Channeling My Inner Pedant

That I would fee compelled to throw up a post like this is a prime symptom of what I’m talkin’ ’bout.

Namely: There are, it seems to me, lots of  little bad ideas or commonplaces or, well, canards that live happy, comfortable lives, lolling around in public, catching rays – that ought to die. Right. Now.

My response to this overpowering urge to abbreviate the lives of certain ideas is to drag out some heavy artillery and start blasting, going after the mouse with an elephant gun, blowing holes in the walls, etc – generally, making a fool of myself.

Good thing I really need to be made foolish, for the salvation of my soul.

Then – here’s where this post comes in – I then feel compelled to explain and defend whatever odd position I’ve taken today. And then apologize, hope that I haven’t hurt anybody’s feelings, and say I’m not really an ogre, I’m polite and housebroken and everything. Small children and dogs like me! No, really!

I call this Channeling My Inner Pedant. Probably half the posts here are nothing more than that.  In my heart of hearts, I really believe that the world would be a better place if we never heard the term ‘paradigm shift’ again; if people got a clue about what science can and cannot tell us, if no one ever again uttered the phrase (or entertained the notion for more than 2 seconds) that ‘the government is us’; and a million other little tiny crawly creepy vague and/or dumb ideas. Ya know?

Of course, I could be wrong – but if I didn’t think I was right, I’d, like, change my mind.

But way more than enough about me.

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A Recent Post About Homeschooling Raises Issues…

Over at First Things, this First Thoughts blog referenced this essay by a homeschooler who addresses some of the persistent questions faced by people who choose to educate their kids anywhere outside the current compulsory classroom model. Both are worth a read. The young man is very impressive.

I am reminded of one of the protagonists from Satanic Verses, who is an Indian living in England. He wears a bowler and tweed and carries a cane – a parody of Englishness – and makes his living doing voice-over work: he sounds more English than any Englishman. Like immigrants signing up to fight in their adopted country’s wars, he’s desperate to prove he belongs and fearful of doing anything that might mark him as an outsider – and so does what everybody else does, only far better.

Thus, we have a polyglot polymath 18 year old, who studies subjects not 2% of kids his age (or any age) study, and writes better than 99% of adults, selling us on the wonders of homeschooling. See? It’s just like what you all do, but better! The homeschooling he pursues is just like regular school – he states he’s in 12th grade to answer the question: if you were in school, what grade would you be in? The awkward question is really about how he measures progress  – socially accepted and recognized progress – without the benefit of having someone tell him what grade he’s in. But rather than challenge the idea that anyone else gets to grade you (in the specific sense of putting you in a grade), he gives the easy answer – again, see? I’m just like you, only way better.

I have no reason to think this young man isn’t a thoroughly decent fellow, and intends no put downs, and is merely doing his best to answer what persistent and annoying questions that tend to come from people who have no idea what they’re talking about. Maybe disappointed it the word. While he’s made admirable progress getting educated, he is still enthralled to current education models – what is being silently suggested, it seems, is that if only schools were more like this kid’s experiences, everything would be fine, we’d be cranking out accomplished students ready to tackle the world.

What’s far more challenging , and much closer to the truth, is pointing out that any relationship between what this young man has accomplished and what goes on in a typical school classroom is strictly accidental. He talks about flexibility – and that is key, especially when flexibility is extended enough to change categories into true freedom. He has transcended the whole concept of grade level – seriously, there are boatloads of PhDs who can’t write as well as he can. Extraordinarily well developed communication skills are a hallmark of those who are not educated in the standard model, in my experience. Yet, rather than firing back with something like ‘what grade I might theoretically be in is  utterly unimportant. I’m getting ready for college and life, and I trust my family and friends and the colleges I’ve applied to to help me know when I’m ready’ he accepts the questioner’s framework.

Too bad.

 

A couple small thoughts on socialism

Let’s start with the things that are appealing about socialism:

– injustice: certainly, there is great injustice in the world that can be traced to men who have wealth and power using them to rob, pillage and manipulate poor people. Socialism makes reasonable claims to mitigate this injustice;

– stupidity: vast amounts of time, money and effort are spent trying to sell more hamburgers, more sticks of deodorant, and in general trying to convince people that their next impulse purchase will somehow make their life better. Even stupider are the vast economic resources devoted to fulfilling these newly-created delusions. Socialism proposes to mitigate this stupidity, and to make our economic world more rational.

