Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘education’

02 MAY, 2012

A Liberal Decalogue: Bertrand Russell’s Ten Commandments of Teaching

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“Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.”

British philosopher, mathematician, historian, and social critic Bertrand Russell (May 18, 1872–February 2, 1970) endures as one of the most intellectually diverse and influential thinkers in modern history, his philosophy of religion in particular having shaped the work of such modern atheism champions as Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins. From the third volume of The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell: 1944-1969 comes this remarkable micro-manifesto, entitled A Liberal Decalogue (public library) — a vision for responsibilities of a teacher, in which Russell touches on a number of recurring themes from pickings past — the purpose of education, the value of uncertainty, the importance of critical thinking, the gift of intelligent criticism, and more.

It originally appeared in the December 16, 1951, issue of The New York Times Magazine, at the end of the article “The best answer to fanaticism: Liberalism.”

Perhaps the essence of the Liberal outlook could be summed up in a new decalogue, not intended to replace the old one but only to supplement it. The Ten Commandments that, as a teacher, I should wish to promulgate, might be set forth as follows:

  1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
  2. Do not think it worth while to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
  3. Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.
  4. When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
  5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
  6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
  7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
  8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
  9. Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
  10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.

The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell is a treasure trove of wisdom in its entirety — highly recommended.

Thanks, Will

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27 APRIL, 2012

Dancing About Architecture: A Field Guide to Creativity

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“It is the ability to spot the potential in the product of connecting things that don’t ordinarily go together that marks out the person who is truly creative.”

It seems endemic to the human condition that we’ll never cease longing for insight into where good ideas come from, how creativity works, its secrets, its origins, and the five-step action plan for making it manifest. Dancing About Architecture: A Little Book of Creativity (public library) by Phil Beadle is unusual in that it’s both a strong, pointed conceptual vision for the nature and origin of creativity, and a kind of activity book for grown-ups that invites you to learn how to implement the skill set of creativity through a series of hands-on exercises applicable wherever your creative journey may take you, from the studio to the classroom to the boardroom.

Much of Beadle’s insights echo Sir Ken Robinson’s work, but Beadle emphasizes another, in my opinion far more important, aspect of creativity: its combinatorial nature:

We create the new not generally through some mad moment of inspiration in fictionalized accounts of ancient Greeks in baths (though the conditions for this can be forced into existence), but by putting things together that do not normally go together; from taking disciplines (or curriculum areas) and seeing what happens when they are forced into unanticipated collision.

[…]

The mind, at its best, is a pattern-making machine, engaged in a perpetual attempt to impose order on to chaos; making links between disparate entities or ideas in order to better understand either or both. It is the ability to spot the potential in the product of connecting things that don’t ordinarily go together that marks out the person (or teacher) who is truly creative.

This point resonates deeply with the founding philosophy of Brain Pickings, and is one articulated by a great many thinkers and creators. Steve Jobs famously said that “creativity is just connecting things”; Paula Scher spoke of the mental collaging that sparks a moment of creation; As Austin Kleon put it, “you are a mashup of what you let into your life”; William Gibson called for cultivating “a personal micro-culture”; Paul Rand maintained that the role of the imagination is “to create new meanings and to discover connections that, even if obvious, seem to escape detection.”

In the foreword, Ian Gilbert articulates the same idea another way:

Nature abhors a vacuum and the same applies in your head. The trouble is, if there’s nothing to replace the gap left behind when you clear out all your old rubbish then some new rubbish will come along to fill it… So, where do the new ideas come from to fill the void left by eliminating your old ones? This question of the derivation of ideas was one that was approached by an advertising man called James Webb Young in 1939. His short book, A Technique for Producing Ideas, became the seminal book on how to get ideas, good ones, into your head… Webb Young suggests the following five-step plan to generating great ideas:

[1] Gather the raw material

[2] Digest the material

[3] Don’t think

[4] Wait for the ‘Ah ha!’ moment to appear (and be ready when it does. Keep a notebook by your bed)

[5] Expose your idea to the light of day and see if it stands up to the glare

Part of the first step that we often overlook, however, is the need to feed our brains with all sorts of ‘raw material’ and not just the sort most related to our work. If all you do, as an educator, is read education books then you will never be very creative. You will never succeed in doing what Steve Jobs […] calls making a ‘dent in the universe’. Genuine creativity needs a collision of ideas, something that will never happen if all your thoughts travel in the same direction. Arthur Koestler in his seminal book on creativity, The Act of Creation, talks about ‘bisociation’. An idea travels in one direction and then suddenly is broadsided by another traveling in a different one. It is used in humor all the time. What’s blue and white and climbs trees? A fridge in a denim jacket. That sort of thing.

