Sunday, February 24. 2008
NPR ran a story a couple days ago that gives me hope for our educational system: "Old-Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills" [Alix Spiegel, February 21, 2009.]
The basic thesis of the story: it was only relatively recently, with the advent of year-round toy advertisements on television, that children's play in our culture became focused on the toy, rather than on play. Before then, play was fundamentally an activity, a free-wheeling imaginative make-believe in which children narrated stories, individually and collectively. But the focus on toys, with ever-more-articulated detail and pre-scripted stories, restricted the imaginative sphere of the child. Add to that the increasing focus on child safety, and the trend to put kids into adult-managed activities: Little Leagues, karate classes, gymnastics, summer camps, etc. (To quote the satirical newspaper The Onion: "Child-Safety Experts Call for the Restrictions on Childhood Imagination.") In the end, children had much, much less room for imaginative play.
Which, it turns out, was a disastrous mistake. Imaginative play turns out to have a strong role in the development of "executive function," a constellation of cognitive abilities that includes, most significantly, "self-regulation" -- the ability to control emotions and behavior, resist impulses, and exert self-control and discipline. And executive function is a better predictor of success in school than a child's IQ.
What makes this story particularly interesting for me is that it is a sweeping endorsement of Waldorf Education pedagogy. Waldorf distinguishes itself with a strong de-emphasis on early reading, instead making the ideal environment for imaginative play for younger children. In the Waldorf preschools and kindergartens, you will not find a single alphabet block. Instead you will find the raw material for imaginative play: play stands, colorful silk scarves, polished stones, pieces of wood, and extremely rudimentary dolls. You will also see lots of handwork and practical arts: knitting, felting, drawing, painting, cooking, and gardening. These are basic exercises for self-regulation.
The NPR story also helps justify Waldorf's strong prohibitions against exposure to media and commercial messages. Waldorf teachers urge parents to limit, and preferably eliminate, all TV, radio, and computer time for young children. School dress codes forbid brand logos, television characters, and all forms of writing. Now we know why: television targeting young audiences is deliberately, consciously trying to co-opt imaginative play for the sake of selling products.
Think of all the modern complaints about the rise in "attention-deficit disorder", and discipline issues in school. Is it any wonder that they can't sit still and pay attention, if we never gave them the chance to practice those abilities?
I find it exciting and promising that the mainstream culture is starting to realize what Waldorf teachers knew all along: children do not need to be little Einsteins. They need to be little children. They need to play.
Thursday, February 21. 2008
This past weekend Terry Teachout put out a great analysis of why, in art at least, the best is the enemy of the good ("Importantitis, Enemy of Art: How to Wreak a Career in One Easy Lesson," Wall Street Journal, February 16, 2008). He cites Leonard Bernstein, Orson Welles, and Ralph Ellison as examples of artists who strangled their creativity by struggling to create masterpieces instead of just diligently practicing their craft. I liked his counter-example of choreographer George Balanchine, whom he quotes: "In making ballets, you cannot sit and wait for the Muse. Union time hardly allows it, anyhow. You must be able to be inventive at any time."
I've heard this message many times in other contexts, but it probably can't be repeated too often. Many writers I admire â€“ Orson Scott Card, e.e. cummings, Carl Sandburg, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Joss Whedon â€“ are consciously prolific, choosing to write a lot as their path to writing something great. Most of the writing advice books I've read work hard to dispel the usual cultural myths about art: that it's a matter of inspiration, that it requires moody geniuses who work sporadically, that masterpieces are incubated in seclusion and to the exclusion of all else. Many prefer the word craft to art, because it connotes a more practical, hands-on, day-to-day sort of creativity, something that looks less like a grand vocation and more like a regular job.
I think the same attitude could be extended beyond the realm of art. Anyone who sets out to "make the world a better place" â€“ all the teachers, doctors, therapists, social workers, activists, philosophers, and do-gooders of all stripes â€“ may succumb to the temptation to regard their work (and, by extension, themselves) as "important," and neglect the day-to-day demands of their respective crafts while they are busy preening. One of the teachers at my kids' school told me: "You know, during my training I was told, 'You are doing the work of God.' That's a pretty heavy trip to lay on someone. If you start to think that way, pretty soon you start acting like you're the hand of God, which usually doesn't work out too well." Mother Teresa had the final word on that point: "We cannot do create things. We can only do small things with great love."
All this is just to reassure me that all this blogging is not a waste of time. Produce, produce, produce -- and trust that the good stuff will find its way into the world.
