education philosopher

Coming Down From Great Expectations: A Review of Lanier’s “You Are Not a Gadget”

Posted in Book reviews, Philosophy by KevinCK on February 26, 2010

I’ve just read a really exciting new book by technology (and overall) genius Jaron Lanier. The book is called You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto.” In it, he criticizes the direction of what he calls “internet 2.0” in a way that avoids ludditismThat is, he criticizes the way technology is going, and the way we think about the technology, not necessarily the technology itself. (After all, he did largely create virtual reality!) Below is an extended version of my


The first thing that must be said about Jaron Lanier’s “You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto” is that it a very intricate book, full of several different arguments and lines of thought. It might be best to say that it is a manifesto containing several submanifestos. His arguments against the current directions in “web 2.0” technology are many and multifaceted, taking us through  questions of the effectiveness of capitalism, how culture evolves, whether there can really be “wisdom in crowds,” and even the nature of what “human” is.

If we have to sum up the book into an overall point or argument, here’s how I’d do it: web technology, which was hoped to lead to vigorous innovation and individualization, has done precisely the opposite. On the consumption side, the idea of the “wisdom of crowds” has made the group (Lanier says “hive mind”) more important and more “real” than voices of individuals. On the production side, the internet has led less to innovative production than to the recycling of old ideas in new forms, while making it hard for inventors/pioneers to make a living being creative. (Yes, I know I am missing some things in this description but, as mentioned, Lanier’s work is very hard to sum up with concision.)

Lanier believes that there are two big reasons for this. First, we are not using our conception of humanity to drive how we shape technology so much as we are allowing technology to shape how we define humanity. A shining example is our faith in the “wisdom of crowds” as exemplified by our increasing obsession with all things wiki. Lanier reminds us that, in reality, there is no such “wisdom in crowds” because crowds are simply collections of individuals making individual decisions. (I would also add that “wisdom of crowds” is a literal impossibility as wisdom can only happen embodied in a point-of-view, of which a crowd has none.)

Secondly, Lanier believes that innovation may be lagging behind expectations because of our belief in the “information wants to be free” model. Yes, this has benefits, like offering information in a way that is accessible to…well…most. But it has the disadvantage of removing the incentives provided by markets out of a market. Lanier often uses the example of music and art: it was thought that the internet would allow more artists to make livings off of their art by removing the middle-men and allowing artists direct access to consumers. But with so much free content and exponentially increased competition, it is becoming even harder for artists to (a) get noticed in the milieu and (b) make a living off of their creativity. (more…)


Mortimer Smith and the Diminished Mind (book review)

Posted in Book reviews, Education, Philosophy of by KevinCK on February 3, 2010

One common retort to those who criticize the historical ascendancy and stranglehold of “progressivism” in education is to simply deny the charge. Diane Ravitch, for instance, met just this type of denial when she published Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reform. Critics, generally with an affinity for “progressive” pedagogy, told us that Ravitch’s history was hopelessly biased and a bunch of spin. Progressive ideals, they say, did not fail: they were never really tried.

It is too bad for these critics that books like The Diminished Mind by Mortimer Smith, were published. TDM was written in 1954 as a way to chronicle the educational landscape as it looked at the time. Smith’s verdict?

I do not think anyone will challenge the statement that pragmatism has become the official philosophy of the public education; there may be an occasional maverick scattered her and there but the great majority of the professors of education are committed to this philosophy and they transmit it to the future teachers and administrators whom they train to run the American public school system (Smith 1954, PG78-79).

By “pragmatism,” Smith is referring to “the pedagogical principles which formed the basis of what came to be known as progressive education and is now more commonly referred to as modern education.” (PG78)  The educational pragmatism Smith judged to be the dominant philosophic force in education (ushered in by Dewey; perverted by followers) included the idea that education is to center around the child’s immediate needs and should serve not to convey knowledge but to “reconstruct experience” (which, of course, Dewey was never really clear on what was meant). These ideas manifested themselves in various curricular theories, two of which Smith examines in some detail: education for life adjustment and education for social reconstruction.