Dancing About Architecture goes on to explore, both in practical terms and as a broader cultural vision, how we can foster this combinatorial capacity in our individual creative journeys as well as in formal social frameworks like the education system and the workplace.

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20 MARCH, 2012

The Power of Simple Words, Animated

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Getting from “no coordinates exist like one’s domicile” to “there’s no place like home.”

“Use the right word, not its second cousin,” Mark Twain admonished. “Use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs,” David Ogilvy advised.

Last week, my friends at TED launched TED-Ed — a wonderful new series of short animated videos for high school students and lifelong learners, using visual storytelling to deliver compelling messages in equally compelling ways. To kick off, this lovely video by copywriter Terin Izil, animated by the one and only Sunni Brown (remember her?), makes an appropriately succinct case for using simple words and brevity in writing, in just two minutes.

Variety may be the spice of life, but brevity is its bread and butter. So when it comes to $10 words, save your money and buy a Scrabble board.”

Then again, even E.B. White — the quintessential champion of brevity — felt compelled to play devil’s advocate against brevity for brevity’s sake:

Writing is not an exercise in excision, it’s a journey into sound. How about ‘tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’? One tomorrow would suffice, but it’s the other two that have made the thing immortal.”

Show Us Your Clips

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13 MARCH, 2012

Noam Chomsky on the Purpose of Education

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On the value of cultivating the capacity to seek the significant.

In this talk based on his presentation at the Learning Without Frontiers conference in January, philosopher, linguist, and cognitive scientist Noam Chomsky — easily one of our time’s sharpest thinkers — discusses the purpose of education.

Despite the slow pace and the cheesy AfterEffects animated typography, the video is a treasure trove of insight on everything from the role of technology to the pitfalls of policy.

On the industrialization of education, echoing Sir Ken Robinson’s admonition about its effects on creativity:

There have been many measures taken to try to turn the educational system towards more control, more indoctrination, more vocational training, imposing a debt, which traps students and young people into a life of conformity… That’s the exact opposite of [what] traditionally comes out of The Enlightenment. And there’s a constant struggle between those. In the colleges, in the schools, do you train for passing tests, or do you train for creative inquiry?”

On technology:

Technology is basically neutral. It’s kind of like a hammer. The hammer doesn’t care whether you use it to build a house, or whether a torturer uses it to crush somebody’s skull.”

On the importance of having a framework for what matters when engaging with the the information economy — or, one might say, the essence of what great curation should be:

You can’t pursue any kind of inquiry without a relatively clear framework that’s directing your search and helping you choose what’s significant and what isn’t… If you don’t have some sort of a framework for what matters — always, of course, with the provisor that you’re willing to question it if it seems to be going in the wrong direction — if you don’t have that, exploring the Internet is just picking out the random factoids that don’t mean anything… You have to know how to evaluate, interpret, and understand… The person who wins the Nobel Prize is not the person who read the most journal articles and took the most notes on them. It’s the person who knew what to look for. And cultivating that capacity to seek what’s significant, always willing to question whether you’re on the right track — that’s what education is going to be about, whether it’s using computers and the Internet, or pencil and paper, or books.”

On influence and creating the right micro-culture to foster creativity:

It’s the way cultural progress takes place generally. Classical artists, for example, came out of a tradition of craftsmanship that was developed over long periods, with master artisans and others, and sometimes, you can rise on their shoulders and create new marvelous things. But it doesn’t come from nowhere. If there isn’t a lively cultural and educational system, which is geared towards encouraging creative exploration, independence of thought, willingness to cross frontiers, to challenge accepted beliefs… if you don’t have that, you’re not going to get the technology that could lead to economic gains.”

On the whimsy of inquiry:

Passing tests doesn’t begin to compare with searching and inquiring and pursuing topics that engage us and excite us. That’s far more significant than passing tests and, in fact, if that’s the kind of educational career you’re given the opportunity to pursue, you will remember what you discovered.”

Many of these insights, and more, are explored in depth in these 7 essential books on education.

@openculture

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