Tuesday, February 19. 2008
The artificiality of my world was recently confirmed by a sudden confluence of software changes. For years I had organized my work and home life inside of the CRM system I use at work: GoldMine. A lot of my consulting customers use GoldMine as well, so it was useful to "eat my own cooking" and live inside that environment as well. But, for a variety of reasons, we have finally switched to using a different software package internal, an IT-services solution integrated into Microsoft Office 2007. So now all my work is planned and executed and tracked in a completely new environment â€“ new calendar, new to-do lists, new ways of thinking about the whole process.
The basic nature of my work and life has not changed at all. But because I'm using a new set of tools, suddenly my life feels new. I am somewhat embarrassed by how much my life looks like those Office 2007 print ads, with business professionals looking all bright-tailed and bushy-eyed as they walk down the street in the morning, with a caption something like "It's a whole new world." When 90% of my work time is spent staring at a computer screen, a change in software processes feels more dramatic than moving into a new house. How artificial is that?
It also has reminded me how much software (and our lives) are driven by metaphors. Those little colored squares on the screen are not my work; my work is actually a concept called "appointments," symbolized by those little squares. And the notion of "appointment" is actually a container for something more real, which is real communication with real people. Our man-made systems and conventions necessarily simplify reality, reducing a complex universe into little squares we can push around on a grid called a calendar. Even the calendar itself is an artifice. My life is so ruled by Monday, Tuesday, weekday, weekend, that sometimes it shocks me to step outside, feel the sun on my face and a cool breeze and realize that the sun and the wind and the trees don't know it's Monday, and don't even care. The squirrels look at me and say, "What's 'Monday?' Monday is a dream, a hallucination, something you imagined was real."
Sometimes you get so used to the metaphors that you forgot they were metaphorical. Microsoft recently introduce a product called OneNote as a part of Office, that is intended to give people a place to write down all the things they have to write down in a day. I was describing it to one of my colleagues, and he asked, "How is that any different than Microsoft Word?" I answered, "It isn't. Only the metaphor is different. Word works with the metaphor of a "document," which is a digital representation of one or more pieces of paper. This is exactly the same thing, only it uses the metaphor of a notebook with tabbed sections instead." It seemed a little silly at first . . . but then I thought about all my customers. Every single salesman and sales manager I know walks around with a thick leather-bound portfolio, a notebook into which the write everything: appointments, meeting notes, to-dos, ideas, drawings, sketches, plans, brainstorming, directions. Maybe just changing the metaphor was all that was needed.
I had seen Microsoft try to do the same thing, a few versions back. Back in Office 95 they introduced the "Office Binder", a document type that could hold multiple different office documents together. Presumably you could put a bunch of different Word docs, Excel spreadsheets, and PowerPoint presentations all together in one organized place, just like you might put real pieces of paper together into a physical binder. It seemed like a nice idea, but I don't know anyone who ever used it, and after Office 2000 it went away. I guess the metaphor wasn't powerful enough to be appealing. People already had the metaphor of "folder" in their computers, and the Binder felt superfluous. With OneNote, I think they hit metaphorical pay-dirt. Only office administrators use binders, but practically all business people of all stripes use notebooks.
Monday, February 18. 2008
In a lecture I was listening to, the professor mentions the "artificial" nature of our world. "Look around you â€“ everything in this classroom is artificial. The chairs, your clothes, the building: someone made them. Even the trees you see out the window â€“ they didn't grow there naturally. Someone put them there. We live in a man-made world." He was extending that notion of artifice to cover all of human society and relations, as well; our morals, our laws, our obligations, our relationships are all artificial as well.
"Artificial" usually has a negative connotation in our language; to be "artificial" doesn't merely imply that something is the result of human craft, but that it is somehow less than real. Ersatz. Fake. Pretended. Artificial. "Natural," on the other hand, positively glows with connoted virtue. To say something is natural is practically to bless it as ordained by God.
Why do we instinctively give so much credit to what is natural, and discredit whatever was touched by human hands? Especially when so much of what we want and value, both tangible and intangible, is technically "artificial?" Not only TVs and computers and flush toilets, but also justice, human rights, altruism, democracy, and fairness. In fact, so many of the virtues we admire are valued precisely because they are unnatural, meaning, it takes effort to cultivate them. It seems so backwards, like we have a pathological dislike for ourselves.
The professor was asserting that our love of the "natural" comes from an instinctive need to see our world naively: to take it just as it is, accepting it as immutable and perfect. Life is much simpler that way. If we see our world as "natural," why then we don't have to question anything. That's the way God made it. To see your world as constructed inevitably slides you into a post-modern morass, where nothing is absolute, everything is uncertain, and nothing is true. Few people want to accept the crushing existential responsibility for a world that we ourselves have made.
