Happy Independence Day!

Happy Independence Day! Today, I don’t narrowly celebrate the liberation of the US colonies from Britain; I celebrate freedom itself.

I celebrate you who manage to find education in school, and God in the Church or the Temple, despite those preaching conformity, literalism, learned dependence, and xenophobia. I celebrate those who, with humility, wisdom, and courage, strive to connect others to their own best ways of seeing and their own joy.

Freedom and tyranny are all around us, and can be found through the same doors. Let’s not stake our quest for facts on our aesthetics. Let’s not mistake what is for what ought to be, or for what exists in the world for what exists in a realm of perfected truth. Let’s help each other find his or her unique freedom, or get out of each other’s way.

The popular quote from Corinthians is meaningless to me without the qualification from Ursula Le Guin.

“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” –1 Corinthians 13:11

“The creative adult is the child who survived…. An adult is not a dead child, but a child who survived.” –Ursula Le Guin

Many adults are not children who survived intact. They are beaten, scared, and submissive to a task master installed in their minds.

Tolkien put it better than I could: “Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape?. . . If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!”

Lord, let me learn something new today about freedom. Let me better connect with other people while strengthening my connection with myself. Again: Happy Independence Day!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Epistemological Modes and the Dialectical Process

“An enlightened person seeks convergence in their thinking, not compartmentalization. They’re always looking toward the next synthesis.” So this seems to be the argument people are making against recognizing that science, politics, and art are separate modes — or attitudes — on a topic. Is this a thesis-antithesis situation? Can we make a synthesis?

Yes. The apparent contradiction is not real. Dialectic and dilatory are not the same thing. Making a synthesis and never defining the thesis are not the same thing. You cannot make a coherent thesis until you identify the mode in which you are operating. How do we square your idea of God with mine? We can’t do it by dominating the other person. We can’t do it through logic unless sharing the discoveries of logic opens us up to shared emotional experience. We experience God in the aesthetic mode. If we are there and open to each other’s humanity, we can pursue understanding and convergence.

If we are in the political mode, the mode of policy-making and persuasion once we’ve made up our own minds, then we cannot attempt a synthesis with someone still in the mode of questioning and discovery, unless we back out of the political mode.

If we are in the political mode, we cannot form a synthesis with the aesthetic mode. “The Nazi flag is pretty!” “How monstrous, it’s a symbol of genocidal hate!” These statements must be resolved with awareness of their respective modes.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Covid False Dichotomy

I wrote this on Facebook on May 17th, but it’s still mostly relevant six weeks later.

I’m more interested in suggesting how we think about this pandemic than what we should think. I see a lot of people sharing what we should think. Here’s how I think about it.

1.) Our goal should be to minimize death and suffering. So if we can agree on that premise, then we’re good to go on; otherwise, we need to get clarity here.

2.) If we’re good with the idea of minimizing death and suffering, we need to weigh the death and suffering of the virus itself against the death and suffering that results from lockdown measures.

3.) We have more options than complete anarchy versus lockdown enforced through martial law. However, our options change depending on the scenario we find ourselves in.

Is it possible to contain and eliminate the virus like the world did with SARS? Probably not. Is it possible to maintain the rate of infection to a low-enough level that we do not overburden our healthcare infrastructure. Probably so. Will we have a vaccine within a year? No. Will we have a vaccine soon enough that we can afford to pay people to stay home in the meantime? Highly doubtful. Is it worth extending the lockdown to give us time to ramp up testing and contact tracing? It might be if Americans would cooperate with contact-tracing.

So here’s where Trump and his progeny have been less than useless. The timelines of their confident predictions do not match up rationally with the policy they advocate. If we’re going to end this with a vaccine within the year, as Trump has suggested, or if this is going to go away after November 3, as Eric has suggested, then the most rational way to minimize death, suffering, _and_ economic impact is by paying a livable wage to everyone deemed a nonessential worker so that they can stay home, while we organize lockdown at the national level. Our national infrastructure includes the brain trust and carefully built machinery of small business. If we can support it but we don’t, the longterm economic cost will be unnecessarily high.

