Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘education’

30 MAY, 2011

Summer Reading List: 10 Essential Books for Cognitive Sunshine

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The history and future of the Internet, algorithms vs. curators, reinventing education, and how to live with optimism.

It’s Memorial Day Weekend, which means summer has officially begun. And what’s summer without a good summer reading list? So here it is — a cross-disciplinary selection of the 10 most essential cognitive fertilizers for a season of creative and intellectual growth. (Want more? Don’t hesitate to revisit last year’s list, full of timeless gems to catch up on.)

THE INFORMATION: A HISTORY, A THEORY, A FLOOD

The future of information is something I’m deeply interested in, but no such intellectual exploit is complete without a full understanding of its past. The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by iconic science writer James Gleick is easily the most ambitious, compelling, insert-word-of-intellectual-awe-here book to read this year, illustrating the central dogma of information theory through a riveting journey across African drum languages, the story of the Morse code, the history of the French optical telegraph, and a number of other fascinating facets of humanity’s infinite quest to transmit what matters with ever-greater efficiency.

We know about streaming information, parsing it, sorting it, matching it, and filtering it. Our furniture includes iPods and plasma screens, our skills include texting and Googling, we are endowed, we are expert, so we see information in the foreground. But it has always been there.” ~ James Gleick

But what makes the book most compelling is that, unlike some of his more defeatist contemporaries, Gleick roots his core argument in a certain faith in humanity, in our moral and intellectual capacity for elevation, making the evolution and flood of information an occasion to celebrate new opportunities and expand our limits, rather than to despair and disengage.

Full review here.

AN OPTIMIST’S TOUR OF THE FUTURE

After life threw comedian Mark Stevenson a curveball that made him face his own mortality, he spent a year traveling 60,000 miles across four continents and talked to scientists, philosophers, inventors, politicians and other thought leaders around the world, looking for an antidote to the dystopian visions for the technology-driven future of humanity so pervasive in today’s culture. He synthesized these fascinating insights in An Optimist’s Tour of the Future: One Curious Man Sets Out to Answer “What’s Next?” — an illuminating and refreshingly hopeful guide to our shared tomorrow.

From longevity science to robotics to cancer research, Stevenson explores the most cutting-edge ideas in science and technology from around the world, the important ethical and philosophical questions they raise and, perhaps most importantly, the incredible potential for innovation through the cross-pollination of these different ideas and disciplines.

This is a book that won’t tell you how to think about [the future], but will give you the tools to make up your mind about it. Whether you’re feeling optimistic or pessimistic about the future is up to you, but I do believe you should be fully informed about all the options we face. And one thing I became very concerned about is when we talk about the future, we often talk about it as damage and limitation exercise. That needn’t be the case — it could be a Renaissance.” ~ Mark Stevenson

An Optimist’s Tour of the Future comes as an auspicious yet grounded vision for what we’ve previously explored in discussing the future of the Internet and what the web is doing to our brains.

Full review here.

LIVE NOW

Keeping with the theme of optimism — because, really, who wants to dampen sunshine and the summer wind with another dystopian downer? — here’s a lovely project born, just like Stevenson’s, out of a stark confrontation with mortality. When illustrator Eric Smith was diagnosed with three different types of cancer, he decided to start a collaborative art project inviting people to live in the moment through beautiful, poetic, earnest artwork that celebrates life. This season, the project was published as a book, the candidly titled Live Now: Artful Messages of Hope, Happiness & Healing — an absolute treasure of Carpe Diem gold in the vein of Everything Is Going To Be OK, full of stunning illustration and design reminding us of what we all semi-secretly want to believe but the cynics in us all too often discount.

'Live Humbly' by Mikey Burton

'Break Your Routine' by Mikey Burton

'Overflowing Optimism' by Chad Kouri

Cancer changed the way I ate, slept, and most importantly the way I live. Before cancer I was like most folks, just cruising along. It was during my treatment, when starting to discover what cancer could give to me — the ability to absorb every moment as if each one were my whole life.” ~ Eric Smith

Kirstin Butler’s full review, with more images, here.

