Sunday, August 31, 2014

A few links from Facebook

For the past two months my wife and kids have been back in Colombia, so I've been spending a lot of time alone.  Despite my best intentions to make productive use of my time, I do often find myself too tired or simply not in the mood to embark on some new, thoughtful undertaking in my free time.  So instead of catching up on blog posts or other writing that I've been neglecting for months or even years, I often find myself browsing what my facebook friends have posted.  I guess it says something [positive] about my circle of friends that few of them post anything, and for those that do, it's mainly articles, political commentaries, or petitions for a cause (other than the Ice Bucket Challenge).

Here are three things that sparked my interest from my Facebook friends' recent posting:

This is an article about meaningful commitment to a cause, beyond dumping a bucket of ice on your head.  The author is the creator of the old, silly website, "Stuff White People Like".  He has long been a critic of "awareness-raising", because it usually doesn't entail much actual effort or action on the part of those who do it, and more importantly because we are already aware of most of society's major ills.  In this latest essay, he argues that one of the few pressing issues that many of us are not yet aware of (at least not in a visceral, empathetic way) is the profound injustice felt by black citizens who are constantly hounded and sometimes even killed by the police and the neighbors that are supposed to be looking out for them and protecting them.  He proposes a silly ice-bucket-challenge variant that could ramp up awareness of this cause.  I've been thinking about the same thing.  What about throwing an ice bucket on a militarized, overagressive cop that's about to shoot an unarmed civilian?

Following on this same topic, here is an article whose author tries to illuminate the meaning of white privilege through biking.  As a white biker myself (that also has a lot of non-white friends and family that I don't like to see getting trampled on by others), this little essay struck a chord with me.  In many spheres of life, what hurts us most is not when others are outright aggressive towards us, but rather oblivious of the harm they do us.  When society is set up such that some can be constantly damaging to others through their oblivious actions, then you have a situation of privilege and its correlary, marginalization.  And that's not good for a society.

On an unrelated note (or maybe not), here is a TED talk by a well-spoken, thoughtful young man who is in a nontraditional schooling setup.  He describes his experience of learning through internships, outdoor living, and a loose alternative para-school institution that organizes some of his education.  It sounds like a great way to learn in most respects. 

However, one of the major concerns I have in bringing up my own children is finding a balance between maximizing their opportunities and self-fulfillment, while instilling in them a sense of belonging to, and duty to, the larger collective of people around them.  It is a delicate balance.  A person (and a society) is not in good shape if they unthinkingly follow orders and prevailing cultural norms.  But without some sense of commitment to others, self-sacrifice, and yes, subsuming your own absolute liberty to other people and ideas, I think that not only is a society doomed to failure, but even the individual is sure to feel incomplete, not fully realized.  Ironically, in seeking self-fulfillment as an ends in itself, we feel profoundly unfulfilled. 

I don't mean to pick on this young man.  He and the adults educating him are obviously acting in good faith, and they may very well be right in their model for the ideal education.  What I am questioning here though is that model.  Does such a free-form, alternative learning model serve kids better than the traditional, mainstream mass-schooling model?  More importantly, is it better for our society as a whole, for the resolution of our most pressing problems?

First off is the question about the individual utility of the alternative schooling model.  As a white, presumably middle-class kid, the speaker will probably be okay economically whatever his schooling model (though the borderline-middle-class kids I've seen in alternative schools in Colombia have had lots of problems adapting to college and the adult labor market afterwards).  With the alternative education model, it sounds like this young man will avoid the trap of mistaking mere economic security and obedience to pre-established cultural norms as the route to happiness.  But will a young person brought up in this way be more or less of a boon to society than one who's passed through the traditional, oppressive school system? 

I worry that some of what is laid out in this TED talk does not bode well for this last question.  When you are ensconced in a system that is explicitly outside of and even contrary to the rest of society, there is a great danger that you will live a life apart from, and not in contribution to, the mass of your fellow people.  You may be enlightened, but everyone else isn't, so how do you deal with those lesser thinkers spawned by the standard educational system?  Do you spurn them?  Help them?  Ignore them?  Raise them up?  Understand them?

Furthermore, despite the apparent heterodoxy of an alternative school system, its organizers are usually firmly embedded in the prevailing model of economic advancement of certain social classes at the expense of others.  If you are already isolated from much of society by your economic class, and now think yourself superior to them due to your better model of schooling, you risk becoming an oppressor, even if unconsciously.  Will you be committed to social justice, to fighting society's ills, if you don't see yourself as part of that society?

