A friend of mine at Facebook, noting my affinity for the thinking of philosopher Martha Nussbaum, asked me to recommend a book of hers which he might read to begin getting to know her, too. I recommended Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, which was published in 2010. I attached this review of the book to my message to him: http://harpers.org/archive/2010/06/hbc-90007141. As I reread the review, I recognized its and the book’s value for educators. Voilà, this blog post!
When I read Hugh MacLeod’s review of Seth Godin’s latest business book Linchpin, I was struck by the following paragraph in which MacLeod may have revealed more than he had intended about Godin’s career as a writer.
In his best-known book, Purple Cow, Seth’s message was, “Everyone’s a marketer now.” In All Marketers Are Liars, his message was, “Everyone’s a storyteller now.” In Tribes, his message was, “Everyone’s a leader now.” And from Linchpin? “Everyone’s an artist now.” By Seth’s definition, an artist is somebody who does (and I LOVE this term) “emotional work.”
It occurred to me one might observe that Mr. Godin has been growing more insightful as his writing career progressed. But frankly, that wasn’t what struck me. What seemed obvious about the progression was the need to have a new product to sell every few years on which to grow one’s punditry and consulting business.
Just before I turned out the light last night, I read page one of Dorothy L Cheney and Robert M. Seyfarth’s Baboon Metaphysics: The Evolution of a Social Mind. I want to pass on the text to give you an example of what delights me and stirs me on to continue learning actively.
Origin of man now proved.–Metaphysic must flourish.–He who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke.
Charles Darwin, 1838: Notebook M
What goes through a baboon’s mind when she contemplates the 80 or so other individuals that make up her group? Does she understand their social relations? Does she search for rules that would allow her to classify them more easily? Does she impute motives and beliefs to them in order to better predict their behavior? Does she impute motives and beliefs to herself when planning a course of action? In what ways are her thoughts and behavior like ours, and in what ways–other than the obvious lack of language and tools–are they different? These are questions that also vexed Charles Darwin.
We have taken our title from one of Darwin’s most memorable remarks. He wrote it on August 16, 1838, almost two years after returning from his voyage on the Beagle and 21 years before the publication of The Origin of Species. It was a time of vigorous intellectual activity, when Darwin read voraciously on many subjects, both within and beyond the sciences, and met and talked with many different people, from family friends to prominent literary and political figures (Hodge 2003). Despite this active intellectual life, however, it seems unlikely that he or anyone else had ever combined the words “baboon” and “metaphysics” in the same sentence. What was Darwin thinking?
That last question “What was Darwin thinking?” is one I ask of humans I learn about throughout history, even of those from pre-history who haven’t written a word of their thoughts, but who have left only artifacts and art. I’m enthused (and awed) by what can be learned about the behaviors and minds of “accidental” humans and their cultures which while timeless in many respects, enlighten our understanding of specific and diverse times and places and people(s). Historicizing what happened (and might happen as a result) is the oldest and most universal of human activities. Amazingly, our narratives are largely in our minds–kinds of fictions–and largely subliminal! Most of the time, if we were asked to elaborate on them, we’d have a difficult time with the “metaphysics” we live by!
How did Naomi Klein become Naomi Klein?
Take a look at what Wikipedia has to say about the family (educational) culture from which she emerged:
Klein was brought up in a Jewish family with a history of left-wing activism, as was her husband, Avi Lewis. Her paternal grandparents were Marxists who began to turn against the Soviet Union after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and had abandoned Communism entirely by 1956. Her grandfather, an artist, was fired from Disney for labour organizing. Her father Michael, a physician, was a Vietnam War resister (her parents moved from the US to Canada to avoid the draft) and a member of Physicians for Social Responsibility. Her mother, film-maker Bonnie Sherr Klein, directed and scripted the anti-pornography documentary film, Not a Love Story. Her brother Seth is director of the British Columbia office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Her in-laws are Michele Landsberg and Stephen Lewis, son of David Lewis. (1)
What life work would you suspect might be impelled by the cultural opportunity made possible to Naomi Klein by her immediate family? Yep, you’re right.
Among her writings, two books: The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism and an earlier No Logo: Taking Aim at Brand Bullies. In addition, her activism worldwide which confronts oppressively undemocratic and unsustainably exploitative socioeconomic behavior of a powerfully few.
