Sunday, March 27, 2016

The World’s Best Education Costs Almost Nothing ...

... because the best possible education you can get is by reading the classics. Since most books older than about 80 years are in the public domain, you can find most classic books online for free.

If you want to be truly great at what you do, whether it’s writing, speaking, art, IT, public service, business, whatever – then you should do what all the greats did. You should read the greats.

Gandhi, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Marie Curie, Pablo Picasso, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Henry David Thoreau, Emily Bronte, Jane Austen, J.K. Rowling, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin all got the lion’s share of their education by reading classic literature. That is by reading Isaac Newton, Shakespeare, Francis Bacon, Aristotle, Plato, etc., who themselves got their most important education by reading still earlier classics.

Gandhi’s reading list included Aesop’s Fables, Arab Wisdom, the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, Pilgrim’s Progress, Thomas Carlyle, Plato, and the Quran.

The Bronte sisters were not formally educated and were well-read in English literature including Shakespeare, Walter Scott, Byron, and Shelley.

Okay but what if you’re interested in learning something modern like computer programming? You probably won’t believe me, but here's my honest opinion as a self-taught professional programmer who's taken a couple university classes in programming. A university is not the best place to learn IT. If you take a university class on programming it will likely be short-lived information from a book that the professor – who’s maybe never worked in the IT industry – happens to like. If you browse Amazon for computer programming books you can read the reviews and choose the one that was actually more helpful to more real-world programmers. Usually you’ll pay less than $50 for the book and the only other investment your learning will require is time.

It’s better to get your education from the classics because they’re time tested, even if we’re talking about computers. I’m reading some computer stuff from the 70s right now (The Mythical Man-Month for example) that’s actually still applicable in 2016. These books are fantastically good. Forty years is basically 2000 years in IT time and people are still recommending them: they’re classic.

The older the better. No books have influenced my life more than Plato (400 B.C.) and the Tao-Te-Ching (550 B.C.). I was in my mid-20s by the time anyone suggested them to me. I wish I had read them sooner.

Wait, you’re thinking, but aren’t most of these so-called “classics” by white men?

If you want, stick to classics written by non-whites or non-men. China has over 2000 years of classic literature, and the old stuff has survived so many upheavals in Asian culture that they are as applicable to modern America as they are to modern China. (And they are quite applicable.)

India also has a tradition of philosophy stretching back thousands of years, completely unrelated to Western philosophy. But it’s time tested and certainly worth reading.

Read Maya Angelou, Agatha Christie, Emily Dickinson, Mary Shelley, George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans’s pen name), Virginia Woolf, Ayn Rand, Margaret Mitchell, Edith Wharton.

Here’s a list of hundreds of female philosophers dating from about 700 BC. I’ve read some Anne Conway and Hannah Arendt, and several books by Lou Andreas-Salome, Nancy Cartwright, Mary Midgley, Annie Dillard, and Iris Murdoch, all great philosophical thinkers.

If you’re discouraged because it sounds like a lot of work, don’t worry. Reading old books can be hard work at first and it does take a lot of time. But if getting your body fit demands working out at least 15 minutes a day getting cultured isn’t any harder.

Start by setting aside 15 minutes a day. Read on the train or bus. If it’s too loud, put in earbuds and listen to music (without lyrics). Read while you’re eating meals. Read instead of watching Netflix. Read in bed just before going to sleep.

Once you start doing it, it will become enjoyable and relaxing. “I read one or two newspapers a week,” Jefferson said, “but with reluctance give even that time from Tacitus and Homer and so much agreeable reading.”

Successful writers typically read 50-100 books a year. Unless you also want to be a writer or philosopher that’s a lot. But I would recommend reading at least 12 books a year. That’s doable if you’re reading 15 minutes a day. After 4 years you will have read about 50 books, and if you make them count you can cover all the most important classics.

But where to start?

You can start the way I did, by Googling lists of classics. This is an okay way to do it but there are thousands of books out there listed as classics. You’re still left with the question of what to begin with.

I developed a system. If I kept hearing or seeing references to a certain book I’d write it down. Then if I heard even more about it or saw it at the top of someone’s list I’d star it. Some books would get a lot of stars and I would start with these.

If I had to go back and do it again I would add a few rules:

(1) Anything less than 50 years is not time-tested. Unless we’re talking about a computer book scratch it from the list. It’s okay to read contemporary works but you can’t be sure they’re educating you.

(2) Any book from a list written less than 50 years after it is not time-tested either. For example the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson has a diary entry listing several dozen classics he meant to read. The list starts out with books we’ve all heard of (Homer, Plato) but ends with obscure works that nobody reads anymore – these were contemporary works only a few years old when Emerson was writing. Safe to ignore.

