Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘education’

12 APRIL, 2013

Anne Sexton’s Report Card


“She had little patience for studying … she passed the time in math class by writing flirtatious notes to boys.”

Thomas Edison was once called “addled” by his teachers and dropped out of school after only three months of formal education, then forever changed the course of technology and earned himself a Congressional Gold Medal. Benjamin Franklin dropped out of school at the age of ten after two years of study, then went on to become a polymath and a Founding Father. Albert Einstein flunked out of high school at the age of fifteen, then proceeded to build the foundation of quantum theory and win the Nobel Prize in physics. The list goes on, but hardly does the evidence for the disconnect between academic performance and genius get more delightfully visceral than in Anne Sexton’s report card, found in Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters (public library):

In the prologue to the first section of the book, covering Sexton’s early letters, Linda Gray Sexton, Anne’s daughter, and Lois Ames quote Anne’s own autobiographical recollection:

I went to Wellesley public schools, then to private schools, then back to public. By the third grade, my parents were told to give up on me. I’d never learn anything.

The editors paint a fuller picture:

When she reached the fifth grade, the school insisted that she repeat the year and she did. But the loss of familiar schoolmates left her feeling more isolated and unappreciated.

At one point, her teachers and the school authorities urged Anne’s parents to get psychiatric treatment for her. When the Harveys indicated their reluctance to embark upon such a threatening course, the school warned them that Anne might experience emotional problems later in life. Mary and Ralph Harvey decided to wait.

But Anne was masterful at disguising her suffering, both academic and emotional, with vigor:

She had little patience for studying; a precocious, headstrong adolescent, she passed the time in math class by writing flirtatious notes to boys. Her classmates remember her as happy, vivacious, and popular, but underneath, she later claimed, lurked exquisite pain which found an outlet in her role as the class rogue, one who laughingly braved all authority. Although her carelessness and lack of attention were the qualities most often mentioned by her various teachers, many of her report cards remarked on her verbal ability and intellectual agility as well.

Though Anne went on to become one of the most celebrated poets of the twentieth century, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1967 and thus unsnarling the mythic correlation between early academic excellence and lasting cultural influence, she never transcended her teachers’ mental health admonitions. On October 4, 1974, at the height of her literary acclaim, Sexton had lunch with her editor to go over the final manuscript of her forthcoming poetry collection The Awful Rowing Toward God. She then returned home, put on her mother’s old fur coat, and stripped her fingers bare of rings. With a glass of vodka in hand, she walked into the garage, locked the door behind her, and started the engine of the car, ending her life by carbon monoxide poisoning. She was 45.

One has to wonder when our broken education system will finally recognize that learning the essential skills of mental health has much further-reaching, lifelong benefits than performing well on standardized tests of vacant memorization.

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22 MARCH, 2013

How Geography Paved the Way for Women in Science and Cultivated the Values of American Democracy


From the ideals of “republican motherhood” to a cure for “the wayward attention of children.”

Science education today is in crisis, troubled by a gaping gender gap and coupled with an equally appalling bias in popular perception. But it wasn’t always so: A mere 150 years ago, parents considered the physical sciences better-suited for girls than boys. In The Science Education of American Girls: A Historical Perspective (public library), education historian Kim Tolley traces how the curious reversal of gender norms — much like the inversion of the pink-and-blue paradigm — took place and how geography, more than any other discipline, opened the door to science for women.

‘The revolution has been favorable to science in general, particularly to that of the geography of our own country,’ wrote the Reverend Jedidiah Morse. In 1784, when Morse published his first geography textbook, he dedicated it ‘To the Young Masters and Misses Throughout the United States,’ signaling its appropriateness for females. Highly popular among boys and girls alike, Morse’s Geography Made Easy ran through numerous editions at least until 1820, when the twenty-third edition appeared. Geography was the first science to appear widely in girls’ schoolbooks after the American Revolution.

