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I spent most of my reading time reading back issues of The New Yorker, accumulating on my Nook Color since January. I found a few gems:

  • a Jonathan Franzen piece (2/13/2012 – 2/20/2012) on Edith Wharton’s “Big 3” novels,
  • a Jonah Lehrer essay (3/5/2012) on the mathematics of altruism,
  • an Adam Gopnik discussion (4/3/2012) of the philosophy of Albert Camus.
  • Ken Auletta (4/30/2012) on how Stanford University resembles a tech incubator more than a school.

I read Franzen’s The Corrections; I never thought much of it. He represents the best of the worst kind of modern fiction, confusing the ubiquity of the mundane with significant insight into a common human condition. I think Franzen wasted his talents; it accounts for something to have developed five unique personalities, each one an asshole, but each in his or her own way. His piece on Edith Wharton brings a sensitivity to literary nuance, a deep reading, and historical context to an overview of her works and their significance. In short, I really liked his essay; it felt like I learned something.*

Franzen makes a connection among Wharton’s great novels, The House of Mirth, The Custom of the Country, and The Age of Innocence, drawing attention to how Wharton maintains our interest in the novels is that she draws upon our capacity for sympathy. Ironically, Wharton herself, and, her protagonists, as Franzen reads it, are not sympathetic characters.

When asked, I cite Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon and The Age of Innocence as my favorite novels. The former is somewhat stereotypical for a person of my background: I am a scientist, I like mathematical modeling and games, I enjoy programming, I actually like reading and writing about science and math, and I greatly admire feats of mega and micro-engineering.

Usually, I relegate things emotional to the sphere of other – that is, our Weltanschauung (philosophical, mystical, and religious perceptions and so-called human truths), to my mind, clearly belong in the realm of non-science, opinion, and meaning. As I had written, I believe this not to be a slight; it’s just that how we engage with empirical, materialistic Truth is every bit, and perhaps more important, than what that Truth may be. That I think so highly of The Age of Innocence is due to the fact that its theme, with a big pay off near the end, exemplifies the very best of this fuzzy, but rich and vibrant, realm.

I would not have characterized The Age of Innocence as a work that draws on our capacity to identify; the plot is simply of love requited but unconsummated. I can see how the reader might be drawn in, rooting for the eventual uniting of Newland Archer and Ellen Olenski. Regardless of how one might see Archer, I argue that he is the prototype of Don Draper of Mad Men. Archer is dissatisfied with his life and although he does not transgress the oath of marriage, he has, in an emotional sense, already left his wife for another woman. Don Draper is simply the apotheosis of this; a man who indulges in his every desire. Archer is a percursor of this, very much embedded in the social forms of his time. His emotional conflict can be viewed as tragic or shameless.

What I find most compelling about The Age of Innocence, and it is the thought and feeling that comes back to me time and time again, despite having read it many years ago, is that in the end, we find out that Archer’s wife, May, knew and even appreciates him for having stood by her and building a life together. In other words, she understood his sacrifice. Her reaction is rather traditional – and fantastical in our modern world – that she is so forgiving and actually thanks him for what can only be described as the only proper course of action.

No, the thing that I find unforgettable is that Archer’s wife knew. She understood him as much as one human being can of another. She sympathized with her husband, knew him fully and deeply. To be fair, I think that she might have appreciated that Archer did not cause a scandal or rupture her standing in their community – she is fully a creature of Gilded Age high-society. That is a recurrent theme in Wharton’s novels; the rich have customs and formalities that must be attended to. Her protagonists all try to enter that society or to make a life within it. Regardless, in essence, May’s understanding captures fully what novels should do for us; it gives us an opportunity to appreciate the mind and soul of another.

I remember feeling rather ambivalent about the novel until that scene. Part of it is because Archer’s behavior is atrocious. If he did not have the courage to buck against the pressure of making an approved match for his peer group, it can only be seen as cowardly for him to become an adulterer.  That is, he would be having it both ways; conforming to the customs and also satisfying his desires. Seeing the novel as a romance (between Archer and the Countess) seems to pervert that very ideal.

Instead, the would-be adulterers remained platonic – barely, and only after May decided she needed to defend her hearth. There is something to be said about not committing a physical sin and executing the oath one takes. It thus surprised me to find that the ending was so cathartic; I felt relieved and elated that May realized all of this. I hate to say it, but I did think that it would have been a waste if all this remained in Archer’s and Olenski’s heads. Having May realize helped the novel transcend its tawdriness. It became a tale of sacrifice, such as passed for it in New York high society.

