Wednesday, February 10, 2016

A Better Academy

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University degrees are becoming progressively more expensive—and also irrelevant. One of the fastest growing and most lucrative fields is Information Technology (IT), and four years of experience at a help desk is more than sufficient to launch your career straight out of high school. If you want to be a computer programmer or systems architect and you have the motivation for self-education, you’d do better to buy some books on it and play around with some networks and game-coding in your basement (as I did) than to sit through four years of coursework toward a computer science degree. And it is a heck of a lot cheaper.
Most organic farmers are fed up with the university system because it is dominated by industrial ways of thinking. Every book I’ve read on organic farming warns against universities and instead suggests independent reading, finding mentors, and experimenting with a garden as the best ways to learn agriculture. Organic farmers who pursue this track will in most cases earn more per acre than conventional farmers simply because they are more likely to grow what most other people aren’t growing and thus sell it for more. Universities homogenize thinking and standardize everything—but if you ask any successful businessman making profit is about creativity.
In short, as with public K-12 schools, modern universities are becoming increasingly mechanized and impersonal. I think that the same argument for K-12 homeschooling (or as some like to call it “unschooling”) apply for a self-study, mentors-and-classics approach to college learning, as used at some of the most successful colleges in the world—such as Oxford and Williams College. This way of teaching, based on small tutorial seminars and independent study, was the foundation of the best academies of ancient Greece and Rome. The most successful writers, philosophers, and scientists have usually had a fantastic mentor, someone much more involved in their success than a typical course instructor. And they have in most cases carefully studied the classics and great books of the past. Wisdom—understanding that goes beyond rote knowledge—does not arise ex nihilo. Our universities have largely forgotten this, as I decided over the course of my own university studies spanning eleven years.
My wife and I have already started homeschooling our kids, now ages 2 and 4. This does not mean sitting them in little desks in front of a chalk board and lecturing. For a four-year-old this means having an occasional conversation about the earth, the moon, and the sun, and which goes around which. Or about what kind of animals you can find in Africa. Or a discussion of how you might spell the word “cat” and letting them copy a few letters in crayon if they feel like it. For a two-year-old this means singing songs, dancing together, and making sure they help clean up when it’s time to put away toys. It means nothing more or less than paying attention to them and spending at least an hour a two every day playing and interacting with them. As they get older you can start discussing books, and if you show interest in books and they see you reading they will want to read. William already spends several hours a week “reading” textbooks on anatomy, not because we tell him to but because he loves it.
Homeschooling also does not mean setting them loose in a field of daisies wearing burlap sacks. Local homeschoolers I’ve met are not hippies or hicks as the stereotypes suggest, but tend to be well-educated and financially-successful business people. Homeschooling means raising a human being that loves to learn because they learn what they love. Studies bear this out. Homeschool kids get into better colleges than average and are more likely to end up in a career field that interests them.
The most common argument we hear against homeschooling is that it fails to “socialize” a child. Studies have shown this to be the opposite of the truth (some are cited here). Homeschool kids not only tend to be more intellectual, but they also tend to have fewer social problems than kids who go to public school—as long as parents are proactive in allowing their kids to participate in activities outside the home. In my experience teaching gifted junior-high kids at summer camp, the homeschooled ones were the most articulate, least shy, and the most outgoing with adults. When your education is based on conversation you become an excellent conversationalist.
Public schools are actually much worse at socializing for reasons that should be obvious. Will a student learn more in a class of 30 where they spend 29/30ths of their time interacting with people as clueless as they are, or in a class of 2? One-thirtieth of 6 hours a day is 12 minutes of attention from the teacher. If you spend just a couple hours with your kids you will already be giving them ten times more help then they would be getting in public school.
This is why colleges like Oxford and Williams have excelled in teaching. They keep class sizes down around 1-6 students, which gives plenty of opportunity for focused guidance in their studies. When you make everyone sit through lectures to learn material that they might not need in a class on a topic they might not care about taught by a professor who is being forced to teach a required class, you’ve diluted the quality of learning too many times.
