t distinct is that those are all ways of coming to see that there isn’t anything to forgive. So when you really come to see that it wasn’t your fault, then of course I’m going to stop holding it against you, but it’s because it wasn’t your fault. There’s nothing to forgive. And forgiveness essentially involves seeing it not as justified, not as excused, and not as acceptable and still coming not to hold it against you and that’s puzzling. I think forgiveness essentially features, in this logic, in the space where blame makes sense.

The second thing that drives the puzzle follows from that last thought about the appropriateness of blame. Partly, just that blame itself is appropriate. And I think that’s really important. People often thing “wouldn’t it be a nicer world if nobody ever blamed anybody or got angry with anybody,” but firstly I think that would be failing to take wrongdoing seriously and I think it would be failing to treat each other as persons, failing to hold each other accountable or responsible. I think this is how we all keep each other sane. So related to the idea that blame is appropriate, I think is the idea that certain kinds of emotional responses like resentment can be appropriate…Forgiveness starts from a point where resentment is warranted or appropriate. Disproportionate anger is just something you shouldn’t have. Forgiveness involves giving up resentment to which you’re entitled, resentment which is appropriate given what the wrongdoer has done.

On the notion that we should forgive others for the sake of our own well-being:

People sometimes say that it’s important to forgive so that you’re not going to be eaten up with resentment and for your own sort of mental health. It’s very plausible that it’s destructive to be eaten up with resentment and to dwell on things, but you can stop that without forgiving. So there are lots of ways to not be eaten up by resentment and anger that are not the same as forgiving. Suppose I say to you “I’m not angry with you anymore, but I’ll never see you in the same way again and I’ll never forget what you’ve done.” You’re not going to feel like you’ve been forgiven. So I think this point about forgiving from the point of view of mental hygiene, not being eaten up with resentment, that’s not exactly what forgiveness is. And that goes back to the point of why I think forgiveness is puzzling. When you start seeing all these things that are in the vicinity of forgiveness, but aren’t quite the same thing, it starts putting pressure on exactly what it would be.

On how to understand forgiveness:

I think the way to understand forgiveness, to get into it, we need to start by thinking really carefully about what’s involved in the content of resentment. So philosophers working on emotion have spent a lot of time looking at the fact that emotions are not just contentless itches, but there’s ways in which an emotion presents the world as being. And resentment, in specific, has some content, there’s a way in which it presents its object, so there’s something that can make its content appropriate or not. I think to understand forgiveness, what it is, we really need to pay very carefully attention to what that content is. What I think it essentially involves is a way of seeing with feeling, it’s affectively seeing that the way in which you appraise the person is affected by their wrongdoing. When can see this when you say things like “I would have never thought you were capable of that.” I’m now seeing you in a way that is informed by you now being capable of that. I’m seeing you differently. I think when we come to forgive, we come to see a person in a way that isn’t informed by their wrongdoing. And that goes back to what makes it puzzling because it doesn’t involve changing your view that it was an unexcused, unjustified, and unacceptable.

I think that forgiving is essentially overcoming justifiable resentment. I think resentment is central…I think that also involves a change in the way you come to feel towards the person. You stop seeing them as the person who did this, whatever it was, to you. I think forgiving is essentially a change in the way you feel towards the person. So if you still resent them, I think you haven’t forgiven them.

On forgiveness as a process and the cognitive impenetrableness of certain kinds of emotions:

I think that forgiveness is usually a process and I don’t think it’s entirely subject to the will. So I think you can undertake to try to forgive someone, but you might find yourself unable to forgive someone and you might also, I think, think you’ve forgiven someone and then something comes up that reminds you and you feel yourself being overcome with that feeling and you’re like “I thought I’d forgiven you, but actually it’s a little still there, but I’ve put it out of my mind. Or on the other extreme, I think you might just find that you’ve forgiven and the resentment is gone. Emotions are differently subject to the will than beliefs. Sometimes they are more directly subject to the will than beliefs are partly because emotions involve focus and dwelling and things like that, so we can sometimes overcome an emotion by what we choose to focus on. But sometimes they’re less subject to the will than beliefs. Some emotions are completely cognitively impenetrable. You know you’re not in danger, but you still feel scared at certain heights.

On forgiveness as a non-obligatory act:

In my view, it’s central to forgiveness that I don’t think you’re obliged to forgive. So I think it’s as important to giving an account for what forgiveness is that we give an account that makes sense of the fact that we think it’s generally virtuous, it’s generally a good thing, it’s generally something without which our lives would be worse. But I don’t think it’s obligatory in particular cases. I think it’s essential to what forgiveness is that it’s somehow discretionary. It’s not the same as if I owe you money and now I’ve paid you the money, there’s nothing further to be done. You just recognize that the debt has been discharged. I think it’s essential to forgiveness that it’s not just recognizing that the wrongdoer has just discharged a debt. It’s giving them something which I think is, in some central way, not their due. Forgiveness sees them better than their action warrants seeing them…I think we do it in small and big ways all the time, but I think it’s really radical.