*My reaction to it reminds me of another writer, whose fiction I did not care for: Margaret Atwood. I had written, about The Handmaid’s Tale:

I didn’t have a problem with this book, and then I did. The language is stilted, simplistic, and monosyllabic in this book, and at first, I thought that was great. The protagonist is a woman who is kept down, and the main tool is the withdrawal of education. I had actually thought the language reflected the mind of the handmaid. Then I thumbed through another Atwood book and to my chagrin, she wrote in that same stilted voice, and I revised my feelings for this book.

I had neglected to mention that I felt her tale to be overwrought, excessive, and without nuance. It is as if her talents were better spent on expository works and not novels. My opinion received some validation when I encountered her essay in Seeing Further, a retrospective and appreciation of the Royal Society. Her essay had the same quality as Franzen’s; erudite, nuanced, funny, and sharp. After this essay, I wound up reading Oryx and Crake. Despite the obvious nature of the cautionary tale against abuse of science and the concentration of power, I felt that the ending was haunting and the prose lively. 

I spent too much time on my last post, but I really wanted to push it out. I realized I never came out and stated my idea. Partly, it’s because it might sound controversial unless I develop it properly. I’m glad I waited, because Joshua Timmer, of Ars Technica, pointed to a new study that is relevant to my points here.

In  my previous essay, I had presented Stephen Jay Gould’s idea of dual magisteria, which addresses how one engages with the world. In Rocks of Ages, Gould places undue emphasis on religion as a major counter-point to the scientific descriptions of the physical world. He does mention that there could be other domains of thought, but Gould writes they would encompass other magisteria. Here, Gould did not go far enough; it suffices to group religion as one of many intuitive, personal ways of finding meaning in the world. Simply, there should be two magisteria: science, and all of non-scientific, intuition based ways of looking at the world.*

*The distinction is clear: there is a way to examine the material world, with experiments (although not necessarily their interpretation) providing a common frame of reference. Experiments are placed in this rarified realm because it is expressly constructed so that when methods are made available, other investigators can observe the same results. That is why one of the worst things you can say about a scientist’s findings is that it is not reproducible. 

In this context, my idea for how one might deal with science is that, functionally speaking, they can ignore it. This is possible since science itself, in the realm of meaning in one’s life, may have a lesser impact than other emotional, intuition based thinking. Second, when one aims to counter scientifically based policies, it is more about risk/benefit analysis, trade-offs, and marshalling political support, which actually has less to do with the underlying science and more about rational discourse. In other words,  it is possible to arrive at policies that are directly opposed to the recommendations based on scientific findings.

There is a distinct lack of courage from those who are opposed to science and distrust it because it is considered a Liberal domain (i.e. American Liberals tend to favor governmental intervention in regulating markets but  less  in one’s personal and social lives. The story goes that academia is populated by these liberal types.) These anti-science laymen lack courage because they avoid saying that their policies are at odds with the scientific consensus because they thought other considerations were more important.

So they couch their objections in scientific terms, and rather shoddily*. The proper argument for creationism in school isn’t in to make it an alternate scientific theory in biology class, but in a social studies or literature class, perhaps even an actual religious study. The goal of religion and these classes, as Neil Postman and Joseph Campbell realized, is to attempt to connect the impersonal world to human perception. At best, it can be as invigorating as a philosophy course and as an art appreciation course. It is interesting to me that so many myths do share elements in how they describe how the world began, with many such stories pre-dating even the gods of pharoanic Egpyt, let alone Christianity. There is power in these stories because while they are rudimentary attempts at explanation, in actuality they help us deal with the mysterious and the fear of dying at an approachable human level.

* Hence this strange, if not ironic call, for more facts. Again, my last essay about experts focused on this idea of splitting hairs, where all of a sudden hyper-specific observations are used and not the general theory. My point in that essay is that just simply emphasizing specific examples over the rule is not a simple act. The divergence may be due to chance – acceptable within almost all scientific frameworks – or may indicate an actual alternate cause. If that’s the case, not only must the new model explain why this observation happened, but it must also address why all the other observations we’ve seen arose and was addressed by the other theory. Some type of analytical closure is needed to address how we could have gotten things so wrong. One might argue that Occam’s Razor helps us avoid this situation where we go with an explanation that agrees with most observations – one clear example of this is the models for an earth-centric versus a heliocentric model of the solar system.