As universities hire more bureaucrats to solve their burgeoning problems, they’re finding they have to fire teachers to pay the bureaucrats. And the bureaucrats, who believe that money is the bottom line, then proceed to slash humanities departments because science, they believe, is the way of progress and will save the nation’s economy. That scientific progress is also the path toward environmental destruction is something these bureaucrats prefer not to realize.
Over the next two-hundred years, as university-led scientific progress guzzles up what remains of its fossil fuel and blows away what remains of our soil and healthy ecosystems, as economies decline and as governments run low on cash—fluffy cultural institutions like universities will be the first to suffer funding cuts. The very idea of an “education”—a notion already so diluted it is virtually synonymous with “job training” in English—will die and will have to be reborn. Independent mentors working outside the collapsing university system will by degrees become regarded as a more valuable source of wisdom. The loose academies they form—unhindered by bureaucracy—will eventually hold a higher kind of public honor.
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During the Dark Ages of Europe, knowledge was preserved in monasteries. Monastic life is cheap, self-sufficient, and based on a transmission of tradition and values so faithful that some monasteries are still going after 1500 years. Devotion to wisdom above worldly values yields longevity. With Oxford’s devotion to classics, mentoring, and traditional values (all esteemed over profits) it has been around for almost a millennium.
In the long view, then, universities will need to not only get cheaper, but to start valuing wisdom over worldliness. The secret to saving money is not to get more of it but to change your fundamental view of it, to stop valuing it, to let it go. Most traditional cultures understand that generosity brings prosperity, and it only sounds paradoxical to us because we in the West have become heedlessly materialistic.
When you value money more than time, you overwork yourself. When you start valuing time over money, leisure is possible. I have been offered jobs of more than twice the salary as I am currently making, and people tell me I’m crazy for turning them down. But I knew I would be expected to work sixty or more hours a week. It sounds to me like these people would rather buy their children more toys than spend more time with them. It’s a question of value.
Tightening budgets and chasing profits will always make it harder to save money. If you chase profit you will spend more. But if you spend more then your budget will only tighten. The reverse philosophy works much better. Be more generous and loosen your budget. Spend less on infrastructure and more on leisure. Leave at least 25% of your budget fallow so you can give to people in need at a whim. Now you have some breathing room. When things get hard it won’t matter. Your budget is loose. Now you don’t have to chase higher salaries and you don’t have to work longer hours. This has worked in my personal life and generosity is a perennial virtue taught in all religions.
Companies that advertise get great short-term profits. But long-term profits only come from reputation, and reputation only comes from quality. Princeton and Harvard are considered great schools not because we see huge colorful billboards for them but because they are great schools. Every time I see a billboard for a university it makes me cringe. It’s money that could have gone into more and better teachers. Hiring PR people means firing actual academics. Chasing corporate money means serving corporate interests and sacrificing core values. When universities sacrifice their core values they are sacrificing their own future success and reputation. If a faculty is taught to value Truth over Profit, and idealists are hired to teach, you will end up with a more frugal, more driven, and more honored faculty.
History teaches us that institutions devoted to values and ideals over money and fame will ultimately prevail. Great institutions (and great people) always devote themselves to wisdom, virtue, and truth above worldly “success,” and teach these values. Modern Western academia makes a mistake to stress worldly values such as career, economy, and business. It makes education shallow and more mechanical, something you have to do to get by, and decreases students quality of life because it fails to teach them what is really important. Vocational training can be a good thing, but it should be focused on quality craftsmanship—not simply “getting by” because you’re not smart enough for rocket science.
Students like myself and many of my peers left academia because we grew tired of the focus on building a professorial career. Academia chased us idealists away because the professor-mill conveyer belt left no room for Idealism or true Philosophy, true Love of Wisdom. This was at what has been ranked as the top Philosophy department in the United States.
