Dialog:Reasons to study

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Reasons to study

We organize the content on A Place to Study according to reasons that inwardly motivate study. With instructional goals, the young march through required steps, hoping on completion the right openings will greet them. In contrast, study meanders. Felt purposes guide it; we follow our sense of subjective importance and meaning. As the action of study changes our perception of its context, we alter its course. Variation marks the continuity of study. We don't have set goals, we feel our reasons to study.


V 1 — Glad to see you again, R. Since we talked about A Place to Study developing outside of the established educational system, I've been thinking about the reasons we have for using that system and wondering whether reasons to study are different.

R 2 — Interesting. We need to be clear what sort of similarities and differences we are looking for. Consider fingerprints, for instance. The patterns on the skin of each finger of a person are unique and differ from those of every other person, yet all fingerprints comprise faintly raised, curved ridges in the skin, whorls. To take clear impressions of a person's finger print, the FBI says to ink and rotate the fingers on the left hand against the surface to be imprinted in the reverse of the direction used with the fingers of the right hand. I think the situation with education is analogous.

V 3 — Ha! Let me see. Each person acquires a unique and different education. That's easy. The next is a bit more difficult. It's simply that in substance education for any and every person comprises a working selection of the cultural achievements of humanity. The third is tricky. It's a bit fuzzy. An operation on one side corresponds to the reverse operation on the other side. It's the same operation but the processes are reversed.

R 4 — You're on to something, I think. I almost got killed riding a bicycle in England. Nothing about the bicycle differed from what I was used to in New York, except that people drove on the left and not the right. I continually glanced the wrong way looking out for cars and pedestrians.

V 5 — Educational interactions have, I think, a similarity and difference like those arising from left-right symmetries, but they're not on a left-right basis.

R 6 — I can't resist observing that partisanship hasn't gone so far that we can think of education as a left-right phenomenon. But more seriously, we could look for a similar sort of symmetry with an internal boundary marking where one side becomes its opposite and the processes of an operation reverse or invert. Can we think of something like that in education? The structure, of course, would be much more complicated.

V 7 — I don't know about that. There's lots of instances of left-right organisms running around, but that doesn't make the relation of left and right in each all that complicated. There's also lots of educative interactions taking place, but that wouldn't necessarily, for instance, make the relation of outer and inner in each instance impossibly complicated. You know, if we are going to find something similar to this left-right inversion in educational interactions, we should look for it relation of the inner and the outer.

R 8 — That's what I was thinking, too. I've spent a long career among education theorists and practitioners. All of them talk endlessly about the importance of getting a pupil or student to internalize what they are teaching.

V 9 — Yeah. And I can attest to how often students tune out, even the most dutiful ones, when a teacher churns on, locked to the lesson plan, when powerful questions, important and relevant, but off the preset trajectory, seethe in their heads.

R 10 — So educative interactions involve an out-inner symmetry between an outer world of cultural resources and the inner world of a student's intellectual and emotional life. But what are we going to do with the behaviorist who says we can't establish anything firmly about the inner—it's a black box to psychological science?

V 11 — Well, I'd say, "Bullshit! If you want to establish an academic specialty on that assumption, be my guest. But don't talk about education on its basis because the only phenomena you would admit are instances of conditioning and you have no grounds in expecting the rest of the world to follow you in confusing your specialty with the limits of intelligible experience."

R 12 — Whoa. Sorry. My question showed my age. I think educational interactions all take place across a boundary between inner and outer and believe we pay too little attention to the movements from inner to outer in reasoning about those interactions. When I was your age behaviorists were pretty imperialistic, looking only at the outside, and sometimes I forget how passé it's become. But I do worry that an implicit behaviorism still dominates the way we usually organize educational interactions, structuring them primarily as a movement from outer to inner. But let's leave that at least for now and discuss how people actually seem to reason about educational interactions in their experiential lives.

V 13 — Great. And I know just the way. My sister's starting to think about applying to college. I'm helping her through the process. I remember not so long ago being deluged with all the reasons to get a college education and how the school counselor tried to correlate our aspirations with what she divined about our interests, potentials and prospects. My friends and I tried too hard to preen how our value would appear in the admissions market. But I tell my sister to work hard to do well on the objective stuff and overall to present herself positively as the person she wants to be, not to slant how she might appear to suit what she thinks this or that college might want her to be. Apply, here I stand, to a spectrum of schools and see which accept her and then consider where she can make the most of herself with what those offer her.

R 14 — That's good advice, V. And by looking at what goes on in the college application process, we might understand better how the reasoning behind the dominant system of education differs from that shaping A Place to Study. But we really want A Place to Study to serve everyone relative to fulfillment for each, not only those succeeding well in the overall system. The college application process leaves a substantial part of the population on the sidelines.