Here’s a link to Naomi Klein’s website. Below is a YouTube video of her discussing The Shock Doctrine:
Naomi Klein is no Chris Langan–the no-account “genius” (loser?) whom Malcolm Gladwell contrasts with the outlier Robert Oppenheimer in the Outliers. But does Naomi Klein conveniently fit in Gladwell’s all-male club of celebrated/celebrity outliers? Let me explain.
Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers is “simpler” by Einstein’s measure than it need be. A friend Nancy’s use of the phrase “alignment of the stars” seems an appropriate description of Gladwell’s explanation of why extreme “success” happens; in my view, Gladwell seems more an astrologer than astronomer, more mythologist than scientist.
Perhaps inadvertently, Gladwell purveys to parents/educators hungering for confirmation that pushing their children/students through a schooling culture of competitive credential accumulation is what’s really best for them. Take advantage of (and ace) training opportunities and hold your own self-promotionally when encountering gatekeepers and you’ll get to work in somebody’s big house and out of the field working as a lowly hand. The more time and effort you devote to making yourself useful and to gaining the appreciation of your superiors/clients, the greater you’ll see your success (narcissistically) in their mirrors. Where’s the personally, uniquely creative dimension in this male-dominated scrum for fame and fortune?
In a world where the 44 richest people (all men) have acquired as much wealth as the poorest 2,500,000,000, do you think that Gladwell’s “astrological” account is as sufficiently explanatory about the reality of a variety of less conspicuous and less fanfared forms of real success (on-the-ground?), and even outliers’ success itself? It seems to me that there is a scientific account based on testable, simply stated principles, akin to an evo-devo explanation of “natural selection,” which broadly explains social success of human groups and the individuals who are identifiable within them.
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What happens when you mix:
an American organizational theorist, consultant, and Anheuser-Busch Professor Emeritus of Management Science at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, who is a pioneer in the field of operations research, systems thinking and management science,
the founder in 1968 of a place where people decide for themselves how to spend their days; where students of all ages determine what they will do, as well as when, how, and where they will do it; which belongs to the students as their right, not to be violated?
They write a book collaboratively in 2008 which is titled Turning Learning Right Side Up.
Both of these “wild and crazy guys” have been intellectual-activist heroes of mine for a long time–separately in his own field. Each of them has remarkable organizational and personal development results to show for their unconventional professional thinking and efforts.
Thanks very much to a friend of mine Mike for pointing out the book. I just ordered a copy of it.
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Have you read Counterculture Through the Ages: From Abraham to Acid House by Ken Goffman (a.k.a. R. U. Sirius)? Great fun in telling the story of the culturally verboten and politically incorrect! (For example, Goffman sees the insurrectionist Boston Tea Party as the epitome of playful outrageousness–the kind, however, that gets the American revolutionary spirit through to the political mind of the populace.)
While I liked Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason, her Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism better celebrates the most cherished and legitimately historical Enlightenment tradition in the U.S. republic which has been challenged from the beginning by Counter-Enlightenment cultural “pushbacks” of various kinds–religiously/culturally antidemocratic (socially hierarchical) at base and narrowly opportunistic in their effects on social and economic development.
Last month over about a week’s time, I read Jonathan I. Israel’s (tome) Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man 1670-1752. First, it makes the case that revolutionary ideas in elites’ and peoples’ heads matter more than a mere marxian-like ripeness of socioeconomic dysfunctions in whether or not people act to overthrow ancien regimes and assume popular sovereignty. Also, Israel argues cogently that what actually is the contention between two Enlightenment traditions, one Radical, the other moderate–not their contention (as though they were seemingly one) against a persistent Counter-Enlightenment–is key to understanding modernity. Those who find their philosophical/moral roots in Spinoza and Bayle (monist radicals who welcome today’s “embodied” philosophers like Lakeoff and Rorty and the overwhelming majority of today’s neuroscientists) continue to contend with moderate dualists who find Leibniz, Newton, Locke, Voltaire, and others who are quite comfortable with Descartes’ accommodating split of the natural and the supernatural. Perhaps my favorite book on this contention between the radically and the moderately enlightened is Matthew Stewart’s The Courtier and Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World. Stewart has written several great reads about modernity, but this one tops them all in cutting to the heart of what’s at issue in democratically re-forming our minds, moral direction, and political-cultural world. (Besides, it’s half about Baruch de Spinoza, whom I consider the most misunderstood, underestimated, and important thinker of all time. But then, that’s my opinion, not gospel.)