The federal government could _try_ to save lives by putting all nonessential workers on paid furlough until the end of the year and then see where we’re at. but it probably won’t, because it seems few people believe the expenditure will ultimately save lives or reduce suffering.

So what do we do? We act rationally within the uncertainty boundaries of our data and our reading of the political landscape. Of course, doing that requires strong, decisive leadership.

Can a rational person defend Trump? No. It’s clear that his ad hoc approach to this virus, consistent with a mindset of pathological self-interest, has been counterproductive. I’m not mentioning this primarily to campaign against Trump but as a point of basic reasoning: appealing to tribal divisions in order to make space for plausible deniability can only maximize the death and suffering: it ensures that the most counterproductive instincts of both left and right will hold sway. On the right, basic signs of social responsibility and science-based concern are rendered liberal call signs; the same for the left in regard to the right with any sane, context-based loosening of lockdown restrictions. Individual governors cannot set policy for half the country, so we normalize only the grossest, most prejudiced reactions.

So, again, what do we do? Individually, we can reject taking one side or the other of a false dichotomy. We can share ideas outside this narrative. Should the government force meatpackers back to work by denying them unemployment? On the one hand, we’ve got people being effectively conscripted into a dangerous fight. On the other, think of all that wasted meat!

Or come up with another hand. Why can’t we allow people in covid-compromised facilities to be treated as laid off, where they’ll still be obliged to seek employment elsewhere to receive benefits? Why can’t we have government-subsidized hazard pay to entice people to work the jobs deemed essential, at least until plant safety measures have proven effective over a reasonable period of time? Why do we go along with a simplistic freedom narrative that runs counter to the very idea of promoting individual choice in a free market?

Our void of national leadership will no doubt be filled with mandates imposed by the virus itself. Protect the people around you however you deem best, according to reason rather than partisanship. And if you think I’m being a hypocrite in regard to Trump, I get it, but I’m actually not attacking his behavior out of political allegiance or animus. If you can offer a simpler explanation, I’m open to it.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Education Is the Job

When I was young, I had this idea of education preparing me for a career with established parameters, a kind of ready-made slot, and I really didn’t want to be slotted. “Writer” seemed like a good career, because it fit my aptitude, I admired good writing, and it seemed like a way to avoid getting stuck in other people’s expectations, which seemed a kind of hell to me.

I used to get very irritated with my fellow classmates who’d ask the teacher “How will we use this in the real world?” I saw they lacked imagination, and if they had to ask the question, then they’d forever be dependent on other people. The teacher invariably replied, “It depends what career you pursue.” This answer filled me with vague dread that I didn’t examine too closely. A better, yet still poor, answer would have been “It will give you options in what career to pursue.”

But the bounds of this discussion reflected outmoded thinking. It did not factor in technology.

Why did women’s education and feminism become a major force in the twentieth century? Because women suddenly realized they wanted more autonomy? No. Emphatically not. It happened because technology potentiated it, specifically medical technology that saved the lives of women and children during labor, and preserved the lives of children so that every woman did not have to have half a dozen children for population replacement. Secondarily, but maybe just as important, it was due to the advent of reliable birth control. Without those preconditions, feminism would always be constrained by biology. I don’t wish to debate feminism. I’m just using it as an example of how technology changes society and people’s options.

In the twenty-first century, the reason to pursue education is not to fit a career; it’s to enable you to adapt to an un-guessable future, to see opportunities, and to cobble together your own idiosyncratic career. “Career” is best viewed as an illusion. Everything now is education. You want to be a doctor? Best to consider “doctor” as a kind of educational track rather than a career track. Want to be an engineer? Are we talking about a kind of certification called “engineer” or are we talking about someone educated in certain kinds of engineering, and either way, is it something you get paid for? And art, music, and philosophy may be an indispensable component of that “engineering” education. All disciplines are really different modalities of a unified knowledge. Their separation is another illusion.

Then we have academic (or theoretical) and technical skills. These too are different modalities of the same thing, and I’d argue that if you are not a technician to some extent, creating products of use to other people, then your education is severely impoverished. Academic and technical training divorced from each other is like mouse input and keyboard input divorced from each other, or music theory and intuitive musicianship divorced from each other, or writing and editing divorced from each other: you may become proficient in one mode, but you will be exponentially more powerful if you combine them.

