(12/7/20) being open and curious

...when schools and organizations incent you not to be

There’s an old saying that goes, “Children enter school as question marks and they leave as full stops.”

I first read it in Neil Postman’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969). He wrote the book during a tumultuous period in American history. Cold War politics, Vietnam, race riots, psychedelics, the Red Scare, deadly car accidents, rise of broadcast television, the full works.

As an educator, Postman noticed changes in the culture emerging from this wellspring. Propaganda is a loaded term, but it aptly describes the role government, media, and academic institutions played upon the minds of people during this era.

The propaganda didn’t manifest as Orwellian brainwashing. To Postman, the propaganda took a subtler Huxleyian form: addiction to amusement.

“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.

Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.

Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.”

Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985)

In a time of massive upheaval, Americans craved answers. They desired to reduce that uncertainty into something that made easy sense. Americans became more susceptible to groupthink. They lended their trust to institutions that sought to placate and soothe them— institutions that dispensed answers rather than questions.

Education: From Question Mark to Full Stop

“All our knowledge results from questions, which is another way of saying that question-asking is our most important intellectual tool.”

Conventional school systems narrow a child’s curious disposition into a set of immutable facts. Red bad, Blue good. The world is Creationist; no, it’s Darwinist; no it’s X; no it’s Y.

Through this lens, education appears to be a labeling exercise. Collect all the right labels, and you’ll be set for life.

Yet all of these labels belong to an incessant stream of debunking what came before it. You think we are at the End of History all of a sudden?

In an environment that craves unchanging answers, “education” becomes an organized transfer of conventional beliefs, in exchange for praise and certainty:

What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?
What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?
I learned that Washington never told a lie,
I learned that soldiers seldom die,
I learned that everybody's free,
That's what the teacher said to me,
And that's what I learned in school today,
That's what I learned in school.

Neil Postman, Teaching as a Subversive Activity

Yet do you remember the teacher who had the largest impact on the way you see? She was probably the one who resisted all our attempts at this type of rote memorization.

She was the one who, with every potential answer she offered, presented even more questions to consider. From her, we learned that education is not purely acquisitive— it is generative. Formulate questions, even if they are inconvenient to what you think you know. Then develop a means to answer them, which will lead to even better questions.

It’s a miracle that we go through a decade of modern schooling and emerge even remotely capable of navigating the world. This small handful of great teachers are that miracle.

A human being exposed for years to their tutelage would be nearly immune to propaganda. He would shape-shift with ease between question mark and full stop.

Such an individual would engage with the world with intense openness, curiosity, and resilience.

Work: From Full Stop to Peddler of Full Stops

Is teaching and education limited to a formal school and classroom?

As adults, many of us spend 8+ hours a day subtly teaching and learning, teaching and learning. The presentation, structure, and contents of our lessons have different names. Not exams, curricula, or problems sets. Rather: annual performance reviews, status reports, and standard operating procedures.

Adult school, much like child school, often functions to turn question marks into full stops. This is the way things are done around here, the one and only way to do things. It’s just how the world works, hon’.

In a corporation, knowing the right answers — and communicating this authoritatively — becomes the ticket up the org chart. To get ahead, you peddle full stops and avoid asking questions.

“Work” thus becomes an organized transfer of social rituals and byzantine business logic, in exchange for status and salary:

“There is a whole class of salaried professionals that, should you meet them at parties and admit that you do something that might be considered interesting, will want to avoid even discussing their line of work entirely. Give them a few drinks, and they will launch into tirades about how pointless and stupid their job really is.”

David Graeber, Bullshit Jobs

Yet do you remember the leader who had the largest impact on the way you see? She was probably the one who resisted all our attempts to blindly follow the rules.

She was the one who, with every potential solution or framework she offered, presented even more problems to consider. From her, we learned that working on our craft is not purely acquisitive— it is generative. Unearth problems, even if they are inconvenient to what you think you already figured out. Then develop a means to solve them, which will lead to even better problems to work on.

It’s a miracle that we go through a lifetime in the modern workplace and maintain even a shred of interest in the world. This small handful of great leaders are that miracle.

An adult exposed for years to their coaching would be nearly immune to bureaucracy. He would shape-shift with ease between question mark and full stop.

Such an individual would engage with the world with intense openness, curiosity, and resilience.

Openness and Curiosity Is a Subversive Activity

In his upcoming book Great Founder Theory, Samo Burja claims that a small number of functional institutions founded by exceptional individuals form the core of society.

“These institutions are imperfectly imitated by the rest of society, multiplying their effect. The original versions outperform their imitators, and are responsible for the creation and renewal of society and all the good things that come with it—whether we think of technology, wealth, or the preservation of a society’s values.

Over time, functional institutions decay. As the landscape of founders and institutions changes, so does the landscape of society.”

Whether this theory is correct or not, I don’t know yet. But it’s a pretty provocative defense of question-asking.

Society relies on institutions (schools, companies, etc) to serve an important function— to generate, cultivate, and distribute knowledge across the culture. Different institutions develop different flavors of disseminating this knowledge.

When the world changes, institutions need to be able to question their existing knowledge and unearth new understanding. To unearth these new truths, they need people whose openness and curiosity exceeds their passivity and egoism.

And openness and curiosity are not traits that can be conjured on demand. They need cultivation, in homes and schools and workplaces. The open and the curious are not drawn to institutions that seek to placate and soothe.

If existing institutions cannot effectively corral the open and curious during times of great change, these institutions will eventually die.

If the open and curious have no institutions to be home at, they will create new institutions. But if there is a great scarcity of the open and the curious, society will erode faster than these new institutions can be stood up. We’ll all be too busy amusing ourselves to death to notice the decay.

In this way, the mere act of encouraging openness and curiosity is a subversive activity. And it begins with the innocuous difference between a question mark and a full stop.

References

Teaching as a Subversive Activity - Neil Postman

Great Founder Theory - Samo Burja

Filters Against Folly: How To Survive Despite Economists, Ecologists, and the Merely Eloquent - Garrett HardinA 1986 manual on recognizing bullshit via fluency in “literacy”, “numeracy”, and “ecolacy.”

Inadequate Equilibria: Where and How Civilizations Get Stuck - Eliezer YudkowskyHow can we discover inefficiencies in a system, and how can we exploit those inefficiencies to improve the system as a whole?


Ammar