V 15 — Possibly, but I think the fact that the process separates those who go on from those who do not itself indicates an important function of K-12 education system. It is not as if those who go on to college have had one type of education, and those who don't, received an entirely different one. The whole system of K-12 provides a comprehensive initial sorting, separating those who will do well from those who won't, as the system gets both more demanding and more rewarding. Year-by-year, it reveals who adapts productively, and who does not, to pedagogical processes characteristic of whole system, seeming to legitimate leaving out a very large number of people from its full benefits.

R 16 — So you are saying that those who have not flourished in the current system of education have not been served well by the way it reasons about education and they may be those who can especially turn an alternative way of thinking about education to their interests and potentials. I suspect that might prove to be the case, although they may not be the first adopters of that alternative. They have more reason to be initially skeptical. But holding that in mind, let's look more closely at the college admissions process to see how people reason about educational interactions in the sytem of which it is a key nexus.

V 17 — OK. As my sister and I have talked about it, we've found the viewbooks particularly revealing. Most colleges send them out or put them online. They are often a bit over the top, written to impress the kids and their parents, the general public, too, and they reflect how the institutions want to appear to those who will interact with them. I've looked recently at quite a few and the one from Princeton especially impresses me. It touches all the bases. 18 brief sections show the well rounded Princeton experience—a one-of-a-kind place, freedom to explore, stretch your mind, amazing faculty, independent work, we support your success, an arts-infused campus; student stories; the look of dorms, a taste of dining, the tenor of campus life; worship, sports, travel, service: its all there with glossy pictures of young people, happily engaged in their activities, an occasional adult, a flow of short paragraphs staking claims, lists, and lots of mini-narratives exemplifying students doing what students like and want to do. My sister and I spent quite a while discussing it. Princeton's her top choice, but I cautioned her to be happy if it's a yes, but to move right along, head high, if it isn't.

R 18 — Tell me, if you can, how you would sum up the message that viewbook puts across, taken as a whole?

V 19 — Sure. I went through it pretty carefully and came away thinking it was a masterpiece of branding. The cover points in vivid orange and black to "Experience Princeton" and typographical highlighting—black print on an orange background unified a compact publication, broken up by many headings, inserts, and pictures. University emblems frequently appear on the clothes of the students pictured. And the text hones in on explaining what will happen in the course of a Princeton education.

R 20 — Does the viewbook say much about the substance of that education?

V 21 — Quite a bit, in an interesting way. A full-page picture to the left shows two pairs of students on their way to class and the page to the right announces the theme, "Freedom to Explore." One lead sentence, set in large black print, underlined in orange, expands it—"At Princeton, you have the freedom to explore your intellectual interests and follow your passions." Next to it, a tight paragraph explains—"Any field you choose will teach you to think critically, solve problems, express yourself clearly, broaden your understanding of the human experience and prepare you for success in whatever path you take." The rest of the page pictures a group of intent students looking skyward, we might infer at the unseen flight of a soda-bottle rocket, like the ones several hold, or is it at a vision of themselves in the future, having risen to the commanding heights in their fields?

R 22 — Damn! What's that, about 50 words? It states remarkably what we expect should happen through a good education! But that's just the beginning, right? What do you make of the rest?

V 23 — It comes down a little from there, I think. The next 3 pages surprised me. I was ready for some pedagogical profundities, but they basically described the undergraduate degrees offered and listed the majors and certificate programs a student can choose among to get taught "to think critically, solve problems, express yourself clearly. . . . " The rest of the viewbook basically describes in glowing terms the range of things that will happen to students during their four years qualifying for the particular degree and certificate options they choose, should they apply and be admitted.

R 24 — Can you sum up the overall impression the viewbook leaves one with?

V 25 — Sure, or rather my little sister did after we went through it. She said, "Well, that shows what the best education money can buy looks like, taking money to mean not only what Mom and Dad could pay, but what an incredible endowment earns, and what a high-powered research enterprise brings in through external funding. I wonder whether I'm cut out for it. I don't see how to figure out where I will fit, but it looks good to me."

R 26 — Were you able to help out on that perplexity?

V 27 — Not very well. It seems wherever you turn in the whole system, especially in higher education, whatever you choose "will teach you to think critically, solve problems, blah, blah, blah." It seems a kid needs to muddle through, figure out a spectrum of choices, strut the best they can and see where they end up, ready to, ready to work things as best they can, seeing things close up. A teacher of mine described it as learning to work the interstices.

R 28 — Often, that's what we do. Tell me, did the viewbook say much about liberal learning or the like?