THE INTERNET OF ELSEWHERE

Barely halfway though, 2011 has already been one of the most tumultuous years for global politics and civic unrest in modern history. And the most dramatic changes have taken place in societies where emerging technology is disrupting how citizen relate to their government and one another. While countries like Libya and Egypt have been the eye of the media storm, some of the most fascinating effects of these shifts have been in countries still off the mainstream radar. In The Internet of Elsewhere: The Emergent Effects of a Wired World, California-born, Germany-based technology journalist Cyrus Farivar explores the role of the internet as a social, political and economic catalyst through compelling case studies from four unexpected countries: Iran, Estonia, South Korea, and Senegal.

From how Skype was invented in Estonia to why Senegal may be Sub-Saharan Africa’s best chance for widespread public Internet access to what makes South Korea the most wired country in the world, the book offers profiles of local tech pioneers alongside insightful analyses of cultural context and what the “developed world” can learn from these countries, in some cases years ahead in harnessing the sociopolitical virtues of web technology. And, in a meta move true to the subject matter, Farivar successfully funded the book’s European tour on Kickstarter.

The Internet is not, in fact, a seed. It does not have the ability to bring about world peace and the elimination of the nation-state, any more than the telegraph did. It is but a tool that, when combined effectively with local political and economic realities, can have demonstrably positive and often surprising effects. However, this tool can be co-opted and/or fought against by regimes that are not ready for it to be used freely. Other developing societies, too, may not be completely ready to use the Internet effectively. This is why manifestations of the Internet remain so varied in different corners of the globe. This book is an attempt to tell the story of what happens when the Internet collides, head-on, with history unfamiliar to most Americans.” ~ Cyrus Farivar

You can sample The Internet of Elsewhere by reading the fascinating 15-page introduction for free online.

A NEW CULTURE OF LEARNING

Reinventing the broken system of today’s formal education is one of our era’s most pressing cultural concerns. And while most conversations on the subject can be redundant, navel-gazy and ultimately ineffectual, Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown bring a refreshing perspective on the subject with equal parts insight, imagination and optimism. Besides being one of our 7 must-read books on education, their A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change is the most popular book featured on Brain Pickings this year, and for good reason — it makes a compelling case for a new kind of learning, one growing synchronously and fluidly with technology rather than resisting it with restless anxiety, a vision that falls somewhere between Sir Ken Robinson’s call for creativity in education paradigms and Clay Shirky’s notion of “cognitive surplus.”

We’re stuck in a mode where we’re using old systems of understanding learning to try to understand these new forms, and part of the disjoint means that we’re missing some really important and valuable data.” ~ Douglas Thomas

Full review, complete with video interviews with the authors, here.

THE FILTER BUBBLE

We live in a culture that puts a premium on customization, but this ultra-personalization has its price when it comes to the information we’re being served. That’s exactly what Eli Pariser, founder of public policy advocacy group MoveOn.org, explores in his fascinating and, depending on where you fall on the privacy spectrum, potentially unsettling new book, The Filter Bubble — a compelling deep-dive into the invisible algorithmic editing on the web, a world where we’re being shown more of what algorithms think we want to see and less of what we should see. (Did you know that Google takes into account 57 individual data points before serving you the results you searched for?) Implicitly, the book raises some pivotal questions about the future of the information economy and the balance between algorithm and curator — something I feel particularly strongly about.

In some ways, I think the primary purpose of an editor [is] to extend the horizon of what people are interested in and what people know. Giving people what they think they want is easy, but it’s also not very satisfying: the same stuff, over and over again. Great editors are like great matchmakers: they introduce people to whole new ways of thinking, and they fall in love.” ~ Eli Pariser

Full review, along with a revealing exclusive interview with Pariser, here.

The app itself is free, with various language pairs available for in-app purchase. The first pair released is Spanish-English, with more coming soon.

FLOURISH

Martin Seligman is best-known as the father of the positive psychology movement — a potent antidote to the traditional “disease model” of psychology, which focuses on how to relieve suffering rather than how to amplify well-being. His seminal book, Authentic Happiness, was one of our 7 must-read books on the art and science of happiness. This season, he has finally released his much-anticipated, and somewhat controversial, follow-up: Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being — a distinct departure from Seligman’s prior conception of happiness, which he now frames as overly simplistic and inferior to the higher ideal of lasting well-being.

