Bulletpoint Philosophy

“The man whose horse trots a mile in a minute does not carry the most important message.” — Henry David Thoreau

 

“Do you think we spend too much time thinking about life instead of living it?”

I’ve always wanted to begin an essay that way. The question raises all kinds of paradoxes. In asking it, am I already guilty of an excess of reflection? In reading my asking it, are you too prioritising thought and reflection over action? For that matter, why do we dichotomise thinking and living—as if to think were to be frozen in time, like Rodin’s sculpture?

I was at a Starbucks in New Haven working on an essay (“Describe the two-component account of moral weakness, and explain what you think is the most serious objection facing that theory.”) It was early morning in New Haven, but therefore early evening on the other side of the world when one of my closest friends sent me a text asking that troubling question. She gave no context, she said nothing else, she simply asked the question and it appeared on my screen in a little blue bubble designed by Apple in California, accompanied by a childish sound suggesting that a pigeon had just flown the question half way around the world. 

The short answer—the tl;dr—is: no. No, I don’t think we spend too much time thinking about life instead of living it. The slightly longer version: that seems to be our problem, really. 

This essay is, in its entirety, the answer I wanted to give my friend, but felt at the time incapable of. For as much as I wanted to answer her there and then, I felt that to do so—to send messages in glossy bubbles and to fill her ears with those tinny pigeon-noises—would be to belie my lack of thought, whatever I happened to say. I believed then, and I believe more strongly now, that the very form in which we present our thoughts can say almost as much as the thoughts themselves. A truism, perhaps proven by modernism itself. But invert this, and we get another truth: that what we say—and, prior to that, how we think—depends upon the form which we have available to say it. At a time when technology has changed these forms more in the past decade than in the few centuries before, now seems a good time to stop, to assess. Just what are we saying, and how are we saying it?

I propose we call ours the age of the bulletpoint philosophy. It is a time of quick fixes and strange philosophical mixes to life’s pressing problems. I could cherry-pick examples, but I scarcely need to. Websites like LifeHack, LifeHacker, Study Hacks, Zen Habits: as I check them while writing this, I get articles from “Get a Better You: Powerful workouts, easy recipes and wellness tips for an awesome life”, to “The Life-Changing Magic of the Inbox Sort Folder”; “How To Write Every Day” and “All The Passive Aggressive Stuff You Should Never Do In A Relationship”. In such philosophy (and I am one who believes philosophy is naught but counsel in the problems of living) we find Stoicism meeting Buddhism, hippie culture meeting the corporate incarnation of the Protestant ethic. Google is even more helpful. Ask for the meaning of life and I get 86 million answers in 0.76 seconds, with the best answer highlighted in a box at the top, lest I were to feel overwhelmed. (1. Stop Playing by the Rules; 2. Step Outside of Your Comfort Zone; 3. Find Your Joy; 4. Listen to Your Intuition; 5. Appreciate the Individual Moments.)

For some years I have been simultaneously attracted to and revolted by this kind of writing. On the one hand, it seems to help. I’m inspired to change my life, to find my joy. It has persuaded me to be an early riser, and to become vegetarian; to get rid of some of my possessions, and to try meditating. Admitting this, I’m horrified. Surely someone who attends a so-called elite university should be more discerning, taking life lessons from Shakespeare rather than Tim Ferris? 

Like an anonymous street artist whose work is soon framed and placed in bourgeois living rooms, this writing first appeared on personal blogs but before long became its own genre with a proud place on major media websites. It has so far remained nameless as a genre. But “to name a sensibility”, wrote Sontag—“to draw its contours and to recount its history, requires a deep sympathy modified by revulsion.” 

I have both. Let us examine.

— — — — 

A simple chronology: first there were philosophers; then came professors of philosophy; now we have the bulletpoint philosophers and those who love to live. First there were those who loved to examine life; then came those who loved to reflect on those who reflected on life; then came those who said screw it all, get on with living by the most simple and immediate means—“Stop Playing By The Rules.”

The shift, in other words, has been has been away from thought and towards action. It mimics the decline of the public intellectual and the rise of the “hustle”, the latter growing up in Silicon Valley among coders in garages and venture capitalists on Sand Hill Road. Hustling: from the world of gangs and live fast, die young, to the world of t-shirts, computers and “fail fast”. The “hustle” is a response to a world seen as too focused on thought; it is a backlash against a world too intellectual, the world of professors of philosophy who spend their lives reflecting upon others’ reflections upon life. Far better, the hustle imagines, to do, to act, and to “make a difference”. Change the world. In this conception, progress is seen as coming exclusively from action, not thought—if you’re talking you’re not walking, if you’re thinking you’re not winning. 

