Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘education’

08 MARCH, 2013

Synergetics and The Wellspring of Reality: Buckminster Fuller Against Specialization

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“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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08 MARCH, 2013

You Are Stardust: Teaching Kids About the Universe in Stunning Illustrated Dioramas

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“Every tiny atom in your body came from a star that exploded long before you were born.”

“Everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was … lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam,” Carl Sagan famously marveled in his poetic Pale Blue Dot monologue, titled after the iconic 1990 photograph of Earth. The stardust metaphor for our interconnection with the cosmos soon permeated popular culture and became a vehicle for the allure of space exploration. There’s something at once incredibly empowering and incredibly humbling in knowing that the flame in your fireplace came from the sun.

That’s precisely the kind of cosmic awe environmental writer Elin Kelsey and Toronto-based Korean artist Soyeon Kim seek to inspire in kids in You Are Stardust (public library) — an exquisite picture-book that instills that profound sense of connection with the natural world. Underpinning the narrative is a bold sense of optimism — a refreshing antidote to the fear-appeal strategy plaguing most environmental messages today.

Kim’s breathtaking dioramas, to which this screen does absolutely no justice, mix tactile physical materials with fine drawing techniques and digital compositing to illuminate the relentlessly wondrous realities of our intertwined existence: The water in your sink once quenched the thirst of dinosaurs; with every sneeze, wind blasts out of your nose faster than a cheetah’s sprint; the electricity that powers every thought in your brain is stronger than lightning.

But rather than dry science trivia, the message is carried on the wings of poetic admiration for these intricate relationships:

Be still. Listen.

Like you, the Earth breathes.

Your breath is alive with the promise of flowers.

Each time you blow a kiss to the world, you spread pollen that might grow to be a new plant.

The book is nonetheless grounded in real science. Kelsey notes:

I wrote this book as a celebration — one to honor the extraordinary ways in which all of us simply are nature. Every example in this book is backed by current science. Every day, for instance, you breathe in more than a million pollen grains.

But what makes the project particularly exciting is that, in the face of the devastating gender gap in science education, here is a thoughtful, beautiful piece of early science education presented by two women, the most heartening such example since Lauren Redniss’s Radioactive.

A companion iPad app features sound effects, animation, an original score by Paul Aucoin, behind-the-scenes glimpses of Kim’s process in creating her stunning 3D dioramas, and even build-your-own-diorama adventures.

Pair You Are Stardust with particle physicist and cosmologist Lawrence Krauss’s explanation to kids of why we are, indeed, all made of stardust.

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06 MARCH, 2013

Virginia Woolf on How to Read a Book

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“Do not dictate to your author; try to become him. Be his fellow-worker and accomplice.”

“The mind, the brain, the top of the tingling spine, is, or should be, the only instrument used upon a book,” Vladimir Nabokov wrote in his treatise on what makes a good reader. “Part of a reader’s job is to find out why certain writers endure,” advised Francine Prose in her guide to reading like a writer. “My encounters with books I regard very much as my encounters with other phenomena of life or thought. All encounters are configurate, not isolate.” Henry Miller confessed in his reflections on a lifetime of reading. But how, exactly, does one read a book, and read it well? That’s precisely what Virginia Woolf addressed in a 1925 essay titled “How Should One Read a Book?,” found in The Second Common Reader (public library; public domain) — the same collection of 26 exquisite essays that gave us Woolf’s critique of criticism and a Literary Jukebox treat.

Woolf begins with the same disclaimer of subjectivity that John Steinbeck issued half a century later in his six timeless tips on writing. She writes:

The only advice … that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions. If this is agreed between us, then I feel at the liberty to put forward a few ideas and suggestions because you will not allow them to fetter that independence which is the most important quality that a reader can possess. After all, what laws can be laid down about books? The battle of Waterloo was certainly fought on a certain day; but is Hamlet a better play than Lear? Nobody can say. Each must decide that question for himself. To admit authorities, however heavily furred and gowned, into our libraries and let them tell us how to read, what to read, what value to place upon what we read, is to destroy the spirit of freedom which is the breath of those sanctuaries. Everywhere else we may be bound by laws and conventions — there we have none.