“How will we use this in the real world?” You’re in the real world, right now, even in grade school, high school, or college. There is education that the state pays for, there’s education you pay for, and there’s education you get paid for. That’s it. What kind of education do you want to pursue? The more education of all kinds you get, the more options you’ll have for different types of education later on — that is, the better you’ll be able to answer the question of what kind of education you want to pursue for leading a fulfilling life, which, in a capitalist society at least, will partly involve the issue of getting paid.

Nominally, I have been a writer, editor, programmer, CEO, and technology consultant, but what I really am is educated in a way that lets me move among those roles.
If you want to think about education leading to a job, you’re probably thinking the wrong way. Technology is redefining jobs too fast. For me, this was true even in the eighties, because I did not want to be slotted in a certain career.

But soon it will be true for everyone.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Our Viral Moment

When will we get back to normal? Never. We’ll achieve a new normal, but it won’t be the old one.

This is our Red Pill viral moment.

In 1999, The Matrix explored our condition metaphorically: the machines would have given us comfort, but human beings need more than comfort; they need work and a sense of purpose. So the mechanical vampires gave us the rat race, a plausible lie, a virtual-reality Veil of Maya. As hard science fiction it was hopeless, but as social commentary, it’s still timely: the Machine is self-serving and self-perpetuating, employing humans as dupes and quislings.

The virus has gotten into the Machine and stopped it. So where do we go now? First, let’s be clear about what we’re looking at. Strong libertarianism is a mushroom-cloud landscape of exploded brains, fissioning with cognitive dissonance. Communism is unlikely to work — the Machine tried that too.

We need to slow down and think, reflect on how we’ve been pawns of this collective, amoral force, and then build a new community that uses its powerful machines rather than lets itself be used by them. The air is briefly clean right now. The Machine treated the air as worthless, but we see it’s priceless. That’s the tragedy of the Machine and its sustaining ethos — it can set a clear price on gilded towers, but not on clean air and water, and society, and sanity.

The Machine has stopped. Let’s take control before it reboots a version of the old program.

Posted in HIgh Tech, Philosophy, Politics, Social Media, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The VR Diaspora

I spend a lot of my time envisioning the future. I’ve been literally invested in it for a long time.

Almost exactly twenty years ago, I started an ebook company, a project based more on speculation than on hard evidence. I thought that by 2010, ebooks would be at least 10% of the publishing market and a normal part of everyone’s reading life. With the help of Lucius Shepard, I contacted and published several of my favorite authors. I learned a lot. I became a computer programmer, for one thing, and I elicited surprise from my father that I could put together and execute a business plan. I put up with ridicule and then I put up with people telling me that they knew ebooks were coming all along.

I learned how true it is that five-year predictions are generally too liberal and ten-year predictions too conservative.

I was half right about ebooks; my timelines and focus were a bit off. I thought that the advent of digital paper would be the catalyst for widespread adoption of ebooks, but it turned out to be a minor factor: wifi, high-speed Internet, and Amazon’s self-publishing infrastructure were all more important.

What I envision is typically more than half creativity/insanity and confirmation bias. But I get a few things right.

Two months ago, the idea we’d be migrating into virtual space was more fantastic than it probably seems to you now, sitting there at your keyboards, many of you wondering when you’ll work again. Just as I was broadly right about ebooks but skewed in my view of the specific drivers of the technology, I think I’m broadly correct that we will be inverting our relationship between the physical world and virtual worlds, to the point that in the next few decades we inhabit virtual countries and in the next few hundred years we even speciate in our virtual worlds.

I will write a long paper for a publisher on this soon, but here are a few short observations and ideas:

1. The limits on visually immersive social-networking will be lifted within the next decade. Visually, though not physically, you will have the complete illusion of being in a virtual space with other people. We already have commercial technology to do the necessary laser eye-tracking and retina painting, and to time visual presentation to brain-processing lag. Watch this HoloLens 2 engineering presentation on YouTube if you doubt me (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S0fEh4UdtT8).

