What is Education?

Devon Eriksen posted an insightful tweet on Twitter (“X”) about a common misunderstanding of what education is. In reference to Yuval Noah Harari’s Colbert appearance, Eriksen posts:

That’s because this dude doesn’t know what education is.

He speaks of growing wheat, herding sheep, riding a horse, and so on, but in the era of these skills, this was the kind of education given to slaves.

Only a slave, a person who was owned as property, and used as a machine for a task, could be expected to do one task for his whole life.

A gentleman, or even a freeman of the lower classes, was not a machine for labor, but a person who could be expected to act in his own interests, and thus would need to do many different things throughout his life, depending on what served his goals at the time.

And he would need to be able to independently learn these tasks, rather than needing to be taught them in childhood.

Therefore if a boy was to formally educated, that might include some of gentleman’s skills (riding, fighting with a sword, the management of finances), but his education was centered around what education really meant: A fundamental grounding in how to live and thrive as an independent and free-willed person. Thus, he was taught the seven liberal arts of classical antiquity:

– Arithmetic
– Geometry
– Music
– Astronomy
– Grammar
– Logic
– Rhetoric

These were not trade skills in the sense that they did not enable the performance of any particular trade or task, but that wasn’t the point.

The point was that they taught the young gentleman how to think and learn. By contrast, modern government schools were founded to train clerks and factory workers at public expense… a servant class with the specific skills necessary to be useful workers, but not the general education to be independent or question their betters?

Have you noticed which two of these arts are utterly absent from a modern government-school “education”? That’s right, logic and rhetoric. Logic is how to arrive at true conclusions from known facts. Rhetoric is how to persuade. A servant educated in logic might notice that the things he is being told are false. A servant educated in rhetoric might notice the techniques that are being used to persuade him to act in the rulers’ interests instead of his own.

If you conceive of your children’s education as training in career skills, whether that be growing rice or programming a computer, you are preparing them to be slaves, not free men. If you properly prepare them to be free men, what skills will be lucrative or useful twenty years from now is irrelevant, because they will be prepared to learn them.

In my opinion, the seven liberal arts of the modern world are:

– Logic: how to derive truth from known facts
– Statistics: how to understand the implications of data
– Rhetoric: how to persuade, and spot persuasion tactics
– Research: how to gather information on an unknown subject
– (Practical) Psychology: how to discern and understand the true motives of others
– Investment: how to manage and grow existing assets
– Agency: how to make decisions about what course to pursue, and proactively take action to pursue it.

Notice that you didn’t learn any of these things in school, even if you went to a so-called “liberal arts” college. Instead, they taught you things about mitochondria and calculus and symbolism in Jon Steinbeck novels where a boy has a dog, and the dog dies. That’s because liberal arts, whether you define them as I have, or slightly differently, are the arts of the master, the arts that make one a master, and therefore not be taught in a school for slaves. Worry less about which “career skills” AI will take over, and more about whether you are training to be, and training your kids to be, high-agency, perceptive, self-motivated people who can navigate an unknowable future with an adaptable mind.

I will take one slight issue with Eriksen’s post; I picked up 5 of the 7 in my formal education thanks to some fantastic teachers. With that said, this post hits the nail on the head. There are so many students today that obtain a liberal education that is more along the lines of indoctrination as opposed to training.

As I think about my own academic and career experience, I still firmly stand on the grounded point that learning how to think and learn were the key benefits and the “game-changers” for me.

Solitude

Albert Einstein, “Self-Portrait” in Out of My Later Years (Citadel Press, 1956), p. 5: 

. . . For the most part I do the thing which my own nature drives me to do. It is embarrassing to earn so much respect and love for it. Arrows of hate have been shot at me too; but they never hit me, because somehow they belonged to another world, with which I have no connection whatsoever. 

I live in that solitude which is painful in youth, but delicious in the years of maturity.

The Zebra Jockey

Here

The Zebra Jockey makes necessary and rapid changes to stay in motion. 

He accepts the chaos of uncontrollable circumstance as being what it is. He doesn’t employ control to determine outcomes and direct the actions of others to bring about what he should be, but rather engages in influence to work towards what could be. 

The Green Lumber Fallacy and Educational Horror

So let us call the green lumber fallacy the situation in which one mistakes a source of necessary knowledge–the greenness of lumber–for another, less visible from the outside, less tractable, less narratable.

My intellectual world was shattered as if everything I had studied was not just useless but a well-organized scam–as follows….

[story omitted from quote]

When I saw that he was not the exception, I started freaking out watching all these years of education evaporating in front of my eyes. That very same day I stopped reading economic reports. I felt nauseous for a while during this enterprise of “deintellecualization”–in fact I may not have recovered yet…

So that is how I learned the lesson that price and reality as seen by economists are not the same thing. One may be a function of the other but the function is too complex to map mathematically. The relation may have optionality in places, something that these non-sentence-savvy people knew deep inside.