I would only point out that the religious studies curriculum would be at odds with what the American (Religious) Conservatives (i.e. less government regulation for economic markets but more constraints in personal lives) desire because any such comparison of religion would naturally lead students to question how Christianity, Islam or (religious) Judaism differ from the myths that had been so callously discarded.* Again, these zealots lack the courage to say that the strength of religion lies specifically in helping believers come to terms with the cycle of life and death and the harshness of the world. By continually using stories of a Jewish guru, who lived 2000 years ago, as a basis to counter scientific findings made from observations with modern equipment, it cheapens Christ and makes the religious look silly. Are we really to think that these Holy Books are relevant to how one interprets molecular biology data showing how closely related humans are to primates and mice? Scientific interpretation and finding meaning germane to our emotional needs (or explaining the human condition) are two different things. There are any such stories one can concoct from religion, because so many stories in holy books are allegorical. We can change stories to fit the facts.

* I once asked my friend, who is a scientist and evangelical Christian, why he believes in Christianity and not, say, Zeus. He replied that Christianity is real and Zeus isn’t. He pointed to the archaeological evidence for the history of the Jews in the Old Testament and of the documentary evidence of Christ and his Apostles for the New. To which I can only suggest that, there is also evidence that the Trojan War happened. We have many stories of the Greek gods and much archaeological evidence of the beliefs of the Homeric Greeks. Does that in itself proves that the Greek pantheon of gods exists? 

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At this point in American political culture, we are overly concerned with expertise, the irony of which is that we tend to pigeonhole these distinct voices, rather than to heed their advice. The pushback from scientists is that they tend to dismiss laymen as cranks. These approaches are antagonistic.

On occasion, I hear fellow scientists, when they get annoyed with lay people, brush off by claiming that their bit of science is hard and that laymen shouldn’t comment. That may be true, but as I wrote in my last essay, the tradeoff from academia is that at some point, we publicize our research to other scientists. I go further and suggest that if we are already doing this, we might as well write explicitly to laymen. In the end, it is hoped that our research is of significance and worth including in curricula – for educational purposes.

Naturally, scientific discussions tend to be easier between scientists, even if they ply their trade in different fields. We know the lingo. More importantly, we recognize that there are benchmarks for good research (control experiments, multiple trials, randomized sample sets, published methods and analysis techniques, blind trials where necessary, experiments specifically designed to test for alternate explanations, and so forth) and generally scientists do tend to read broadly. As a result, they do tend to ask questions, not as pointed as an expert might, but they aren’t at a rudimentary level either.

My own background can provide an example. My undergraduate background was biochemistry; my graduate work and one post-doc stint focused on neuroscience, specifically olfactory physiology. My current work as a staff scientist is as a cell-biologist/image analyst, running cell based assays and writing high-content analysis algorithms. Lately, my group has pushed our technology for clinical application in clinical immunology. This is not to say that I understand all these fields to the same degree as people who have spent many more years than I. The common skillset of doing science allows people like me to expand into new fields.

It isn’t as if I ignore biochemistry concepts even now, nor did my work in olfactory physiology meant I simply looked at neuronal function. The point of the latter research was to show how animals use different sniffing patterns to elicit specific neuronal response types that might be important for the animal’s understanding of its odor environment. Being aware of the overarching questions driving specific aims is crucial to a scientist’s success. Another example: Gordon Shepherd, an important researcher in olfaction, recently published a book on flavor perception titled Neurogastronomy. In it, he synthesizes olfactory and taste physiology, fluid dynamics and modeling of air flows in the human nose, the physico-chemical properties of food molecules, and human perception. His bread and butter, however, was in neuronal circuits, with emphasis on the olfactory bulb. Although his ultimate interests is in the mechanism by which neurons give rise to perception, much was unknown and so one must settle on sub-systems (such as olfaction, in “lower” life forms like honeybees, tiger salamanders, fruit flies, and rodents) for research and begin there.

So yes, I firmly believe that even if one is ignorant of a subject, one can come up to speed. It takes work and time. I am not arrogant enough to think that I am exempt from the Kruger-Dunning effect, but I do think that having the ability to identify gaps in knowledge, knowing what to read, finding experts to talk to, one can work to gain a competence in unfamiliar fields. If thinks that this cannot be the case, then there is no point in talking to one another or in reading.