And that’s about it.

And I could imagine going along with this IF – big if – the first and foremost efforts of socialist were directed towards creating a true democracy, or even if every socialist were to simply admit that the whole concept of socialism can only work if the government that controls the economy is of, by and for the people.

But no. The efforts to put yet more and more of the economy under the control of the government is never accompanied by any acknowledgment that the government is not really democratic, but that some people with money and power get what they want while the vast many get the shaft. Let alone any proposal to do anything about it.

At what point, to take an especially egregious example,  do we take the Treasury department away from Goldman Sachs? At what point do the Socialists even admit that Goldman is de facto the national bank that sets national economic policy for the benefit of Goldman? Sure, the more Marxists end of the pool would say that the solution is to socialize Goldman – but what, exactly, would that mean when the government that would be taking Goldman over is being driven by Goldman?

The two fundamental problems are these: you’d have to reform the government first and make it profoundly democratic so that we, the people, could really and truly fire anyone in the government, dissolve or defund any department or program in short order, AND have the process by which we do so permanently freed from manipulation.  Otherwise, all we’re doing when we ‘make progress toward socialism’ is handing people in government more power to make sure they stay in power.

The second problem traces back to Marx’s denial of human nature – what if people aren’t soft clay that can be remade into whatever form suits today’s purposes? What if not all behaviors, instincts, and customs are the mere result of social conditioning? What if people choose? What if people – all people – at least sometimes choose badly? Selfishly? Stupidly? What if the human capacities for self justification and self delusion are as infinite as they appear to be?

In short, what if the idea that socialists, unlike all other men, are not the genius saints they clearly think they are? When your favorite words for your opponents are ‘stupid’ and ‘evil’, what other conclusion can one reach?

So, if socialists want my support, they will need to explain how it is that we get from our current state to a strong, resilient democracy full of well-informed voters with the time, inclination and ability to govern BEFORE we hand over any more power, and what other checks are to be put on the eventual holders of power besides ‘just trust us.’ Without these things, the injustice and stupidity admittedly present in the current arrangement will not be ameliorated, just rearranged like so many deck chairs. At best. Until then, based on my reading of history and human nature, it’s far, far better idea to keep as much power out of the governments’ hands as can safely be done.

 

A Story for Today…

from John Taylor Gatto (about 3/4 of the way down the page):

The greatest intellectual event of my life occurred early in third grade before I was yanked out of Xavier and deposited back in Monongahela. From time to time a Jesuit brother from St. Vincent’s College would cross the road to give a class at Xavier. The coming of a Jesuit to Xavier was always considered a big-time event even though there was constant tension between the Ursuline ladies and the Jesuit men. One lesson I received at the visiting brother’s hands2 altered my consciousness forever. By contemporary standards, the class might seem impossibly advanced in concept for third grade, but if you keep in mind the global war that claimed major attention at that moment, then the fact that Brother Michael came to discuss causes of WWI as a prelude to its continuation in WWII is not so far-fetched.3 After a brief lecture on each combatant and its cultural and historical characteristics, an outline of incitements to conflict was chalked on the board.

“Who will volunteer to face the back of the room and tell us the causes of World War One?”

“I will, Brother Michael,” I said. And I did.

“Why did you say what you did?”

“Because that’s what you wrote.”

“Do you accept my explanation as correct?”

“Yes, sir.” I expected a compliment would soon follow, as it did with our regular teacher.

“Then you must be a fool, Mr. Gatto. I lied to you. Those are not the causes at all.” It was like being flattened by a steamroller. I had the sensation of being struck and losing the power of speech. Nothing remotely similar had ever happened to me.

“Listen carefully, Mr. Gatto, and I shall show you the true causes of the war which men of bad character try to hide,” and so saying he rapidly erased the board and in swift fashion another list of reasons appeared. As each was written, a short, clear explanation followed in a scholarly tone of voice.

“Now do you see, Mr. Gatto, why you must be careful when you accept the explanation of another? Don’t these new reasons make much more sense?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And could you now face the back of the room and repeat what you just learned?”

“I could, sir.” And I knew I could because I had a strong memory, but he never gave me that chance.