Nassim Taleb, “Antifragile”

Stubborn Computing

Datagubbe has a great piece on stubborn computing over on his page. In the Age of Noise, there is a ton of great advice to be taken to heart.

This blog is a step down in simplicity from simple HTML and CSS pages being served up since I do utilize WordPress, but I keep it as simple as possible:

  1. No jumping or moving pictures on the page
  2. Simple tags and categories are used
  3. The database and its components are backed up and easily restored.
  4. The colors on this page are rather basic and will stay that way
  5. WordPress uses a nominal number of cookies for authentication and user logins. This page doesn’t have that, and I don’t use third party plugins, so no cookies. I don’t know who visits the page.

What are you doing in the age of stubborn computing?

Autodidacticism

Provided we have the right type of rigor, we need randomness, mess, adventures, uncertainty, self-discovery, near-traumatic episodes, all these things that make life worth living, compared to the stuctured, fake, and ineffective life of an empty-suit CEO with a preset schedule and an alarm clock.

“Only the autodidacts are free”

-Nassim Taleb

Bill Watterson: Some Thoughts on the Real World by One Who Glimpsed it and Fled

Speech found here.

Some quotable gems from the speech:

“Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is only understood if it’s to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success. Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential-as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth.
You’ll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you’re doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you’ll hear about them.”

“I’ve found that the only way I can keep writing every day, year after year, is to let my mind wander into new territories. To do that, I’ve had to cultivate a kind of mental playfulness.”

“A playful mind is inquisitive, and learning is fun. If you indulge your natural curiosity and retain a sense of fun in new experience, I think you’ll find it functions as a sort of shock absorber for the bumpy road ahead.”

“The truth is, most of us discover where we are headed when we arrive. At that time, we turn around and say, yes, this is obviously where I was going all along. It’s a good idea to try to enjoy the scenery on the detours, because you’ll probably take a few.”

“Selling out is usually more a matter of buying in. Sell out, and you’re really buying into someone else’s system of values, rules and rewards.”

“But having an enviable career is one thing, and being a happy person is another.”

Creating a Meaningful Life

Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is only understood if it’s to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success. Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential-as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth.

You’ll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you’re doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you’ll hear about them.

To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble.

More on Zen Pencils.

– Bill Watterson

Free Trade Coffee

This post was originally published on December 8th, 2021

I had the pleasure of stumbling upon Coffee – Philosophy for Everyone edited by Scott F. Parker and Michael W. Austin. Head over to your favorite book seller and grab a copy if coffee and/or philosophy is your thing! One chapter that perked the interest of both the philosopher and coffee drinker in me was “The Necessary Ground of Being” by Austin. Aptly named for both its coffee reference and distinction between necessary and contingent truths (the “grounds” of truth), Austin frames the chapter by explaining the deeply metaphysical distinction between necessary and contingent truths and then leads into coffee and ethics. Austin asks: are there necessary ethical truths? If yes, can these truths exist without God? With this in mind, Austin introduces arguments on both sides. 

As a quick primer on necessary vs contingent truths; a necessary truth is one that could not be otherwise. 2 + 2 = 4 in the base 10 system–this could never logically be different. Another necessary truth is that “Nothing can be red all over and green all over at the same time” (Austin). A final necessary truth example if the following statement: “If A < C, and C < B, then A < B”. The negation of the solution “A < B” is a logical impossibility. A contingent truth is one that could be otherwise; I sit here today unbearded, but my being without a beard is only contingently true; I could be sporting a nice no-shave November beard still untouched.

On one hand, it seems unethical that unfair trade exists even if God does not exist. If so, how is this truth necessary and not contingent in regards to something in the universe? Since it might be deemed a necessary moral truth, what makes this truth necessary and something that could not be otherwise? Austin puts forth Wielenberg’s view that necessary ethical truths are “part of the fabric of the universe”. There are certainly philosophers that would take issue and want further argument. On the other hand and in response to Wielenberg, some philosophers argue that God is required for necessary ethical truths. Austin goes one to discuss the question of “Why we should be moral” and arguments put forth by both naturalists and idealists (or theists). 

Anyone who has spent any amount of time in analytic philosophy knows that it is difficult to make any headway on answers to some of the largest questions that exist. Austin does the key task of introducing the arguments and asking the likely next questions that a person would logically ask when shown the arguments. Austin also closes the chapter with the following: If you’re reading this book, you probably don’t need any convincing about the goodness of a quality cup of coffee, though the issues about God, moral goodness, and the ultimate aspect of reality may not be so clear. It is here that philosophy can help, not because there is an agreement among philosophers about these issues, but because philosophy can help us ask and seek to answer in a reasonable manner questions related to the possible existence of the Necessary Grounds of Being. [pun seems intentional]

This is exactly right. Strict analytic philosophy may not produce consensus, but it allows a thinking human to better understand the nature of truth.