I’ve only lately come to realize that science can be interpreted as a method for communication. We do this a very precise and stylized manner – introducing new ideas, detail methods, publicizing results, and discussing how our observations fit extant theory. Again, this has partly to do with the most basic elements of experimental design, geared to helping scientists remove their biases during analysis. The assumption here is that we argue interpretation and whether experiments were designed correctly. This can only work if the “recipe” and “results” are reported faithfully and  reproducible by anyone else.

Thus science differs from other forms of communication because we work to make transparent our work. Other fields have the luxury of using allegorical, indirect language. Scientific ideas are hard enough without putting some artistry in our language: for example, think of “as an object accelerates, it cannot reach the speed of light since its mass increases” or “if we know the position of an electron, we cannot know its momentum” or that “mass and energy are equivalent.” Because we scientists do try to simplify descriptions, we cannot turn around and tell laymen that what we do is hard to understand. Science is hard to do, especially to do well, but the telling of it can be straight-forward (I’m thinking of essay level exposition, not sound-bites.)

Despite science being a means of communication, it is not a debate in the sense of law; the point of distinction is not in whether the rhetoric is convincing, but whether the data best explain an idea that describes reality. There is no audience per se. Rather, the “audience” is whether the next experiment is consistent with the older findings. This is the predictive aspect of science: If what this other scientist published is true, than it affects my idea like so, and thus I should see this in my experiment.

But as soon as we step away from the realm of validating theories, we have descended into the muck surrounding the ivory tower. This isn’t bad at all; while basic research may be a worthwhile pursuit, I see no contradiction in having to justify that concept to the tax payers. While other scientists might scoff at having to consider applied research, I see this as necessary. In my field, we apply to grants from the National Institutes of Health. In fact, we must always suggest ways in which the research will ultimately benefit the clinicians who treat patients.

My bias is that I see applied research as compelling, and I see, as a red herring, the idea that all research must be pure and unsullied. In other words, I see the realm, or domain, or magisteria of science, as a rather small one. As soon as we start talking about funding, applicability, significance, whether we should pursue a line of research, we get into that fuzzy idea of the “other” magisteria.

This is the part where laymen falter. Laymen tend to argue from a grounding based more on non-scientific criteria than any scientific objections (based on methods, findings, or analysis). I have a very definite view that scientific discussions require the language and methods of science. It helps scientists tease apart assumptions, biases, and the empirical findings. It isn’t that all scientists can compartmentalize their thoughts, or that personal politics, background and temperament do not affect their thinking. It is that the whole system is set up to at least force scientists to justify their ideas (or biases) with data. Questioning scientific findings can only concern methods, analysis, interpretation, counter-evidence, and alternate hypotheses. Alternate ideas are always there; best idea or consensus by no means imply 100% certainty. It might simply be that the idea is the best of the worst.

However, if one were to discuss why the research is worthwhile, why a scientist pursued it, why something should be funded, what applications does it have, what are the resulting policy recommendations: all these are subject to debates. We have facts, as discovered by science, and then there is how we deal with facts. All of us must come to grip with them.  That is why I modified Gould’s opposed magisteria to contain two domains – science and not-science. The former speaks to objective truth, or at least a description of the material world that can be replicated by any sufficiently educated experimenter. The latter has to do with how humans perceive these hard truths.

While it seems like science is given a preeminent position, I would say that it is a rather small domain. Its language and methods are  precise – it is limited. The not-science magisterium encompasses everything else: our experience, our philosophical bent, our religious background, and so forth. These are bundled together because its “truth” is but an interpretation of how we look at the world. At the same time, it is much richer because it is unbounded by hard facts – it can be as fanciful as whatever the imagination can come up with. Its purpose is to help us with that vague concept of “meaning.” It is from this sphere that we might find compelling arguments and vivid imagery to help convince a lay audience.

Non-scientists can lay claim to the other half of the problem, that of receiving the message. Even if scientists write for the public, interested laymen need to listen. When laymen apply the label of “expert”, it is done with opprobrium, suggesting that the expert has narrow knowledge, but no “real world” experience. The ivory tower as therefore a prison rather than a place for undisturbed rumination. Non-scientists can apply the rigid standard to voices they do not like, simply by claiming that one’s expertise is not in the topic at hand. Naturally, the point is to keep experts corralled and voiceless. It is every bit the same exclusionary tactic that some scientists take in keeping laymen out of the realm of science.