Chapters II and III (Adjustment Replaces Education and Adjustment Replaces Education Continued) discuss and thoroughly document the rise of the “life adjustment” theory of curriculum through the public schools. (more…)

Review of Brighouse’s “On Education”

Posted in Book reviews, Education, Philosophy of by KevinCK on January 27, 2010

Below is a review I wrote for on philosopher Harry Brighouse’s book On Education.


As part of the “Thinking in Action” series, educational philosopher Harry Brighouse has written this brief, thoughtful book on education. Section 1 is devoted to the larger abstract question of why we educate. The second section is devoted to specific curricular questions like whether the state should make citizenship education compulsory or should allow religion in schools.

Brighouse’s central premise is that the primary reason to educate is to provide students with the tools they need to flourish. In order to flourish, one needs to be (relatively) autonomous in ability to think and decide one’s courses of action. Thus, a primary goal of schooling should be to equip students with the skills and knowledge they will need to be autonomous, including exposure to ways of life different than their own. Brighouse uses this idea to justify state intervention in compelling parents not to send children to overly sectarian schools. We owe it to future adults to give them those skills that will allow them to be autonomous, and allowing them to be educated in insular schools, where only one way of life is talked about, threatens that future autonomy.

I have to pause on this point because while I can see its merit, I can also see that it ignores the already-existing autonomy of parents to educate their children (whom they are legally responsible for) the way they choose. Brighouse’s suggestion that we disallow parents to send children to insular schools (in the name of future autonomy) can only be done by violating the already-existing autonomy of parents. It also sees the state’s vision for children as more important than parents’ vision. I think the issue is simply more nuanced than Brighouse’s argument suggests.

Brighouse is also very vocal in insisting that, while it is legitimate to prepare students to be workers by teaching them labor skills, this should not be the primary motive for education. Further, Brighouse warns against educating kids to fit the economy (“We need more scientists, so let’s have more science classes.”), and would rather teach kids a broad variety of employment skills so that they can be autonomous and choose their own employment path. Historically, policy makers have often let economic demands influence curricular decisions, but as Brighouse rightly points out (a) steering students towards certain careers takes away their autonomy, and (b) we simply cannot know what careers will be in demand or necessary in the future. Thus, it is better to give students a broad exposure to different career paths and teach them skills they can apply to many different careers. (more…)

Whose Incentive? Which Motivation?

Posted in Book reviews, Teaching by KevinCK on December 30, 2009

Economics is premised on a tautology – a helpful one, but a tautology nonetheless. People are motivated by incentives. What is an incentive? Anything that motivates. How do we explain why Susie did x, y, z, or anything else? She must have had incentives. What are they? Could be anything that motivates her. See, a tautology.

Recently, Daniel Pink has written a book called Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us to discuss exactly that: what are the best incentives to action? Geared primarily towards the business world, Pink uses several studies to show that the best incentives are autonomy, mastery, and doing better by ourselves and the world.

As many of the amazon reviewers who gave Drive a low review mention, though, this conclusion is based on only a few very artificial studies. The motivational picture may well be more complicated, and maybe even more when we talk about school rather than business and children rather than adults.

Pink suggests that we went through several stages of motivation through human history. Motivation 1.0 was when motivation to work was based on basic human survival. Motivation 2.0 was the “carrot and stick approach” of rewarding externally by material goods, money, etc. Pink suggests that we are now entering motivation 3.0, where we need to realize that workers are best motivated by intrinsic rewards: the pleasure of doing the job well, the pleasure of being autonomous, and the pleasure of mastering things.

Now, let’s talk about school and kids. I think it goes without saying (even though I will say it) that the best moments of student performance happen when we have tapped into a student’s intrinsic motivations as defined above. Students do best what they derive satisfaction from doing. But here is the problem: there are many situations in school where students have to do what they do not like doing. It is an unavoidable part of the school day (wrongly lamented by progressive types who would rather see kids only do what they want to do). It can be assumed that most often, workers work in fields that they at least semi-enjoy (of course this is not always the case, but it is likely the majority). Kids, on the other hand, are compelled by the state and their parents to take biology, algebra, and civics. Thus, kids will very probably experience more situations where intrinsic motivation may either be hard to come by or impossible. (Some educationists suggest that intrinsic motivation is always possible and maybe it is if one has unlimited time to try and find it. Teachers, of course, are constrained by time and class size, so it may not always be feasible to help students find intrinsic motivation.) (more…)