(3) Look for lists written by people you admire most. These are books that have helped shape great minds.

In my previous post is my own list of 66 essential classics (update: it's now 102) based on these rules and the reading lists of people I’ve mentioned above.

The Only Real Education is a Self-Education: A List of Classics

Here’s a list of 66 classics that you should read before you die, or rather – what is more important – before you really live. I’m talking about life-changing literature. My list is geared toward the modern Westerner but I’ve made it as objective as I can by including only those authors frequently recommended by other well-known authors. There’s nothing younger than 50 years old here because if it’s less than 50 years old there haven’t been enough generations to test it out as a source of truth to live – and thrive – by.

They are roughly in the order I’d recommend reading them. Writings more fundamental to our tradition, though not necessarily easier to read, are first. Less fundamental and more philosophical works come last.

It’s okay to skip a few. I would say if you read just 50% of the books on this list (and you know, read them to understand them, taking it slow as needed) you’re well-read. I’m not pretending to have read everything on this list myself, though I have read most of it.

I would include external links to full texts but those tend to break over time. Just Google them and you’ll find free online versions of most of these writings. Project Gutenberg has quite a few and you can find free Kindle versions on Amazon, or really cheap used paperbacks.

ADDENDUM (4/16/2016):
I had taken the following list from my personal list of classics to suggest to my children as they got older. It just struck me that J.R.R. Tolkien, Aesop, and One Thousand and One Nights were all missing from this post because they were under the "Youth" section of my list. Whether you plan to homeschool (i.e. "unschool") your kids or send them to public school, these are books worth encouraging them to read, since they have proven themselves over the course of at least two generations of children. I've added them at the bottom under two additional categories, "For Children," and "For Youth," bringing the total number of classic items to 102.

To Read First:

Euclid, Elements
The Bible
Charles Darwin, Origin of Species
Cervantes, Don Quixote
Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
Sun Tzu, Art of War
Galileo, Two New Sciences
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
Thomas Malthus, Principle of Population, 1st Edition
Plato, Early and Middle Dialogues
Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights
The Classic Slave Narratives (Life of Olaudah Equiano, History of Mary Prince, Life of Frederich Douglass, Life of a Slave Girl)
Homer, Odyssey
William Wordsworth, Collected Poems
Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind

Once You’re Warmed Up:

Declaration of Independence
The Constitution
Aristotle, Basic Works
Elizabeth Gaskell, North and South
Lucretius, De Rerum Natura
The Magna Carta
Isaac Newton, The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy
Albert Einstein, “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies”
Emily Dickinson, Complete Poems
Ptolemy, Algamest
Copernicus, On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres
Francis Bacon, Novum Organum
Dante, Divine Comedy
Friedrich Nietzsche, Basic Writings
Lou Andreas-Salome, Nietzsche (Biography)
William Shakespeare, Complete Works
Herman Melville, Moby Dick
Abraham Lincoln, Speeches and Writings

Digging Deeper:

Muhammad, Quran
Confucius, Analects
St. Augustine, Confessions and City of God
George Eliot, Middlemarch
Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Rumi, Essential Poems
Ovid, Metamorphoses
Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
Aurelius, Meditations
Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence
The Book of Chuang Tzu
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract
Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War
Sophocles, Three Theban Plays
Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

Now You’re Serious:

Buddhist Sutras
Bhagavad Gita
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Collected Works
G.K. Chesterton, Everlasting Man
Cicero, De Oratore
Polybius, Histories
Plutarch, Lives
Thomas More, Utopia
Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
Leibniz, Monadology
Anne Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy
Joseph Campbell, Hero with a Thousand Faces
C.G. Jung, Man and His Symbols
Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason

For Children (ages 1-8):

Grimm’s Fairy Tales
Mother Goose
Chicken Little
The Little Engine that Could
Dr. Seuss
Margaret Wise Brown

For Youth (ages 9-16):

Nicomachus, Introduction to Arithmetic
One Thousand and One Nights
Perceval, De Troyes
Monkey, Wu Ch’Eng-En
Robinson Crusoe, De Foe
Beauty and the Beast, Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve
Gulliver's Travels, Jonathan Swift
Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
John Keats
Swiss Family Robinson, Johann David Wyss
Hans Christian Anderson
Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum
American Folktales
Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
Anne of Green Gables, Lucy Maud Montgomery
Wallace Stevens
William Carlos Williams
J.R.R. Tolkien
Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, T.S. Eliot
Johnny Tremain, Esther Forbes
King Arthur and his Knights, Roger Lancelyn Green
C.S. Lewis
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L'Engle
Cat's Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut
The Old Man and the Monkey King, Robert Durand and Leslie Morrison
The Princess Bride, William Goldman

