Sunday, November 06, 2016


Nicholas Nassim Taleb describes his education in Antifragile. It sounds much like CS Lewis's, as described in Surprised By Joy. He read as he wished from a young age, according to no program other than what he set for himself.  Adults did not supervise or direct his free reading, so he would sometimes be exposed to things they might have found inappropriate had they known. (Neither Taleb or Lewis notes whether this is inappropriateness is violence, sexual, or abstract concepts beyond their likely understanding.) He attended school and did as well as he needed to at each point but found it unexciting and not very valuable.  His father was a more devoted school student and won national awards in Lebanon, but did not insist that his son take the same route.

I have noted a few times that most geniuses seem to have been autodidacts.  Taleb is clearly smarter than I am and his devotion to reading exceeded mine.  I had also a devotion to socialising - perhaps that's it. Yet I understand what he is talking about.  I used to say "never let school get in the way of your education" when I was in highschool and college.  That was certainly founded in arrogance and a sort of laziness about what others thought I should be doing, but there was truth in it as well.  I knew an enormous amount about a few subjects I had never taken a class in.  In fact, there were no classes in Arthurian studies, baseball history and statistics, or history of the English language beyond an introductory.  I added things over the years, taking up a topic with fanaticism for a few months or a few years, revisiting it years later.  In between, I would pick up other stray bits without even trying.  Once you have a structure, a schema, about a subject, anything that drifts past gets put in storage pretty easily.  I call it "cuphooks."  Once you have cupboards, and have put cuphooks in them, you can add in information at will. This is why I believe that teaching higher-level thinking skills to students too early is just bosh. Until they have a supply of cupboards and cuphooks, the information just lies around on the counter or on the table, useless.

I have therefore always loved books which supply a schema, even if it has to be modified later.  Joel Garreau's Nine Nations of North America and David Hackett Fischer's Albion's Seed supplied cupboards and cuphooks. I have redesigned those cupboards since then, but they were extremely useful.

My children also have topics in which they are extremely knowledgeable. These are significantly independent of anything they learned at school.

I noticed early on that a temporary devotion to a subject in the humanities could make you an expert very quickly.  I would talk about an historical or literary topic with a person who taught it at the college level and sense immediately that they did not know what I did.  Not close, in some cases. There's a lot of literature, a lot of philosophy, a lot of history out there and no one knows more than a sampling. If you pick an obscure corner, you can get right up to the top quickly. The general tools that the professionals bring to tie things in together and give overview don't impress me.  In theory, such things should be useful. However, they seem to be largely fashions, and these days, an imposed set of sociopolitical ideas.

I have also described in more than one place that experts and talented amateurs make different sorts of errors.

Enter Taleb, widely read in literature, philosophy, and mathematics. He suggests we avoid talking to middle people - which includes most college professors and popular writers - as we can learn little from them. He recommends attending only to the most informed, least fashionable, and most original thinkers on any subject.  Beyond that, you are better off spending your time with auto mechanics, waiters, or others who do not rely on book knowledge to get by. I see the sense of this immediately, especially in the context of how he defines antifragile knowledge. I do have an immediate difficulty with the concept, however, because I am one of those middle people, and so are most of my friends. NNT notes that the middle people, middlebrow, can be very entertaining people to be with. They are conversant at a minor level with a hundred subjects.  They know who Plato was and a few facts about him, so you can reference Plato in conversation with them in order to make a point quickly.

E D Hirsch made a name for himself in the 1980's by advocating a "cultural literacy" as a shared common knowledge to enable communication.  I have thought until quite recently that this is an excellent way to go.  I now see it is restricted to the middlebrows. It has strength because the current alternative is an assemblage of correct attitudes, even more a product of politics and fashion. Yet after reading Taleb I see weaknesses. It has no depth, so that no subject need be understood well.  More importantly, it provides considerable inertia for the conventional wisdom.  It is much harder to find a spot on which to stand to say "Socrates is wrong, and so is Plato," as Taleb does. As an autodidact, he references other ancient philosophers who he believes come closer to important truths - and I have never heard of most of them. They aren't part of the cultural literacy lists, neither the old canons, nor the new politically correct ones.

He disparages the type of close-ended knowledge that tests measure, with single correct answers according to forms.  I have disparaged them myself (which is one reason I preferred Ron Hoeflin's Mega Test to other IQ tests), but not too loudly or too often, because they are the sort of thing I'm good at and I have an interest in keeping my own roads to status clear. Yet I emphatically see his point.  His examples are pretty persuasive, and pretty damning, as well.

More to say, but I think I'll leave this here for the moment.


jaed said...

E D Hirsch made a name for himself in the 1980's by advocating a "cultural literacy" as a shared common knowledge to enable communication. I have thought until quite recently that this is an excellent way to go. I now see it is restricted to the middlebrows.