Why should we forgive:

Blame makes sense. I think in interpersonal relations, we do all hurt each other and wrong each other all the time and we need to hold each other accountable. But we also need to be able to move forward and also I think it’s really important…that we don’t just relate to each other in a way which is keeping a tally of what we all deserve…One might say “What would justify forgiving?”, but I think that’s the wrong question. I don’t think when you’re considering to forgive someone —first, I don’t think you’re obliged to— you have to say something would have to be done to justify it. It think it’s, in a way, shifting to a different way of seeing people from the way that’s involved with keeping a tally and working out “Well, has this person done enough now for me to change my view?” So when we think about loving —I think there’s something interestingly connected between love and forgiveness and trust— they way we affectively see people is informed by their actions. I think that’s part of what it is to see them as an agent. But I think it’s also important that we have these attitudes that aren’t just a matter of evaluating what they deserve. I think love precisely isn’t that. You don’t love somebody just because there are all these various ways in which they’re good enough, or they deserve it. In forgiveness, “what warrants it or is it deserved?” is precisely not the question.

Related resource:

Wiping the Slate Clean: The Heart of Forgiveness by Lucy Allais

Activity X: Educational lecture/talk

The Economic Way of Thinking | Interview with Anthony Carilli

This is a great short clip (under ten minutes long) for anyone who wants a concise and clear explanation of what the economic way of thinking is and how it can be used as a tool for understanding the social phenomena we observe around us. Contrary to popular misconception, Carilli shows how economics at its core is less about finances and more about human action.

Carilli opens this brief talk with a concise description of what constitutes economic thinking:

The economic way of thinking starts with a very simple premise and that premise is that all social phenomena emerge from the actions and interactions of people who make choices after weighing cost and benefits to themselves. So that way of thinking means that when we look out at the world, the things that we see are not random happenings. The things that we see that are social in the world are part of a decision-making process.

He then identifies three essential elements: actions, interactions, and choices.

1) Actions: We assume, in the economic way of thinking, that people act or that they choose. What it means to act is to apply means to ends according to ideas. They have ideas about how they can achieve goals…We call those goals ends. To be able to achieve ends, they need means. And means are the methods by which they achieve those ends…I have to choose because while my ends might be unlimited, I could have lots of different ends that I like, the means that I could use to attain those ends are limited. So the core problem of choice or action is scarcity. If means weren’t scarce, we wouldn’t need to choose. And in the real world, means are scarce and we need to choose. So if we want to understand real choice about real people, we have to understand scarcity.

2) Interactions: Interaction means if I’m in the social world, the decisions I make bump up against the decisions other people make and sometimes they’re incompatible which means we have to have some way we can coordinate our activities…So economics is a way to look at the way we coordinate with each other.

3) Choices: When we say that social phenomena emerge as a result of the actions and interactions of others, those social phenomena are unintended consequences of individuals choosing. So for economists, we believe that choice exists also that only individuals choose. When we talk about choice, we don’t mean collective choice or that a group can choose, but that only an individual can choose. So the order we see in the world — if you watch people walk down the street, or walk into the subway, or drive their cars, or sit down in a movie theatre — those are all orders. And those orders are spontaneous in the sense that nobody intended for those orders to exists. They end up existing as consequences of the choices that individuals make.

Carilli concludes by contending that our ability to make sense out of all types of social phenomena, from the riots some sports fans start after seeing their favorite team lose to the movie choices people make, depends on our grasp of the fundamentals of economic thought. And while mathematics and statistics are sometimes used to illustrate economic concepts, economics is primarily a philosophical discipline that seeks to understand things on a macro scale in terms of individual choices and incentives.

Activity XI: One episode from my favorite podcasts list

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

Great Ideas Derive from Well-Rested Minds

David Heinemeier Hansson argues against the notion that a successful entrepreneur or start-up founder needs to spend 80 hours a week working on his business. When you spend too much time working, he argues, you lose focus on what really matters and reduce yourself to the role of a busy bodied automaton who can’t distinguish what’s really important from what’s marginal. He also pokes fun of people who brag about the little amount of sleep they get saying that they’re doing nothing more than announcing to the world how inefficient and poorly managed they are.

Activity XII: Read one Blog Post from Favorites List

Miracle Grow for Your Brain (Farnam Street Blog)

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

Drawing from Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, by John Ratey, Shane Parrish shares some scientific reasons for why we should make it point to stay physically fit. Taking care of our bodies is the same as taking care of our brains. Conversely, when we fail to get proper exercise, we fail to give our brain the nourishment it requires. If you really care about learning and optimal performance, you’d be wise to “get moving.” Among the many great quotes and insights he shares, here are two of my favorite excerpts from the book:

physical activity sparks biological changes that encourage brain cells to bind to one another. For the brain to learn, these connections must be made; they reflect the brain’s fundamental ability to adapt to challenges. The more neuroscientists discover about this process, the clearer it becomes that exercise provides an unparalleled stimulus, creating an environment in which the brain is ready, willing, and able to learn. Aerobic activity has a dramatic effect on adaptation, regulating systems that might be out of balance and optimizing those that are not – it’s an indispensable tool for anyone who wants to reach his or her full potential.

Darwin taught us that learning is the survival mechanism we use to adapt to constantly changing environments. Inside the microenvironment of the brain, that means forging new connections between cells to relay information. When we learn something, whether it’s a French word or a salsa step, cells morph in order to encode that information; the memory physically becomes part of the brain.