Most importantly, I see a drive to self-fulfillment as the ultimate metric and goal of the alternative education that is presented in the TED talk, and this worries me.  Of the eight principles for happiness enumerated in the video (exercise, diet and nutrition, time in nature, contribution and service, relationships, recreation, relaxation and stress management, religious and spiritual), all but two or three are self-centered.  And even the three non-self-centered pursuits (relationships, contribution and service, religious and spiritual) are valued here because of their potential contribution to self-fulfillment.  This of course sort of defeats the purpose; if you enter into relationships, or perform acts of service, or become religiously affiliated, expressly in order to become happier, you will have crappy relationships, unproductive service, and insincere religion.  Plus you won't be any happier, if you're honest with yourself.  It's precisely in denying our own pursuit of happiness, in forgetting for a moment about self-fulfillment, that these things, and that life in general, fulfill us.

My interpretation of the alternative schooling model being presented as a fundamentally self-centered one (and thus ultimately a superficial one) is bolstered by the allusions to "hacking" life (ie finding more "efficient" shortcuts).  I certainly value the ideal of life-hacking in many respects; often the existing societal or physical infrastructure is not set up for what one wants or needs to do, and so you must figure out innovative ways to get around existing limits to be able to do what you want.  I try to live this value when I salvage good groceries from dumpsters, or when I take a more efficient route to work, or even when I line-dry my clothes instead of paying money to burn natural gas to dry them.  But I try to be circumspect with this attitude of "hacking" life, of using individual ingenuity or simply might to circumvent the rules.  For what happens when you run up against something that you can't hack, and you just have to buckle down and get it done through honest hard work?  Will you know how to do this if you've been educated only in an individualized, iconoclastic pursuit of your own path?  I have seen this in coworkers at many jobs who spend more time trying to figure out an "easier" way of doing something than it would take to just go ahead and do it.  In this context, it's called laziness, and is less efficient, not more.  If everything in your education is left to your [still-developing] criteria, how will you ever obtain the wisdom gained by things you didn't want to do initially but were forced to do, and whose value you only saw afterwards?  Finally, what happens when your hacker shortcut as a privileged member of society ends up harming others weaker than you?

My misgivings that alternative education can easily lend itself to a privileged, self-centered way of thinking are also confirmed by other incidentals of the talk.  First off, that it transpires in the TED forum, that self-congratulatory ritual for bourgeois, ahistorical, quick-fix techno-kleptocrats.  Second, the references to things like Starbucks and skiing place the talk firmly within the realm of the high-income pursuit of consumption and entertainment.  In this same line, highly-personalized outdoor living classes or private schools are not within the economic or social reach of most of our compatriots, so how viable is this education model for any but a select elite?  Lastly, the presenter gives as "hacker" role models such megalomaniac techno-hucksters like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, who have probably done more to undermine solidarity, human interaction, and general work productivity than just about anyone.

Again, I want to stress that I don't intend to tear apart this young man who presented.  I think he spoke for all the things that can be good about an alternative education model.  I just want to consider some of the downsides to such a model.  Which begs the question of what I would advocate as an ideal educational model.

My thinking is that the ideal would be a middle ground between the absolute free-form philosophy that I've seen in the alternative schools I've come into contact with, and the stifling conformity pushed by many mainstream schools.  I feel that my own basic education, in a special program within the larger framework of a [somewhat militarized] inner-city school system, was a great combination of the two extremes.  We had to pledge allegiance to the flag every day and form quiet lines to go anywhere, but we were also free to explore the bounds of our intellect and of the great thinkers that lived before us.  Furthermore, the aspects of conservatism and conformity that were forced on us gave us something to fight back against.  See for example a collective test-flunk coordinated by some fellow CPS students of my generation.  Without some adversity, you can't learn how to exist in a world that usually isn't tailored to your desires and idiosyncracies.  Fighting against force also gives kids an idea of how to be strategic, how to pick and choose their battles.  Again, this must be moderated, lest in the face of an overwhelming oppression, kids just learn to be docile and not to fight back.

My grammar school program was billed as one for "gifted" children, so as such it would seem inherently elitist and wouldn't be an option for everyone.  But frankly, I feel that most kids, "gifted" or not, would have thrived in such a setting with the right mix of clear boundaries and free intellectual inquiry.  I think most of us in my class weren't so much intellectually gifted as gifted in having parents with the means and the motivation to get us into that program.  If all of Chicago Public Schools were organized along the lines of promoting real intellectual inquiry among students, of giving them the benefit of the doubt instead of assuming they're just looking to cause trouble--in short, if schools treated children as the inquisitive, wondrous, sincere people they are (and their parents collaborated by getting rid of the damn TV), then I think we could vastly improve our mainstream school system, without devolving into a disorganized free-for-all.

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