I think this underrates the idea. It's true that you can be "culturally literate" in this sense while having no depth in any of it—a jack of all trades, a master of none—but the lack of depth doesn't follow as a necessity. You can be culturally literate, with a passing acquaintance with a great deal, and with the kind of depth you describe earlier in a few areas of special interest.

Indeed, this is the best case, since no one can have that kind of depth in all areas. The broad acquaintance gives you an extensive list of areas that you might become sufficiently interested in to explore in depth, and a general set of references that let you relate one area to another, and that's useful in becoming well-educated in your field(s) of interest, and all of that is useful. (Being able to understand a reference to Plato's opinion of poets without having it explained for you is just a side benefit.)

For that matter, this works fractally, at all scales. If you are interested in algebraic topology, it will be of enormous benefit to have learned something about other subfields of mathematics, even though you can't go into much depth with most of them: your acquaintance with the methods and ways of thinking used in other subfields will enrich (enormously!) your work in your own specialized corner. Same sort of thing with history, or any other field of study: the general survey-level knowledge of other periods and specialties gives you context and comparisons for your studies in Civil War military history.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Taleb does exempt physics, mathematics, engineering, and some other direct science study and employment. As for the humanities, yes that's the theory, that the survey level courses provide some structure, some possible analogies, and some teasers. I had always thought so. Certainly there is some of that. But now I wonder if it is greatly overrated.

I will say that anything firmly outside of our own time and space is a plus, giving us some objectivity. One of my objections to modern knowledge is that it is so quickly makes all other eras a subsidiary of modern social thought: projecting modern racial issues, feminism, economic theories, LGTB advocacy, and economic theories back onto earlier times. In particular, to discredit anything that was good about any place that contributed to the development of the west. You find this attitude pretty much assumed in NPR stories, for example, as if it does not occur to them that any other POV could exist.

jaed said...

I was recently depressed to receive a missive from my alma mater, discussing how the required humanities course will (almost certainly) be reworked, with the pervasive addition of "race, class, and gender" oppression-studies material. Much is being made of the fact that the class introduces the student to the heritage of Western civilization; much indignation about the fact that "there are things worth studying other than Dead White Males, y'know!"

The point of studying the thought of one's own civilization is that it grounds one in one's own cultural reality; from that standpoint, studying the thought of other civilizations—in their own terms, as it should be, rather than an adjunct or ornament or "break" from the West—becomes much more likely to lead to productive thought. Someone who has studied the traditional humanities is prepared to study other civilizations in depth, using similar techniques. Indeed, arguably, this is the only way to gain any real understanding of a civilization, short of being born and growing up in it.

Instead they're talking about dumping some of the primary writings in favor of fashionable secondary and tertiary sources "analyzing" various periods in terms of current obsessions, reading textbooks about Plato instead of Plato. And throwing in a few random items such as "a book about Muhammed" as a sort of herbal seasoning, with no attempt to study Muslim civilization in any depth, and no attempt to relate it to Western civilization.

It is all so direly missing the point of such a class that it makes me want to cry.

james said...

In order to write the chapters on church history and on differences between churches I had to do a bit of background research, in particular about the catholic and the orthodox. Plenty of other folks knew it already, of course, but I confess that "Westminster Abbey" was just a phrase until the history sunk in a bit--repurposed; got it--borrowing sanctity; got it. Lots of details in stories had slid by me--references to usages not common in Baptist churches.

A smattering can hint at what you don't know.

It seems such impoverishment to see people so disconnected from their past. As jaed says, if you cannot even read Shakespeare in context of his time, how are you going to read Wole Soyinka in _his_ context?

RichardJohnson said...

I noticed early on that a temporary devotion to a subject in the humanities could make you an expert very quickly. I would talk about an historical or literary topic with a person who taught it at the college level and sense immediately that they did not know what I did.

I have acquired a certain amount of knowledge on Latin America. Similar to your experience, I have been able to take apart what lefty professors have written on Latin America, to point out facts they have neglected- if they ever knew them.

I have recently been reading a book by the Chilean exile Ariel Dorfman, whose literary output and op-eds for the last 40 years have focused on what harm Pinochet did to Chile and to Dorfman's lefty dreams.[He was a red diaper baby, it turns out.His parents named him Vladmiro. His father was a UN bureaucrat based in NYC who got booted out of the US for lending too much support to US Reds who were under surveillance around the time of the Rosenberg executions.] I FINALLY found a passage where Dorfman acknowledged that no, Allende's coalition did not have the support of the majority and that this lack of majority support was crucial in the decision to stage a coup: "We could blame the CIA...the military, all we wanted but they would never have prevailed if we had been able to get the majority of Chileans behind our reforms."