Without being a self-help book, Flourish manages to offer insightful techniques to optimize yourself, your relationships and your business for well-being, based on empirical evidence culled from years of Seligman’s rigorous research.

Relieving the states that make life miserable… has made building the states that make life worth living less of a priority. The time has finally arrived for a science that seeks to understand positive emotion, build strength and virtue, and provide guideposts for finding what Aristotle called the ‘good life.’” ~ Martin Seligman

Full review, along with a primer by way of Seligman’s 2004 TED talk, here.

THE LATE AMERICAN NOVEL

The future of publishing is something I ponder daily. And while mainstream media was busy announcing the death of the book, The Millions founders Jeff Martin and C. Max Magee did something better: They assembled an all-star team of literary visionaries and asked them what the future of the written word holds. The results — funny, poignant, relentlessly thought-provoking — are gathered in The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books, spanning a remarkable array of perspectives and styles, from historical context to comic relief to the difficult questions that have to be asked.

Are we going to have to find new ways to get noticed? Yes. Do we get to find news ways to get noticed? Yes. Is it trouble? Yes. But trouble is the stuff of writing and creation. Time to shut up and get to the making, get back to that sense of play where everything interesting, including the future, finally fast and soon to be here, starts.” ~ Ander Monson

Kirstin Butler’s full review, with ample quotes from the book, here.

RADIOACTIVE

Marie Curie is one of the most extraordinary figures in the history of science. A pioneer in researching radioactivity, a field the very name for which she coined, she was not only the first woman to win a Nobel Prize but also the first person to win two Nobel Prizes, and in two different sciences at that, chemistry and physics. Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout is an endlessly beautiful cross-pollination of art and science, in which artist Lauren Redniss tells the story of Curie through the two invisible but powerful threads of her life: Radioactivity and romance. It’s a turbulent story — her passionate love with Pierre Curie (honeymoon on bicycles!), the epic discovery of radium and polonium, Pierre’s sudden death in a freak accident in 1906, Marie’s affair with physicist Paul Langevin, her coveted second Noble Prize — brimming with poignant reflections on the implications of Curie’s work more than a century later as we face ethically polarized issues like nuclear energy, radiation therapy in medicine, nuclear weapons and more.

To honor Curie’s spirit and legacy, Redniss rendered her poetic artwork in an obscure early-20th-century image printing process called cyanotype, critical to the discovery of both X-rays and radioactivity itself — a cameraless photographic technique in which paper is coated with light-sensitive chemicals. Once exposed to the sun’s UV rays, this chemically-treated paper turns a deep blue color. The text in the book is a unique typeface Redniss designed using the title pages of 18th- and 19th-century manuscripts from the New York Public Library archive. She named it Eusapia LR, for the croquet-playing, sexually ravenous Italian Spiritualist medium whose séances the Curies used to attend. The book’s cover is printed in glow-in-the-dark ink.

Full review, with more images and a TEDx talk by Redniss, here.

GOD BLESS YOU, DR. KEVORKIAN

In 1997, iconic writer Kurt Vonnegut pitched an idea to New York public radio station WNYC: He would conduct fictional interview with dead cultural luminaries and ordinary people through controlled near-death experiences courtesy of real-life physician-assisted suicide proponent Dr. Jack Kevorkian, allowing the author to access heaven, converse with his subjects, and leave before it’s too late. The producers loved the idea and Vonnegut churned out a number of 90-second segments “interviewing” anyone from Jesus to Hitler to Isaac Asimov. The interviews — funny, poignant, illuminating, timeless, profoundly human — are collected in God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian, a fantastic anthology playing on the title of Vonnegut’s 1965 novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, some of the best cultural satire of the past century.

During my most recently controlled near-death experience, I got to interview William Shakespeare. We did not hit it off. He said the dialect I spoke was the ugliest English he had ever heard, ‘fit to split the ears of groundlings.’ He asked if it had a name, and I said ‘Indianapolis.’” ~ Kurt Vonnegut

Full review, with a rare transcript from Vonnegut’s original pitch for the series to WNYC, here.

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11 APRIL, 2011

7 Must-Read Books on Education

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What the free speech movement of the 1960s has to do with digital learning and The Beatles.

