Why we study
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V 1 — Excuse me. I hope you won't find it offensive If I ask a delicate question.
R 2 — I doubt that I would, but I don't know what you want to ask. Go ahead, ask it.
V 3 — You have taken quite a bit of trouble with A Place to Study and I don't see really what your purpose is. Facebook says hallmarkish things about its purpose, but we all know it serves to sell ads and information, to make lots of money. Other so-called free sites do too. You don't have a pay wall or a pro version for a price. And you are not the digital presence working to further the purposes of some large organization—academic, religious, or philanthropic. What is the purpose behind A Place to Study?
R 4 — Hmm. Will I satisfy your curiosity if I say simply that the purpose behind A Place to Study is to construct and use a place to study?
V 5 — Not really. There's always some other angle. What is it?
R 6 — Right, and never an angel! OK. Let's look behind A Place to Study, but it may take a bit and I'll have to ask you some questions. Let me start by asking, "What's the tell?"
V 7 — What's the tell? I'm not understanding your question.
R 8 — It's common for us to always think there is something behind something, but if it isn't apparent, we usually don't ask about it unless something specific triggers the question. A good bluff passes unnoticed unless the bluffer does something that tells others that maybe he's bluffing—that trigger is "the tell." What triggers your question?
V 9 — Well, it isn't very subtle here. Look at what you say about what you aim to do. Are they commands? More likely exhortations. "Learn liberally, Study deeply, Think ... Educate ... Value...." There's a purpose at work here! You can't miss it! Learn, study, think, educate, value—what is all that for?
R 10 — Great! But need those activities have ulterior purposes? Can't we do them simply for their own sake?
V 11 — Maybe, but it seems to me that built into the idea of serving a purpose is the understanding that the purpose is for something. When I hear, "for its own sake," something in me goes, "Oh, really?"
R 12 — OK. We both live here in New York, specifically Manhattan. Nearly 200 years ago, when the city started expanding up from the lower part of the island, why did they set aside all that land for Central Park and spend a lot of money landscaping it? What was the purpose?
V 13 — I'm sure it added to the real estate values.
R 14 — Maybe, certainly in the long run. But then it wasn't much of a real estate operation. The city had to buy several square miles of undeveloped farm land and the park preceded most of the housing development now around it. 150 years later it was probably a wise investment, but not a paying proposition from the start. They were thinking ahead. What is the purpose of parkland in a large city?
V 15 — Well, I guess we would have to say that it adds to the quality of urban life. Is that what you want? Learn..., study..., think..., educate..., value... all add to the quality of life.
R 16 — That's a start, but I bet you could push it further.
V 17 — You're right. I get pretty tangibly how a park adds to the quality of life, if its well designed and kept up. But your exhortations are more abstract. I suppose a hedge fund director could kick back to do all those things while his operation just adds more billions to his net worth. But I don't think that is quite what you have in mind.
R 18 — There you're right too. Let's take your hedge fund director. He knows how to corral more and more money, but before long getting more endlessly would cease to have much added benefit for the quality of his life and he might start to wonder what would be the best thing for him to be doing, yet more money, or ...? All his money would give him a huge range of choices, but he has only one life to live, and if he chooses poorly, his money won't be doing him much good, chewing that one life up in things that don't bring him much fulfillment. So even the super rich Mogul faces some serious self-examination to figure out what he could and should be doing. That's what A Place to Study is really good for.
(Johann Gottfried Herder)
V 19 — Um. That's nice, but most of us aren't hedge fund billionaires.
R 20 — And billionaires aren't the only people who might start to wonder what would be the best thing theyo can and should do. Lots of people, perhaps everyone at some time or other, get into life changing situations, usually without any forethought. And anticipation of what one can and should do needn't always, even usually, be in an angst-filled frame of mind—children and youths wonder about that with a playful joy, not a Kierkegaardian fear and trembling.
V 21 — But it takes time and resources, and most people start to wonder about their possibilities when they find themselves in a bind.
R 22 — I don't buy the time and resources part. You're right that self-reflection often, like setting savings aside for retirement, doesn't start until too late. But the time and resources for it are there, but we've trained ourselves to think that we cannot and should not use them.
V 23 — You're loosing me here. That is quite a claim. Spell it out.
R 24 — OK. We have a way of life devoted in very significant part to what the ancients would call leisure. Very roughly divide the things we do and get between material activities and cultural activities, and let's just grossly note the scale of resources we devote to the cultural side.
V 25 — Not too long ago, I Googled for total US military expenditures—$600 billion and a bit in 2016, over one third of the military expenditures world-wide. That's a good reference point.
R 26 — Similar queries indicate expenditures for 2016 on public elementary and secondary schools, 706 billion, on post-secondary education in the US, $584 billion, and on arts and cultural economic activity, $804 billion. I think the last category overlaps some with post-secondary education, but all three leave out private K-12 schools. And a great deal of cultural activity doesn't show up in expenditure accounts—time people spend reading, conversing, or on Facebook and the like.
V 27 — I must say all this is more than I expected—just in dollars, three times as much as we spend on defense!
R 28 — Yeah, and what surprises me is that only 40% of the population, maybe 50%, gain from it all even much confidence about their marketplace skills. And despite all this effort people seem to have had their intellectual curiosity and confidence seriously impaired.
V 29 — Well, I'll stick with my skepticism. Maybe impairing curiosity and confidence is the real purpose of it all.
R 30 — Possibly, but I think it is the collateral damage from something more positive that is coming to haunt material life. For centuries, the drive has been to tame the uncertainties of material life. It has enriched humanity, bringing great good and serious problems. Too much of a good thing is bringing all sorts of serious problems—global warming, resource depletion, and in my opinion an educational monoculture that saps the curiosity and confidence of far too many people.
V 31 — By educational monoculture I take it you mean the systems of formal instruction all around the world. They are pretty similar, but why do you say they sap curiosity and confidence?
R 32 — Educators work very hard to find ways to make all of it interesting and affirming, and succeed to some degree. But we don't really look at the way we organize instruction, assuming the basic variations are the only ones possible. But the structure makes the job hard. It works against sustaining curiosity and confidence. Everywhere, we corral kids from 4 or 5 to 21 and beyond, group them by various similarities into bunches of 25, plus or minus, and have them sit most of the day learning stuff, more or less at the same pace, chosen and spelled out for them by authority figures. Curiosity? The set up invites boredom, long and drawn out. And as for confidence, we test the young over and over on things they didn't choose and tell them very important consequences, personal and public, depend on the results, and consequently lots of them see others getting ahead at this step or that, while they don't, in situations they've experienced as arbitrary. Those that succeed don't really know why and they know more tests will come, which induces nagging fears of failure or a stupid arrogance, and those who didn't succeed feel stigmatized as losers and feel that they're just not cut out for knowledge and culture and look elsewhere for the good in their lives. I'm amazed it works at all!
V 33 — Hmm.... You may be overdrawing it some, but I see your point. And interestingly, I think you've answered my original question. With A Place to Study, you intend to prototype an alternative, perhaps better put, an antidote, to over-reliance on formal instruction.
R 34 — Interesting. You can say that we hope possibly something different, better, might emerge from this and other efforts. Digital communications disrupts familiar cultural gate keeping. Old forms falter before new ones emerge. In reaction, panicky authoritarians are flailing about. Instead, we need to place more confidence in the good sense and wisdom of ordinary persons and work with each and all to empower ourselves to realize our purposes and possibilities.
- Johann Gottfried Herder, Briefe zur Beförderung der Humanität, letter 32.