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Just got to a book last night which has been on my “anti-library” shelf for several months–Peter Senge’s The Necessary Revolution (2008)–which I highly recommend. Here’s an article from Business Week‘s “Innovation” section which reviewed the book last summer and spurred me to acquire a copy of it.
The following paragraphs from the book’s first chapter, “A Future Awaiting Our Choices,” provide a good introduction to the nature and scope of Senge’s recent work.
The Industrial Age has often been called the “machine age” because the rise of machines and the way they operated transformed the way people thought and worked. It wasn’t long before people were expected to work like machines and the assembly line became the icon of efficiency and standardization for all organizations. Gradually, machine thinking shaped much more than manufacturing: Economic progress became synonymous with increases in efficiency and productivity; cultural advance became equated with dazzling new technologies; and nature, including the other creatures with whom we share the earth, was reduced to ‘natural resources,’ inputs to the economic machine.
A sustainable world, too, will only be possible by thinking differently. With nature and not machines as their inspiration, today’s innovators are showing how to create a different future by learning how to see the larger systems of which they are a part and to foster collaboration across every imaginable boundary. These core capabilities–seeing systems, collaborating across boundaries, and creating versus problem solving–form the underpinnings, and ultimately the tools and methods, for this shift in thinking.
For over a quarter of a century our work, first at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and then through the Society for Organizational Learning (SoL) global network, has involved helping organizations of all sorts to “learn how to learn”–which naturally leads to the question, “Learning for what?” For many years, precedent provided the answer: learning so that companies could be more innovative and profitable, so that schools could help students learn, so that governmental organizations could better serve their constituencies. For the past decade, however, we have begun to also see a larger answer: shaping a sustainable, flourishing world for life beyond the Industrial Age. This represents perhaps the greatest learning challenge humans have ever faced, and it will require extraordinary leadership from institutions of all sorts.
This is not pie-in-the-sky rhetoric or intellectual idealism, but in fact is reflected in ways organizations and individuals are already working together. The organizations and people you will meet in the pages that follow are starting to enact new ways of managing, leading, and ultimately creating value, not just for today’s real needs but for tomorrow’s, and their practices are spreading to hundreds of businesses and non-business organizations of all sizes around the world. There is no silver-bullet formula for putting these ideas into practice widely, but there are principles, practices, and ways of getting started.
I once was guided professionally by Senge’s idea of the “learning organization” in my own organizational development / knowledge management work. I’m guided again by him, this time by his idea that the environmental and social challenges we face create an unprecedented opportunity for us to bring about real, sustainable (and “revolutionary”) change in the ways we work and live.
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I just started reading Howard Zinn’s You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times (1994) and stumbled upon a couple of paragraphs that raise questions in my mind about teaching and activism. Here are those paragraphs copied from page 7:
When I became a teacher I could not possibly keep out of the classroom my own experiences. I have often wondered how so many teachers manage to spend a year with a group of students and never reveal who they are, what kind of lives they have led, where their ideas come from, what they believe in, or what they want for themselves, for their students, and for the world.
Does not the very fact of that concealment teach something terrible–that you can separate the study of literature, history, philosophy, politics, the arts, from your life, your deepest convictions about right and wrong?
In my teaching I never concealed my political views: my detestation of war and militarism [Zinn was a bombardier in WW2.], my anger at racial inequality, my belief in a democratic socialism, in a rational and just distribution of the world’s wealth. I made clear my abhorrence of any kind of bullying, whether by powerful nations over weaker ones, governments over their citizens, employers over employees, or by anyone, on the Right or the Left, who thinks they have a monopoly on the truth.
This mixing of activism and teaching, this insistence that education cannot be neutral on the crucial issues of our time, this movement back and forth from the classroom to the struggles outside by teachers who hope their students will do the same, has always frightened the guardians of traditional education. They prefer that education simply prepare the new generation to take its proper place in the old order, not to question that order.
Are these paragraphs and Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (1980, 2003), “the only volume to tell America’s story from the point of view of–and in the words of–America’s women, factory workers, African Americans, Native Americans, working poor, and immigrant laborers,” as unpatriotic, subversive, and dangerous as jingoists claim that they are? And if not, where does that leave us as teachers of our (American) history?
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