V 29 — I don't recall that term in it. Occasionally, the text referred to the liberal arts as a program or characteristic of one, several times in quotations, even one by the university president. Uses of the phrase, "liberal arts," always implied that the meaning of the term was pretty clear, as in "we believe the arts are central to a liberal arts education no matter what you study," or something like that. It doesn't surprise me that you ask about liberal learning, but I'm curious—Why do you ask?

R 30 — Ah. In the tradition of liberal education, people have often talked about the importance of education for its own sake. People have difficulty clarifying what they mean by doing something for its own sake and yet they have found it important because they sense it has much to do with their humanity, with their freedom, their agency as self-directed persons.

V 31 — Well the viewbook includes things that one might say touch on a person's freedom and self-direction. It features how students have "the freedom to explore," the opportunity to choose among quality programs and options, and support to follow their passions. But I suspect these won't satisfy you.

R 32 — They are a start, but I smile. Eager young Princetonians might have second thoughts if the viewbook spelled out what "following your passion" might entail in full historical detail. Yet, despite overlays, the phrase harbors the core idea of liberal learning, for the threat of extreme tribulations and sufferings for the sake of something are what originally made the passion a good synonym for "doing it for its own sake." But you're right, I doubt what's in viewbooks these days will satisfy me. The externals of liberal learning are there in the system, hung painfully on tenterhooks, but the spirit of it has been bleached out.

V 33 — What can we do to recover the spirit of liberal learning in contemporary education and life? If we took the direct way, we would rejuvenate liberal learning within the existing system. But A Place to Study seems designed to avoid that. If I may say so, you need a viewbook to make that seem enticing.

R 34 — Well, I'm not sure making things enticing helps us do things for their own sake. We make things seem enticing by talking about the consequences they will bring—pleasure, wealth, power, prestige, all those other things for the sake of which we will do things we otherwise would not do, that is, things we would not do for their own sake. "Any field you choose will teach you [X, Y, and Z] and prepare you for success in whatever path you take." I've tried to care for liberal learning within the system but have frankly found things that I and others do for the sake of pleasure, wealth, power, and prestige disrupt and deflect the liberal effort. Maybe others can do it better within the system, but I see an opportunity with the advent of digital communications to try an alternative that foregoes the enticements, the positive and negative incentives, and we will simply call it a place to study, rather than a place to educate, to differentiate it from the existing system.

V 35 — Ok, but let me then ask how you are going to differentiate a reason to do something for its own sake from a reason to do it for its extrinsic consequences? In lived life, won't intrinsic and extrinsic reasons always remain intertwined?

R 36 — You are right about the complexity of lived life and I do not claim that persons in a place to study have only intrinsic reasons for what they do and in a place to educate people act purely for extrinsic reasons. I think at this historic juncture, however, we have an unusual opportunity to try to create a powerful shared resource, open to all people at remarkably low cost, that foregoes most of the extrinsic incentives to educative effort characteristic of the place to educate. That effort will require a relatively low input of capital, financial and human, other than the digital infrastructure that is coming into place for reasons of its own dynamism.

V 37 — How will the reasoning in constructing this alternative differ from the reasoning through which the educational system has been designed and developed?

R 38 — That's the crux of the matter. We observed how Princeton presents what it offers prospective students through its viewbook and observed that what Princeton and a few other highly selective institutions offer is the top of the line, the line being the whole instructional system. People have designed and implemented that system so that, as the viewbook says, whatever field students choose, it will teach them to think, to solve problems, to express themselves, to broaden their understanding, and to prepare them for success in whatever path they take.

V 39 — Hmm. Yeah. I see. The rest of the viewbook provides an epitome of the design and implementations efforts that go into the whole system. It indicates the fields that students can choose as their own. It describes how they will be taught those fields. It boosts an amazing faculty that will do the teaching. It describes opportunities for independent work as the capstone of the instruction. It promises to support the success the student achieves. It shows how all that harmonizes with the arts, with campus life community, with spiritual observances, with sports, travel, and service to others.

R 40 — With the existing system, the problem of design and implementation concerns what will happen to and for the student by and in the educational institution. Such reasoning situates agency with the educational institutions and the persons who will carry out their programs of activity. The student cooperates with all that and does well as a result.

V 41 — Yet I keep having a doubt. It seems massively to be the case that agency starts with the educational institutions. They massively attest to their own primacy.

R 42 — As a student long ago I rebelled, quietly but adamantly, over who was the agent of my education, and I'm still at it. I don't think that education is something that happens to the young because of what their elders do. I think it is something that the young do to and for themselves with the cultural resources—parents, elders, and everything else—that they engage with in their surroundings. When we think about education as something that happens to the young, we think primarily about the consequences of what happens to them. If we thought about it as what the young do with the resources they find around them, we would pay much more attention to the dynamics of their actions. At any rate, on A Place to Study, we are going to try to shift that around. In lived life, people often spontaneously feel that something is worth doing for its own sake. Here we will assume that that state of mind is primary, the initial case with matters of self-formation and liberal learning, something evident from the first moments of infancy on.

