The Power of Silence, The Futility of Multitasking, The Downsides of Obligatory Schooling, & The Relationship Between Freedom & Literacy

Highlights from Susan Sontag’s Musings on Silence

The Aesthetics of Silence: Susan Sontag on Art as a Form of Spirituality and the Paradoxical Role of Silence in Creative Culture

Sontag’s delightfully poetic and robust conception of spirituality:

Every era has to reinvent the project of “spirituality” for itself. (Spirituality = plans, terminologies, ideas of deportment aimed at resolving the painful structural contradictions inherent in the human situation, at the completion of human consciousness, at transcendence.)

Sontag on silence as the guardian of artistic autonomy:

Silence is the artist’s ultimate other-worldly gesture: by silence, he frees himself from servile bondage to the world, which appears as patron, client, consumer, antagonist, arbiter, and distorter of his work.

Sontag on how the longing for silence is summoned by the desire to live in accordance with superior standards:

An exemplary decision of this sort can be made only after the artist has demonstrated that he possesses genius and exercised that genius authoritatively. Once he has surpassed his peers by the standards which he acknowledges, his pride has only one place left to go. For, to be a victim of the craving for silence is to be, in still a further sense, superior to everyone else. It suggests that the artist has had the wit to ask more questions than other people, and that he possesses stronger nerves and higher standards of excellence.

Choosing a Life of Focus

William Deresiewicz: How To Learn How To Think

Referring to the discoveries made during a study at Standford, Deresiewicz comments on the myth of multitasking and how it works against constructive thinking:

Multitasking, in short, is not only not thinking, it impairs your ability to think. Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it. Not learning other people’s ideas, or memorizing a body of information, however much those may sometimes be useful. Developing your own ideas. In short, thinking for yourself. You simply cannot do that in bursts of 20 seconds at a time, constantly interrupted by Facebook messages or Twitter tweets, or fiddling with your iPod, or watching something on YouTube.

Interestingly, a good friend of mine text messaged me the following quote from Albert Einstein today:

Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.

As an avid reader and book lover, I will never align myself with any views that appear to underestimate or belittle the value of reading, but I think there is much to be learned from both of these quotes here. The act of reading, which is often referred to as “consuming content,” could be compared to the act of eating. One could then extend the analogy by saying that digesting food is to eating what meditation, silence, and solitude is to reading. To do one without the other negates the value of both. I often feel immense pressure to keep up with all the different things constantly being shared online. My own book wishlist is long enough, but things get even more stressful when I try to absorb all the various stories, blog posts, attention-grabbing headlines, and social media trends that get tossed my way from day to day. I find that the quality of my attention, my work, and my relationships tends to be much higher when I either unplug altogether or when I choose to delve deeply into one thing with great focus. A couple of weeks ago, my one of my colleagues expressed my exact sentiments on this issue in a post called What I Tell Myself When I’m Tempted to Not Be Myself:

“Today I will live free.”

I wrote those words out by hand this morning and felt an immediate release. I wrote them because I needed to. I just got back from some time off to deliberately do little but rest and reflect, and immediately I felt the pressing weight of the Other upon me.

The Other is anything and everything that does not come from within. It’s all the great ideas and people and tasks and activities that bombard me from without. They’re all wonderful things, and nothing but expressions of the agency of others. Yet they’re not me, and if I internalize them, or interact with them in any way that has a responsive orientation, I become trapped.

There is so much information out there. If my life is only to collect it, gather, sort, label, react, and respond to it, I am an automaton. But I’m not an automaton. I live and breath passionate freedom. I can’t afford to play my life in response mode.

I had to commit to myself and to the world that I will live free today. Just one day. Anyone can do that, right?

So today I don’t care about anyone else’s information. I don’t care about opinions. I don’t care about any ‘shoulds’ or ‘oughts’ flying my way. I care about living my journey for truth, freely and with abandon. Only then will I have the excess creative capacity to engage fully the wide world of the Other.

Obligatory Schooling and the Quest for an Authentic Approach to Education

Deschooling Society by Ivan Illich (Pgs 1-12)

Illich on obligatory schooling as the basis for societal ills

Many students, especially those who are poor, intuitively know what the schools do for them. They school them to confuse process and substance. Once these become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is, the better are the results; or, escalation leads to success. The pupil is thereby “schooled” to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new. His imagination is “schooled” to accept service in place of value. Medical treatment is mistaken for healthcare, social work for the improvement of community life, police protection for safety, military poise for national security, the rat race for productive work. Health, learning, dignity, independence, and creative endeavor are defined as little more than the performance of the institutions which claim to serve these ends, and their improvement is made to depend on allocating more resources to the management of hospitals, schools, and other agencies in question….the institutionalization of values leads inevitably to physical pollution, social polarization, and psychological impotence: three dimensions in a process of global degradation and modernized misery.

Illich on how the schooling mindset scandalizes the virtues of self-reliance and autodidacticism:

Not only education but social reality itself has become schooled…Rich and poor alike depend on schools and hospitals which guide their lives, form their world view, and define for them what is legitimate and what is not. Both view doctoring oneself as irresponsible, learning on one’s own as unreliable, and community organization, when not paid for by those in authority, as a form of aggression or subversion. For both groups the reliance on institutional treatment renders independent accomplishment suspect…Everywhere not only education but society as a whole needs “deschooling.”

Illich on how obligatory schooling discourages independent learning and deincentivizes healthy competition from the marketplace:

…the mere existence of school discourages and disables the poor from taking control of their own learning. All over the world the school has an anti-educational effect on society: school is recognized as the institution which specializes in education. The failures of school are taken by most people as proof that education is a very costly, very complex, always arcane, and frequently impossible task.

