Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

27 OCTOBER, 2011

Learners Will Inherit the Earth: Alistair Smith on Fixing Education

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How to get unstuck, or why being a learner is infinitely better than being a knower.

We’ve previously explored the brokenness of educational paradigms and 10 essential books to rethink education. Now, from the fantastic Do Lectures, one of our 10 favorite cross-disciplinary conferences, comes this brilliant and brave talk on why we need to change the way we learn by Alistair Smith, accelerated learning pioneer and one of the UK’s leading innovators in new learning methods. From the importance of pattern recognition in learning to the practice of practice to smart uses of physical space, Smith — whose book, High Performers: The Secrets of Successful Schools is a fine addition to the essential education reading list — lays out a thoughtful blueprint for reclaiming learning back from the institutionalized and dysmorphic grip of education.

At times of change, the learners are the ones who will inherit the world, while the knowers will be beautifully prepared for a world which no longer exists.”

Getting stuck is not a problem. Staying stuck is. Good learners practice getting unstuck, and here’s how: Turn that around — praise for progress, don’t praise for perfection.”

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27 OCTOBER, 2011

What Is a Person?

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What remix culture and philosophy have to do with personhood in the age of synthetic biology.

We’ve previously explored three different disciplines’ perspectives on what it means to be human and a neuroscientist’s search for the self. But what, exactly, is a person? That’s exactly what sociologist Christian Smith examines in What Is a Person?: Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and the Moral Good from the Person Up — a fascinating and ambitious meditation on the grand existential question, the answer to which determines our view of our selves, our expectations of others, and our conception of what makes a good society, arguing that much of contemporary theory and thought on personhood is incomplete, short-sighted, misguided even.

Equal parts critical and constructive, Smith confronts the basic paradox of the social sciences — their preoccupation with describing and analyzing human activities, cultures, and social structures but falling short on the core understanding of the human condition — and tackles the four fundamental flaws of social science in defining personhood.

Impoverished is he who can predict economic trends but who does not well understand his own self.” ~ Christian Smith

(Economic bonus: Amazon has a deal on the Kindle edition, currently available for $4.95 — a sixth of the analog version.)

The first disconnect Smith addresses is that of social science theories, despite their interesting and illuminating propositions about social life, failing to fully represent our actual dimensions as human beings.

When we look at the models of the human operative in, say, exchange theory, social control theory, rational choice, functionalism, network theory, evolutionary theory, sociobiology, or sociological Marxism, we may recognize certain aspects of our lives in them. Otherwise the theories would feel completely alien and implausible to us. But I suspect that few of us recognize in those theories what we understand to be most important about our own selves as people. Something about them fails to capture our deep subjective experience as persons, crucial dimensions of the richness of our own lived lives, what thinkers in previous ages might have called our ‘souls’ or ‘hearts.'” ~ Christian Smith

The second disjoint deals with the gap between the social sciences’ depiction of human beings and the moral and political beliefs that many social scientists embrace as individuals, yet few of their theories actually reflect those beliefs.

Much theory portrays humans as essentially governed by external social influences, competing socially for material resources, strategically manipulating public presentations of the self, struggling with rivals for power and status, cobbling identities through fluid assemblies of scripted roles, rationalizing actions with post hoc discursive justifications, and otherwise behaving, thinking, and feeling in ways that are commonly predictable by variable attributes and categories according to which their lives can be broken down, measured, and statistically modeled.” ~ Christian Smith

Smith’s third focal point explores sociologists’ preoccupation with conceptualizing social structures at the expense of understanding what actually gave rise to them, or how the nature of individual personhood effects them.

Much of sociology simply takes social structures for granted and focuses instead on how they shape human outcomes… A good theory of the origins of social structures needs to be rooted in a larger theory about the nature of human persons.” ~ Christian Smith

Lastly, Smith takes on what’s perhaps the greatest gap of all — our modern uncertainties about the human self and person as we grapple with concepts like humanoid robotics, synthetic biology, and other technology-driven facets of mankind’s evolution.

In the wake of the postmodernist critique from the humanities in the face of the rapidly growing power of biotechnology and genetic engineering in the natural sciences, many people today stand uncertain about the meaning or lucidity of the very notion of a coherent self or person, unclear about what a person essentially is or might be whose dignity might be worth preserving, as technological capabilities to reconfigure the human expand.” ~ Christian Smith

But my favorite part has to be Smith’s nod to remix culture as applied to intellectual inquiry and the sciences, demonstrating the power of the idea-mashup in the style of the Medieval florilegium.