She cautions against bringing baggage and pre-conceived notions to your reading:

[F]ew people ask from books what books can give us. Most commonly we come to books with blurred and divided minds, asking of fiction that it shall be true, of poetry that it shall be false, of biography that it shall be flattering, of history that it shall enforce our own prejudices. If we could banish all such preconceptions when we read, that would be an admirable beginning. Do not dictate to your author; try to become him. Be his fellow-worker and accomplice. If you hang back, and reserve and criticize at first, you are preventing yourself from getting the fullest possible value from what you read. But if you open your mind as widely as possible, then signs and hints of almost imperceptible fineness, from the twist and turn of the first sentences, will bring you into the presence of a human being unlike any other. Steep yourself in this, acquaint yourself with this and soon you will find that your author is giving you, or attempting to give you, something far more definite.

Woolf reminds us of the osmotic skills of reading and writing:

Perhaps the quickest way to understand the elements of what a novelist is doing is not to read, but to write; to make your own experiment with the dangers and difficulties with words.

To exercise the imagination, she argues, is itself a special skill:

To read a novel is a difficult and complex art. You must be capable not only of great fineness of perception, but of great boldness of imagination if you are going to make use of all that the novelist — the great artist — gives you.

As a hopeless lover of old diaries and letters, I was particularly taken with Woolf’s insight into the appeal of such literary voyeurism — especially given Woolf was a notable diarist herself:

How far, we must ask ourselves, is a book influenced by its writer’s life — how far is it safe to let the man interpret the writer? How far shall we resist or give way to the sympathies and antipathies that the man himself rouses in us — so sensitive are words, so receptive of the character of the author? These are questions that press upon us when we read lives and letters, and we must answer them for ourselves, for nothing can be more fatal than to be guided by the preferences of others in a matter so personal.

But also we can read such books with another aim, not to throw light on literature, not to become familiar with famous people, but to refresh and exercise our own creative powers.

Woolf moves on to the intricacies of poetry, adding to other famous meditations on what a poem is and what makes it good:

The impact of poetry is so hard and direct that for the moment there is no other sensation except that of the poem itself. What profound depths we visit then — how sudden and complete is our immersion! There is nothing here to catch hold of; nothing to stay us in our flight. … The poet is always our contemporary. Our being for the moment is centered and constricted, as in any violent shock of personal emotion. Afterwards, it is true, the sensation begins to spread in wider rings through our minds; remoter senses are reached; these begin to sound and to comment and we are aware of echoes and reflections. The intensity of poetry covers an immense range of emotion.

But despite this mystical mesmerism of the experience itself, Woolf reminds us, the true gift of reading takes place in that incubation period wherein ephemeral impressions become integrated and manifest as deeper ideas:

The first process, to receive impressions with the utmost understanding, is only half the process of reading; it must be completed, if we are to get the whole pleasure from a book, by another. We must pass judgement upon those multitudinous impressions; we must make of these fleeting shapes one that is hard and lasting. But not directly. Wait for the dust of reading to settle; for the conflict and the questioning to die down; walk, talk, pull the dead petals from a rose, or fall asleep. Then suddenly without our willing it, for it is thus that Nature undertakes these transitions, the book will return, but differently. It will float to the top of the mind as a whole.

In a testament to the notion that all creativity builds on what came before, echoing her own teenage insight on imitation and the arts and resonating with Henry Miller’s contention that “the vast body of literature, in every domain, is composed of hand-me-down ideas,” Woolf observes:

[W]e may be sure that the newness of new poetry and fiction is its most superficial quality and that we have only to alter slightly, not to recast, the standards by which we have judged the old.

She argues — beautifully — for the cultivation of taste, a concept we’ve seen paralleled in science, pointing to the very tuning of this compass for excellence as the ultimate existential reward of the art of reading:

It would be foolish … to pretend that the second part of reading, to judge, to compare, is as simple as the first — to open the mind wide to the fast flocking of innumerable impressions. To continue reading without the book before you, to hold one shadow-shape against another, to have read widely enough and with enough understanding to make such comparisons alive and illuminating — that is difficult; it is still more difficult to press further and to say, ‘Not only is the book of this sort, but it is of this value; here it fails; here it succeeds; this is bad; that is good.’ To carry out this part of a reader’s duty needs such imagination, insight, and learning that it is hard to conceive any one mind sufficiently endowed; impossible for the most self-confident to find more than the seeds of such powers in himself. Would it not be wiser, then, to remit this part of reading and to allow the critics, the gowned and furred authorities of the library, to decide the question of the book’s absolute value for us? Yet how impossible! We may stress the value of sympathy; we may try to sink our won identity as we read. But we know that we cannot sympathize wholly or immerse ourselves wholly; there is always a demon in us who whispers, ‘I hate, I love,’ and we cannot silence him. Indeed, it is precisely because we hate and we love that our relation with the poets and novelists is so intimate that we find the presence of another person intolerable. And even if the results are abhorrent and our judgments are wrong, still our taste, the nerve of sensation that sends shocks through us, is our chief illuminant; we learn through feeling; we cannot suppress our own idiosyncrasy without impoverishing it. But as time goes on perhaps we can train our taste; perhaps we can make it submit to some control. When it has fed greedily and lavishly upon books of all sorts — poetry, fiction, history, biography — and has stopped reading and looked for long spaces upon the variety, the incongruity of the living world, we shall find that it is changing a little; it is not so greedy, it is more reflective.

In a passing remark, as she frequently does, Woolf articulates a truth that extends far beyond literature and applies to just about every aspect of life:

[N]othing is easier and more stultifying than to make rules which exist out of touch with facts, in a vacuum.

One of her most important points deals with the collective influence we exert as an audience on the nature and quality of what is being written:

[I]f to read a book as it should be read calls for the rarest qualities of imagination, insight, and judgment, you may perhaps conclude that literature is a very complex art and that it is unlikely that we shall be able, even after a lifetime of reading, to make any valuable contribution to its criticism. We must remain readers; we shall not put on the further glory that belongs to those rare beings who are also critics. But still we have our responsibilities as readers and even our importance. The standards we raise and the judgments we pass steal into the air and become part of the atmosphere which writers breathe as they work. An influence is created which tells upon them even if it never finds its way into print.

This point, while timeless, is timelier than ever today, when we choose — with our clicks, with our subscriptions, with our sharing, with your loyalty — the types of writing and media that get produced. At a time when the reader is being reduced to a monetizable pageview-eyeball, there’s only so much pagination, so much “sponsored content,” and so many slideshows we can take — the hope is that slowly, if painfully, the media landscape will begin to shift to reflect, and respect, the art of reading and begin to treat the reader as a true “fellow-worker and accomplice.”

Woolf reminds us, gently yet assertively, of the value of the amateur in driving culture forward:

If behind the erratic gunfire of the press the author felt that there was another kind of criticism, the opinion of people reading for the love of reading, slowly and unprofessionally, and judging with great sympathy and yet with great severity, might this improve the quality of his work?

Ultimately, Woolf — an eloquent champion of the joy of reading — considers reading not a means to some intellectual end, but an intellectual and creative reward in itself:

I have sometimes dreamt, at least, that when the Day of Judgment dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their rewards — their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble — the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when He sees us coming with our books under our arms, ‘Look, those need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.’

Complement The Second Common Reader with a history of reading.

Stacks image courtesy Cincinnati Public Library; remaining public domain images via Flickr Commons

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27 FEBRUARY, 2013

Sister Corita Kent’s Timeless Rules for Learning and Life, Hand-Lettered by Lisa Congdon

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“It’s the people who do all of the work all the time who eventually catch on to things.”

Last year, while knee-deep in the fantastic recent John Cage biography, a stray strand of related research led me to a wonderful ten-point compendium of advice for students and teachers, misattributed to John Cage but in factuality created by artist and educator Sister Corita Kent for a class she taught at Immaculate Heart College in 1967-1968, originally titled Immaculate Heart College Art Department Rules and lettered by David Mekelburg.

Over the months that followed, I was overwhelmed with emails from readers — mostly educators, some students — asking how and where they could purchase a print of the list for their classrooms and homes. Unable to find anything online, I decided to ask artist Lisa Congdon — my collaborator in the Reconstructionists project celebrating notable women and a master of exquisite lettering — to create a modern version of Sister Corita’s rules. Perhaps naively, I thought we’d make a beautiful large-format letterpress print of it, offer it up for people to buy, and donate all proceeds to the Corita Art Center — a seeming win-win.

Alas, the folks at the Center were less than amenable and slashed the idea. But Lisa, at the time confined to bed recovering from surgery, illustrated the list anyway, if only for our own delight. Now, she’s posted it online — and though still not available as a print, it’s here for your digital delight as well:

Sister Corita’s original list can be found in the altogether wonderful Learning by Heart: Teachings to Free the Creative Spirit (public library).

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