My problem with it is that it allows opponents to treat each other not as individuals but as a belonging to the “other”, and eventually as caricatures. Instead of engaging with the science, it is the scientist who is attacked and demonized as mad or playing god and the laymen portrayed as ignorant, religious zealots. If nothing else, people are generally shrewd. Even if they do not appreciate the nuance of an experiment, they are probably experts in some other domain. This goes for scientists and non-scientists. Are we to suggest that they cannot do anything else, simply because they are competent in one field? Surely, all of us at various times and on numerous topics can hold incorrect opinions, but we can learn enough to become informed. To say that this is not possible is to argue that education is pointless.

No one claims that we can all become experts, but we can all learn enough to appreciate the current thinking. So the problem in how laymen and scientists relate to one another is that there is a vested interest in ignoring the fact that we all live in the world. In that sphere of public influence, rightly or wrongly, scientific facts and religious thoughts are just two of many points of view. In examining the greater good, one cannot argue in isolation.

For example, coal-fired and nuclear generated electricity provide one such example. Science and engineering have both resulted in these plants providing the most power efficiently. We already know that burning coal leads to increases in greenhouse gases. Nuclear power is generally cleaner at the point of origin, but it sure is spectacular when things go wrong or when we dispose of spent radioactive fuel. Science will not help us decide which power source to use, or whether we should re-wire our electrical grid and redesign our houses and appliances to consume less power, or whether we should build up hydroelectric power, wind farms, and solar power plants, or whether the trade-offs are worth it. Wisdom and knowledge is a tapestry. We would all do well to remember that we must argue using appropriate tools.

When arguing scientific points, it makes sense to ask about the assumptions, previous empirical evidence, the methodologies, and current findings. It is a fair question to ask for clarifications between current findings and facts that seem contradictory. But scientific validity is argued from empirical evidence, not from rational arguments like two opposing lawyers. There is no such thing as “all evidence.” There is curated best evidence. And while that is still no guarantee of the scientist being right, it will certainly take a bit of work for anyone to identify the actual problems with the model (and see my previous essay on experts for some examples.)

When arguing significance, we would do well to remember that matters of judgment can be based on personal experience and informed opinions. Benefit and risk can be of equal weight, with personal caution being the only guide as to what one prefers to emphasize. It would be great if we all have informed opinions, and that is all we can aspire to when we haven’t had the luxury of time spent cultivating an expertise on a topic. It is partly the scientists’ job to make available the resources to  help citizens become informed. Telling them to trust us is a non-starter; we argue that an argument from authority (and mostly with regard to religious authority) is no argument at all.

Scientists need to set an example and show laymen our actual methods; a fact is believed so because we see it – and you can too if you do exactly as we specify. The other component to this is to realize how  quickly we step outside of our scientific domain. Facts and coherent theory are not sufficient to inspire. Rhetoric becomes an important factor. If you don’t think language matters, just recall  “irradiated foods” and the public misperception. The reference is to light, not nuclear radiation, but consumers rebelled.

For laymen, they need to be more honest about the basis for their objections. Since society pays lip service to the idea of experts being good (when they argue in your favor), it is supposed that the only way to take themselves seriously is to argue from facts, even if their strongest arguments might be based on personal experience and circumstances. The result is that even non-scientists make a push into the domain of science, not realizing it that ideas are not weighted equally. One needs affirmative evidence to show the possibility that a theory can be a valid alternative. Pointing out the holes in global warming mechanisms or evolution can at best weaken those theories. In no way does criticizing science show why creationism is valid.*

*I try to avoid being snide, but I can’t help it. Please answer me this: does taking host during Communion result in the transubstantiation of the wafer and wine into the body and blood of Christ?  A favorite question that Protestants tweak Catholics with. You would think there is an verifiable answer here. Whose creation story – excuse me, theory – should we teach? The Sumerians’? The Egyptians’? The Greeks’? The Zoroastrians’? The Buddhists’? The Hindis’? For that matter, let me know which set of gods to pray to. Maybe before we even consider teaching creationism as an alternate theory to evolution and cosmology – a distinctly American phenomenon – the religious ought to figure out which story best “fits” the data.