No, I haven't suddenly become a post-modernist. Oddly enough, I still believe in Truth and Goodness. But that does seem to be the challenge of philosophy: to find the absolutes you can guide your life by, even when you are surrounded by a stormy sea of the relative.
Sunday, February 17. 2008
I started listening to a lecture series on Social Deviance. (Ok, you may now lower your eyebrows.) The inspiration came from several different angles. When you're a parent of young kids, you spend a lot of time trying to establish norms, teaching kids the rules that govern normal interactions in our culture. You wouldn't think that would be so hard, until find yourself saying things you'd never think you'd have to say to someone, like: "Please don't stand on the roof of the car," or "People won't like you give them a present and then try to take it back from them five minutes later," or "If you're angry you may go hit a pillow, but please don't make that face and threaten to decapitate me with a spork." You might think the legal system is complicated, but that's nothing compared to the web of social rules that regulate talking to another human being. Most of the time we're completely unconscious of those rules, until we're trying to educate someone else, and then we're faced with having to articulate rules that we never realized we were following.
So how did we internalize those rules in the first place? I'm fairly certain that my mother never outright told me, "Don't stand on the roof of the car," and yet if one of my kids does it my initial reaction would be, "You idiot, what the hell do you think you're doing, standing on the roof of a car?!?" When you stop to think about it, there's nothing obviously wrong about it, at least to a six-year-old. They climb on lots of things â€“ why not the car? And yet, that message gets communicated to everyone in their upbringing, at least well enough that most of the time I don't have to worry about someone on the street jumping up and down on the roof of the Accord.
In this way, every parent becomes a sociologist, reexamining every rule and folkway and convention and deconstructing it. What is the rule, exactly, for this situation? What is the rationale, if any, for this rule? Is it important enough to enforce? And if so, what's the right way to enforce it?
The same kind of thinking goes into any kind of management, which is just another form of culture-building. How do we make the employees understand that it's not cool to turn in their timesheets late? How do we convince the school community that they should support the Annual fund, and make it an accepted and ordinary part of the culture?
The nub of this question came out of our earlier discussion in these pages on the rules governing sexual behavior. I started out saying, "Chastity should be the norm," but then everyone had a different idea of what that meant. Does that mean we pass laws against extramarital sex? Does it mean shaming and ostracizing unwed mothers and the men who impregnated them? Or just not subsidizing them with government support? Does it mean gently educating people on the risks of sex? There's a very broad range of methods societies use to regulate themselves, and some of the subtlest ones are the most effective: as far as I know, there are no laws on the books about climbing on car roofs.
Saturday, February 16. 2008
I'm curious what kinds of conclusions came out of point #1. Can the scientific method by applied to questions of spirituality? And if so, then is it really spirituality or just science with a different name?
And if not, then how do you overcome their concerns of testability and verifiability?
Can scientific and spiritual world-views be combined? That depends a lot on how you define science and spirituality. I think you can have credible definitions of science and spirituality that would allow for overlap and unification, but not every scientist or religious devotee would agree. The best discussion on the topic that I'd read is Ken Wilbur's The Marriage of Sense and Soul, which is a distillation of his vast attempt to unify all human knowledge in integral theory.
I think the essential feature of the scientific method is the formation of a body of knowledge based on empirical experiment and testable, falsifiable hypotheses. The scientist formulates models of the world, and then tests those ideas to see if they are consistent with his direct experience. Under that definition of science, many spiritual traditions would be happy to call themselves scientific. For example, Buddhist traditions assert that their findings on the nature of desire, suffering, and spiritual liberation are all empirically testable â€“ if you follow their experimental methodology (meditation) then you could validate those findings for yourself.
Many scientists would extend the definition of science to insist on only studying objective phenomena â€“ that is, only things that more than one person can see at the same time. To their way of thinking, it's not really science unless more than one scientist can examine the same data. That definition would limit science to studying physical phenomena (chemistry, physics, biology) or the physically verifiable aspects of humanity (sociology) but exclude any completely subjective phenomena (thought, consciousness, emotion, or any other purely internal phenomena). Under those rules, a scientific study of spiritual questions is out of bounds.
On the other side, many religious traditions (probably most) would not think that spirituality was the least bit scientific, nor should it be. Any religion with an absolutist, static dogma â€“ "There's a God, there's a Devil, I'm going to heaven, you're going to Hell" â€“ is going to object to rational attempts to validate and falsify their beliefs. Many of those traditions are not particularly concerned with discovering the truth, so much as establishing a world-view that orders society and human behavior. Many people who participate in the established religious traditions choose to interpret them metaphorically rather than literally, and feel comfortable accepting their guidance on moral and theological questions without being hampered by questions of whether their cultural mythology is "true."
