So, if our regular, government-issue education is teaching us how to just run the machines, but not think critically, where do we go to be really and truly educated? And what should we learn?
One of the first steps (besides wanting to learn) along the road to a real education is having access to a library. Ironically, the same government that gives such limited instruction in the realities of the world usually can create some amazing temples to thought and contemplation, in the form of public libraries (and their awesome guardians, librarians!). Wikipedia, and your smartphone (if you have one) can be great sources of knowledge, but public libraries allow you to digest this knowledge in a quiet and nurturing atmosphere. A good chunk of learning can happen with a library (and at relatively low cost) as was noted in Good Will Hunting (around 3:20 in that clip). But this learning is still book learning. It is one thing to read about something, but another to experience it first hand, and to have a skill or knowledge firmly entrenched in your being. There are other places to get educated; a multitude of YouTube channels, and many colleges and universities are putting a good deal of their coursework online for free. Although you may get paid handsomely for knowing a particular computer language or other technical skill, you may still wind up being a Saint George (Carlin)-described obedient worker, albeit a more highly paid one.
What should we be learning, besides book knowledge? Of course, if you run your own business, been a waiter or waitress, have been a street performer, or even had a paper route, you’ve gotten a heavy dose of business education. Better yet, if you’ve lost money in any one of these ventures, you’ve gotten a few hard earned credits in the “B-school of life,” that you’ll never forget. What has been interesting to me, in speaking with many a small businessperson or someone eking out a sole-proprietorship living is generally how much more savvy they are about taxes, expenses, employment law, and a slew of other bureaucratic nightmares that one has to grapple with. If necessity is the mother of invention, starting and running a small business can be the mother of doing it all, and doing it on a shoestring. Seeing people from all points of the political spectrum become businesspeople, it’s amazing to see how some liberals become more conservative, and how some conservatives become more liberal. When you have ‘skin in the game’, regulations, taxes, restrictions, and rules aren’t just abstractions – they are things you have to fight with constantly.
Robert A. Heinlein had a quote that many folks in the science fiction community know well, as to what human being should know, and be prepared to do:
A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
A lot of us won’t have to plan an invasion or fight efficiently, but we can take self-defense courses, and at the least learn basic firearm safety. We may not have to set a bone, but we can learn about CPR and basic first aid. We may not learn how to pitch manure on a farm, but we could learn some basic mechanical and electronic tasks in a maker space or community college. Yes, you should still know how to do many things. Specialization, like monoculture crops, may make you efficient, but it also may make you vulnerable. Knowing (and doing) more than one thing makes you antifragile.
In Heinlein’s quote, he mentions “giving orders, taking orders, cooperating, and acting alone.” Knowing about humanity, and social structures, and how humans behave and interact may be one of the most important skills to learn. Knowing all the technical skills in the world is great, but without that core competency, those awesome and needed skills won’t be able to be used or expressed ideally. It’s somewhat disheartening to watch technically brilliant people get kicked out of a company because they didn’t make friends, learn how to deal with people, or finesse some human interactions. So much talent and raw intellectual horsepower can be wasted because of these personal blind spots. Alas, we all have them to varying degrees. A very wise friend, (a great viewer of the human condition, a businessperson, and an artist) once called this information the “knowing about the ‘monkey mind’ of humans.” How people react to power, fortune, being excluded or included in a group, how they react under stress – all of these things are critically important for getting things done in this world. You can get a bit of this training by running your own business, but it can be a bit of a slow and error-prone process. You can learn a lot by making mistakes, but if you can learn from other people’s mistakes, even better.
If you recognize the logo at the top of the article, you may be familiar with Burning Man and other related local ‘burns.’ Now, Burning Man isn’t for everyone, and my own view of it is a bit nuanced, as noted previously. One of the most rewarding parts of the event for me, however, wasn’t the art or the crazy parties (although they were fascinating, eye-opening, and fun), but the training that is given for the event’s Rangers. Black Rock City Rangers (for the main event in Nevada), and their related local burn Rangers, are an integral part of the Burner community, and help keep things on track. They are explicitly not police officers, but when Rangers are around, people generally give them a good deal of respect, and are seen as key members of the community. How do they do this? At their core, they use social capital to keep the sometimes chaotic nature of the event on an “even keel.” Many times, they essentially, “do nothing,” and just observe situations. The details of how they do this aren’t too earth shattering; knowing about active vs. passive listening, knowing how to help defuse certain situations and when to call in for help, and being just generally good event citizens. The training isn’t too onerous; it’s a one day affair with a local orientation on site at the event.
What makes this group amazingly useful is that they are generally self-aware about being human, their own personal limitations, and the limitations of what they can do. The training is very specific on these points. For example, when a Ranger can’t handle an event, person, or situation, that there is a standard protocol for handling it. Being trained as a Ranger won’t save the world, nor will it make a community pull together, nor will it prevent people from being miserable to others. It will, (if you are paying attention!) give you some tools on how to handle difficult situations and people.
- Where else do you go to get educated? Where is your favorite place to learn?
- After you learn how to read, write, do basic mathematics, and how to construct a cogent argument, what other skills should you learn?
- How can you teach people about recognizing the ‘monkey mind’?
- What sort of programs that exist outside of the normal realm of traditional schools, coursework, online programs and the like have you found to be eye-opening?
- Could we have the equivalent of societal Rangers? Do priests/rabbis/(insert local religious person) qualify, or are they too doctrinal?
- Police officers have a uniform, so they can be easily recognized in society. So do Rangers. Could those societal Rangers have a signifying symbol or form to indicate they were “on duty” and available for general societal help?