The term “hack”, which has now entered daily language and the titles of numerous blogs I read, has clear origins. Urban Dictionary, ever-accurate, suggests “a clever solution to a tricky problem”. A coder in a garage gets stuck on a tricky problem in an algorithm, but sits up with it long enough, drinks enough Red Bull, and develops a clever solution. The next day his mother dies; but he knows that if he looks for it (or cogitates on it for a moment) there will be a clever solution somewhere, an “elegant” way of dealing with his feelings. LifeHacker matches the coder’s website HackerNews: there is no longer anything to separate life’s problems and those of web development. Two professors recently brought out a book based on their popular Stanford course: Design Your Life: How To Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life. Build it, as Jobs and Wozniak once built the Macintosh; design it, as Facebook designs its icons.

Productivity cults sprang up to match the new hustle mentality with the technologies that Silicon Valley was creating. In 2001 we get the book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, as if the markets’ failures a year before were simply a failure of productivity. David Allen’s book soon creates “GTD” cults of those committed to squeezing every bit of “value” out of their minutes and seconds (the author boasts of having more than 35 different careers by age 35—a fact to be obscured at all costs anywhere other than in this brave new world). 

A drive towards productivity was hardly unique to that era. But what made this something different, something more far-reaching, was how the idea of the “hustle” developed among precisely those people who were building technologies that the rest of the world would soon use. Consumer technologies were developed in their creators’ image—an image of productivity, efficiency and action. 

It is tempting to speak of big-brother-like powers and the forces of authority. But the deadening of the philosophical imagination is far more innocent than all that. Paul Starr’s important book The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications sets about showing, very effectively, this: that “The constraints in the architecture of technical systems and social institutions are rarely so clear and overpowering as to compel a single design.” The technologies we end up with are not at all inevitable—they could have taken on multitudes of other forms. And yet “At times of decision—constitutive moments, if you will—ideas and culture come into play… ”

Those directly involved in the creation of technologies are not aware of the ideas and culture that constrict their work, and nor do they see how those restrictions will extend, through their devices, apps and websites, to the minds of all those who use them. Yet through these constitutive moments, Silicon Valley’s hackers have inadvertently shaped our present philosophical imagination.

Why say in 1000 words what you can say in 140 characters? Why keep a commonplace book when you can save everything into Evernote and search it in an instant? Why send letters when email, and nowadays Facebook Messenger, are so freakishly efficient? In a world that believes in action over thought, life over reflection, brevity is the order of the day. Eloquence is for professors condemned to reflect on others who once did.

As Facebook and Twitter became mainstream, so too did the concepts of life that undergird them. We never saw it happen, but in beginning to think in 140 characters the public took on the hustle mindset. In writing emails instead of letters we too came to favour brevity over eloquence. In using an iPhone, productivity and efficiency become our ends rather than our means.

— — — — 

There will be no women or men of letters in the age of action. The mundanity of email precludes their existence. 

The term always meant something more expansive than the actual letters that those men and women wrote. But correspondence was symptomatic of the minds behind them. To read letters themselves is an experience in seeing the development of a philosophy—the disagreements a mind had with itself, the examination of ideas from many angles, the contradiction of oneself through dialogue. The Waste Land came to us fully formed, and it was only years after Eliot’s death that we could see the fraught years behind the philosophy. For a finished work shows none of its process, none of the internal wrangling and grappling that genuine thought requires—“A line will take us hours maybe;/ Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,/Our stitching and unstitching has been naught,” Yeats put it. The paradox of all genuine philosophy: it must appear fully-formed and complete, yet behind it must stand insecurity and hesitancy.

None of that today; no hesitancy. Philosophies on life’s greatest problems are formed in an instant, and no years of struggle or dialogue stand behind them. The technologies of craft and communication discourage, if not outright prevent it. 

Email, Twitter, Facebook—technologies created by those who came of intellectual age (to give them the benefit of the doubt) during the time and in the place of the hustle, of productivity, of action. As a car drives on roads so our minds move along the tracks society lays. The car can turn any direction we wish—over there, over that grassy field, quick, round the corner, through the first gate, into our first world. But turn that direction it does not; on asphalt it stays. Our minds too are free to leave the tracks laid for us, but they do not. It does not occur to us to turn off, and even if it did, we wouldn’t know where to turn.