If we bring back idealism to schools we will bring back the idealists who want to make things better and not chase them away. It is only with unbridled idealism that we can make the radical reforms needed for academies that are self-sufficient. The biggest challenge facing our civilization in the coming century is becoming sustainable. What is not made sustainable won’t be sustained and will go extinct, whether we’re talking about a university or a technology. Such was the decline of Roman civilization. Rather than hiring new departments to “research” sustainability, how better might a university lead the way than by growing all its own food sustainability? Recycling all its own waste? Building its own solar or wind generators and its own machine tools? A university like this would ultimately be cheaper to maintain and could even make a profit on what it produces. Like the monasteries of old, it would serve as an example of what can be done with idealism instead of merely producing endless books about it.
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Universities teach three major types of knowledge: vocational, scientific, and philosophical. Each has its own challenges, so let’s define them before discussing them at length.

Vocational education is career-oriented, including much now classed as science or humanities. For example, any coursework that stresses the craft of writing over the content is vocational training, whether or not it involves the writings Shakespeare. Likewise any science concerned with specialized theories meaningless outside a given context is vocational, such as solid state physics.

Scientific education is concerned with general theories or facts widely applicable. Evolutionary theory, relativity, calculus, genetic theory, logic, history, and philosophy of science all fall under this category, because they all help students develop a bigger more cohesive picture of the world. What is currently called “science” is too specialized and too fragmented to fill this role. For example, quantum physics is supposed to be fundamental to our reality but there are almost no courses teaching non-physicists what its significance is. As a result there is a great deal of superstition regarded quantum physics, popularly believed to be a theory of psychic energies. Students are forced to learn endless disconnected details concerning the molecular basis of life but no general definitions of what life is. A good model for what science should be is the ancient corpus of Aristotle—which gives general and useful definitions of fundamental things like matter and motion—though his books are sorely in need of an update in light of modern discoveries.

Philosophical education is concerned with wisdom, knowledge, and value in themselves—how to learn them, teach them, understand them. Such genuine philosophy—love of wisdom—is now classed as a kind of “humanities,” though very little of it is being done in modern universities. For the most part idealism is shoved outside the academy—not scholarly enough! (Or perhaps not profitable enough.) If there is a crisis in education and everybody knows it, why aren’t we expanding departments concerned with these things? There seems to be a general attitude that questions about society or values are not scientific enough to be genuine fields of study. This idea is completely absurd. It assumes that if something cannot be made mathematical it cannot be thought about at all. If that were the case almost everything humans did would be left to chance. In truth there are ancient ways of thinking about wisdom that have worked for thousands of years. We need philosophers who have studied the ancients and are allowed to dedicate their lives to educational ideals of the highest quality.

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A Better Vocational Academy
A degree in computer science is less valuable in today’s market than IT experience. An MBA is less important for success in leadership positions than extra-curricular leadership training such as Toastmasters or the writings of Dale Carnegie. The most successful farmers doing sustainable agriculture are self-taught, not the product of university degrees. Why are the universities becoming so irrelevant?
To begin with they are isolated. Exchange between professionals and professors is growing rare. I have never seen a computer science professor in a software development or consulting company, nor I have ever seen a successful software professional enter academia. But the two professions—IT consultant and computer science professor—should be exactly the same because they have the same goals and standards of excellence. And it is the professor here that is becoming irrelevant, to the determinant of the ideological foundation of the discipline. Put simply, there is no theory of quality code. The whole profession is suffering for it: software that is poorly written, lacking the craftsmanship that would make it easily maintainable, is—if you ask any programmer—the scourge of the field and our main source of headaches.