Women were expected to be knowledgeable about scientific topics as they were entrusted with the early education of future citizens — never mind they couldn’t yet vote and thus weren’t fully recognized as citizens themselves. At the same time, formal education was a rarity across genders — in 1800, the average citizen was in school for a mere four months in his or her lifetime. In the postcolonial period, geography emerged not only as an area of academic study but also as a way of instilling in pupils national pride and patriotic values, essential in the architecture of the new country. Still, the rationale for teaching girls geography remained dreadfully rooted in the era’s gender norms:

Some educational reformers argued that knowledge of the sciences rendered women more interesting conversationalists and companions for their husbands. According to the well-known female educator Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps, scientific study would result ‘in enlarging [women's] sphere of thought, rendering them more interesting companions to men of science, and better capable of instructing the young.’ In general terms, educators often stressed the value of education in assisting women to bring up their children as virtuous and intelligent citizens. … Americans promoted [geography] among girls because some contemporaries perceived women as playing a key role in developing scientific interest among children.


Jefferson believed the chief aim of a woman’s education was to train future generations to be effective citizens of the young Republic.

Once again, we see the utility of women in training and entertaining citizens, but not in being citizens. And yet, the study of geography was also promoted as a self-improvement means for women. Tolley writes:

Although some historians have emphasized the role of ‘republican motherhood’ as a rhetorical concept useful to advocates of female education, documentary sources indicate that the contemporaries just as frequently used justifications related o the self-improvement of young women. Arguments falling under the heading of ‘self-improvement’ can be categorized into three distinct groups: (1) moral improvement, comprising both general virtues and spiritual or religious growth; (2) mental improvement, constructed as the strengthening of the muscles of the mind, leading to improved intellectual prowess; and (3) psychological improvements, defined as the enhancement of personal well-being, increased fortitude, and the ability to provide oneself with intellectual resources leading to pleasure and happiness. … During the eighteenth century, Americans came to view geography as a subject particularly capable of promoting moral and religious development.

'Miss Margaret D. Foster, Uncle Sam's only woman chemist,' Oct. 4, 1919 (Library of Congress)

Educators also saw geography as a may to bolster the mental discipline of American schoolchildren:

As citizens of a new political experiment, there were new requirements for young Americans. Faced with the task of building a nation on democratic principles, educational leaders argued that the development of an enlightened, rational citizenry was the key to a successful republic. The task of creating an educational system and a curriculum capable of molding children into enlightened citizens became a political imperative. The ability of a particular subject to promote mental discipline, to strengthen the faculties of the mind, was of utmost importance to educators. According to its advocates, to a grater degree than any other subject in the school curriculum, geography developed the student’s reasoning ability. Drawing maps could ‘fix the wayward attention of children.’ Altering the scale in drawings would ‘exercise the power of judgment to a degree of which few studies are capable,’ and learning geographical facts could ‘exercise the memory.’

(Today, in the age of digitally rendered interactive maps and facts retrievable by Wikipedia searches rather than memory, one has to wonder how many of these alleged valuable skills are still being cultivated and celebrated.)

In addition to extolling its moral benefits, textbook-makers worked to make geography entertaining, hoping to spark a popular enthusiasm for science and frame it as not merely as useful, but also as enjoyable. Some textbook authors were particularly insistent upon engaging girls with the study of science, stressing the wider cultural benefits:

In the preface to their geography published in 1818, Vinson and Mann warned parents of the dangers of encouraging girls to decorate dolls and of allowing their boys too much time for idle play: ‘The parent, who is contented merely with emulating a son by the spinning of a top … or, a daughter by learning her to decorate a doll, to curl her hair … must not be surprised nor disappointed if he discovers no higher, no purer emotions in their bosoms, and ideas in their minds…’

Tolley concludes:

The introduction of geography into postcolonial schoolrooms marked an important shift in the way Americans began to think about the education of their daughters. Through geography, science became an acceptable part of the education of American girls. As the nineteenth century progressed, textbooks devoted exclusively to such subjects as botany, astronomy, and natural philosophy appeared in higher schools and diminished in geography textbooks, where they became redundant. Although scientific content declined in later geography texts, it did not disappear from the curriculum available to females. In the decades to come, increasing numbers of girls and young women would take up the study of science in their educational institutions.

For more on the capacity of maps and geographic curiosity to drive cultural change, pair The Science Education of American Girls with 100 diagrams that changed the world and how the cult of cartography got its start.