An Unjustly Forgotten Voice of Dissent: Review of Isaac Leon Kandel’s “Cult of Uncertainty”

Posted in Book reviews, Education, Philosophy of by KevinCK on October 18, 2009

To know about the philosophy of education today is to know about John Dewey, Edward Thorndike, William Kirkpatrick and progressive education. One of the most unfortunate byproducts of this singular focus is that many of the works critical of progressive education – and there have been many – have since been unjustly forgotten. It is quite standard to see a philosophy/theory of education course read the educational works of John Dewey (as well they should). Unfortunately, reading lists don’t tend to give voice to some of the criticisms (old or new) of progressive education that Dewey represents.

 One such remarkable book that has unjustly gone overlooked is Isaac Leon Kandel’s Cult of Uncertainty. Like so Kandelmany other books critical of progressive education, this book is currently out of print, but can fortunately be seen and downloaded for free from googlebooks. In Cult of Uncertainty, historian of education Kandel criticizes what he saw as the excesses of progressive education – its flexibility and laxity with curriculum, overemphasis on maintaining children’s interest over teaching intellectual essentials, and conflation of authority with authoritarianism.

By contrast, Kandel’s view of education is somewhat reminiscent of Edmund Burke’s conservatism . Rather than the emphasis on each generation and individual creating and discovering their own knowledge, schools’ first goal should be to impart to students the essential knowledge that past generations have created and discovered. (more…)

Review of Bach’s “Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar: How Self-Education and the Pursuit of Passion Can Lead to a Lifetime of Success”

Posted in Book reviews, Education, Philosophy of by KevinCK on July 23, 2009

(3 of 5 stars) 41B8pROK7bL__SL500_AA240_

The original title for this book was School Kills. While James Bach changed the title, there is still some of this very message in his book. Bach is not as anti-school as he is a believer that the best learning is that a person does on their own because they want to.

Secrets of a Buccaneer Scholar alternates between chapters outlining Bach’s theory of learning (a very Montesorrian free-flowing approach) and autobiographical chapters detailing his fall from high-school as a drop out to his rise in the computer world – all due to the kind of self-motivation and passionate learning he was disallowed from in high school. At times, Bach can come off as a bit cocky and conceited, like when he tells us of memorizing hte first 41 digits of pi just for kicks (reciting them for us again), or when he explains why he doesn’t “know how to talk about things that don’t matter.” (kindle edition, loc. 1798)

I have mixed feelings about this book, especially as a teacher. One the one hand, I was and am very much one of the buccaneers Bach talks about. I coasted in high school, went to a non-academic music college, discovered learning on my own, read constantly, and now have two masters degrees and am in pursuit of a PhD. Bach is certainly correct that the best learning – that which is often discouraged in school – is that which one does passionately on their own.

On the other hand is the question that Bach does not much address as to whether this approach would set as many kids up for failure as success. It is evident from Bach’s book that he was strongly motivated and had an uncanny sense of self-discipline. I have met too many students whose motivations (for anything) was low enough that I would not trust that if they guided their own education, they would come up short of what they needed. Also, there is a question which has existed ever since Montessori pioneered the student-directed education theory about whether students should be the judge of what information they will need to learn. Self-education may be a good idea for some, but do others have the motivation and forethought required to guide their own education? These are open questions that I found to be unconvincingly handled in Bach’s book.

Whatever your take – or if you don’t have a take at all – this book is an interesting read. Bach is very open and introspective, and writes in a very inviting first-person style. And for those interested in hearing Bach’s view of education applied (dare I say) systemically, check out Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher’s Journey through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling.