Education is something we’re deeply passionate about, but the fact remains that today’s dominant formal education model is a broken system based on antiquated paradigms. While much has been said and written about education reform over the past couple of years, the issue and the public discourse around it are hardly new phenomena. Today, we round up the most compelling and visionary reading on reinventing education from the past century.

ISAAC ASIMOV: THE ROVING MIND

Earlier this year, we featured a fantastic Bill Moyers archival interview with Isaac Asimov, in which the iconic author and futurist echoes some of own beliefs in the power of curiosity-driven, self-directed learning and the need to implement creativity in education from the onset. These insights, and more, are eloquently captured in The Roving Mind — a compelling collection of 62 edifying essays on everything from creationism to censorship to the philosophy of science, in which Asimov predicts with astounding accuracy not only the technological developments of the future but also the complex public debates they have sparked, from cloning to stem-cell research. While intended to encourage young people to pursue a career in science, the book is both a homage to the inquisitive mind and a living manifesto for freedom of thought across all disciplines as the backbone of education and creativity.

Once we have computer outlets in every home, each of them hooked up to enormous libraries where anyone can ask any question and be given answers, be given reference materials, be something you’re interested in knowing, from an early age, however silly it might seem to someone else… that’s what YOU are interested in, and you can ask, and you can find out, and you can do it in your own home, at your own speed, in your own direction, in your own time… Then, everyone would enjoy learning. Nowadays, what people call learning is forced on you, and everyone is forced to learn the same thing on the same day at the same speed in class, and everyone is different.” ~ Isaac Asimov

SIR KEN ROBINSON: THE ELEMENT

Sir Ken Robinson’s blockbuster TED talks have become modern cerebral folklore, and for good reason — his insights on education and creativity, neatly delivered in punchy, soundbite-ready packages, are today’s loudest, most succinct rally cry for a much-needed revolution. That’s precisely what he does in The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything — a passionate celebration for the wide spectrum of human ability and creativity, which current educational models consistently limit and try to fit into predetermined boxes, extricating rather than encouraging young people’s unique abilities and talents. From Paul McCartney to Paulo Coehlo to Vidal Sassoon, Robinson demonstrates the power of properly harnessing innate creativity through fascinating case studies and personal stories, and offers a powerful vision for bringing this respect for natural talent to the world of education.

We have a system of education that is modeled on the interest of industrialism and in the image of it. School are still pretty much organized on factory lines — ringing bells, separate facilities, specialized into separate subjects. We still educate children by batches. Why do we do that?”

For an excellent complement to The Element, we highly recommend Robinson’s prior book, Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative — re-released last month, it offers a thoughtful and provocative analysis of the disconnect between the kinds of “intelligence” measured and encouraged in schools and the kinds of creativity most essential to our society moving forward.

A NEW CULTURE OF LEARNING

In A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change, Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown approach education with equal parts insight, imagination and optimism to deliver a refreshing vision for the relationship between education and technology, where the two progress synchronously and fluidly — a vision that falls somewhere between Sir Ken Robinson’s call for creativity in education paradigms and Clay Shirky’s notion of “cognitive surplus.” The book touches on a number of critical issues in digital learning, from the role of remix culture to the importance of tinkering and experimentation in creating, not merely acquiring, knowledge. Central to its premise is the idea that play is critical to understanding learning — a notion we stand strongly behind.

We’re stuck in a mode where we’re using old systems of understanding learning to try to understand these new forms, and part of the disjoint means that we’re missing some really important and valuable data.” ~ Douglas Thomas

Our full review here.

CLARK KERR: THE USES OF THE UNIVERSITY

To understand where formal education is going, we must first understand where it came from and what role it served in the cultural context of society. Clark Kerr’s The Uses of the University, originally published in 1963 and based on his Godkin Lectures at Harvard, is arguably the most important work on the purpose of educational institutions ever published. Kerr, an economist with a historian’s sensibility, coins the term “multiversity” at the dawn of the free speech movement of the 60s and examines the role of the university as a living organism of sociopolitical thought and activity. The book, as US Berkley’s Hanna Halborn Gray eloquently puts it, “describes the illnesses to which this organism might be prone, together with diagnoses and prognoses that might prove useful.”