The three parts of the development of bulletpoint philosophy: 1. The development of communities and a culture that favour action over thought, productivity over reflection, hustle over cogitation. 2. The extension of that culture into consumer technologies through Starr’s “constitutive choices”. 3. The restriction of minds to those roads that technology lays. 

Write me a profound email and I will post you a letter. Profundity seems not to occur to one on a busy screen, sent from an “address” containing the @ of the internet and a corporate logo (I use Gmail). Insight seems difficult when one is interrupted, constantly, by the dings of incoming messages; or when the ‘note’ you are about to send will soon make a swooshing, whooshing noise from your computer’s speakers, as those messenger pigeons take flight. There is something childlike and innocent about these technologies, whether it be the colourful, playful letters of Google staring at you from the upper left-hand corner, or the conversion of brackets and colons into smiling yellow faces. Everywhere there are reminders that the ‘hacker’ who made this tool is the same person who last week published on Medium, “I Lost an Argument with a Vegan. Here’s what I Learned.”

There will be no collected letters published, no record of the growth of great minds. If emails are kept at all, their content will match the mundanity of their form. Instead we get 86 million answers to the meaning of life, each posted immediately and without reflection or correspondence.

Sometimes, it seems, everyone is a philosopher and no one a thinker. 

— — — — 

Perhaps sensing the debasement of philosophy in the public realm, professors of philosophy have turned inwards. They have tried to re-intellectualise the discipline that now seems so un-intellectual. It is an honest response, perhaps even a noble one. But of course they pulled on the public pendulum slightly too firmly. They overcompensated.

Professors of philosophy killed philosophy, as Thoreau told us, but they now find themselves in the position of trying to resuscitate it. Yet as in politics, so in the academy: as bulletpoint philosophy took over the middle ground, professors of philosophy found themselves retreating far further to the wings, back to a kind of “core base”. If the public’s philosophy was now too easy to understand, professors certainly made it less so. Now no one understands them. 

One article, noting upon the death of Derek Parfit, put it: “Parfit was an outstanding philosopher. However, few people outside academic philosophy could name one of his books.” Tellingly, the same article notes the 1950s to the 1990s as the “golden age” of academic philosophy. I have dated the growth of bulletpoint philosophies to the late 1990s. 

Academic philosophy is now more impenetrable than ever before. Parfit’s On What Matters was published in 2011, and readers are presented with two volumes of clearly rigorous thinking on… what? Moral philosophy, but what more can a lay-reader say? Academic philosophy has always been written for small circles in the thought that it would in its own way “trickle down”, through those educated at universities, into organisations and public debate. But when academic philosophers write more than ever for themselves, and when the public has shifted away from public intellectuals towards bulletpoint philosophy, those who can stand with a foot in both worlds, able to translate one for the other, are few. (Sontag, where are you?)

We’re now in the old high-brow, low-brow binary. Professors of philosophy don’t read bulletpoint philosophy, and dismiss all those who do, retreating back into their own circles of self-satisfied work. Those who read bulletpoint philosophy don’t understand a word of what those professors write, and so cannot “lift” their intellectual sights. As with politics, so with philosophy: the area of intersection in views is now nowhere to be found. Left and right have never been further apart, never less able to reconcile differences, and philosophy has never before been wrenched to such extremes. This state of affairs is self-perpetuating. Oil and water do not mix.

I hold my iPhone close to my chest when reading bulletpoint philosophy because I do not want to be seen in public reading such stuff. It is a high-brow response to lower-brow work; a philosophical equivalent of Clement Greenberg being seen reading The New Yorker. I am blameworthy for this, I’m sure. Better, these days, to be like Sontag, to embrace all culture. But even she recanted that view. Culture must have some moral depth, she seemed to say in her later work.

— — — — 

I should be pleased by the simplification of philosophy, by its return to more direct intervention in people’s lives. The academicism of philosophy has frustrated me deeply—my college philosophy classes are notable only for how removed they were from anything resembling wisdom and life (I’ve not had a Cavell). I’ve been drawn to stoicism for its directness, its sincerity in helping with the problems of life. Stoicism was (is) my youthful overcompensation to what I saw as the irrelevance of academic philosophy. Bulletpoint philosophy is similarly direct, and similarly earnest. (Seneca would write on Medium should he write today). So why do I resist it?