School appropriates the money, men, and good will available for education and in addition discourages other institutions from assuming educational tasks. Work, leisure, politics, city living, and even family life depend on schools for the habits and knowledge they presuppose, instead of becoming themselves the means of education. Simultaneously both schools and the other institutions which depend on them are priced out of the market.

Illich on the danger of equating education with schooling and the need to abolish a government monopoly on formal learning:

Equal educational opportunity is, indeed, both a desirable and a feasible goal, but to equate this with obligatory schooling is to confuse salvation with the Church…Two centuries ago the Unites States led the world in a movement to disestablish the monopoly of a single church. Now we need the constitutional disestablishment of the monopoly of the school, and thereby of a system which legally combines prejudice with discrimination. The first article of a bill of rights for a modern, humanist society would correspond to the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: “The State shall make no law with respect to the establishment of education.” There shall be no ritual obligatory for all.

Illich on how obligatory schooling confuses credentialing with meaningful and pragmatic learning.

Neither learning nor justice is promoted by schooling because educators insist on packaging instruction with certification. Learning and the assignment of social roles are melted into schooling. Yet to learn means to acquire a new skill or insight, while promotion depends on an opinion which others have formed. Learning frequently is the result of instruction, but selection for a role or category in the job market increasingly depends on mere length of attendance.

Instruction is the choice of circumstances which facilitate learning. Roles are assigned by setting a curriculum of conditions which the candidate must meet if he is to make the grade. School links instruction –but not learning– to these roles. This is neither reasonable nor liberating. It is not reasonable because it does not link relevant qualities or competences to roles, but rather the process by which such qualities are supposed to be acquire. It is not liberating or educational because school reserves instruction to those whose every step in learning fits previously approved measures of social control.

Even now many people wrongly believe that school ensures the dependence of public trust on relevant learning achievements. However, instead of equalizing chances, the school system has monopolized their distribution.

Freedom and Literacy

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (Preface, Timeline, & Intro
Pgs XIII-XXIV)

Highlights from the introduction:

Robert G. O’Meally on the uniqueness of Douglass’s legacy:

What seperates Douglass’s quest for improvement from, say, those of dime-store Horatio Alger heroes of a generation later, is that his will to free himself is so directly related to his will to help others free themselves.

Douglass on the teaching power of the slave songs:

I have sometimes thought that the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy on the subject could do.

…If anyone wishes to be impressed with the soul-killing effects of slavery, let him go to Colonol Lloyd’s plantation, and, on allowance-day, place himself in the deep pine woods, and there let him, in silence, analyze the sounds that shall pass through the chambers of his soul

Douglass’s poignant recollection of the harsh warnings administered by his slave master to his mistress upon discovering that his mistress had been teaching Douglass how to read:

“If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master–to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world…if you teach that nigger…how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.”

Douglass’s reaction to these words is equally poignant:

These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom….

Understanding the Real Nature of Problems

Are Your Lights On by Donald C. Gause & Gerald M. Weinberg Chapters 1-3, Pgs 3-25

On the value of approaching problems from a pluralistic perspective:

For the would-be problem solver, whose problem is to solve the problem of others, the best way to begin is mentally to shift gears from singular to plural–from Problem Solver to Problems Solver…To practice this mental shift, the Solver should, early in the game, try to answer the question: Who has a problem? And then, for each unique answering party, to ask “What is the essence of your problem?”

On the mutually beneficial nature of mutually felt tension:

When one party begins to feel pain in synchrony  with the other, we know that the problem will eventually find its resolution.

On what a problem is:

A problem is a difference between things as desired and things as perceived.

The perception principle:

Phantom problems are real problems.

The humor axiom:

Don’t bother trying to solve problems for people who don’t have a sense of humor.

Carl Menger’s Contributions to the History of Economic Thought

Principles of Economics by Carl Menger (Foreword pgs 7-10/Intro by F.A. Hayek pgs11-15)

Peter Klein on the uniqueness of Menger’s approach to economic thought:

Unlike his contemporaries William Stanley Jevons and Leon Walras, who independently developed their own concepts of marginal utility during the 1870’s, Menger favored an approach that was deductive, teleological, and, in a primary sense, humanistic. While Menger shared his contemporaries’ preference for abstract reasoning, he was primarily interested in explaining the real world actions of real people, not in creating artificial, stylized representations of reality. Economics, for Menger, is the study of purposeful human choice, the relationship between means and ends. “All things are subject to the law of cause and effect,” he begins his treatise. “This great principle knows no exception.”  Jevons and Walras rejected cause and effect in favor of simultaneous determination, the technique of modeling complex relations as systems of simultaneous equations in which no variable “causes” another. Theirs has become the standard approach in contemporary economics, accepted by nearly all economists but the followers of Carl Menger.

Klein on Menger’s revolutionary understanding of pricing:

Menger sought to explain prices as the outcome of the purposeful, voluntary interactions of buyers and sellers, each guided by their own subjective evaluations of the usefulness of various goods and services. Trade is thus the result of people’s deliberate attempts to improve their well-being, not an innate “propensity to truck, barter, and exchange,” as suggested by Adam Smith. The exact quantities of good exchanges —their prices, in other words—are determined by the values individuals attach to marginal units of these goods. With a single buyer and seller, goods are exchanged as long as participants can agree on an exchange ratio that leaves each better off than he was before….Menger’s highly general explanation of price formation continues to form the core of Austrian microecnomics.

F.A. Hayek on Menger’s pivotal place in economic history:

There can be no doubt among competent historians that if, during the last sixty years, the Austrian School has occupied an almost unique position in the development of economic science, this is entirely due to the foundations laid by this one man.

The above reflections and notes are part of my personal development project for 2015. This post is my entry for (What I’m Learning: Day 24/365). To see the spreadsheet documenting all the activities I complete every week, click here.