2. Thanks to computers and automation, generation of wealth is driven toward knowledge industries and can be conducted in virtual space. Virtual gold is competing with real gold, literally (check out virtual-world currency exchanges). The whole West Coast tech scene testifies to that. It’s not that physical industry isn’t vitally important. It would be crazy to think so. But even physical work will be overwhelmingly performed through automation and telepresence (see below).

3. Sourcing income for tax revenue is going to be increasingly hard for physical countries, empowering virtual countries that implement various economic strategies. It is not multinational corporations that will have hegemonic control over nations as in the typical cyberpunk scenario so much as ideological virtual countries. The physical world will be a neutral zone with strong Interpol and infrastructure owned by virtual-world corporations. It is likely to be simultaneously far more libertarian and far more socialist than anything we have seen yet. (I’ve had this idea for a while, and thought it improbable, but in a world where the Republicans champion guaranteed income during a pandemic ahead of Democrats, I’m coming around.)

4. Pandemics, terrorism, and ideological, religious, and romantic relationships will drive people into a nested array of arbitrary virtual worlds and AR telepresence vacations.

5. We have met the alien and the alien is us. Interactive entertainment will be bigger and bigger business. Those of us who have read science fiction our whole lives have had our minds blown through a one-dimensional language stream, but it’s going to take immersive three-dimensional experiences for most people to connect with these visions, to bridge the gap between their experience and the experience of minds that do not think like theirs at all. I was watching The Expanse last month, and for a few seconds my suspension of disbelief was so total that I actually felt like I was about to get a glimpse into the culture of an alien intelligence. Then I suddenly said to myself, “Wait, I met the dude who wrote this. He graduated the same workshop I did, a year later.” You can spend your whole life barely scratching the surface of the technologies and human dramas that unfolded during WWII. The impact of the virtual worlds that you will have access to, exploiting the genius and accumulated knowledge of humanity since then, will be overwhelming.

6. Telepresence robots will enable you to inhabit avatar bodies across the globe, for quasi-physical work and play. I was telling the guy who cuts my hair that he will eventually cut hair using a telepresence robot. (He’s already got a sideline business in renting time on robot massage chairs, so maybe he didn’t think I was completely nuts.) Though robots may eventually become lifelike human androids, they will certainly become lifelike to each other’s pilots in computer-mediated space, even if obvious machines to those walking by on the real-world street. Expert systems will merge AR and VR in such a way that you can timeshare on a robot in another country to spend the day with a friend, see that person as they want to be seen, and edit out or focus on any aspect of your environment. You want to meet in a crowded Times Square and then dismiss all the other people? Telepresence, AR, VR, force-feedback, and AI technologies like those in self-driving cars will bring this to pass.

Is this a Utopian future? No. I was just discussing issues with my daughter about the arms-race against hacking telepresence drones, about the problem with programming human compliance into Asimov’s Three Laws. Maybe AI learning can keep you from being stabbed by a robot, but can it prevent a clever operator from figuring out more subtle ways to harm you?

And we already have a big problem with Facebook and other social media driving people into ideological bubbles that are popped only by disaster. (Facebook, by the way, is launching a VR platform this year, called Horizon.)

I call this migration the VR Diaspora, but it isn’t just starting. It’s been going on since at least the seventies. I just hadn’t appreciated how to frame it before.

One big objection to ebooks I encountered circa 2000 was summed up by the statement “I don’t like reading on a computer.” I tried to explain that what constitutes a computer was rapidly changing. This was far before smart phones. Your grandkids will take this stuff for granted, and will probably have to be educated out of the naive idea that the virtual multiverse they inhabit is real.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Perfectionism and Internalized Expectations

To generate some grist for exploring the prison-maze of the mind, I’ll relate a few key issues in my life, starting with my ambivalent relationship to self-challenge.

From my teens through my early twenties, I suffered intermittently from depression and, very reluctantly, went on medication. What pulled me out each time was mostly a change in circumstances. In high school, I had my hip wrenched from its socket in a wrestling match, which gave me an excuse to rest and write (honestly, I did not like wrestling). In college, I coasted the last few months, dropping classes that threatened my perfect GPA, deceiving myself that perfect grades would keep my options open so I might avoid getting shunted into some dismal career path.