The point of this essay is to suggest a more constructive way to talk about science. I see no issues with using compelling imagery to push scientific ideas. This is not acquiescing. I am recognizing the fact that no one likes their beliefs challenged. But scientific facts are as they are; they change only because of more precise observations from better tools and experiments. Our personal worldviews are what must change, if the two are ever at odds. We scientists should take advantage of the metaphors and allegories allowed us by the non-science domain, showing that even something as contentious as religious ideas can be reformulated, not necessarily refuted, and make palatable the bitter pill of hard-won scientific facts.

I started reading this book because it was about education. My wife and I have 2 boys, one five-year-old and one 16 month old.  I’ve been thinking a great deal about their education. My wife and I are both scientists. We feel that while this line of work is intellectually rewarding, the road is hard. For one to reach the top, one has to make sacrifices. My wife and I are more interested in making sure that the boys grow up to make a comfortable living.

I would consider myself a lifelong student. I spent my 12 years in primary and secondary school. Four and a half years of collegiate learning (the extra semester came because I spent a yearlong exchange in Germany, and I decided to take some more courses to receive at least an International Studies minor). [This was followed] by 10 years of doctoral and post-doctoral training.

I have had the opportunity to learn in many settings. The modes of learning included both defined coursework and independent study. I did fine with both, although I think I had the advantage of being extremely interested in just about everything. So much so that on occasion I welcomed the structure imposed by instructors and their syllabus, plotting out a course of study that I may not have bothered with, on my own.

My graduate and post-doctoral work focused on olfaction, specifically on the physiology of olfaction as assessed using optical indicators of neural activity. I basically focused on recording brain responses in the “smell processing pathways” in the brain.

I didn’t have any affinity for the sense of smell. I applied to a neuroscience graduate program because I wanted to understand how the brain worked. It mattered not one wit whether the system was smell, taste, hearing, vision, or touch. I had a general question that I wanted to answer, and the specifics did not matter to me.

More recently, and this has some bearing on the book by Daniel Wolff, I had to find a second post-doctoral position because I decided that my skills were not marketable. I guess you can argue that I failed in convincing human resources that I can be productive for their company. However, it is also the case that biotechnology companies are not looking for a neurophysiologist who records in vivo neural responses using conventional microscopy. Instead, they look for electrophysiologists, scientists who do imaging in cell cultures, or deep tissue scanning using fMRI, CT scans, or PET scans.

Regardless, I couldn’t make myself fit into their bucket, and they weren’t willing to accommodate someone with my skill set and who could possibly bring something unique to their company.

The point is that I consider myself a professional student. Since I started my new post-doc in flow cytometry, I am learning new techniques, a new system, and getting to know the intimate lives of single cells. The strategy is simple: my boss has certain ideas he wants implemented. He left it to me to work out the specifics. So I am currently identifying attributes of my technique (UV spectroscopy), understanding the life cycle of a cell, identifying subcellular organelles, and learning how to make them stick to slides so I can look at them under a microscope. Most of these things I can find in published literature. The key thing is that I look for ways to combine my [new] technique ([involving] UV microscopy) and established ways of looking at cells.

In my previous post-doc, I had to determine the best way to preserve a “cranial window” through which I can look at brain responses, in the same animal, over a period of months. I adapted and extended previous work, and brought some newer techniques, to help me accomplish this goal. I also established a method to mimic natural breathing patterns in anesthetized mice, and so I had to learn LabView and MatLab to write software to control various devices and to analyze data.

So yes, I have some experience with learning new things.

And for the life of me I cannot think of a so-called best way for my boys to learn.

Thus I became interested in books like How Lincoln Learned to Read. It seems, from my reading, that the book confirmed  a few things about how kids learn. That is, it may not be clear until much later what exactly kids learned in school. Daniel Wolff took a snap shot of how 12 famous Americans were educated. He selected one child from each era and wrote about the formative years of each. Of course, these people may have become famous despite, and not because of, their education. One could tell that all of the young people were driven. Driven to achieve greatness, or driven to just do whatever it is that they became famous for.