Universities should revive the old tradition of giving honorary degrees and start fighting to win the most successful consultants and programmers. These professionals might appreciate the security offered by university life and the universities would have truly vocational teachers. On the other side computer science professors should do mandatory IT internships on a continual basis. The field is short on fast-learning individuals so this would benefit both sides. Expense of salary should be no obstacle. If a university can spend $1,000,000 on a building a slap a cheap lecturer in there, they can just as easily hire a $1,000,000 consultant and throw him in a shack. The latter is surely the wiser strategy in the long run.
Farmers passionate about becoming fully self-sufficient and sustainable have been forced out of universities, and where sustainability research is supported at all it tends to lack the practical down-to-earth resolve possessed by the our best permaculture pioneers. The most creative sustainable farms also tend to be the most profitable—the least successful organic farms are the ones that follow widely-taught methods. Wouldn’t it be mutually beneficial for a university to find the most profitable permaculturists and give them a platform for teaching in return for financial security? There must be a hell of a self-defeating animosity on both sides for this not to be happening more.
Ultimately, you can kill two birds here: (1) poor vocational academies, (2) unsustainable academies. Bring in the people who know sustainability and they can not only teach it properly but help run the academy itself in a sustainable way.

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A Better Scientific Academy
The over-specialization of science is the direct result of an unsustainable model of reductive, over-quantitative research. This directionless program is the product of a half-baked philosophy of science obsessed with physics, mathematics, and pure scholarship. Big corporations dump money into the biggest science and the biggest technology, which are the least sustainable and the least applicable to an individual’s search for meaning. They’ve spoiled our scientists into thinking that research should be done for its own sake without asking questions about what it means. Thus, most modern physics is energy-intensive and unsustainable, most chemistry is industrial and not ecological, most biology is pharmaceutical and not ecological, and psychology is oriented towards making “productive” members of our bureaucracies and not wise, virtuous, or ecologically-minded individuals.
The most successful piece of propaganda against philosophy, ecology, and holism is the claim that physics is the most fundamental science. Such physicalism implies that all explanations must point “downward,” that is, toward the physical constituents of a process. Thus physics concerns itself with atoms rather than everyday objects, biology concerns itself with molecular processes rather than high-level organization, and psychology is concerned with neurons and chemistry rather than meaning and purpose. Such attitudes have accelerated the specialization and fragmentation of science into non-communicating departments, each studying a different component in isolation.
The first fallacy of physicalism is its assumption that parts are more real than wholes. The study of what is real is known as “ontology” among philosophers, and the study of parts and wholes is known as “mereology.” Thus we might call this the “mereo-ontological” fallacy. According to this fallacy, objects like books, humans, and planets are “really just atoms.”
The phrase “just atoms” can be analyzed to mean “atoms and nothing else.” Such a phrase can be rightly used when discussing the possibility of other material components. It was once thought that ectoplasm or ether were kinds of matter. Over the last century scientists have determined that in fact most objects in our world contain no ectoplasm or ether, but are “just atoms,” that is, “atoms and nothing else.” Such statements are reasonable because they are shorthand for “just made of atoms” or “made of atoms and nothing else.” In this case we are only talking about the parts and not the wholes.
The fallacy enters when this way of speaking attempts to eliminate wholes—such as minds, societies, or ecosystems—from consideration. For example, suppose someone were to say, “That book isn’t poetry, it’s just political propaganda and nothing else!” It would be absurd to object, “That book is neither poetry nor political propaganda. It is just atoms.”
Again, a doctor might say, “It isn’t cancer, it’s just the flu.” You cannot rightly object, “No, it’s just atoms.”
Again, if an astronomer were to say, “There are no oxygen atoms on that planet, just nitrogen atoms,” you cannot object, “No, that planet is really just protons, neutrons, and electrons, the components of atoms.”
No theory would be able to make any interesting causal claims without considering higher levels of organization. That a collection of particles became another collection of particles says nothing of what changed. Oxygen can cause explosions, cancer can cause death, and political propaganda can cause revolutions, but none of these processes can be described in the language of particle physics. It is the language of physics that gives you “just” positions and locations of particles and nothing else. But the language of physics is not the only useful language.