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08 MARCH, 2013

Synergetics and The Wellspring of Reality: Buckminster Fuller Against Specialization


“Only mind can discover how to do so much with so little as forever to be able to sustain and physically satisfy all humanity.”

Writer Alvin Toffler once described architect, theorist, designer, and futurist Buckminster Fuller as “one of the most-powerful myth-makers and myth-exposers of our time … a controversial, constructive, endlessly energetic metaphor-maker who sees things differently from the rest of us, and thereby makes us see ourselves afresh” — perhaps the richest and most accurate account of a mind to whom we owe more than we realize.

Today, the concept of synergy permeates everything from boardrooms to artspeak to hipster dinner party chatter — but it was Fuller who coined it as cultural currency in pioneering the study of synergentics, which concerns itself with the “behavior of whole systems unpredicted by the behavior of their parts taken separately.” In “The Wellspring of Reality,” the introductory essay to his seminal 1975 volume Synergetics: Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking (public library), Fuller decries specialization as the enemy of synergy and proposes a reframing of culture that could “get all of humanity to educate itself swiftly enough to generate spontaneous social behaviors that will avoid extinction.” At its epicenter he places the value of wide curiosity and generalist knowledge.

Fuller begins:

We are in an age that assumes the narrowing trends of specialization to be logical, natural, and desirable. Consequently, society expects all earnestly responsible communication to be crisply brief. Advancing science has now discovered that all the known cases of biological extinction have been caused by overspecialization, whose concentration of only selected genes sacrifices general adaptability. Thus the specialist’s brief for pinpointing brevity is dubious. In the meantime, humanity has been deprived of comprehensive understanding. Specialization has bred feelings of isolation, futility, and confusion in individuals. It has also resulted in the individual’s leaving responsibility for thinking and social action to others. Specialization breeds biases that ultimately aggregate as international and ideological discord, which in turn leads to war.

He makes an eloquent contribution to history’s greatest definitions of science:

Science is the attempt to set in order the facts of experience.

While contemporary neuroscientists might scoff at the distinction between brain and mind, claiming that “trying to suggest one causes the other is like saying wetness causes water” — a contention biologically correct in some ways and spiritually impoverished in others, worrisomely neuro-deterministic and negating the reality of the malleable self — Fuller does make a noteworthy distinction, reminiscent of Arthur Conan Doyle’s concept of the “brain attic” and modern-day conceptions of how creativity works:

The human brain is a physical mechanism for storing, retrieving, and re-storing again, each special-case experience. The experience is often a packaged concept.


Mind is the weightless and uniquely human faculty that surveys the ever larger inventory of special-case experiences stored in the brain bank and, seeking to identify their intercomplementary significance, from time to time discovers one of the rare scientifically generalizable principles running consistently through all the relevant experience set. The thoughts that discover these principles are weightless and tentative and may also be eternal. … It seems also to follow that the more experiences we have, the more chances there are that the mind may discover, on the one hand, additional generalized principles or, on the other hand, exceptions that disqualify one or another of the already catalogued principles that, having heretofore held ‘true’ without contradiction for a long time, had been tentatively conceded to be demonstrating eternal persistence of behavior. Mind’s relentless reviewing of the comprehensive brain bank’s storage of all our special-case experiences tends both to progressive enlargement and definitive refinement of the catalogue of generalized principles that interaccommodatively govern all transactions of Universe.

In a sentiment that the late Aaron Swartz seemed to echo in his memorable wisdom on curiosity, Fuller cautions:

Specialization tends to shut off the wide-band tuning searches and thus to preclude further discovery.

(Indeed, we see such “wide-band tuning” as central to the expansive genius of celebrated “specialists,” as evidenced by the reading lists of Carl Sagan and Alan Turing.)

Fuller then moves on to the vital distinction between money-work and purpose, debunking the myth of the zero-sum game of prosperity:

It is also mistakenly assumed that employment is the only means by which humans can earn the right to live, for politicians have yet to discover how much wealth is available for distribution. All this is rationalized on the now scientifically discredited premise that there can never be enough life support for all. Thus humanity’s specialization leads only toward warring and such devastating tools, both, visible and invisible, as ultimately to destroy all Earthians.


