Tag Archives: philosophy

Best History Book Ever: Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari

Everyone should read this book. Its full title is Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, and it is exactly that, but it also somehow manages to be both a work of philosophy and a very entertaining read.

Harari writes with a clarity and wit rarely seen in academic writing, or any kind of non-fiction. Reading it is a delight, but that is not the main reason why you should do so.

Even if it were a struggle to wade through, it would be worth it for the content. In this book, millions of years of evolution and thousands of years of human history are analyzed, organized, and woven into a fully comprehensible tapestry, enhanced by an original perspective.

Multiple times, during the course of reading Sapiens, I found myself thinking, or even saying to someone nearby, “I guess I knew that, but I never looked at it quite that way.”

If you, like me, are a devoted fan of history, this book won’t provide you with much new information, but it will give you a new perspective on what you know. If you think history is boring and history books are unbearably dry, this one will very likely change your mind.

In any case, every human should have some idea of what the history of humanity has been, and this is by far the best overview I have ever seen. If you read every new history book, or if you have never read even one, read this one!

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College and Career Readiness is the Wrong Goal

There’s a question I’ve been mulling lately. If the people who say that AI and related technologies are going to put most people out of work, and that a successful human future requires the decoupling of employment from income, are right, what kind of education system best serves the people of that future?

I think what would be best for them would also be best for us, now. It would be one in which “college and career readiness”, if it even exists as a concept, is a byproduct of a good education, not the purpose of it. It would be one in which students learn how to learn, how to evaluate information, and how to coexist with other people. They would learn that human beings created civilization in its many forms, and that they, as human beings, share in the ability and the responsibility to maintain or to change it.

It would also be one in which the STEM subjects, the arts, athletics, and the humanities are all considered equally important, and not necessarily separate from each other. All of them expand our capabilities. All of them build neural connections. All of them can benefit society in different ways.

I would like to stand up particularly for the humanities. With the exception of what has come to be called Language Arts, they seem to be considered expendable. I understand why STEM has become so glorified, and I fervently believe every child should learn to create art and music and should participate in some kind of sport, but understanding ourselves as humans is of at least equal importance.

Many people who choose to study math or science say they did so because of the clarity, or objectivity, or the definitive right answers. Of course, when you advance in those subjects you realize those things are illusions, but they seem real to a beginner, and they are beautiful, in their way. Those were the exact reasons I chose not to focus on those subjects. They seemed sterile, too perfect, lifeless.

I did not struggle with math in school. In fact, I was very good at it. It is a testament to the cultural perception of the humanities as lesser that I feel compelled to say that. The easiest thing I ever did in my life was high school geometry. I was the bane of my teacher’s existence because I rarely paid attention in class (I was definitely not “engaged”), and yet I had something like a 105% average. I more or less enjoyed learning calculus in high school. I thought it was kind of cool, but also kind of boring.

I chose the humanities because they are messy, and imperfect, and subjective. I love the fact that there is never a definitive answer. I find it fascinating that people can have such different perceptions of the world, and that they can find it so difficult to understand each other. I love languages, cultures, religions and philosophies because they are expressions of human beings in all our diversity. I love literature because stories are so quintessentially human, and history because it is a collection of stories. I love the humanities because I love humans, individually and as a species, and I will never completely understand them. They (I suppose I should say we) provide a challenge that will never end.

Recently, I came across this article about a study showing that learning philosophy improved the math and reading skills of elementary school students. By philosophy I don’t mean learning about philosophers, but considering existential and ethical questions about truth, justice, loyalty, etc. I am not surprised at these results. This kind of questioning is the basis of critical thinking, which is fundamental to deep learning.

I am not attempting to discount the importance of STEM. By all means our kids should learn to code. I am learning a little myself. I am just suggesting that in a world in which technology is advancing at such a rapid rate, and changes on the scale of the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions are happening on fast forward, consideration of who we are and what kind of society we want to have matters as much as what roles we will have in the new economy.

