Friday, June 11, 2004


I will be on the road until Thursday, June 17.

Until then, Let Freedom Light Our World: FLOW!

Thursday, June 10, 2004

A Specific Example of An Important Freedom Lost

I began my career in education fifteen years ago. I wanted to improve the world by means of education. I believed that it was important to train young people to think independently. I began leading Socratic Seminars in public schools, open-ended discussions of texts bound by the constraints of evidence and reasoning. Students were free to have whatever opinions they pleased, as long as they could defend those opinions cogently.

I discovered that there were some students in some communities who could do this well and many other students in other communities who could not. In order to have a coherent intellectual discussion, it turned out that there were three pre-requisites:

1. The ability to read critically.
2. The ability to participate constructively in a group.
3. An inclination to take ideas seriously.

If any of these three pre-requisites were missing, the discussions were weak. Without the ability to read critically, the discussion could not really use a text productively. Without the ability to participate civilly, discussions turned into a chaotic mess of insults, domination, and irrelevance. Without an inclination to take ideas seriously, the discussions became flat and meaningless.

My colleagues and I then developed an approach to train students in these pre-requisites. It required daily discussions, at least an hour per day. Sometimes the discussions focused primarily on reading techniques, sometimes they focused on group dynamics, and sometimes they focused on why ideas should be taken seriously. Some conversations combined all three pre-requisites.

Leading these discussions was an interesting, engaging, sophisticated art. But after a solid year of such Socratic Practice, as I called it, even inner-city students were able to read much better and engage constructively in intellectual discussions. They felt liberated, they enjoyed the conversations (students love to talk), and they learned crucial teamwork skills for the real world. SAT-Verbal score gains at some sites have been double or even triple the national average.

Given the need to provide students with a better education, one might have thought that such a pedagogy would flourish.

Instead, it is practically illegal to engage in this pedagogy.

The well-intentioned national standards movement, codified by No Child Left Behind (NCLB), puts pressures on teachers to "cover" specific standards in each discipline. While daily conversations that raise SAT-verbal scores and provide useful workplace skills may be intrinsically valuable, they prevent teachers from covering state-required content. While intellectual argumentation was the core educational experience in ancient Greece, in medieval universities (which educated 12 year-olds), aristocratic education throughout Europe, Jesuit education, Jewish education, and the best prep schools in the U.S., extensive use of this core experience of western civilization is practically illegal today.

In addition to the "standards" obstacle, there is the teacher obstacle. I have never had any difficulty finding interesting, intellectually capable adults who are eager to lead these conversations with students. Unfortunately, most of these adults are not credentialed teachers - and most credentialed teachers are not capable of leading sophisticated intellectual dialogue. Again, NCLB forces public and charter schools to hire "highly qualified teachers," which simply means teachers licensed in their discipline. This does not mean that they are capable of leading intellectual discussions.

I attended St. John's College, where all professors are required to teach all disciplines: The Greek Ph.D. must also learn to teach Newton's calculus, Racine's French, Bach's fugues, etc. Almost everyone in our society would regard this as horribly inappropriate: Why allow people to teach outside their range of competence? What happens at St. John's, and at secondary schools that have used this same model, is that the people who are willing to do this (and there are long waiting lists to teach at these institutions) are people who love to learn, who have a passion for learning - in every discipline and in every way. These are the kind of people that I want teaching my kids.

My ideal vision of education would train young people to be extraordinary autodidacts. It has been suggested that the ideal St. John's foreign language exam would be one in which you don't know what language you will be tested in: Perhaps Swahili, or Mandarin, or Polish, or something else. You show up for the exam, are presented with a passage in the language to be translated, and you are provided with a dictionary and a grammar. And you figure it out.

The same type of exam could be extended to science: You are provided with a technical paper in physics, or chemistry, or biology, or something else. You are also provided with suitable technical materials that will enable you to figure it out. And you figure it out.

Or perhaps the exam is a sophisticated software package still in its box. You are required to install the software and figure out well enough to accomplish a specified task.

It is possible to become a more capable, more independent learner. It is possible to train young people so that they can learn on their own. In my view, such an education would be vastly more valuable than the education that students currently receive.

But in any publicly-funded school, it is illegal to provide students with this type of education.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Visualizing a New Paradigm

I continue to be fascinated with the Scientific Revolution in general and with the transition from the medieval cosmological world-view to the Newtonian cosmological world-view, in particular. So much had to change in men's minds in order for this transformation to be achieved. There were medieval human beings who looked up into the sky and saw small fires in crystalline spheres. Three hundred years later, Newton could look at the very same sky and see earth-like planets and sun-like stars moving in accordance with the same mechanical laws of physics that he observed on earth.