This notion that physics is a complete scientific language is the second fallacy. You might call it the physical omni-descriptive fallacy. It is based on the notion that a big enough computer with the positions and velocities of every particle in the universe would be able to use the laws of physics to predict every future event. This seems plausible because physics gives very precise mathematical laws for how particles can move and interact. These laws are precise enough that modern physicists can in fact predict the motions of stars and planets, as well as some motions of subatomic particles, with a high degree of accuracy. But the claim of omni-description is supposed to apply to everything, and this claim has several flaws.
To begin with we are lacking three things for physical omni-description: (1) a large enough computer, (2) the positions and velocities of all particles, and (3) a complete theory of physics. The universe obviously has more particles than any computer we could build. But if we allow our computer to speak of higher-level objects we have not shown the primacy of physics. So the only option would be to have a computer larger than the universe and outside it. In other words the omni-descriptive claim can only be a hypothetical claim, and not a claim about what can actually be constructed. Secondly, to make matters more abstract we do not know the positions and velocities of all particles in the universe. We cannot even count them exactly for a given object. Nor does quantum mechanics allow us to measure or specify them exactly, and it leaves an essentially probabilistic element in any prediction. Finally, we do not have a finally theory of physics. What happens in high-energy stars and black holes is still beyond our current physics to predict.
Thus our claim that physics describes everything degenerates into a claim that if we knew everything (were omnipresent) and could calculate everything (were omniscient) then we could predict and control everything (were omnipotent). Thus it is more of a statement about the possible characteristics of a deity than about the practice of science.
But might a physicist restrict this descriptive claim to a single object, such as the human body? Here again, you run into a complexity problem. Your computer would have to be more complex than the human body, unless it took higher-level theories into account. Assuming these theories were correct, what difference would it make whether you could describe these theories in terms of physics? Software developers, for example, don’t have to understand computer hardware to craft quality code. Nor do doctors have to understand quantum physics to make a correct diagnosis. There is no sense in which physics is “primary” and other sciences are “derivative.” That it studies the “fundamental” parts of which things are made does not imply that physics is fundamental as a study. This idea, in a nutshell, confuses mereological primacy with ontological and epistemological primacy.
The source of physicalism—if not sound logic—might be traced to the success of physics in creating powerful industrial technology. Atomic bombs, spacecraft, and nuclear generators have been the flagships of the physicalist worldview. All of these devices were originally part of the military-industrial complex of the West and fed its desire for material power. Seeking to create a new generation of powerful technologies, the 20th-century superpowers poured money into “hard science” and emphasized reductive research that could enhance their means of material control. This strategy will only lead to their downfall as it destroys the environment and fosters international conflict.
This may be contrasted with the Academies of Antiquity and the Universities of the Rennaissance, which held the study of value—philosophy—to be fundamental. Philosophy is rightfully the queen of the sciences because it directs our efforts toward Truth, Goodness, and Beauty and allows no scientist or scholar to be cast adrift by love of power or money. The focus of philosophy is on cultivating wise individuals, and the best philosophy of science arranges and organizes the sciences in a holistic way to give students a comprehensive “big picture” view of their world.
There is another more pernicious fallacy that has led our science astray, and that is the rationalistic doctrine, which states that pure, value-free logic should serve as the foundation of our thinking. Mathematics, according to this view, is the highest science, and the humanities and philosophy, which concern themselves with value, are a waste of time because they are inherently subjective. Such an attitude is absurd in practice, because if values are not taken into consideration how are priorities to be made? It contradicts itself because it makes a value judgment (objectivity is the most important thing) without any logical justification. Yet this attitude has come to dominate American philosophy departments, to the point where professors have more passion for crafting a logical arguments concerning trivial disputes over language than they do for reforming society. Our academies have thus lost their moral and aesthetic center and are adrift in directionless Reason. Again, this is the result of powerful corporations that emphasize technology and material control over everything else. Such is the corrupting influence of wealth, and in prior centuries such influence has always waned as its material basis has been depleted; in our case that material basis is fossil fuels.