“Why are you so gullible? Why do you believe my lies? Is it because I wear clothing you associate with men of God? I despair you are so easy to fool. What will happen to you if you let others do your thinking for you?”

You see, like a great magician he had shifted that commonplace school lesson we would have forgotten by the next morning into a formidable challenge to the entire contents of our private minds, raising the important question, Who can we believe? At the age of eight, while public school children were reading stories about talking animals, we had been escorted to the eggshell-thin foundation upon which authoritarian vanity rests and asked to inspect it.

There are many reasons to lie to children, the Jesuit said, and these seem to be good reasons to older men. Some truth you will know by divine intuition, he told us, but for the rest you must learn what tests to apply. Even then be cautious. It is not hard to fool human intelligence.

Saving the Planet: The Basics

Channeling my Inner Pedant yet again.

Want to Save the Planet (whatever that means, but I’ll go with the general & vague notions of: not recklessly eliminating species or the environments they live in, keeping the place tidy, and not doing anything that would keep our kids from enjoying the same lovely planet we’ve got now)?  Here’s a few things to get straight:

– Buying a new hybrid car doesn’t help. Every hybrid car needs to be manufactured, meaning resources such as iron and aluminum ore, lead for the batteries, lots of energy and so on get consumed. You might argue that buying a new hybrid car is better than buying a Hummer – that might be true, but only if it’s a new Hummer, because if you bought a used Hummer and thereby reduced demand for new hybrid cars by one, you’ve Saved the Planet from having to cough up all the resources needed to manufacture that new car (not to mention disposal of those nasty batteries), while only costing the planet the difference in net fuel consumption – not even close, buy the used Hummer.

– Recycling ain’t it. Don’t get me wrong, recycling is a good thing, mostly, but hardly addresses the parenthetically mentioned goals above. First off, it’s not like most things other than compost recycle themselves – you’ve got to collect and process them. That means trucks, fuel, processing plants, energy – is short, recycling become yet another consumer of energy and resources.  Recycling may net out to a lower total consumption level than using new stuff (key word: may. It’s not a given), but it’s a relatively tiny reduction, assuming consumption level continue to increase.

– Green energy ain’t it. It’s a lovely idea: get all of our energy from totally clean and renewable sources – sun, wind, hydro (sort of – damming huge rivers and drowning square miles of former valley lands is iffy)  and get rid of dirty stuff like coal, oil and even natural gas burning plants. Over time – a pretty long time, like 50 or 100 years – it might even be possible to supply an appreciable amount of energy by these sources, provided that, contrary to all historical trends, energy demand doesn’t keep growing really fast. But current green technology involves two big problem: first, what happens on windless nights in a dry year? In other words, unlike a coal, gas or oil based generating plant, you can’t turn green energy off and on at will, and storage technology (batteries) is decades away from having an answer, if there even is an answer. Second, like the new car issue above, it’s not like green energy generation itself doesn’t cost vast investments in resources. One painful example pointed out by the inestimable Mike Flynn: a 6 mile wide lake of toxic chemicals created by demand for wind turbines. Nuclear would work – but there’s issues, there.

– Population control ain’t it, either. The dirty little secret lurking behind all of the above points is that efforts to control the bad effects of consumption (cars, energy, stuff in general) doesn’t mean diddly if consumption itself continues to spiral out of control. Thought Experiment Case Study: How many people can the Planet support? Answer: it depends on consumption. Let’s compare two ‘consumers’.

The first is a third-world farmer, comfortably prosperous by local standards – he works his own land and feeds his own family, trades a little for necessities he can’t easily make, and is loved and respected by his family and neighbors. He doesn’t waste any time wishing he had gobs more stuff, as is considered and considers himself a happy man. Let’s call him Jose.

Next we have an upper class American, with 15,000 square feet of personal living space spread across three homes he shares with no one, a fleet of cars and a squad of servants, and a habit of jetting all over the world many times a year, often in nearly empty personal or charter jets.  As he is loved by pretty much no one, he longs for many goods, but especially for the power to manage the world. Let’s call him Al Gore.

So, how many of Jose can the Planet support? 10 billion? 20 billion? How many Al Gores? 100,000? 200,000?