Partly it is having read enough philosophy to know the difference, and to know that bulletpoint philosophies do not deserve a claim to philosophy at all. But again, that is just a high-brow response. The contradiction in it is that if the test of real philosophy is its helpfulness in living life, then bulletpoint philosophies can indeed claim that. And yet still I resist; still I look for some genuine reasons to justify my aversion. I shall hazard some:

  • Form, more than content, contains powerful lessons. And life is shown to be simple by the simplicity of the bulletpoint form. (The bulletpoint is the essence of simple form: it merely posits, while eschewing any regard for order or argumentative development.) We are therefore led astray, simplifying life when what we need most is to understand its complexity—to understand that we may not understand it all. 
  • The subtextual lesson we learn from bulletpoint philosophies is that there is a simple, external answer for all of our problems. That the sole difficulty is in finding the right answer; as if application did not matter.
  • Philosophy is turned into statements of certainty via bulletpoints. It comes here strangely close to science. In a weird way this is continuous with at the other extreme the pre-eminence of analytic philosophy (intended to produce rigour and a degree of certainty unknown to the continental tradition—to move philosophy closer to science, in other words). But philosophy’s necessity is in answering all those human concerns that science can never answer. Science tells how to do, not what should be done. Our age is in dire need of the latter; our problem is too much of the former.
  • Value is placed on information over understanding. Find the bulletpoints, the logic says, and your problems will be solved. Philosophy of old knew that the challenge lay in understanding philosophy in terms of one’s own life. Its form, leading us along in prose and metaphor and ideas, aids the business of understanding. It thereby leads to real wisdom—wisdom being applied knowledge. Bulletpoint philosophy is readily understood in terms of its words, but this paradoxically hinders us from application.
  • There is no philosophical dialogue. We do not enter into the great debate. We simply consume tenuous self-help, as we consume the news, needing our next fix the following morning.
  • Complexity is seen as deficiency. Simplicity is the order of the day. But some ideas are complex, and can only be expressed as such. 
  • We are given no sense of philosophical categories or oppositions. We are simply given a worldview without any understanding of what else might exist, or what the counterarguments are. 
  • Genuine philosophy is often complex because human lives are so complex. We cannot solve the problems of life like we can solve a blocked drain, by searching Google for a local plumber.

— — — — 

Bulletpoint philosophy proves this, if little else: that life’s problems are keenly felt. In its proliferation, questions of the soul have been directly asked, and directly answered. 

In history political turbulence has often been met with a turning inwards, and the inwards-looking world of philosophy is both a challenge and an answer to dictators and fascists. The period of the Warring States in China gave us Confucianism and Mohism, Legalism and Daoism. French existentialism grew out of the carnage of the Second World War. Philosophy says to tyrants: you can challenge my possessions and my material existence, but I have another life which you cannot see nor understand nor diminish. 

What I’m getting at is that philosophy laughs at Trump. Bulletpoint philosophy, however, is understood by him. 

Suddenly cynicism of sincerity seems outdated. Postmodernism mocked questions of the meaning of life, but Trump mocks the postmodern. If it was a politics that took itself too seriously that led to the ironic mode, it is a politics that embarrasses itself that draws us back to earnestness. 

Academic philosophy takes itself so seriously to the point of impenetrability. Bulletpoint philosophy sees itself with an ironic expression, and thinks that more than 1000 words on the meaning of life were to risk sincerity. An age as fraught as ours will turn back into philosophy as a kind of spirituality. Let us hope, then, that the philosophy it encounters is a genuine philosophy, and not one built on the flawed poles of equations and bulletpoints.

What can I say? Alain de Botton seems to have it right after all.

 


 

This essay was completed in March 2017.

There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers

So said Thoreau.

His point, of course, was that we have people who can tell us what philosophers once said, but no one today who can tell us how we should live. And yet how many professors of philosophy make the extension to themselves, self-styling as philosophers, when in truth they so often muddle what true philosophers once said clearly.

Maybe there exists in some university department someone whom Thoreau would have called a real philosopher. One hopes so, but doubts so. For when compared to the stakes of tenure and publishing, talking about how to live and the meaning of life seems so—quaint.

 

Montaigne on the Education of Children

“The greatest and most important difficulty in human knowledge,” Montaigne says, “seems to lie in the branch of knowledge which deals with the upbringing and education of children.” That seems right; and yet it’s hard to argue that we’ve solved the difficulties.

The problems Montaigne diagnosed with education in his day, almost five hundred years ago, are really no different to the problems we still see today. He pleas for an education system that focusses on the individual, even going so far as to advise the person to whom his letter is addressed to not send her son to school, but to instead find a full-time private tutor. Our education focusses so much on the masses that it fails to give anyone a real education:

“If, as is our custom, the teachers undertake to regulate many minds of such different capacities and forms with the same lesson and a similar measure of guidance, it is no wonder if in a whole race of children they find barely two or three who reap any proper fruit from their teaching.” 

What is the ultimate point of our education? We debate that question keenly, but for Montaigne it was clear: “The gain from our study is to have become better and wiser by it.” By this he means understanding or a kind of judgement that informs thought and action. Memorisation is the enemy of understanding:

“It is the understanding… that sees and hears; it is the understanding that makes profit of everything, that arranges everything, that acts, dominates, and reigns; all other things are blind, deaf and soulless. Truly we make it servile and cowardly, by leaving it no freedom to anything by itself. Who ever asked his pupil what he thinks of rhetoric or grammar, or of such-and-such a saying of Cicero? They slap them into our memory with all their feathers on, like oracles in which the letters and syllables are the substance of the matter. To know by heart is not to know; it is to retain what we have given our memory to keep.”

Memorisation is unrelated to education, for an education properly understood must be about understanding and judgement. And yet our schools continue to teach to tests, and tests require almost nothing but memorisation. This recalls Seneca’s lament that “We learn not for life, but for the schoolroom.” Likewise, when studying history, our schools focus on the irrelevant parts that are easily taught, and not on the essence of how what we learn could inform our lives:

“But let my guide (the teacher) remember the object of his task, and let him not impress on his pupil so much the date of the destruction of carthage as the characters of Hannibal and Scipio, nor so much where Marcellus died as why his death there showed him unworthy of his duty. Let him be taught not so much the histories as how to judge them.

Montaigne makes what is today a most controversial argument, arguing that science should be left entirely aside until students have acquainted themselves thoroughly with the philosophy of how to live. The common logic today is that students should prepare themselves with technical skills first, and learn about life later; but Montaigne entirely reverses this:

“It is very silly to teach our children ‘What effect have Pisces and Leo, fierce and brave,/Or Capricorn, that bathes in the Hesperian wave,’ the knowledge of the stars and the movement of the eighth sphere before the knowledge of themselves and their own movements.”

It is an argument for the humanities: that our first task in education is to come to know ourselves, so that we can then devote ourselves to a vocation once we are sure on the direction we wish our life to take. The sciences are a luxury; if we don’t know how to live, there’s no point in thinking about them. Montaigne argues, again following Seneca, that the reason so many people leap straight to vocational training before having learned how to live is because they misunderstand philosophy. Philosophy has been confused with complex constructions of logic (and philosophers are mostly to blame for that), when its essence is how to live.

I think all too often we feel the problems Montaigne diagnoses—the rote learning, the mass production that education has become, the sense that we leap into a career before we truly know ourselves—but are inclined to put these down to modern education. His is an important reminder that formal education throughout the ages has changed but little, with students, teachers, parents and public figures all concerned about the same things, but with entirely no idea what to do about it on a system-wide level. If anything, Montaigne demands that we—as students or as parents—take responsibility for our own education and the education of those around us, limiting whatever harms are done, and guiding towards a lifelong ability to learn in order to understand.


The edition I’ve quoted from is The Complete Essays of Montaigne from Stanford University Press, translated by Donald Frame.

Seneca on the true purpose of philosophy

Seneca diagnosed the problem with philosophy two thousand years ago. In one of his letters that make up the Epistulae morales ad Lucilium (often called Letters from a Stoic when in translated book form), he writes that “What I should like those subtle teachers (philosophers)… to teach me is this: what my duties are to a friend and to a man, rather than the number of senses in which the expression ‘friend’ is used and how many different meanings the word ‘man’ has.” He goes on:

“One is led to believe that unless one has constructed syllogisms of the craftiest kind, and has reduced fallacies to a compact form in which a false conclusion is derived from a true premise, one will not be in a position to distinguish what one should aim at and what one should avoid. It makes one ashamed—that men of our advanced years should turn a thing as serious as this (philosophy) into a game.”

There are some of us who have had a strong gut reaction against every formal philosophy class we’ve ever taken, yet have been quite unable to say why. Was it a certain professor or teacher? No, because my views have been that way across every class and every professor. Was it a certain period of philosophy, a certain philosopher? It can’t be, because I’ve tried such a range, each time thinking it was just that class I didn’t like, and then trying another to find it exactly the same. Just what is it exactly that repels us so? Philosophy is meant to help us live an examined life, and yet in class all we examine are the constructions of sentences and arcane arguments.

Seneca mocks precisely these kinds of things in philosophy:

“‘Mouse is a syllable, and a mouse nibbles cheese; therefore, a syllable nibbles cheese.’ Suppose for the moment I can’t detect the fallacy in that. What danger am I placed in by such lack of insight? What serious consequences are there in it for me? What I have to fear, no doubt, is the possibility, one of these days, of my catching a syllable in a mousetrap or even having my cheese eaten up by a book if I’m not careful… What childish fatuities these are! Is this what we philosophers acquire wrinkles in our brow for?… Is this what we teach with faces grave and pale?”

I criticise my philosophy classes at the same time as I read philosophy each day in my spare time. The two are not the same. I read philosophy, and do not know what I’d do without it; I study philosophy, and wonder what the point of it is. Maybe the difference is, I enjoy philosophy, but do not enjoy the study of philosophising, which often seems to be what we do in university—the constructions a thinker used to make a point, rather than whether and how their point can help us live our lives.

When I read philosophy, I love it for its practicality. It’s often like having a chat about the important things in life with an old friend. In your head, you argue back and forth, put a philosopher’s argument up against another’s that you’ve read, and listen while they debate what you should do in a given situation. There are no rules, no rights and wrongs, though they can help you discover what you believe to be right and wrong, good and bad, wise and stupid. When studying philosophy at school and university, however, there are rules: it’s all about the precise meaning of words, the structure of your sentences, the strictness of your prose. This all becomes so important in this kind of philosophy—and your professor always demands it—that the more real purpose of reading philosophy is completely forgotten.

Seneca tells us exactly what philosophy is for, what it should aim at:

“Shall I tell you what philosophy holds out to humanity? Counsel. One person is facing death, another is vexed by poverty, while another is tormented by wealth—whether his own or someone else’s; one man is appalled by his misfortunes while another longs to get away from his own prosperity; one man is suffering at the hands of men, another at the hands of the gods. What’s the point of concocting whimsies for me of the sort I’ve just been mentioning (the mouse trap example)? This isn’t the place for fun—you’re called in to help the unhappy… All right if you can point out to me where those puzzles are likely to bring such people relief. Which of them removes cravings or brings them under control? If only they were simply unhelpful! They’re actually harmful.”

I think we all understand, at some deep level, the real kind of philosophy that Seneca describes; it’s just a shame that philosophy in universities, developing as they have along the analytic tradition, have become focussed on exactly the kind that he writes against. It’s easier, after all, for a teacher to grade a paper on logical fallacies or mechanics of argument than it is to grade a paper on how philosophy can help us live. But when it comes to our lives—and that’s what education is for—the former matters very little, and the latter a great deal. So it’s up to us to find a teacher who understands this (and they do exist, don’t get me wrong!), or whether we can learn from university philosophy while working around its frustrating requirements. Whatever the case is, philosophy is too important to ignore entirely, and let’s hope studying philosophy at university hasn’t put some people off forever.

We learn not for school, but for life

And yet how often we forget that.

The phrase is in fact a reversal of Seneca’s original, which put the matter as it was: we do not learn for life, but for the schoolroom. And today we learn not for school, but for an exam.

How do we make learning about life? How do we make what we learn matter?

One place to start: demand it of your own education. Don’t settle when you know it’s a waste. There’s not enough time for that; there’s too much important stuff to learn.

What Is Our Time Here For? Redux

Note: This article was originally published in The Octant, the Yale-NUS College student newspaper.

As part of the Yale-NUS inaugural classes’ orientation week in June 2013 we sat through a lecture by Professor of Humanities (Literature in English) Rajeev Patke titled “The Liberal Arts: Making the Most of Your Yale-NUS College Education.” I don’t remember much from the lecture in what was a week far-too-filled with them. But what strikes me now, at the beginning of my final year at college, is how there was probably no more a prescient lecture that could have been delivered to an incoming class of students. Education isn’t something that merely happens to us; we must reach out and grab it. Guidance on how to do so is what I for one most needed at the start of my time here.

At that point I felt I had a good grasp on what the liberal arts were. They were one half of my decision to come to Yale-NUS, the other being its location in Singapore. My desire to study the liberal arts had arisen from feeling restricted when I looked at university study in New Zealand or elsewhere in Asia—I didn’t want to specialize yet. I didn’t want to spend my four years studying solely law or International Relations, and coming out with very little idea of anything besides. I still wanted to take more literature classes, some history, philosophy and economics, and, who knows, maybe even some cosmology.

What I also knew was that companies want graduates who have studied the liberal arts. The admissions office here at Yale-NUS, and every other small liberal arts college I looked at, stressed that the liberal arts would give me skills and knowledge that were in short supply. Liberal arts graduates were perfectly suited to be leaders, because they would have—and these are Yale-NUS’s words—“the appreciation and understanding of breadth and complexity of issues, capacity for critical thinking and problem solving, and effective communication and leadership skills.” Yale-NUS called those three components the “critical outcomes of a traditional liberal arts education.” Surprise! They are precisely the three things we’re told companies today need in their leaders. All this gave me a strong (if vague) sense that as a liberal arts graduate I’d leap ahead of all those who had done specialist degrees.

Yale-NUS made an effort to describe the other ways that a liberal arts education would benefit us, capturing this idea in the phrase “Four years to transform your life”. But after my first week at the College, I quickly began to forget about this amidst classes, extracurriculars, and the pressure from CIPE to start planning out my next summer. I wanted my life transformed, but it became difficult to transform anything apart from my next essay as life became a string of deadlines and events.

What also began to happen was that the pinnacle of each academic year became a prestigious internship or an exciting international “opportunity”. Dining hall conversation began to turn to this topic from the end of first semester, and reached fever-pitch a few weeks into second semester. CIPE’s events talked about the importance of internships in setting us up for careers. Thanks to the subtle pressures within each semester at Yale-NUS, I started to think that the purpose of my education was to fast-track my career. I began to confuse “transforming my life” with getting a prestigious job. The lines began to blur, and I found myself taking classes I didn’t particularly care for but which would look good on my resume; I found myself choosing a major based on what was most relevant to the job I expected to get after graduating.

I now find myself with one year left to “transform my life”. In my junior year I realized that it is for a very good reason that the liberal arts and residential colleges go together. A college is a microcosm of life, where you are exposed to people and to life, where everything and everyone is closer. The beauty of a liberal arts college is that you are given an environment in which to make sense of all those conversations, emotions, and relationships, where books shed light on your life in dining halls, suites, and behind closed doors.  At what other point in our lives will we have the space, the time and resources to figure out what we like and dislike, what we want and do not want?

As I wrote in an article last semester, “The liberal arts and sciences are not a unique selling point for a resume, or a euphemism for an elite college. They are about having freedom—four years of freedom—to learn about ourselves and our own minds so that we can approach everything else we do in life with solid foundations.” And the thing I’d repeat to myself, if I was to do-over my first two years at Yale-NUS, is that nothing is more important than building those foundations. A career can rest on them, but the foundations of who you are as a person cannot rest on a career.

The essays and assignments, events and pressures won’t disappear during these four years. But what can change is our understanding of what all this time is for, and how we choose to respond to unavoidable pressures. That is something we all can grasp, and is the starting point for taking control of the books we read, the conversations we have, the time we spend, and, most importantly, the ways we learn to live our lives.

Commodified Learning in the Flipped Classroom

Formal education has always seemed a paradox for me. On the one hand I am passionate about learning and passionate about what schools and universities can do for individuals and societies. This perhaps stems from my having attended over ten different educational institutions in six different countries. But on the other hand, my own experience in formal schooling, most especially my high school years, was an exemplary case of education getting in the way of someone’s learning. At times this has led to some hard-to-reconcile positions, like when, as an International Baccalaureate scholar at my high school, I complained in an interview to a local newspaper about not learning enough in school.

But the paradox makes sense, I think, when one separates what education is at its core from its present manifestation. One could love architecture but nevertheless live in a less-than-stellar house; one could be an artist yet hang prints on their walls. So long as there is an attempt to improve what one believes in, I don’t see the paradox as being real; the frustrations, the desire to fix and improve, merely emphasise the depth of one’s passion.

At some point during my second to last year in high school I discovered the term “flipped classroom”. The idea was to return education to its roots in learning: have students consume information at home through books and online videos, and then in class turn that information into knowledge through questioning and discussing with the teacher. As each day I went to school and sat through hours of teachers merely repeating back the reading I’d done at home (not all of them, to be sure, but certainly the majority), the idea seemed to recapture the belief in what education was meant to be about.

It was very exciting, then, to attend a talk last night by Professor Eric Mazur of Harvard, the man who is generally recognised to have come up with the flipped classroom model (or what he calls peer instruction). Eric spoke at Yale-NUS of his “confessions of a converted lecturer”, how he realised as a teacher that he was wasting his own and his students’ time by merely repeating what books already said, focussing on transfer of information rather than the understanding of knowledge. The audience was actually made up of Yale-NUS professors, rather than students, which made for a different perspective than the one I’ve so far been used to thinking from.

Through examples, data, and an interactive session, Eric had seemingly all the professors convinced of the flipped classroom model. This was true at least for those whose subjects require transfer of information at some point; there is a great difference between philosophy, which I think focusses on knowledge from the start, and the sciences, which begin with information and must move to knowledge.

But to my surprise, by the end of the talk I wasn’t convinced. I had gone into the lecture already convinced of the flipped classroom model, merely wanting to hear the idea from its inventor’s mouth; I left with serious doubts, at least about the extent to which it is being taken. And what struck me was how the one class I’ve taken that was the most faithful reproduction of a flipped classroom model was the one class I and my peers came to despise most. Eric’s talk inadvertently ended up explaining why.

Eric’s goal with the flipped classroom is to have every student prepared for every class. To achieve this, he encouraged teachers to focus on ensuring that everyone has the information needed before the start of class. His new company produces an online reading tool that has students annotate their readings and ask questions of each other on a web platform. Through an algorithm, the software analyses the highlights and comments and determines how “thoughtful” students were, then assigning a grade. The advantage of this is that teachers then know exactly what students understand, what they don’t, and what questions they have. Teachers can also test students’ dedication to their readings through short quizzes at the start of class. All of these annotations, questions and quizzes will contribute to a student’s grade.

What I hated most about that class (well, really two classes, each which focussed on slightly different aspects) that most faithfully lived up to the flipped classroom model was that everything I read was done with a grade hanging over my head. The passages I chose to highlight and question on the course website would be graded! If something struck me as interesting, I first had to think about whether I should highlight it or not; what if it wasn’t a “good” annotation? The annotations were, after all, public for my classmates and professor to see. I found an interesting passage, highlighted it, and also wanted to write a comment to myself on something to remember. But what would my professor think of that? Would my comment be good enough to receive an “A” grade? All the while I had to focus on memorising the information on every page, since the first ten minutes of every class would be a test on my recall and ability to apply what I had read.

The extent to which Professor Mazur has taken the flipped classroom model has essentially commodified learning entirely.

Students are now incentivised to learn, to turn information into knowledge, it is true. And data shows that this works! Students will remember information better, and in class they will come to grasp its implications more clearly. But what data can never show is how that knowledge comes to affect students’ lives. And as a student in an entirely flipped classroom, I came to see how nothing done for class was done for an intrinsic reason. A flipped classroom requires extrinsic motivators, and though these work in improving both recall and understanding, they necessarily work against the last step of education—how knowledge affects life. Reading, annotations and comments in the margin are done for classes’ sake, and what the flipped classroom forgets is that the classroom is only the starting point of education. It is what happens when a student leaves a classroom with knowledge that determines the success of education. It seemed as though Professor Mazur and his model of a flipped classroom has thought so much about the classroom that he has seemingly forgotten that the classroom is merely instrumental, not in itself the end of education.

Imagine a philosophy class practising the flipped classroom. The contradiction would become absurd. Philosophy, which takes knowledge as useful for its own sake, which hopes to ask and instruct how we should live, would then be reduced for students merely to “intelligent” and “thoughtful” annotations, and pop quizzes at the start of class. The point of a philosophy class is for students to discover for themselves how to live; to have tools with which to think about material, but ultimately leaving the application of that material up to students. It can only have intrinsic motivators, where a flipped classroom can only have the extrinsic.

So we’re back to a kind of paradox like the one I began with. I haven’t given up on the flipped classroom, but I am now far more aware of its limits and its dangers. The task is to find or encourage intrinsic motivators (if that is not too great a contradiction), so that the flipped classroom can remain merely an educational tool. The danger with any great educational innovation is that it forgets education is really only what happens afterwards.

Eric Mazur flipped classroom Yale-NUS

Note: Emphasis was added to make clear that two different classes I’ve taken tried to replicate the flipped classroom model, and each focussed on slightly different aspects of it.