Sunday, March 13, 2016

My Book "Progress Debunked" is Almost Ready

The reason I started this blog, back in 2010, was that I had written a book:
As most of you probably know, I've been working on a book now for several years.  But perhaps I've been writing this book for an audience that doesn't exist.  What use is a philosophy that only the person writing it can understand?  Or only a small circle of professionals that specialize in the same topic?  This is the sort of thing you are pushed to write in today's academic world. 
When I realized this, I thought maybe I'd start another draft of my book, a draft understandable by those I care most about -- my wife, parents, siblings, and close friends.  A book that spends less time explaining obscure theories and more time explaining how we can change our lives in a positive way. 
Maybe, I thought.  But books are so darn time-consuming.   
Today, I had a new idea.  I know what I want to say, so why not just say it?  Hence this blog.
I've been thinking back on the last six years, wondering if I've succeeded in what I set out to do. The truth is, this blog has been much more successful than I imagined. Some of my posts have received hundreds of hits. But I don't think it's succeeded in my original goal, which was to explain my theory of human evolution and my argument against progress.

In this post I explain my argument against progress in the most detail I've made public. But the argument I give there is not as mathematically precise as it can be, and that means it's weaker than it needs to be. I have a much stronger argument, but it's been under wraps now for over six years.

The other thing I haven't explained is my theory of evolution in its entirety. I've used bits and pieces to make arguments here and there (such as my argument for reading the classics based on cultural evolution) but this theory also deserves to be developed in full detail.

Six years ago I wrote down a manuscript that explains all these things.

I think its time to finish up my progress book.

This book is unusual. At its core is a technical, scientific argument; yet what it seeks is a big-picture, philosophical view of the human condition. It argues for a more romantic view of life; yet it does so by citing statistical facts and mathematical equations. It is a book that seeks to dismantle a myth held by almost everyone in our society; yet it does so using theories that lamentably few take the time to really understand.

Due to its dichotomous nature, this book has no natural home in today's fragmented culture. It is too philosophical to be published as science. It is too scientific to published as philosophy. It is not the kind of feel-good self-help book that publishing companies can guarantee will profit.

When I completed the second draft of this book back in 2010, I was a graduate student in the History and Philosophy of Science. I had professors who were good at math, and most had read a great deal of classical and contemporary literature.  You would expect such well-rounded professors, if anyone, would be willing and able to support a grad student undertake the research needed for a book like mine. I did have strong doubts, but I thought it was worth giving them a chance. I showed them the first few chapters. Their reactions were what I expected. One told me to talk to the Darwin expert. Another complained about page numbering. One told me I wasn't ready to write my "symphony" yet, that I should just finish an unambitious PhD on a small topic first. Finally, the Darwin expert, who I gave a tiny fragment of my argument to assess, told me that even this was far too big and new and that I needed to choose a question already being debated in the literature.

I saw two roads before me. If I stayed the academic road, I would spend years finishing my Ph.D. on a microscopically small topic, and spend 7 years or more pursuing tenure before I was allowed to pursue my own ideas. Or, I could not waste a moment of my time on what I saw as the lifeless debates in academic journals, simply write the book I had in my head now, get it out there however I could, and move on to the dozen other projects I had ideas for.

The only rational choice was the latter, so I took my wife and my newborn son back to Utah with me where I pursued a career in IT that would give me enough time to write.

But my book against progress had soured for me. I felt that maybe a technical argument wasn't the way to go. Why did I feel the need to demolish this myth of progress anyway? Couldn't I do something more constructive, like build new, better myths? So I began working on my novels. If I couldn't break into publishing through academia, perhaps I could do so through fiction.

Five years passed. I finished one novel (unpublished) and started half a dozen more. I started a few blogs, with some success. Always in the back of my mind the progress book lurked, a secret weapon that I could use only against my own utopian illusions. Over this time I trained myself to think without utopia, feel without utopia, and finally find meaning in my life without any hope for utopia. I found meaning in family, beauty, art, history, and the classics. Science was still fascinating, but no longer an all-consuming obsession. For the fist time in my life I felt like a truly spiritual person. I felt like a philosopher.

Indeed, my argument against progress had finally succeeded in revolutionizing someone's life, and that person was myself.

Realizing this at the close of 2015, I have resolved to return to my progress book, write my final draft, and finally make it public. I will be looking for readers in a couple of months.