A few years later, I quit a job I hated after a bout of hypochondria that progressed over months, from strange vision problems, to ear-infection symptoms, to an almost-certainly unnecessary stint in hyperbaric recompression after a not-too-risky dive, to ultimately an MRI, which came up clean and prompted a very irritated neurologist to refer me for psychiatric help. After quitting my job, and going on Prozac (again), my physical symptoms cleared up in weeks. Like I said, I’d been depressed before; I might have realized what was up. But this time hadn’t been like the others: I didn’t feel particularly down or hopeless. The physical symptoms came first. I had become cut off from my feelings and my passion. Rather than regrouping when the symptoms started, I pushed myself harder, taking an evening chemistry class after work, to finish up pre-med requirements. Realizing I was not going to earn an A, I got halfway through the class and quit.

I’ve quit a few things in my life that either rubbed hard against the grain of my personality or that I feared I would not excel at: basketball, a medical track, a couple of jobs. My father observed that I needed to learn how to be a friend to myself, but the advice was equivocal. He didn’t realize it, but I’d taken a stronger lesson from his own example and his selective approval of my activities: if you don’t want to do something, you can only quit with honor if fear or anxiety or pain do not factor into your aversion. You have to beat those first, or you will always be in retreat, living a hounded life, as a coward. What’s more, you must excel, to prove your commitment. He never explicitly formulated his judgement this way. The lessons we take are often not the ones we’re taught. My father was a counselor, and extremely good at reasonable argument, but not so good at separating his own anxiety and frustrated aspirations from what was best for his children. I’m very glad I was not an only child, because I love my sisters, and because I could not have shouldered the full weight of his expectations alone. I am not the most accomplished of my siblings, not by far, and maybe not the most burdened by Dad’s hopes, either.

By my mid-thirties, I finally hit on a different formulation: pursuing the things you love will test your strength enough; beating your head against rocks to satisfy a father complex is being obstinate and self-defeating. My father wanted me to be open to new experience and develop several axes of my personality — physical, emotional, and mental — not to despise myself.

I did not appreciate this fully until just before I lost him.

But to be fair, the idea I had to excel at everything I attempted was a collaboration between my own persona and my construction of my father. I had swallowed a poison pill early in grade school that my father had little to do with: the idea I was smart and would therefore not have to suffer like other people were clearly fated to suffer — unseen, separated from their joys. To explore how I developed the anxieties that gave force to this particular mindset, I’ll need to go very far back, to when I was three or four, in another post.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Grief and Education (an Aside)

What’s driven my recent posts hasn’t really been a desire to criticize education itself. I’m groping my way toward the topic of despair and suicide, which is really hazardous to talk about, so I’m approaching it from a distance, setting out a few premises. In case you’ve missed my disclaimers, understand that I’m not a professional teacher (though I’ve taught now and then); I’m not a counselor or psychologist (though I’m fairly well read in psychology). I’m doing this for me, and if you get something out of it, I’m glad.

I’m not quite ready to talk about despair. Fortunately, it’s not an urgent personal concern. I haven’t been at the edge of despair for a long time — not since my early twenties. I feel like I should talk about it because on the one hand I have some emotional reserves right now that I can tap, and on the other, I have witnessed despair on Facebook more than once. And this past year one of my Facebook acquaintances was clearly foundering and then committed suicide. I didn’t know him, really, and had just a few interactions with him, so I don’t need you to express condolences. But maybe you appreciate the frustration and sadness his death provoked in me–especially if, like me, you have had people very close to you take their lives.