There is nothing new under the sun. And so the case I build contains no particularly novel ideas… I mostly weave together certain perspectives and insights that others have already expressed.” ~ Christian Smith

Above all, Smith debunks the idea that science, morality, politics, and philosophy are separate matters that don’t, and needn’t, intersect — a byproduct of the ill-conceived model demanding the social sciences emulate the natural sciences. What Is a Person? is thus as much a compelling case for cross-disciplinary curiosity as it is a testament to the power of the synthesizer as a storyteller, weaving together existing ideas to illuminate the subject for a new angle and in richer light.

HT my mind on books

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26 OCTOBER, 2011

Books: A Living History

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From book-burning to the iPad, or what Pompeii has to do with Gutenberg and the future of reading.

Books are a tremendous presence and inspiration around here — we’ve previously explored how they’ve been made from the Middle Ages to today, what the future might have in store for them, and why analog books still enchant us. In Books: A Living History, Australian historian Martyn Lyons (of A History of Reading and Writing in the Western World fame) explores how books became one of the most efficient and enduring information technologies ever invented — something we seem to forget in an era plagued by techno-dystopian alarmism about the death of books.

It is difficult now to imagine how some of the great turning points in Western history could have been achieved without [the book]. The Renaissance, the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment all relied on the printed word for their spread and permanent influence. For two and a half millennia, humanity used the book, in its manuscript or printed form, to record, to administer, to worship and to educate.” ~ Martyn Lyon

Illustration from 1889 showing three women reading the three successive volumes of a novel, possibly borrowed from a circulating library

Illustrated London News Ltd / Mary Evans Picture

Bibliotheca Alexandrina

Yves Gellie / Corbis

Defining the book itself is a risky operation. I prefer to be inclusive rather than exclusive, and so I offer a very loose definition. The book, for example, does not simply exist as a bound text of sheets of printed paper — the traditional codex with which we are most familiar today. Such a definition forgets two millennia of books before print, and the various forms that textual communication took before the codex was invented.

A traditional definition based only on the codex would also exclude hypertext and the virtual book, which have done away with the book’s conventional material support. I prefer to embrace all these forms, from cuneiform script to the printed codex to the digitized electronic book, and to trace the history of the book as far back as the invention of writing systems themselves. The term ‘book’, then, is a kind of shorthand that stands for many forms of written textual communication adopted in past societies, using a wide variety of materials.” ~ Martyn Lyons

A 5th-century mosaic from the mausoleum of Empress Galla Placidia in Ravenna

akg-images / Cameraphoto

A fresco at Pompeii depicting a woman browsing through a scroll

From the first papyrus scrolls to the painstakingly made illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages to today’s ebooks and the iPad, Lyons distills the history and evolution of books in the context of a parallel cultural evolution and, as in the case of Gutenberg’s printing press, revolution.

The library at Haeinsa Temple in Korea houses the Tripitaka Koreana

Leonard de Selva / Corbis

Amman woodcuts showing a compositor with his composing stick and two-page forme, and printers and bookbinders at work

Navigating through 2,000 gloriously illustrated years of literary milestones, genres, and groundswells, from serial and dime novels to paperbacks to manga, Lyons ends with a bittersweet contemplation of the fate of the book and the bibliophile after the turn of the digital century.

A reading scene by George Morland (1763-1804) entitled Domestic Happiness

Christi’s Images / Bridgeman Art Library

In this hand-colored engraving by British humorist Thomas Rowlandson, a writer has some difficulty in persuading a bookseller to accept his manuscript

British Museum, London

The frontispiece to a 1786 edition of the Index of Prohibited Books, showing books being burned

Bridgeman Art Library

Calmann-Lèvy’s bookshop on the fashionable Boulevard des Italiens in Paris

Stefano Blanchetti / Corbis

Both a cultural time-capsule and an encyclopedia of bibliophilia, Books: A Living History is an invaluable record of our collective intellectual and informational journey across two millennia of written language and a profound peer into its future.

Images courtesy of Getty Publications // HT my mind on books

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