No one scientist, no one piece of evidence, no one argument was adequate to complete this transformation. Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Descartes, and Newton were all crucial to this transformation of vision, as were dozens of lesser-known figures. Each saw just a bit farther. Many entered blind alleys. Finally, the old medieval way of seeing the heavens was no longer possible.

The transition from terracentric to heliocentric astronomy played a significant role in this transformation. It is important to remember that one of the clearest, most certain, most pervasively observed, and most indubitable of all physical phenomena is that the earth is stationary and the sun moves. This is perfectly obvious to all who open their eyes. One of the achievements of Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton was to take one of the most obvious and certain of observations and show, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that it was false. We, who have been trained since elementary school in the heliocentric hypothesis, can no longer even imagine how outrageous and absurd it is. Our most basic intuitions should shout out to us: The earth does not move, the sun does.

There are many observers of social and economic life for whom the harms of capitalism are so self-evident, it seems certain that no one in good faith could conceded to such a harmful system. Although such people are now fewer and less vocal than they were 20 years ago, many still exist. The popularity of Michael Moore testifies, in part, to the ongoing vitality of this view of the world. Such people seem to believe that if they "expose" the system, if they shout loud enough and long enough, eventually people will wake up, lose their false consciousness, and revolt.

Having once viewed the world in this manner, and having now completed a shift in perspective, I view such people now, sympathetically, as I would a terracentrist around 1680 or so. The terracentrist finds the heliocentrist doctrine to be a gross violation of his most fundamental and most certain beliefs. The empirical proof that the sun moves and the earth does not is utterly obvious. The frustration and outrage at someone who calls black white, and white black, is extreme.

To someone who has visualized the new paradigm, the frustration experienced by someone on the other side is understandable. Yet the "proof" offered is utterly ineffectual. Someone could point to a stationary horizon and a setting sun as much as he pleased, shout about it as much as he pleased, and you or I, or Galileo or Newton, would not find our heliocentric beliefs altered one iota. The evidence presented is simply not addressing the key issues.

Likewise, while I certainly want to help the poor and the unemployed, and to prevent government corruption, when someone becomes animated about these problems and then concludes that capitalism is the problem, I view them much as one would a terracentrist. With compassion, I wonder how I can explain to them that they are not seeing the world as it really is.

My efforts at explaining this paradigm shift in a compassionate way are not helped by the history of political enmity between the Right and the Left. The newer intellectual understanding has been undermined by violent political antagonisms. In order to see the world anew, people need to forget the language of capitalism, communism, and socialism. They need to learn the ideas, if not the language, of "catallaxy" and "spontaneous order."

We need to de-politicize these concepts so that more people can understand them. I seek to show how an authentic idealism is not only possible, but will be far more effective, with an ever-deepening understanding of Hayekian spontaneous order than without.

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Filling the World with Fools

The ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of folly, is to fill the world with fools.

-Herbert Spencer

Although some may take Spencer's quotation above as a witticism, it strikes me as one of the most succinct analyses of social life of which I'm aware.

There is some software being produced by means of evolutionary processes. Instead of programming the software, line by line, as is done in traditional programming, a programmer will create a specified environment and specified outcomes and then write a very simple program that constantly creates new, mutating versions of itself. It turns out that there are some software problems which are extremely difficult to solve by means of deliberate human design but for which evolved software solutions may be created quickly and easily.

Such evolved software results in computer code that is an absolutely incomprehensible mess; it would be very difficult to figure out the resulting "logic." But as long as the resulting software performs well, it doesn't matter how messy it is on the inside.

Clearly, in order to obtain software that functions, it is necessary to specify conditions accurately. Software that evolved in a false environment would not function correctly in a real environment. It would be stupid to evolve software for which there was not hope of it functioning correctly in a real environment.

Although some may find the analogy offensive, there is a serious, non-trivial analogy between evolved software and human behavior. I am not talking about biological evolution here at all: I am strictly referring to the process by means of which young human beings acquire skills, habits, and attitudes which they will later depend on as adults. Many humans in our society have evolved skills, habits, and attitudes which are not optimized for the real world in which they live. Current welfare and education policy seemed design to create human beings who cannot function successfully as adults. It would be comic if it were not so brutally horrifying.

It must be admitted that, with respect to human behavior, we are largely clueless about cause and effect. Although there are large numbers of social scientists, therapists, social workers, public policy analysts, and others who make their living telling us about cause and effect in human behavior, enormous social problems continue. Crime, poverty, addictions, high-risk behaviors, etc. have in no sense been definitively solved by the professionals who study these issues for a living.