Right now, I’ll take another step toward the topic by way of discussing grief. When my brother-in-law died, I was shaken to my knees. When my immortal father died of cancer, I fell flat, and a huge crack ran through the foundations of my world. Another shock followed a year later when the son of my friends, himself a friend, was slain at Virginia Tech. (And here I’ll make an aside on guns. I have a few acquaintances who openly worship guns on Facebook, and witnessing it has afforded me a strenuous exercise in forbearance, wrestling against my Shadow and an outrage so dark it would turn my blood to ink if I lost the fight and indulged myself. If I can choke this down, then maybe you — all of you — can deal with the provocations that make you hit that “unfriend” button and that strike me as so, so f’ing petty. If I could go back in time and take away all your guns to prevent these massacres, I would do it, even knowing the reasonable arguments against such action. As one of my friends said here a few posts back, “I sense the darkness in you too,” and yes, if I’ve ever given you the impression that I don’t know how to say “fuck!” or to project and to hate murderously and implacably or have a tantrum, then I’ve probably done both of us a disservice.)

Right now, a few of my friends are dealing with profound grief, the loss of a young-adult child in an accident; the loss of a young spouse to heart attack; the loss of a mother. I can’t speak to their experience. I can’t even look into their grief with fitting imagination and sympathy because it would break me. Watching my father die was like carrying him down to the river Styx, and the years after that were an arduous return journey. My upper back was literally damaged, and it took me two years and the support of my friends at the Alpine Fitness gym to recover–I loved him that deeply. Love is a project that demands all our strength, and then more than our strength when we lose it. As far as I can see, my newly grieving friends are dealing with their challenge heroically, with gratitude for those they loved, extending themselves to friends, seeking help. My friends who lost their son at VT were similarly courageous. I commend their example to you.

Returning to my thread through these recent posts, the prison-maze of the mind and “important things we don’t talk about”: we are here too short a time for bullshit. Pain, horror, and grief will find you. Despair should not. There are forces in our lives separating us from our joy, our dignity, and our wisdom. And our education should equip us to fight them, not to more easily succumb, and as I go deeper into the topic of despair, I’ll try to articulate my best ideas about how it should do this. And when I get political, I’ll say so upfront.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Productive Mindset for Education

Education, part two, on the topic of motivation, meaning, and escaping the mental prison-maze.

When I was seventeen, I cried myself to sleep in the dorm at Lewis & Clark College. I wanted to be a writer. I’d had a taste of other jobs since the age of eleven, and the prospect of any other type of employment made me despair. Earlier that evening I had spent a few hours closeted with Kate Wilhelm going over a fantasy novella I’d written, and she pointed out all the mistakes in it that would keep it from being published: too many adverbs, shallow characterization, and faults in point of view. I objected that I had observed a consistent third-person point of view. She showed me where I was wrong. My face went hot, and my stomach dropped. “How come my creative writing teacher didn’t tell me this?”

“Most likely because she didn’t know,” Kate said.

Later as I ruminated in the dark, I understood both intellectually and emotionally that I had a long, long way to go if I wanted to have even a shot at being a writer, that winning the Oregon Young Writers Contest didn’t mean I’d arrived anywhere. I’d just won the opportunity, along with a dozen other students, to confront my deficiencies. I finally consoled myself that this was still further than the vast majority of hopeful high school writers, and that if becoming a proficient writer really came as easily to me as I’d hoped, it would show up my aspiration as cheap.

But man did it hurt. It was good for me, right? One of those formative experiences that breaks the shell of a young solipsist so he can grow.
Yeah, but eff that. Why didn’t my teacher know? I mean, point of view is not rocket science. How many people who love movies and even arrogate themselves the role of critic don’t know about prelap or montage or composition… or point of view?

I was taught trigonometry in high school, but somehow I missed the fact that sine, cosine, and tangent are functions, not variables. My most valuable class in all of high school was probably elective computer programming. But we never connected trigonometry with computer graphics. We didn’t, for instance, program an analog clock simulation, or even try to draw a circle.

Why not? (Because the teacher didn’t know, maybe.)

No one taught us how to draw in high school. The basics of perspective and the visual horizon are not that tough, certainly not tougher than a physics vector problem. I remember thinking that to program a wire-frame 3D program like Battle Zone must involve godlike genius. No one taught me otherwise.

I took four years of high school Spanish, and the only reason I actually learned to speak Spanish was that I hung out with the foreign-exchange students and endured their ridicule, and I took an independent study to painstakingly translate a novel. Why didn’t we have an immersion class? (Because the teacher didn’t know enough Spanish?) My daughter learned more Spanish in a year in high school than I did in three because of an immersion program.