My own view is that the most essential aspect of science â€“ the personal validation of ideas through experimentation -- is compatible with the most essential aspect of spiritual life: finding out who you are and how to conduct your life. I value the attitude of the scientist. I think everyone should be bold enough to try to explain their world, and also humble enough to know they are probably wrong. I think everyone should believe in Truth, and yet ruthlessly question their most cherished beliefs.
Friday, February 15. 2008
A couple of weeks ago some new students came to a Self Knowledge Symposium meeting, and in describing what the organization was all about I put out the notion of "universal principles of spiritual seeking." One of the students was studying linguistics, so I compared it to Chomsky's "Universal Grammar." Just as there are universal principles that govern all languages, we posit that there could be universal principles that govern all spiritual seeking, across all traditions and cultures. Rather than tell them what I thought those principles were, I let them come up with their own list. Here's what they came up with:
Overall, I was pretty impressed with their findings. Left to their own devices, they came up with much of the SKS philosophy on their own, though with a different wording and emphasis. Let's hear it for Socratic recollection. We couldn't claim there's a universal spiritual method if people couldn't reconstruct it on their own.
Sunday, February 10. 2008
One of the items on my "things-professional-writers-should-do" list was keeping a better archive of my writing. I had posted to Blogger for a year before I belatedly realized that I didn't have an easy way to extract that data, or search it. I've known for a while that I really need to be doing my work in Microsoft Word, because (though I hate to admit it) I need a spelling and grammar checker.
I finally upgraded to Office 2007, in spite of the trauma it causes my customers, and one of the killer features for me was the blog integration. This post is the first time I'm using Word to directly generate a post for AbandonText.com. It was ridiculously hard for me to find clear instructions on how to post to my Serendipity blog site with Word, so for the good of the whole let me share: you need to install the "Post via XML-RPC" event add-in to your Serendipity blog in order to use the Word add-in. (I know only a Google spider bothered to even read that last sentence, but somewhere in Uzbekistan there's probably a blogger who's thanking me. No, really, don't mention it.)
Just for the record, let me say that Office 2007 is great. Once you get over the initial shock of "Jesus H. Christ, where's the frickin' print button," you realize that they really did improve the interface. I go through this cycle with every Microsoft product: initially I hate it, but after a while start to appreciate its virtues. Word remains a product that Microsoft can be proud of. While I find lots of FireFox snoots who feel it beneath their dignity to use Internet Explorer, I don't find anything remotely like that for OpenOffice. For 98% of the working world, the attitude is: "You'll take away my Word and Excel when you pry them out of my cold dead hands."
Anyway, here's one more process-oriented improvement, just so I can say I accomplished something in my first day on the job.
Saturday, February 9. 2008
My wife and I have been slooowly working our way through all five seasons of Six Feet Under for the last . . . well, six years. Now that we're just three episodes away from the end, I believe I have finally cracked the code and have the formula for writing a "Six Feet Under" story arc:
See how the pattern matches (warning: massive spoilers follow):
Continue reading "Six Feet goes Under"
Friday, February 8. 2008
Today, it's official -- I have started a new career. My consulting hours are now being cut back to allow more time for me to write, and today is the first day that I am not scheduled to be hacking a database instead of penning the great American whatever.
Of course, I had utopian visions of what this day would be like. I had hoped to have everything squared away at work, with a long stretch of several non-working days to luxuriate in newfound freedom. In my dreams,Â I would close the study door, settle down with my long list of things-I'd-like-to-do-but-hadn't, and start out right. Make goals, plan, dream, start some balls rolling. Start thinking of myself as a professional writer.
Ah well. Such bubbles are for bursting. The truth is not nearly so glorious. I have items lingering for several consulting projects that are going to stress me out for weeks to come. I could only start phasing out today, but it will be a couple more weeks before the shift is complete.Â While I'm pushing back my work life, other aspects are swooping in -- projects at school, SKS business, contested bills, taxes. Instead of boldly walking out the front door, eyes fixed on a faraway mountain, I am jumping out the window and hoping I don't break my neck.
But actually, I don't care that much. However tangled and graceless, it's a start. The rest of my life is beginning. I remember when I was working with a software startup company, and the new CEO was emphasizing the importance of keeping sales going up, no matter how slightly. "All I need is a trend line! The investors will be patient, as long as I can point toÂ a time in the future when they get their money back. Just give me a positive trend!" So here I am, trending positively, inching my way to a new path.
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