If we didn’t need our education system to sort our children into jobs, what would we want it to do? What would an educated person look like? Might she be able to distinguish truth from fiction? Might he be able to consider points of view other than his own? Would she know what’s actually in the Constitution and what isn’t? Would he know how the three branches of our government are supposed to interact, and understand why?

We wouldn’t all agree on the answers to these questions. The process of creating and maintaining a public education system is necessarily messy and political (calls to keep politics out of education are foolhardy; what is more politically charged than decisions about what and how to teach our children?) and difficult. It will never stop being so, but isn’t that all the more reason to take the challenge seriously?

There is a lot of talk these days about moonshots, and references to JFK’s speech in which he said we do these things “not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” a sentiment I certainly appreciate. Have you ever read or listened to the whole speech?

He said that America needed to be the leader in the space race, but not just for military or economic superiority. He said, “there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man,” but that part seems to have been forgotten, or at least confined to a quiet corner.

Keeping up with technology and making sure our kids will have sources of income are obviously matters of survival, so of course they should be at the top of our priority list, but so should making sure our world and our society are worth surviving in. The purpose of learning about what people have done and thought before is not to glorify them, or to dwell on the past, but to understand how we got here, and to learn from their good and bad decisions. One of the clearer lessons of history is that as the percentage of people with power and luxury shrinks, and the percentage of people in frustration and misery grows, violence and chaos and danger for everyone become more and more inevitable. Making our society functional and fair is, in the long run, necessary for our survival. The sooner we come to understand that, the safer we will be.

Another thing JFK said in that speech is, “I think that we must pay what needs to be paid. I don’t think we ought to waste any money, but I think we ought to do the job.” Trying to find ways to make our education system work on less and less money is a false economy. There are ways money is grievously wasted in our current system, and that needs to be changed, but a good education always has and probably always will require investment. I know, I know. People don’t want their taxes to go to educating other people’s children, especially if they don’t agree with the way they are being educated. It’s a problem. It’s hard.

So what should the purpose of our education system be? I think it should be to help us create the best, most sustainably prosperous human civilization we can. That means working hard to make sure no one’s talents go to waste, and that all children are prepared, not just for colleges or jobs that may or may not exist, but for life as adult human beings. Creating such a system will be very, very difficult, and the process will never be complete, and that is exactly why we should pull ourselves together and do it.

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Thoughts on a Philosophy of Teaching

I was asked about a year ago to write a statement of my teaching philosophy. I just came across it, and it still seems pretty accurate, so I thought I would post it here:

The most fundamental thing I do in my work with middle school and high school students is help people relearn how to learn. Human beings are born self-directed learners and creative problem-solvers, but once they are trained to be passive about learning it can be a challenge to help them be active again. Also, almost everyone needs help learning to think critically and to evaluate sources of information, so I tend to make that a significant point of focus.

I am aware and appreciative of a variety of educational approaches. There are times, albeit few of them, when straightforward direct instruction and rote memorization can be the best choice. There are people, albeit relatively few of them, for whom the Summerhill or Sudbury models of complete freedom are best. In my experience, for most people most of the time, something between these extremes is what works, but exactly what works can vary not only from student to student, but from day to day. I believe a good teacher has many tools available and is willing to adapt practice to the needs of the moment. A great teacher knows instinctively when and with whom to use which tools. A master teacher uses all those tools expertly. I have seen only a few master teachers in my life, and they are every bit as impressive as the master musicians and mathematicians and other geniuses of the world.

My education hero is Maria Montessori, not because I agree with everything she ever said (I don’t), but because she based her theories and strategies on her observations of how children actually learn, and she believed in continually developing her practice, building on what worked and throwing away what didn’t. Current neuroscience supports her ideas. It seems every time I read about a new study of how people learn I find myself thinking that Maria Montessori figured that out a hundred years ago.