It is eminently feasible not only to provide full life support for all humans but also to permit all humans’ individual enjoyment of all the Earth without anyone profiting at the expense of another and without any individuals interfering with others.

Indeed, I wholeheartedly subscribe to this notion of symbiotic prosperity, something my favorite graphic designer, Milton Glaser, articulates beautifully in Debbie Millman’s indispensable How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer, in words I quoted in this hand-drawn slide from a recent talk:

Fuller points to the usefulness of useless knowledge as a critical element in this collective abundance and the salvation of our species:

Only a comprehensive switch from the narrowing specialization and toward an ever more inclusive and reining comprehension by all humanity — regarding all the factors covering omnicontinuing life aboard our spaceship Earth — can bring about reorientation from the self-extinction-bound human trending, and do so with the critical time remaining before we have passed the point of chemical process irretrievability.


Specialization’s preoccupation with parts deliberately forfeits the opportunity to apprehend and comprehend what is provided exclusively by synergy.

Amidst the obstacles to such synergetic success, he counts the bias of the news media — a point all the more prescient in the age of the “Gladwell Effect”, as editors would deliberately inflate information to make headlines more clickable. Fuller laments:

Today’s news consists of aggregates of fragments. Anyone who has taken part in any event that has subsequently appeared in the news is aware of the gross disparity between the actual and the reported events. … We also learn frequently of prefabricated and prevaricated events of a complex nature purportedly undertaken for the purposes either of suppressing or rigging the news, which in turn perverts humanity’s tactical information resources. All history becomes suspect. Probably our most polluted resource is the tactical information to which humanity spontaneously reflexes.

Bewailing scientific reductionism in a passage that falls squarely between Einstein and Tagore, Fuller — true to his reputation as a fringe-thinker — makes a case for the metaphysical as inextricably intertwined with the physical:

Science’s self-assumed responsibility has been self-limited to disclosure to society only of the separate, supposedly physical (because separately weighable) atomic component isolations data. Synergetic integrity would require the scientists to announce that in reality what had been identified heretofore as physical is entirely metaphysical — because synergetically weightless. Metaphysical has been science’s designation for all weightless phenomena such as thought. But science has made no experimental finding of any phenomena that can be described as a solid, or as continuous, or as a straight surface plane, or as a straight line, or as infinite anything. We are now synergetically forced to conclude that all phenomena are metaphysical; wherefore, as many have long suspected — like it or not — life is but a dream.

To be sure, Fuller is far from negating science. To the contrary, he — like Bertrand Russell — sees it as essential to democracy and social good:

Unguided by science, society is allowed to go right on filling its children’s brain banks with large inventories of competence-devastating misinformation.

Presaging the ethos of the Occupy movement, Fuller observes:

The youth of humanity all around our planet are intuitively revolting from all sovereignties and political ideologies. The youth of Earth are moving intuitively toward an utterly classless, raceless, omnicooperative, omniworld humanity.

Fuller portends contemporary grievances about our flawed education system and concludes with a hopeful vision for tomorrow:

Children freed of the ignorantly founded educational traditions and exposed only to their spontaneously summoned, computer-stored and -distributed outflow of reliable-opinion-purged, experimentally verified data, shall indeed lead society to its happy egress from all misinformedly conceived, fearfully and legally imposed, and physically enforced customs of yesterday. They can lead all humanity into omnisuccessful survival as well as entrance into an utterly new era of human experience in an as-yet and ever-will-be fundamentally mysterious Universe.

And whence will come the wealth with which we may undertake to lead world man into his new and validly hopeful life? From the wealth of the minds of world man — whence comes all wealth. Only mind can discover how to do so much with so little as forever to be able to sustain and physically satisfy all humanity.

Synergetics, a hefty tome of nearly 1,000 pages, is fascinating and mind-bending in its entirety. Complement it with Benjamin Betts’s Geometrical Psychology from nearly a century earlier and Bertrand Russell’s Education and the Good Life.

Public domain photographs courtesy State Archives of North Carolina

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