V 43 — OK. Let's keep seeing where it leads. By the primary or initial case, you mean, for instance, that it is the case that the infant feels good suckling, not that it suckles because it feels good? In a sequence of actions there must be a starting point that is what it is.

R 44 — Yes, and I think in educational interactions the inner life of each person, the active attempt to construe the chaos relative to the spark of vitality animating the living person, from infancy to death, constitutes that starting point. We lose sight of it and postulate the culture as the given basis of educational interaction and adults—parents, teachers, and bystanders—as the animating agents of it. And all the good and bad consequences that those agents promise provides the causal force inducing the animating spark to accept the cultural mold projected onto it.

V 45 — But surely you must have experienced times when you've at first doubted, from your inner awareness out, whether something is worthwhile, despite others touting it as necessary and good, but then on discussing it with another and learning more, you've become convinced it is, not only worth doing, but worth doing for its own sake. Isn't that an example of an authentic primacy of the outer? And given the inchoate character of the infant, child, and even the young adult, have substantial authority in educational interactions? Aren't you putting all that at risk in trying to build up a place to study?

R 46 — I'm aware that people might find it threatening, a challenge to the existing system. But that reaction exemplifies the one-side weakness of the existing system. That system is huge and all things considered it does much good and it is not going to go away. The historical mass of the existing educational systems incredibly large. A fear that organizing cultural resources to support forms of inquiry and study that people apparently engage in because they find them worthwhile for their own sake will somehow undercut existing educational efforts organized to make use of powerful extrinsic incentives confuses how vital symmetries work.

V 47 — I'm not sure I follow what you mean with respect to how vital symmetries work. I get that operations on one side largely invert those on the other. But I think you are suggesting something about how they work together.

R 48 — Yes! Together, these symmetries provide the basis for important capacities. A great part of our daily activity depends on our ability to activate and control the inverted capacities of left and right together. My wife had a serious stroke that severely damaged the part of her brain that manages the motor control of her left side. It creates terrible disabilities. She can barely walk and you can't imagine how many things in daily life require two hands working through their inverted symmetry. She can hold a pen fine in her right hand but she has great difficulty writing on a sheet of paper because she can't hold it steady with her left. Left and right work together as complimentary sets.

V 49 — So you are saying that an educational system that lopsidedly relies on external incentives to drive cultural resources from outer to inner won't realize the potential benefits that might be achieved through complementarity with an inner reaching out to external resources. I see clearly how left and right work as complements. What makes you think inner-outer are complementary in the same way?

R 50 — You don't let me get away with much, do you? Well, I've taught for nearly 60 years and throughout would rather have students who are self-starters, full of lively and unexpected questions than those who are docile, teachable in the sense of ready to soak up whatever I may say, able to regurgitate it on cue.

V 51 — But doesn't good teaching itself engender that liveliness of mind?

R 52 — It can certainly reinforce it. Good teaching is often expensive teaching—"Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other." To make outer-to-inner, incentivized education universal at a feasible cost requires grouping students in significant numbers per teacher, which biases instruction towards routine.

V 53 — Can you explain that some? I'm inclined the think it is indeed the case, but I suspect you can clarify why it is so better than I can.

R 54 — Persons shape their minds—their sensory, intellectual, emotional, and appetitive capacities—to monitor and manage what goes on around and within them. A key part of this process, especially the conscious level, concerns attention and concentration. We can say that we continually scan in attentive effort and through effortful will fix attention and hold it on something significant in an act of concentration.

V 55 — All this, you suggest, takes place on the primary, inner level. Something external might occur, but the inner attention singles it out and fixes and maintains attention, willing the concentration. I see the problem. The teacher gravitates to a sequence of short points, easy to grasp, voiced with considerable repetition, not recursive development. Docile students do better than those with highly active, strong willed powers of attention and concentration. We need to serve more effectively the inner power of attention and concentration possessed by each person in the course of education.

R 56 — You've got the thread. I'm going to take care of some other business. It has taken centuries to build up our programs of highly incentivized group recitation and I don't think the emergence of an alternative will have systemic effects any time soon. But I believe the current system under performs seriously, relative to human needs and potentials. Worst of all, the conditions of its operation systematically sell short the potentials of many persons it purports to serve, and worse, the mystique of it all leads them to a "disownership of themselves," selling themselves far too short as well, in their own eyes and in those of their peers, leading to a contagion of despair in the place of exuberant self-affirmation. We can and should do more.