In a way, the formal education was not all that important for each child. Some did in fact thirst for knowledge for its own sake. Wolff shaped his descriptions in terms of both pragmatic outcome and post-hoc analysis. We know where they ended up, so it becomes a way for us to interpret and identify the steps that led the children to their destiny. However, what he also noted was that the kids had the balls to chase the learning they needed. There is certainly an individualist streak, strongly evident in Lincoln’s and [Henry] Ford’s backgrounds; [both boys avoided farm work and] both boys were considered lazy for their time. [This was true given the focus of their times on the importance of farm work.] [Lincoln and Ford] were not layabouts. Lincoln read, and Ford tinkered. They learned what they wanted to know.

And even when the children were forced into limited opportunities for learning – such as for Thomectony, Abigail Adams, and Sojourner Truth – they did not let that education define them. They, as they should, got what they needed from books or their teachers, or even from their everyday observations. They did not let the limits of their so-called education prevent them achieving their ends.

Of all the characters, I felt the strongest affinity for W.E.B. Dubois, especially the view he took of education as uplift, in his younger days. A learned man is a rational man. The emphasis on books and abstract learning is the hallmark of civilization. Through reason and the sheer force of intellect and action, others cannot help but look past surface appearance to admire the man beneath. Education, simply, gives man and woman choice, so they do not have to sell their work cheaply.

But [the mass education] system seems broken to me. I have, and I hope this doesn’t turn readers off, thought for a long time now that education – and especially higher education – is not suited for everyone. I don’t think I am being elitist; I just happen to think that higher education is as useful to [most] people the way that knowing carpentry is useful to a plumber. It might be [handy] to know, but one certainly doesn’t require it to succeed in the job at hand. I will elaborate some more.

I’ve concluded that a university education is something that prepares students… to do research. For scientific research, the goal is to identify mechanisms underlying observed phenomena. The use may in fact not be obvious – this is more of the knowledge of the sake of knowledge [mode]. To me, it seems a destructive idea to [use] a university degree as a form of uplift. It cheapens education to the point that one thinks a degree is in fact a commodity to be bought. This cannot be further from the truth: to pay for an education should mean that one has decided that the resources of a university helps expand his knowledge, whether by working with specific machines and tools or with specific professors. This is active knowledge seeking.

The alternative is to think of college as a paid for experience, at the end of which one is conferred a piece of paper that acts as a passport to a job. In this mode, I can see how students and parents may impinge on faculty, outraged that the instructor dared to fail the lazy student. [I detest students who blame their own lack of academic success on the teacher wh odid not engage his interest], when in fact all they have paid for is access. The rest is up to the student to provide.

And so I was left with this: each of the subjects Wolff discusses had the common attribute of being presenters. These were all men and women who grew famous as politicians, orators, writers, or entrepreneurs. In a sense, each of these people excelled at internalizing and then espousing what they knew. Rachel Carson wrote about her Romantic-era like visions of her bucolic home, an ideal that was nowhere near the [reality] of her growing up near a glue factory. Elvis Presley spent time in school, sure, but he certainly did not shy from joining quartets or cutting demos. Ben Franklin, Helen Keller, and Andrew Jackson learned a fair bit about finding popular topics to write or talk about.

This theme, whether Wolff intended or not, has dovetailed with my own thinking about the type of education I want my sons to have. I think, most of all, they need to read proficiently. Not in the cheap post-modern way where all language simply reflects one’s preconceived notions and thoughts. No, I mean to read and to understand and internalize the writer’s point of view. To engage him honestly. The second thing would be to then tell an audience what he understood, and how he extends or refutes the idea. I think this second point is something that needs to be emphasized explicitly. By telling, one learns.

It is a bit of a cliche, in graduate school, that the best way to learn is to be forced to teach someone else. Only [by] actually thinking about the audience will one truly begin to understand. I have found the hard way that this is in fact true. One should aspire not to understand something, but to make it so that he can help a second person understand what he [now professes] to know. I realized I have been implementing this in a soft way. I keep asking my older son questions, helping him develop details to his stories. I am always amazed and gratified when he can put together sentences with subclauses, declaring a proper sequence of events.

Part of it is just joy in hearing him talk, in seeing him learn. [I] am glad to see that there are precedents for such [a] type of education.

Update 4/9/2010: Ick. I know blogs are meant to be fast, first drafts sort of posts, but I just can’t stand seeing obvious mistakes and not correct them. I placed the edits in brackets (I’m not sure if the strikethroughs I see in other blogs are real corrections or if it’s another tool to convey snide comments – I think usually the latter…. So, I am going with brackets.)

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