At present academics debate the causes of dysfunctional behaviors; then without any resolution to the debate, other people design "solutions" to the problems based on the theories of a particular group of academics; then a politician or private funder backs one of these approaches for awhile. Later, when the problem hasn't been solved, then some other group receives public support and funding. And, meanwhile, by some measures our social life improves and by some measures it worsens.

With fewer constraints on our lives, some of us will do extraordinarily foolish things. Some will die by means of foolish choices. Some will allow their children to die, in ways that could have been prevented by experts, because of foolish choices. But allowing us greater latitude in the choices that we make will also allow us to discover new and better ways to live, individually and collectively.

From the perspective of most societies, our culture's unwillingness to impose censorship is seen as unbelievable stupid. But, as a society, we have committed ourselves to freedom of thought. Freedom of action is the next necessary step. All the advantages of freedom of thought, in terms of allowing a discovery process that can result in new and better ideas, applies 100-fold to freedom of action. For precisely the same reasons, freedom of action will result in new and better ways of living.

The cost of new and better ways of thinking is that foolish ideas and degrading images are pervasive. The cost of those new and better ways of living is that fools will harm their lives and the lives of their children.

But I’m convinced that freedom of thought is worth the cost. And that freedom of action is worth the cost as well.

As Alan McConnell quips, "If it can't be abused, its not freedom."

Monday, June 07, 2004

Mastering the Art of Living

“The Master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his education and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence in whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him he is always doing both.”

Zen Buddhist Text

The quotation above is an excellent statement of one of my ideals as an educator. In addition to mastering the art of living as described above, I would want my students to be complete autodidacts: Capable of learning anything on their own by the time they are 18. They should be polite and respectful, independent and creative.

I believe that most young human beings can be educated in such a way that most young people, even those from the poorest families, could develop abilities that are superior to those of our most capable adults today. As an educator with 15 years experience in innovative education, I am certain that our existing efforts at education are analogous to medicine circa 1500: Primitive.

How could such gains be possible?

To begin with, when I hire teachers, I look for three things: Do they love young people? Can they set boundaries with young people? Are they truly masters in their area of expertise?

If I were allowed to select students, there would be one criterion: Is this person ready to commit him or herself whole-heartedly, heart and soul, to excellence in the chosen course of study?

Then, in a large, diverse market of seekers of excellence, an innovative dynamic among truly committed expert and novice learners would develop, capital would rush in to support research and development, and new ways of learning would be developed that are strictly unimaginable today. As the learning process began offering real results, more people would commit their lives to excellence in the various learning paths being offered.

Note immediately that, despite massive spending on education and participation in education that the description of teachers and students stated above describes less than .0001% of our existing teacher - student interactions. One would have to conduct a very careful search to discover any such interactions in today's world. Perhaps a music student here and a martial arts student there have relationships with teachers similar to that described above. Such simple and obvious pre-requisites to excellence in education are almost non-existent in today's world.

Suppose that a ruler once read a beautiful love story, in which two hearts' longing for each other was at last blissfully relieved when they found each other, consummated their love, and lived happily ever after.

Then suppose, having read this love story, and thus concluding that love was a good thing, this ruler forced everyone in his land to marry immediately. In order to ensure that marriages happened, police would enforce the law. Experts in marriage, who had received licenses from universities in their expertise, trained each participant using a state-approved textbook on marital happiness. Then people were forced together and required to use the "research-driven" techniques for "marital happiness." Worse yet, the "marital happiness" manuals continually emphasized the importance of "love." Individuals were trained in "love" and certified in "love" based on the scores they received on tests. The tests, of course, were based on "research."

People would come to loathe love and marriage. Young people, forced into their "marital happiness" courses, would hate the courses and rebel. While there would be earnest professors doing their best to write good books on "marital happiness," many people would realize that the whole system was a joke. Or, in terms of last Friday's post, it was all crap.

This is precisely where our education system is. Education should be based on love and a commitment to excellence, a longing for the true, the good, and the beautiful. Education should not be a forced marriage supervised by government-licensed experts.

Former communist nations are going through a long, painful process of re-creating the most basic human virtues and civic institutions. If we dismantled our education system, we would have to go through a similar long, painful process of re-creating healthy educational relationships. But it is important to realize that we cannot get to a better place by continuing in our present direction.

No Child Left Behind is a Kafka-esque extension of the insanity of our existing education system. The nightmare would be that, after it fails, the response is to increase control more, with more specified curriculum and more tests and more dishonesty about what is really happening to the hearts and souls of our young.

I await a time when the Berlin wall of government-controlled schooling is finally shattered, and we can begin to share the art of living with millions of young people in honest, straightforward, real relationships.

A new era of human happiness will begin at that point in time.