Review of Hawkins’s “On Intelligence”

Posted in Book reviews, Mind by KevinCK on July 8, 2009

Jonathan Hawkins, the creator of the PalmPilot and Graffiti handwriting software it uses, has written a book outlining a very interesting theory of what intelligence is. “On Intelligence” takes a non-behavioral (intelligence is not the same as intelligent behavior) and non-computational (intelligence is more than the ability to compute) approach to intelligence. Instead, he views intelligence as the ability to make predictions by taking stored memories and predicting future outcomes based on those memories. Hawkins suggests, uncontroversially, that this ability comes exclusively from the neocortex and, more controversially, that all operations we call intelligent can be reduced to the ability to make and adjust predictions.

Here is my review of the book, which I gave a four out of  five stars on amazon.comOn Intelligence


Jonathan Hawkins’s concern in “On Intelligence” is to outline a theory of what intelligence is that differs from ones floated around in various artificial intelligence (AI) circles. First, most theories of how to build “intelligent machines” focus exclusively on “intelligent behavior” without focus on the “thought” that must be behind it. (Think about Alan Turing’s test of an intelligent machine: if its behavior seems intelligent to humans, it must be intelligent. Purely behavioral.) Also, Hawkins is concerned that those few AI folks who have given thought to what intelligence is, apart from behavior, see intelligence as “ability to computer” and analogize it to a computer. But, Hawkins rightly notes, what we see as human intelligence -ability to synthesize disparate information, create novel solutions, apply old knowledge to new problems – is much more than computation. (more…)

Review of Scruton’s “Culture Counts”

Posted in Book reviews, Education, Philosophy of by KevinCK on June 23, 2009

scrutonAn Extended Essay on the Value of Cultural Education (3 of 5 stars)

Roger Scruton’s book, I think, is slightly mistitled. The subtitle should probably read something like: “on the importance of education as a furtherance of cultural knowledge.” (Not as pretty and less likely to sell bools than “faith and feeling in a world besieged.”)

This extended essay is an argument for the importance of educating students not just in academics or technical skills, but cultural education. And anyone involved in education knows that this is the minority position right now. Music and art programs have been long under attack, and literature courses focus as much on technical writing skills as they do on examining classic works. Even the mention of “great works” or “the canon” is likely to rouse the ire of many. We prefer John Grisham and JK Rowling.

Scruton further makes things interesting by pointing out that while schools today focuses on “knowledge that” (facts) and “knowledge how” (technical skills). But what also needs to be remembered – what Scruton believes is the chief value of education in culture – is “knowledge what,” which means “knowledge of what to do, how to apply what I’ve learned, and what to feel in given situations.” (As a special educator dealing with students with social/emotional issues, I focused a lot on instruction on how to act and how to feel appropriately, but this was always a “special ed thing.”)

The big criticism I have of Scruton is that he fails to make any compelling case as to why cultural education (education in classic works of literature, art, music) is the only way to achieve this “knowledge what” Yes, the great works of literature are often great because they express characters and dilemmas deeply and thoughtfully, giving the student a wonderful way to view these people and issues objectively. But just as George Eliot produced works that do this, so do contemporary authors like Wally Lamb, Jodi Picoult, and – yes – John Grisham. Scruton prefers the former authors, but doesn’t explain why the latter can not achieve the same things. (And Scruton’s case against pop music is even more ridiculous, reminding me of the used-to-be-hippie who, while listening to classic rock stations, wonders why they don’t make music like they used to. Scruton, like this poor hippie, doesn’t realize that classic rock stations play the hits that survived the test of time, rather than all the top 40 songs that didn’t.) (more…)

I wish I’d Read This Before Becoming a Teacher

Posted in Book reviews by KevinCK on June 9, 2009

talent codeBelow is a review I wrote for on Daniel Coyle’s wonderful book, “The Talent Code.” In my opinion, this is a great read for teachers. Coyle breaks success down into three ingredients (the devil is, of course, in the details): (a) deep practice; (b) drive, and (c) good coaching. Coyle offers great suggestions on what these things are and how to go about achieving them. (Deep practice is an especially important concept for teachers.)


We’ve all wondered what the “ingredients” are to become truly great at something, We’ve all ruminated on what seperates the average from the good from the great. As a teacher, I have spent many hours reflecting on the constitution of good teaching and good learning, both key things to understand in order to connect with students. (more…)