Sure, there’s a theoretical Malthusian limit to the total number of people the Planet can support, but we’re nowhere near that number – as long a we all consume like Jose. If we consume like Al Gore, we’re doomed – the existing numbers of Al Gores on the planet now are far more than the Planet can sustain.

It’s fascinating that the Al Gores of the world, people who consume 1,000 times or more what Jose consumes, never talk about consumption, but can’t shut up about population.

Bottom line: to Save the Planet, high consumers – that’s you and me – must reduce their consumption drastically.

Reduced consumption is not without its consequences.

Reading About versus Reading – Problems

The following is all snobby sounding – sorry about that. If I had more time, maybe I’d rewrite it.

It should go without saying that reading what an author wrote is to be preferred to reading about what an author wrote, but it has its problems. Humans are fundamentally limited – few of us can master more than a handful of languages, and so are, in effect, reading about what an author wrote from the translators’ point of view. Further, there is so much out there worth reading that few of us have the time or energy to make more than a dent in the original sources. To a lesser and less excusable extent, many authors are simply difficult, and it’s tempting to read about that thinker’s ideas in order to have them pre-digested for us.

Nonetheless, the thinking behind survey classes and books that provide summaries of whole fields is dangerous – at best, the reader misses ideas filtered out by the summarizers’ blind spots or biases, and worst, the reader receives simultaneously a dose of the subject’s content hammered into the summarizers’ agenda, and inoculation against every having to think about the subject again. Hearing many college grads talk is like watching the news reports of an event of which you have first hand knowledge – one is often left scratching one’s head, wondering how what actually happened got transmogrified into the story being told.

The Great Books approach, in one form or another, is the only real way to deal with these issues. It’s important to not only read books of enduring value, but to read them generally chronologically. Coupled with the study of at least one foreign language, this experience creates not only a good, independent understanding of the authors read, but  also a frame of reference within which to understand successive writers and ideas. No one can understand Kant or Hegel without at least a good dose of Aristotle, for example.

But the main thing a Great Books education does for you is removing, once and for all, the weird modern bias that people today are just generally smarter than those old guys. I’ve heard people denigrate Aristotle because he made a few easy-to-mock mistakes about science, which not coincidentally is also ALL they know about Aristotle.  Doesn’t occur to them to compare batting averages and the rest of the batting order – Aristotle was creating all new fields of study out of almost nothing in many cases, applying logic to a world filled with illogic and superstition, without benefit of university systems or hundreds of similarly well-trained colleagues or centuries of precedent.  Unlike, say Galileo, who had all of those things.  Comparing the two, Aristotle had every reason to accept that heavier things fell faster than light things and no reason to imagine a contrary. But he got, for example, that dolphins were mammals and that the earth was round and that life showed evidence of evolution – even though these things were of relatively minor concern to him, and nobody had ever wondered about them much before. Galileo, on the other hand, was the product of centuries of education and logical thought (which he owed to Aristotle) spread across a university system encompassing Europe, and he had Copernicus and many other learned men to lean on, and he had the telescope invented by another guy – and he STILL screwed up, pouring calumny on people who believed – correctly – that the tides were caused at least somewhat by the moon. Among other things.

The point here is that, having read quite a bit of both Aristotle and Galileo, I can humbly compare the two – based on what they actually said. If I were to rely on survey course summaries, it’s vanishingly unlikely I’d find anything that captures some of what are fairly obvious truths: that Galileo was a very smart man, almost worthy of his place in history – but not even remotely in Aristotle’s league. Once you get that, then the hesitancy of the Aristotelians of his time to accept what he proposed becomes more understandable. Further, an acquaintance with how Aristotle (and Euclid, and Ptolemy) thought  makes it pretty clear that Galileo was acting like a baby. It’s not so much that he was proposing to overturn centuries of practice and theory, it’s HOW he was proposing to do it. Just because future generations proved that he was right about a couple things doesn’t mean that his method and arguments were therefore right, or that his opponents were therefore wrong in insisting on stronger evidence and better reasoning than he was able to supply.

I choose this example because it is well known, but other examples abound, and not just in science. Suffice it to say: survey classes are like intellectual one-night stands. It may slake your lust for knowledge, but he probably doesn’t really love you and won’t call. They are not like one night stands in that a much higher percentage of people in survey courses  never get that they were used.