Archive for April, 2010

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I’m so right and you’re all wrong etc.

April 27, 2010

Via Dmitry Orlov, Ran has this comment on this blog “that when we map our systems of thought onto reality, we always crash and burn”  and I’m wondering if they haven’t stumbled onto something exceedingly important here. I’ve always had a nagging feeling that I shouldn’t get too carried away with my own theories about the world and have sarcastically called one of the categories on this blog ‘Big Ideas’. It’s a (possibly futile) attempt to stop my ego from leading me astray in regard to just how insightful I think I really am.

I talked about John Holt in my last post and I’ve just been reading a couple of brilliant little books by him; “How Children Fail” & “How Children Learn”. How Children Fail was his first book and is little more than a collection of notes he made while observing children in classrooms. Often no more than two pages long each piece starts with a description of something he had observed in a classroom followed by his thoughts on what might have caused the educational failure. It was a very humble thing for an educator to do, to just sit and observe children without trying to make them do anything and I found it absolutely riveting.

I was very surprised to be this gripped by a book again. It’s been 5 years since I last felt like this about a book (when I read my first anti-civ writing)  and since then I’ve got so overloaded with serious reading that I just can’t take any more – and indeed when I tried to read a 3rd John Holt book, in which he tries to lay out all his theories in a coherent manner, I was immediately turned off.

There’s a lot to be said for the observational style (that John Holt adopted in his first two books) which enables the reader to experience what the writer originally experienced, thereby gifting us the opportunity to draw our own conclusions rather then just relying on his.

I think that (possibly) by chance he was practicing what he was preaching because he says quite clearly in those two books that a major failing of schools is that they attempt to teach using symbols (language) rather than letting children have the real-life experiences that their brains are designed to learn from. This fact – that we can’t use symbols until we’re mastered the real life events they represent – is probably why so many adults I know think that even basic maths* is beyond them.

My hope is that the lessons I’ve learned from John Holt will stick with we far better than if he’d just told me what he thought those lessons should have been. And indeed, the experiences he has passed on to me can now combine with my other past experiences, giving me the chance to reach a whole bunch of conclusions that he never could have imagined possible – such as what’s coming out in the blog posting (I hope).

Other experiences that I’ve had that feed into this for me include recently reading two books on architectural theory, one of which carefully listed each theory in order of category and the other of which simply threw some case studies together and mentioned the theories in the text if they were relevant. Obviously having a mental picture of an entire house was far more useful for retaining information than the categorised system that the (same) author had gone to a lot of trouble to devise.

Then there was yesterday’s experience, after reading this Noam Chomsky  article I perused the comments section which turned out to be dominated by people accusing Chomsky of various crimes most of which were that he didn’t hold to the exact same ideology that the commenter did. The irony of course is that a mainstream person would see no discernable difference between Chomsky’s stated views and those of his attackers but to the attackers those differences in emphasis (of how powerful people use the world to their own ends) were of supreme importance. I left a scathing comment about how the need for ideological purity was destroying our unity and left (In all honesty I should admit that I only read about a fifth of the comments before it all became too much for me).

Why I bring this experience to the table is that I think schools are producing a bunch of people who are adept at symbol manipulation and not much else. They are rewarded for their abilities and encouraged to dwell in an intellectual world. They also learn by implication that their ability to manipulate abstractions means that they are a higher class of citizen and that they are usually always right – and lets face it, once a person becomes proficient at acquiring grades, and so long as they keep away from other life experiences (or devalue their importance), they do keep keep hearing that they are right where it matters most.

If we receive this message all through childhood and in to early adulthood it’s unlikely that we’ll ever lose the feeling of infallibility that most of us have. We then come across a theory of how the world works (e.g. Anarchism, Primitivism, Deep Christian Theology), tinker with it a bit, decide it holds all the answers and attempt to convert everyone to our way of thinking. All the while not noticing that a) while the world is going to hell in a hand basket we’re busy fighting amongst ourselves about minor ideological differences and that b) the real reason for our disagreements have more to do with our own personal issues than anything the abstractions we disagree on

Of course, that’s just my brief theory, it won’t map to the world perfectly either . The problems amongst leftists/activists/primitivists/anarchists etc that I refer to above can also be attributed to issues discussed in the Unabomber Manifesto, ironically enough another theory propounded by someone who thought he had all the answers and therefore the right to bring them to the world’s attention at any cost.

* Not a typo, that’s how we say ‘math’ down here.

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Mis-spent Youth

April 6, 2010

I’ve been reading some of John Holt’s early books on childhood education and something he said has been on my mind this morning. He says that schools attempt to conduct learning though symbols (i.e. spoken or written language) rather than tangible experience, and because of that most children won’t fully understand what they’ve learned – if indeed they are able to understand or learn anything at all.

This is an issue worthy of several blog postings in itself but right now I’m wondering about how it fits into the whole issue of alienation in our society. I always thought that much of the damage done by schools was caused by children being taught to rely on authority to do their thinking for them instead of developing their own judgement. Certainly this must contribute to alienation and disconnection as people stop listening to their own inner voice but thanks to John Holt’s analysis of this kind of learning I can see that a childhood being taught first to manipulate symbols and then being further taught about the world via those symbols (as opposed to the tangible experience we are supposed to have) can only serve to disconnect us further from reality.  Talk about a mis-spent youth

Modern man has disappeared inside his own head says Ursula Le Guin (or he’s disappeared up his own %#&$^ as they’d say around here). Those that become successful at learning via symbols go on to successful careers manipulating them, all the while losing touch with the people around them (especially those on the lower rungs of society that aren’t good at manipulating symbols such as cleaners, labourers, rubbish collectors and their own children). Those that are really successful at manipulating symbols but forget how to operate in the real world go on to be university lecturers and lose touch with reality altogether.

Of course symbols are essential for communicating but the key, according to John Holt, is that we need to learn about things via real experiences and then move on to manipulating their symbols and any theories that may come from them. By rewarding those that learn to manipulate symbols disconnected from reality and giving them great power in our culture……well…. just look around you to see the results of that.

I realise that by saying this I’m probably insulting most of the people who are likely to read this (as well as myself) but really are we intellectuals as smart as we think we are? The people who fail to operate in the world of symbols from an early enough age tend to conclude (well, they get told) that they must be stupid and give up thinking altogether so it’s not like there’s anything much to compare ourselves to.

* Not entirely sure I got the Le Guin quote word perfect there but I’m sure you know what I mean.