What the railroads did for the second half of the last century and the automobile for the first half of this century may be done for the second half of this century by the knowledge industry: And that is, to serve as the focal point for national growth.” ~ Clark Kerr

ANYA KAMENETZ: DIYU

As big proponents of self-directed learning — the empowering pursuit of knowledge flowing organically from one’s innate curiosity and intellectual hunger — we’re all over Anya Kamenetz’s DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education — an ambitious, albeit slightly alarmist, look at the American higher education system and the flawed economic models at its foundation. Passionately argued and rigorously researched, the book exposes the greatest challenges to education reform and offers a glimmer of hope for new, more open and accessible models of education that transcend the institutional “credential mill” of traditional academia.

The promise of free or marginal-cost open-source content, techno-hybridization, unbundling of educational functions, and learner-centered educational experiences and paths is too powerful to ignore. These changes are inevitable. They are happening now. [...] However, these changes will not automatically become pervasive.” ~ Anya Kamenetz

KARL WEBER: WAITING FOR SUPERMAN

Waiting for “SUPERMAN”: How We Can Save America’s Failing Public Schools is the companion text to the excellent documentary of the same name, which we featured last year. It explores the human side of education statistics, following five exceptionally talented kids through a system that inhibits rather than inspires academic and intellectual growth. Unlike other fault-finders who fail to propose solutions, the narrative both mercilessly calls out a system full of “academic sinkholes” and “drop-out factories,” and reminds us of the transformational power that great educators have to ushers in true education reform. More than a mere observational argument, the book offers a blueprint for civic engagement with specific ways for parents, students, educators and businesspeople to get involved in driving the movement for quality education, including more than 30 pages’ worth of websites and organizations working towards this shared aspiration.

In America right now, a kid drops out of high school every 26 seconds. These drop-outs are 8 times more likely to go to prison, 50% less likely to vote, more likely to need social welfare assistance, not eligible for 90% of jobs, are being paid 40 cents to the dollar of earned by a college graduate, and continuing the cycle of poverty.”

HOWARD GARDNER: FIVE MINDS FOR THE FUTURE

Sociologist Howard Gardner, one of our all-time favorite nonfiction authors, is best-known as the father of the theory of multiple intelligences — a radical rethinking of human intellectual and creative ability, arguing that traditional psychometrics like IQ tests or the SAT fail to measure the full scope and diversity of intelligence. In Five Minds for the Future, Gardner’s highly anticipated follow-up published more than two decades later, the author presents a visionary and thought-provoking blueprint for mental abilities that will be most critical in the 21st century as we grapple with issues of information overload and creative entrepreneurship. Perhaps most notable, however, is Gardner’s insistence that the five minds he identifies — disciplined, synthesizing, creating, respectful and ethical — aren’t genetically encoded givens but, rather, abilities we actively develop and cultivate with time, thought and effort.

The synthesizing mind takes information from disparate sources, understands and evaluates that information objectively, and puts it together in ways that make sense to the synthesizer and also to other persons. Valuable in the past, the capacity to synthesize becomes ever more crucial as information continues to mount at dizzying rates.” ~ Howard Gardner

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07 APRIL, 2011

Skillshare: Decentralized Education for All

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A lot has been said about changing educational paradigms over the past year, but very little — if anything — has been done. According to our friends at Skillshare, whom you may recall as one of our favorite alternative education outposts for the lifelong learner and who just launched their online community, education isn’t something to pontificate about, write books on, or petition for; rather, it’s something to take into our own hands, a tool of decentralized empowerment rather than a hand-down at the mercy of centralized institutions. That’s precisely the sentiment captured in this beautifully animated video, which Skillshare microfunded on Kickstarter to mark the debut of the site:

Learning is not a product of schooling but the lifelong attempt to acquire it.” ~ Albert Einstein

The new Skillshare site is a portal for practical knowledge-sharing that offers a “marketplace to learn anything from anyone,” using the power of communities and networks to redefine our conception of education.

We believe that people care more about real-world skills than antiquated accreditation systems. Our communities are filled with these people who are great at what they do, whether it’s delivering a fantastic speech at a conference or baking a triple layer chocolate cake. Our vision is to unlock this knowledge and allow people to share their skills with those who want to learn them.”

We’re in. Are you?

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