Even in college, I learned more grammar serving as an English tutor than I did in my classes.

Many of us are taught to be consumers, not producers; politicians rather than philosophers. How are your kids being taught? What messages are they internalizing from what they are not taught?

Habitual consumers will have a very hard time trying to escape the personal hell of the prison-maze of their mind. And those who do set out to be artists and engineers against their training will face unnecessary isolation and frustration, and then ego inflation if they succeed.

“We go to college to learn how to think, not what to think.” Really? I learned how to think by clinging desperately to what made me happy, against a tide of conditioning in how to be a consumer.

And I lashed out at the wrong people for the wrong reason. The year after my instruction by Kate Wilhelm, my high school English teacher critiqued a story of mine once, and I told him that I didn’t think he was qualified to offer a critique. He was visibly hurt and angry. I’d gained a bit of reputation for knowing what I was talking about by that point, and maybe this contributed to his decision to leave teaching and take up writing the next year, at a time he had a young child to support.

And I was wrong. He was eminently qualified to critique my work, as is everyone who reads English fluently. If a person thinks they’ve found something broken in a work of fiction — or spots something off in a painting or musical composition — they’re most likely correct. They probably don’t know how to fix it, even if they are masters of their craft, because that’s the artist’s job, to find a solution that communicates their vision when their craft fails.

But it was a big problem that he couldn’t answer me and put me in my place because he was cheated by his education.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Crafting an Education

Education. I think it’s appropriate to be at least a little dismayed by your education. I certainly am.

Education should give you the keys to escape your unique prison-maze of the mind. Much of what you endure as “education” will not serve you and will only lead you deeper into the maze. Fortunately, in my education I suffered very little direct indoctrination. The one time I did, in a critical theory class, I didn’t really understand what was happening, just that I needed to quit, and that goes hard with a kid (and at twenty I was very much a kid) who holds it as a core value that ducking any intellectual challenge is weakness and copping out.

I will circle back around to the topic of “important things that we do not generally talk about” again and again. This is one. For me, it might be _the one_, because getting educated practically equates to my purpose in life. It’s taken me almost fifty years to reach some clarity for myself about its value and how to pursue it.

You will read many articles, especially in right-wing media, decrying the worthlessness of liberal arts education, often in connection with the topic of publicly funded higher education. A few of my right-wing friends will concede that we should subsidize STEM education, because it leads to jobs that serve basic human needs, but will argue that we shouldn’t be paying for expensive education in the humanities. I have sympathy for their perspective, but my beef with the humanities, as a computer programmer with a degree in English, with more training in the humanities than in tech, isn’t so much that they don’t train one in practical skill, but that they neglect concerns of artistic craft and fill the void with political rhetoric that bewilders and misdirects. The walls of the maze are concretized by politics. Yes, you need the cooperation of other people to accomplish important social goals, but you do not need ideology. Seek to build a coherent philosophy for yourself, but reject a coherent politics, or sooner or later you will come to an angsty pass where you must choose between your values and your “allies.” Politics is not a substitute for philosophy.

So why do humanities departments neglect craft in favor of rhetoric? To me, this is a very important question. I suspect because craft in the humanities is extremely hard. Linguistics is so hard that after you’ve learned a few different languages and taken apart their grammar (hard), you really need to do a deep, cross-disciplinary study in neurology and information science to be said to tackle it. Writing is hard. Drawing is hard. Critical theory is not just hard; it’s impossible — so impossible that if you scrub the politics and rhetorical word-salad out of it, you’re left with linguistics, philosophy, and psychology. I realized in my senior year of college that I’d made a grave mistake in my chosen course of study when I got up and interrogated my fellow students during class and found that they did not know basic English grammar. (What an asshole thing to do, right?)

The disingenuous value proposition of rhetoric teachers enamored of critical theory is they will teach you to better express yourself. They will do the _opposite._ I don’t really want to argue this admittedly political point. I’ll let Steven Pinker do it for me. Read the first few chapters of The Sense of Style.

So how can education help us free ourselves and what should we be teaching and learning, and where should we seek instruction?

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment