TUESDAY, JUNE 23, 2015

Confessions of a Generalist

How to render yourself valueless

Eric Lee, A-SOCIATED PRESS

TOPICS: AUTODIDACT, FROM THE WIRES, HISTORY, ON THE ROAD, FEET OF THE MASTERS

TUCSON (A-P) — I do not have a degree in General Studies. Back in the day, when students were not seen as consumers and offered what they wanted, I just took whatever classes seemed of interest and sat in on others while I paid my own way through three years of community college. It was cheap, so inexpensive that I was able to spend summers as a migrant farmworker and live the rest of the year in the back of a 1954 Ford pickup in a plywood shell I had built.

Still, I came to wonder why I was paying to take classes when I could feed directly from the trough of knowledge—libraries. This was pre-internet, so I moved to a student ghetto near a major university, lived on the streets in my truck, and spent my days and much of my evenings in the library (the 9-story library with open stacks closed at 11 pm). My studies were interrupted by walks, kite flying, student recitals, plays, open discussion groups which I did not participate in (I didn't know enough to have an opinion), and free movies. I was not a "real" student and never presumed to socialize with those who were. Parties seemed popular, but I never went to any. I once momentarily lost my voice from several months disuse.

I basically wandered the stacks and read such books as were mentioned approvingly in the better books I read. As the years passed, I came to read most of the books that seemed to merit consideration. I cultivated no special interests: history, literature, philosophy, math, religion, mythology, humanities, et al., though I suppose science (all) was a special interest. Still, any lack of interest seemed a confession of betrayal. To be interested in anything less than life, the universe and everything is a betrayal of the intellect.

After about six years of library studies I decided, while in a boxcar watching the Oregon countryside go past, to try getting a degree or two in some area of special knowledge that would make me seem useful (I thought of living in other parts of the world as a volunteer ag advisor/expert, maybe Peace Corp). My summers had been spent as a Road Scholar as I hitch-hiked and rode the rails to follow the migrant farmworker path. Over the years I made more money than I spent even though when doing piecework I always made less than the minimum wage and never more if paid by the hour. A side-effect of my Road Studies was that I could pay my way through several years of study at a State University (CalPoly SLO).

I considered the months spent on-the-road (Kerouac seemed like a pretender) as an essential counter balance to the months of reading tomes. I took my higher education where I found it, and some teachers on the road rivaled the best of the best professors and authors. I suppose an example should be offered.

It was late season, I was picking apples in a camp near Wenatchee, WA, not far from the Canadian border. It was not crowded and we each got our own cabin. My modus operandi was to be myself—a poor, dumb, ignorant SOB of a white boy. But I would show interest when spoken to, as one wanting to learn. I rarely said anything and never opined, as I knew I knew nothing. To speak is to repeat what you think you know, which excludes the possibility of learning anything.

The only distinction I achieved as a farmworker happened under a camper shell on the back of a pick-up at 4:30 AM on the way out to the fields to chop cotton near Bakersfield. Someone noted, "Que bueño, we have a spicy crew today: Chili, salt, and pepper." The black guys were the pepper and I was the salt.

Some, mostly old men, would take an interest. They told me what they would like to have been able to tell themselves when they were clueless youths. I got to hear what I might say to myself were I to live as long as they who were graduate students of the University of Hard Knocks all and life-long learners. I saw no reason to learn everything the hard way, so I listened and learned from the particulars of their lives how to be less clueless. Some had been Hobos in the 1930's, had lived regular lives, but a death or divorce had lead them back on the road. I was unimaginably privileged to know them. In one camp I got to know someone who had been a Navajo code talker.

After a few days spent working with a crew or in a camp, I often came to be considered okay, maybe not mentally ill, perhaps educable, and some would offer to teach me a few things they had learned over a lifetime. This was what made it all worthwhile. I wasn't on the road to make money. Such money as I made was incidental and as I spent little, it accumulated over the years.

Back to the apple picking example. I spent my evenings after work invited to sit in the cabin of an old black man and listen to his stories. We humans are the storytelling animal, and he was an exemplar of the species. To digress again, I had had an English professor who was a black woman raised by white Quakers in Pennsylvania. We read numerous essays on the race question written by many well-known public/academic intellectuals and all agreed that race was a major issue requiring endless pages of nuanced analysis. We discussed each essay and wrote our own. I doubt anyone emerged thinking they had a grasp on race issues. I certainly didn't, not until an old black man in disguise laid it on me.

His life had been the novel he would have writ if there had been a publisher. He spoke of his experiences growing up black in America, his adventures, his exploits, of the black brothers who did him wrong and of whites who had treated him right. He had bought into the race thing. He had thought of himself as black and considered all the black identity memes that had been offered. He looked like a black man, but I came to realize I was mistaken, a victim of my own color-think.

The moment is chiseled on the marble of my memory. There was a pause as he tried to assess me. He had something to say and he was wondering if I had the ability to understand him. I can think of no higher honor I have ever known than to be judged worthy of what he had to say. I was sitting at the feet of the Master, who was wondering if I merited his hard won insight. He spoke. He said, "Race is a crock of shit."

I said nothing, of course, but in the context of all his prior stories, none of which had been unbelievable, I knew, in a manner that involved no questions, what he meant. He wasn't black. I wasn't white. The whole conceptology of race is delusive, having nothing to do with anything apart from concepts and the misfortunes (real enough) secondary to them. All the essays ever written, ever to be written about race, were missing an important point, had been trumped: Race is a crock of shit. Period. His was the final word. I never had to think about race again. It was a non-issue never to be mentioned apart from discussions of human folly. I took my higher education where I found it.




ConfuciusI eventually ended up with three degrees, but I consider that a minor aside usually not worth mentioning. My higher education had been on the road and in the library (later internet accessible material). It is not possible to get a general education from others, only information from questionable sources.

It is now possible to get a degree in General Studies, but such a degree merely hints at a possibility. To get a generalist education one must be an autodidact whose progress no one will assess. No credit will be offered and the most one can hope for is some knowledge of what you do not know.

The downside of being a generalist (other than having a fool for a teacher) is that you will have nothing others will want. Almost all are specialists as that is what is valued and paid for. The only value associated with a General Studies degree is that you might be better able to develop ad hoc, on the job, the specialist functionality to deal with the issues you will actually be paid to deal with.

To have a general interest in and grasp of reality, without focusing, is valueless unless you end up teaching general studies. All who serve [the SYSTEM] must peer through the microscope of the particular. Those who habitually peer through the macroscope are virtual non-entities, speakers of an incomprehensible language, sound and fury merely, signifying nothing.

The macroscope is a conceptual and methodological construct, a metaphor for the toolbox needed to begin putting it all together. The microscope, though an actual device, is a metaphor for the focused inquiry into particulars. Cosmology, physics, philosophy, chemistry, biology, and so on are microscopes, so it's microscopes all the way down. Microscopic inquiry, the fruits of which are a wonder of human achievement, must come first as otherwise there is nothing to put together.

Public and private education is funded to produce successful and functional (as defined by success) cogs in the overarching global growth culture. Those who write publishable books have the right (power) and freedom to say what is marketable. Otherwise, thanks to the internet, generalists can self-publish offerings that some unimaginably small percentage of humans will read a bit of, and almost all of those few will not buy what they don't want to hear as they are habitual shoppers in the marketplace of consumable ideas.

Science is open to deep criticism as it awaits what will seem like a paradigm shift. Up until the mid-twentieth century, amateur and later professional scientists were in drill-down mode, and this functional paradigm is still almost the whole, the all pervasive mind-set. The needed counter-balance to the views through the microscope is largely unknown and has yet to spread. If specialists, scientists and citizens, are slow on the uptake, then that could be the ultimate survival issue.

Education will need to follow a similar seeming paradigm shift. The three pillars of education are literacy, numeracy, and ecolacy (systems science with systems ecology—a prerequisite for understanding the geobiosphere). That "ecolacy" has to be defined is telling. Some efforts are made to teach numeracy, but virtually all public intellectuals are innumerate and the failure of most citizens and their intelligensia to understand the exponential function is exhibit A for the claim that numeracy education has failed. The claim that ecolacy education has also failed cannot be made as there is virtually no recognition that there is something to teach, much less that it is the third pillar. Educators can claim some success in literacy from the rudimentary to "higher literacy," partial success with numeracy, and an F in ecolacy. Overall, with grade inflation, the educational system, public and private, can claim a solid C. It could be worse.

Literacy includes science, which is the endeavor to tell the most likely story. Numeracy is a prerequisite for science. Numeracy is not limited to equations, but includes an ability to appreciate the information content of graphs and diagrams. Ecolacy is the third pillar because we are living in a thin film of a planetary biosphere. Quantum Mechanicalacy is not a fourth pillar because quantum illiteracy is non-critical unless you're doing high-energy physics and is included within science's endeavor to tell likely stories. Ecolacy is too, but being inecolate can be a terminal condition irreconcilable with "educated."

Science is consilient with literacy, numeracy, and ecolacy. Many who are scientifically illiterate are proud of it, write for the intellectual rags, frequently appear in the media, head academic departments, type countless blogs, and are doing very well, thank you, in a society skewed towards considering literacy, as mere eloquence, as the main if not only pillar of education. That public intellectuals will, with near unanimity, agree that to be literate (which includes science?) is to be educated, but folly by consensus doesn't make it so.

General Studies may be an academic offering, but generalism is viewed through a glass darkly as a sort of intellectual chimera, rather than a way of knowing, and is not taught as an essential part of higher learning. To get an exposure to a collage of specialties is mistaken for a generalist education. A rudimentary grasp of quantity combined with no evident grasp of ecolacy is entirely consistent with a degree in General Studies and utterly inconsistent with being a generalist. It may be possible to be a generalist without being a specialist, but all specialists, all educated citizens, need to be generalists. To get a generalist education in the current system requires a steadfast determination to transcend all specialties. To be a generalist is to define the term as you go along, which of necessity is to be an autodidact.

Why wake up, get up, and piddle one's way through the day until sleep delivers us from our self-accredited awakened state? As with all deepity questions, the answer can be found in one or more lines from Star Wars. What could an alien, any thoughtful, observant, compulsively truth telling alien say that would be true of all humans? As said to the supremely wise (for a human) Obi-Wan: "Your grasp of reality is fragile, hu-man." This is a magnanimous concession, an almost flattering compliment given that the alien is crediting humans with some ability to have some grasp of reality, however fragile, seemingly ignoring all the evidence that we have none. But let's consider the possibility the alien is right. From eyeopening, from first morning light, perhaps we should endeavor to use every semiconscious moment to improve, however marginally, our grasp of reality. Doing so could provide some meaning, help us to have a life-driven purpose. To entertain any hope, we must see past what we want to see such that some dim grasp of the what-is can be seen through the glass of our mind's eye darkly. Such is my excuse for living. What's yours?

 



Within the halls of higher education, the millstone around the collective neck is economics, universally regarded as an established field by academic administrators, as a required subject to be accorded the same respect as any other subject one can get a Nobel Prize in. That economists are in great demand by the funders of education, private and public, is not lost upon the administrators. That economists serve as chief apologists for business-as-usual, both political and economic, is overlooked or enthusiastically celebrated.

Economics is not a pseudo-science as there really is a subject in need of understanding. The subject arose to replace the theology and the theologians who had been the apologists for the feudal system (based on divine rights or God's Mandate). Classical economics didn't quite serve and was replaced by neoclassical economics which still serves. While nation-states became politically alternative, the greater power lay in the global transnational growth economy that arose mid-nineteenth century and effectively subsumed the nation-states by the mid-twentieth century. China and the Soviets took a bit longer, but other than a few, the likes of Iran and North Korea (the People's Democratic Republic of Korea), there are few who have not been fully assimilated. Russia is dominated by billionaires and China is a playground for the corporatocracy.

Economists are later-day theologians, purveyors of Growth's Mandate, needed to justify whatever the well-moneyed need to do to maximize growth and dividends The story told by economists, despite all the seemingly impressive math, serves no other purpose. If they cease to serve, they will be replaced as were the theologians before them.

The problem is that neoclassical economic apologetics is not consilient with biophysical economics (eco-nomics) which is science, but is and will continue to be marginalized for reasons other than being unconvincing so long as purveyors of business-as-usual prevail.

Eco-nomics is the paradigm shift economics awaits. It is fundamental to ecolacy. Understanding the ecosphere is fundamental to having a grasp of reality. Even if we were living on the Spaceship Beagle, being ecolate would still be essential to being educated enough.

 


 

To make a full confession I must reaffirm that I have never had an original thought. Most of my musings have been occasioned by the thoughts of a Chinese scientist/visionary whose works I have been privileged to know of. I was contacted in 2011 and asked if I could serve as web host for the teachings of a fugitive I knew and still know nothing of. Another intermediary in closer contact is also unknown to me other than as 'Zhenhost' a sender of curious writings. The writer was in danger of being silenced if the teachings were to become widely known/popular. Zhen, the author, has spoken, has nothing more to say, so cannot be silenced. I can now reference the source of my thoughts, the better part of them, as mere embellishments to The Teachings of Zhen whose thoughts may be noted throughout my own as source and inspiration. Zhen focuses on religion while I tend to consider the political/social/ecological implications. Zhen also sees change as bottom-up, while I see a top-down changing of our collective mind as more likely. Still, the more I consider Zhen's words, the fewer are our differences. I tend to become, as understanding slowly seeps in, more like those so obviously smarter and better informed than I. Sometimes I think my highest calling is to be a worthy student of Zhen. Thank you, Zhen, for the bread crumbs.

 


Education: that which reveals to the wise, and conceals from the stupid, the vast limits of their knowledge.... I have never let my schooling interfere with my education. —Mark Twain

Self-education is, I firmly believe, the only kind of education there is. — Isaac Asimov

The more he became truly wise, the more he distrusted everything he knew. — Voltaire

Knowing that you do not know is the best. Not knowing that you do not know is an illness.... True words are not pleasing. Pleasing words are not true. — Lao Tzu

Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language. — Ludwig Wittgenstein

Modern science should indeed arouse in all of us a humility before the immensity of the unexplored and a tolerance for crazy hypotheses. — Martin Gardner

Among the fragments left us by the Greek poet Archilochus there is a line, dark in meaning, that says: "The fox knows many things: the hedgehog knows one big thing."... Ecologists, in my opinion, are hedgehogs. The one big thing they know is this: "We can never do merely one thing." This simple sentence imperfectly mirors the one big thing ecologists know—the idea of a system... It's tough to be a hedgehog. You take a simple little idea—the right one, you hope—and "thinking on"t constantly" (as Newton said) you discover it has wide and unexpected ramifications. In the variety and disunity so cherished by foxes the hedgehog finds a unity, knit together by his one big idea. Being the first to feel its power, and alone with his thought, it is not surprising if he doubts his sanity. Darwin, his mind big with the idea of natural selection, suffered grave self-doubts. Writing to a fellow naturalist just after the publication of the Origin of Species he confessed, "When I think of the many cases of men who have studied one subject for many years, and have persuaded themselves of the truth of the foolistest doctrines, I feel sometimes a little frightened, whether I may not be one of these monomaniacs." — Garrett Hardin, Exploring New Ethics for Survival: The Voyage of the Spaceship Beagle, 1972. [To foxes, who prosper and proliferate during the exuberance of growth and exploitation for its own sake phase, all hedgehogs look like monomaniacs.]

The realization that you know essentially nothing is at the heart of science. Richard Feynman was asked to define science, and he said that it’s "a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance." Science is "the belief in the ignorance of experts." Experts, specialists all, are those who may know enough to have an opinion. The chatter of everyone else, in taverns or on social media, is likely to be less instructive.

For decades Martin Gardner wrote a column for Scientific American inviting the merely intelligent to explore the limits of their clever apeness via his Mathematical Games. He also, as the skeptic's skeptic, wrote a monthly column for Skeptical Inquirer exploring the vastness of human folly. Surrounded by atheists he deigned to make room for a theist/fideist view, pointing out that when it comes to understanding the universe, we humans may have no more ability to understand things that matter than a dog has of understanding calculus. Garrett Hardin urged "humilitas" as an extinction-avoiding antidote to hubris. Wittgenstein counseled us to guard against allowing our minds to be bewitched by language. See a pattern? (Laozi, Confucius, Voltaire, Twain, Feynman, Wittgenstein, Gardner, Hardin....) Our best and brightest recognize and confront limits without flinching, without using slight-of-mind tricks to obscure them. I'm willing to consider the possibility they might be right.


 

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