Theorists of education, like theorists of any discipline concerning the behavior of human beings, tend to fall prey to the natural human desire to reduce everything to some neat, replicable pattern, some set of universal rules. While it is possible to discover predictable patterns and tendencies and to build effective structures based on them, it is a mistake to believe you will ever be able to find a rule of human behavior for which there is no exception, or that you will ever be able to build a structure for human use, physical or theoretical, that will never need to be changed. Human beings are too varied and odd and unpredictable for that. That is why I love working with them. The challenge never ends, and I am confident it never will.

I am a good teacher. Maybe, on my best days, I am even a great one. I am far from mastery, but I am so driven to help every student that I continually seek out new tools and techniques and work hard to develop my ability to use them. I believe it is crucial to get to know each student well. Even the most difficult to reach student has a way in that you can find if you keep trying, and even the most delightfully easy to teach student has a challenge he or she needs help to overcome.

It took me many years to figure out which of the many problems in the world I most want to help solve, but I finally realized that what upsets me the most is wasted human potential. If we all make the best possible use of our abilities, our world will definitely improve. That is why I focus my energies on education. I believe solving that problem is the way to solve all the others. It is my version of a Universal Theory of Everything.

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Back to Blogging

It’s been a long time since I have written a post here, just because other priorities have gotten in the way. Recently, however, I find that thoughts about education are bouncing around in my head all the time, and the best way I know to sort out thoughts is to write about them. So, I am going to write about them here. If other people find them interesting and want to start a conversation, that’s great. If not, at least I’ll get my thoughts sorted out.

I was asked last year to write up my education philosophy. I think reproducing the bulk of that here is a reasonable place to start:

The most fundamental thing I do in my work with middle school and high school students is help people relearn how to learn. Human beings are born self-directed learners and creative problem-solvers, but once they are trained to be passive about learning it can be a challenge to help them be active again. Also, almost everyone needs help learning to think critically and to evaluate sources of information, so I tend to make that a significant point of focus.
I am aware and appreciative of a variety of educational approaches. There are times, albeit few of them, when straightforward direct instruction and rote memorization can be the best choice. There are people, albeit relatively few of them, for whom the Summerhill or Sudbury models of complete freedom are best. In my experience, for most people most of the time, something between these extremes is what works, but exactly what works can vary not only from student to student, but from day to day. I believe a good teacher has many tools available and is willing to adapt practice to the needs of the moment. A great teacher knows instinctively when and with whom to use which tools. A master teacher uses all those tools expertly. I have seen only a few master teachers in my life, and they are every bit as impressive as the master musicians and mathematicians and other geniuses of the world.
My education hero is Maria Montessori, not because I agree with everything she ever said (I don’t), but because she based her theories and strategies on her observations of how children actually learn, and she believed in continually developing her practice, building on what worked and throwing away what didn’t. Current neuroscience supports her ideas. It seems every time I read about a new study of how people learn I find myself thinking that Maria Montessori figured that out a hundred years ago.
Theorists of education, like theorists of any discipline concerning the behavior of human beings, tend to fall prey to the natural human desire to reduce everything to some neat, replicable pattern, some set of universal rules. While it is possible to discover predictable patterns and tendencies and to build effective structures based on them, it is a mistake to believe you will ever be able to find a rule of human behavior for which there is no exception, or that you will ever be able to build a structure for human use, physical or theoretical, that will never need to be changed. Human beings are too varied and odd and unpredictable for that. That is why I love working with them. The challenge never ends, and I am confident it never will.
I am a good teacher. Maybe, on my best days, I am even a great one. I am far from mastery, but I am so driven to help every student that I continually seek out new tools and techniques and work hard to develop my ability to use them. I believe it is crucial to get to know each student well. Even the most difficult to reach student has a way in that you can find if you keep trying, and even the most delightfully easy to teach student has a challenge he or she needs help to overcome.

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Filed under Education