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A Better Philosophical Academy
We see that the cause of all these problems is lack of integrity in the face of materialism. The most ancient and successful academic values in the West go back to Plato and Aristotle, whose teachings are now neglected and whose stated purpose was to create better, wiser, more virtuous individuals. Both were rational thinkers but held firmly to core ideals: Goodness, Truth, Beauty, Honor, Temperance, and Wisdom. Of all these ideals Wisdom was held to encompass the rest: it meant knowing, teaching, and upholding them all. Our philosophy departments no longer love Wisdom; they teach few of these ideals and without conviction. The university that will thrive in years to come will value wisdom and virtue over material prosperity. It will survive in the long run because it will keep the long view in mind. Perhaps such academies are already being formed. Even then we may not hear about them for a while, because advertisement and self-aggrandizement will be low on their list of priorities. Decades down the road perhaps such academies will burst into the public eye with revolutionary leaders and philosophers.
But how will this better academy teach value? How does one teach students value with conviction but without dogmatizing like a priest? On the other hand, how can you teach students to question value without sacrificing all conviction and teaching moral relativism? Right now professors are stuck in a wishy-washy middle ground where for the sake of political correctness they must champion certain values and ignore others. But they have put themselves in this position through their own weakness of will. The ancients knew that teachers must: (1) learn virtue, (2) understand virtue, and (3) teach virtue. Determining how to accomplish these goals is the sacred task of philosophy. And if core values are missing from the beginning the endeavor is hopeless, just as a corporation without a mission statement will flounder.
The first step to learning virtue, and thus developing core values, is to read the classics, especially the most ancient ones. The values they teach are time-tested. People have died for them. People have devoted their lives to passing them down to us through all famines, plagues, inquisitions, and persecutions. Most Greek writings spread first to Rome, then to the Middle East, and finally back to Europe. They have proven fruitful in many times and places. They give us something to hold on to and principles to act on. If they are used to reform your own life first, you can then go on and inspire other people to grow and improve. As your life flourishes finally your conviction of your core values will strengthen, and you can be said to understand them because you have put them to the test. And seeing your understanding and conviction others will look up to you and you will be capable of teaching them. If you lack faith in your vision it is not worth professing, and this requisite faith was the original meaning behind the term “professor.”
When I had gained this conviction myself and went back to my philosophy department to write my dissertation and take on an official title, one faculty member told me, “It sounds like you are already convinced that the thesis of your dissertation is true.” When I told him I was convinced he replied, “That’s not how you write a dissertation. First you find some question debated in the literature, then you weigh each side and determine where the weight of evidence lies.” When I told him I’d already done that he said, “Well the question you asked was not something philosophers are currently debating.” My ideas were considered “outdated,” as if philosophy was some kind of creative art or scientific exploration without an end goal. Because the faculty showed no inclination to discuss values, ideals, or the nature of wisdom, I left. If I ever find a faculty at a school concerned with cultivating ancient wisdom and virtues in their students I would gladly join it, but perhaps our universities have fallen too far for that to be possible.
Having philosopher-teachers with virtue and conviction, an academy will have a soul. It will have integrity in the face of all passing power-struggles, all passing booms and busts, all evils and propogandas, all complacencies and naivetes, all corporate buy-outs and inquisitions, all media-addicted generations and politically-correct pundits. Through all this darkness it will be a shining light, an heir to Plato’s Academies and Christ’s Monasteries. A guide and a gathering point for all enduring wisdoms and virtues. A haven for the ideals of martyrs and the creations of genius, for outcast sages and unworldly saints. Such places have existed through the darkest times of the past, and we must ensure that they are born again to face the darkest times of the future.

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