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18 Dec 15:26

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness

by Jason Kottke

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness is a documentary which presents a year in the life of Studio Ghibli and its famed director, Hayao Miyazaki. The year in question was a particularly interesting one during which Miyazaki announced his retirement. The trailer:

Granted near-unfettered access to the notoriously insular Studio Ghibli, director Mami Sunada follows the three men who are the lifeblood of Ghibli -- the eminent director Hayao Miyazaki, the producer Toshio Suzuki, and the elusive and influential "other director" Isao Takahata -- over the course of a year as the studio rushes to complete two films, Miyazaki's The Wind Rises and Takahata's The Tale of The Princess Kaguya. The result is a rare "fly on the wall" glimpse of the inner workings of one of the world's most celebrated animation studios, and an insight into the dreams, passion and singular dedication of these remarkable creators.

(via @garymross)

Tags: Hayao Miyazaki   movies   Studio Ghibli   The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness   trailers
29 Nov 05:05

Punning banned in China

by Victor Mair

When the first headline arrived stating that China was going to ban punning, I thought that it must be something from The Onion.  But when more and more reports came pouring in, I said to myself, "No, this is China.  They're really going to do it."

Indeed, the latest directive from the Ministry of Truth (State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television [SAPPRFT]) shows that they are dead serious.

Here are some of the reports that have come my way:

"China bans wordplay in attempt at pun control"
The Guardian (11/28/14)

"Officials say casual alteration of idioms risks nothing less than ‘cultural and linguistic chaos’, despite their common usage"

The Guardian article was picked up by Reddit, where the puns are running fast and furious.

"Nowhere to Pun Amid China Crackdown"
WSJ, China RealTime (11/28/14)

"China Bans Puns; Citizens Left Dis-Oriented"
Mediaite (11/28/14)

Just what sort of puns was SAPPRFT decrying?  Here are two of the most egregious offenders:

Jìn shàn Jìn měi 晋善晋美 (lit., "Shanxi good Shanxi beautiful") was used in ads promoting tourism to Shanxi province.  The slogan — translated as “Shanxi, a land of splendors” — was a pun on the Chinese saying, jìnshànjìnměi 尽善尽美 ("perfection").

kèbùrónghuǎn 刻不容緩 ("pressing; acutely urgent", lit., "acutely may not delay") was rewritten as kébùrónghuǎn 咳不容緩 ("coughing may not delay / linger") in an advertisement a for cough remedy.

One would think that such offenses are hardly serious of government attention.  Indeed, not only are such clever puns inoffensive, they lie at the heart of much humor and advertising copy.

Because of the huge number of homophones in the language, punning is super easy in Mandarin, and Chinese are extremely fond of engaging in this type of verbal play.

So deeply entrenched is paronomasia in the Chinese tradition that it is even commonly reflected in the symbolism of art and material culture.  For example, Chinese families used to put a saddle (ān 鞍) in the main hall of their home because it was thought that it would bring ān 安 ("peace").  Bats (biānfú 蝙蝠) figured prominently in many decorations because the second syllable sounded the same as the character for "fortune" (fú 福).  Entire dictionaries were based upon the principle of punning as a means for defining words; see Shìmíng 释名 (Explaining Terms).

David Moser, as quoted in The Guardian, sheds light on the real motivation of the government in going after those miscreants who have a fondness for puns:

“But I wonder if this is not a preemptive move, an excuse to crack down for supposed ‘linguistic purity reasons’ on the cute language people use to crack jokes about the leadership or policies.  It sounds too convenient.”

To be sure, the current attack on punning is not the first we've seen in recent years:

"Crackdown on Chinese Bloggers Who Fight the Censors With Puns"
(5/29/12)

The deft punning of netizens to circumvent government censorship has often been documented on Language Log:

"Banned in Beijing"
(6/4/14) — with links to many relevant posts

"Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon Classics"
(8/30/13)

The Chinese government may think that, because they've outlawed guns, they'll also be able to outlaw puns.  But they have another think coming, since the latter is one pleasure, and one powerful weapon, that the people are not likely to relinquish lightly.

[Hat tip Ben Zimmer, Bruce Rusk, John Rohsenow, Nathan Hopson, Kelsey Seymour, and Norman Leung]

31 Jul 20:00

Roasting Richard Pryor

by Tim Carmody

Hi, everybody! Tim Carmody here, guest-hosting for Jason this week.

I love Richard Pryor. If you don't know why, read Hilton Als's 1999 profile of Pryor in The New Yorker right after you watch 1979's Live In Concert. Everything Eddie Murphy did in the '80s, Chris Rock did in the '90s, Dave Chappelle did in the '00s, or Louis CK's done over the last decade is all there in Pryor. Stand-up comedy is a series of footnotes to Richard Pryor in the same way Western philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato.

But Pryor was uncompromising and self-destructive, a common combination to breakthrough talents but deadly to life, limbs, and careers. His 1977 television series was at least twenty-five years ahead of everything on TV (and it aired in prime-time on NBC) but was pulled from the air after Pryor refused to cooperate with the network's changes. He filmed just four episodes.

For the last episode, Richard was roasted by the cast of the show and a few special guests. The roasters include a very young Robin Williams and Sandra Bernhardt, longtime Pryor collaborator Paul Mooney, and very funny performances by Tim Reid (Venus Flytrap from WKRP in Cincinatti) and a young and frankly stunning Marsha Warfield (Roz from Night Court).

The unedited roast was never broadcast, for reasons that'll be obvious. It's raucous but more or less clean until Richard gets up to respond and lays them the fuck out. It is glorious.

Do not step to Richard Pryor. He takes it straight to eleven. And you love him anyway.

Tags: comedy   Richard Pryor
22 Aug 13:42

The Social Segregation Of Whites

by Dish Staff
by Dish Staff

Social Networks

Robert Jones highlights it:

Drawing on techniques from social network analysis, PRRI’s 2013 American Values Survey asked respondents to identify as many as seven people with whom they had discussed important matters in the six months prior to the survey. The results reveal just how segregated white social circles are.

Overall, the social networks of whites are a remarkable 93 percent white. White American social networks are only one percent black, one percent Hispanic, one percent Asian or Pacific Islander, one percent mixed race, and one percent other race. In fact, fully three-quarters (75 percent) of whites have entirely white social networks without any minority presence. This level of social-network racial homogeneity among whites is significantly higher than among black Americans (65 percent) or Hispanic Americans (46 percent).

03 Mar 21:56

What I worry about

by Alex Tabarrok

LATimes: A 30,000-year-old giant virus has been revived from the frozen Siberian tundra, sparking concern that increased mining and oil drilling in rapidly warming northern latitudes could disturb dormant microbial life that could one day prove harmful to man.

The original research is here. Have a nice day.

30 Dec 03:29

"Empire of Signs" Roland Barthes

by Murr
Barthes's book on Japan belongs to the same genre as Swift's Gullivers’ Travels, Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, Voltaire's Candide and as Barthes himself signals, Micheax's Garabagne. In this genre, travellers to a foreign country which is largely mythical, fictional, fantastic, reflect on that country's institutions, casting light on the writers' own.

This may seems a strange assertion. Japan is a real place, and Barthes really visited it. But this book is more an examination of Western thought about Japan, especially about Zen, and about Western thought itself, about how Western thought and language is ceaselessly spinning out sign systems, is in fact, an infinite supplement of supernumerary signifierswhich form the basis of Western consciousness. In Empire of Signs Barthes imagines the possibility of this ceaseless chatter ceasing, he imagines a system of emptiness, which he sees in Japanese/Zen culture.


The book is short, consisting of 26 very short chapters on different aspects of Japan: food, chopsticks, calligraphy, pachinko, the haiku, the eyelid and so on. Barthes's meditations are spot-on accurate, imaginative, fanciful, grounded in reality, and beautifully expressed.


The book is a kind of dialogue (between East and West), and this is reflected at sentence level; sentences seem to have two layers, the direct and the parenthetical:

A Frenchman (unless he is abroad) cannot classify French faces; doubtless he perceives faces in common, but the abstraction of these repeated faces (which is the class to which they belong) escapes him.


Barthes comments on his own comments. At the level of the discourse then, the book enacts that infinite supplement of supernumerary signifiers, nudging the reader into his own supernumerary signifiers.


I'm going to briefly summarize the four short chapters on haiku. Bold is chapter titles, italics are quotes from Barthes, parentheses are my comments.


It is evening, in autumn,

All I can think of

Is my parents

Buson


1. The Breach of Meaning

·      the deceptive easiness of haiku

·      it is intelligible but appears to mean nothing (nothing beyond itself)

·      it presents its meaning simply

·      in contrast with Western poetry which demands a chiselled thought, the haiku allows one to be trivial, short, ordinary

·      Western poetry has unavoidably two systems of meaning: the symbol, the metaphor; and reasoning, the syllogism

·      (for the Western reader) the haiku is attracted to one or other of these two signification systems

·      first: we assign the haiku a 'poetic' meaning - in Western lit, 'poetic' is a symbol of the ineffable, the inexpressible-

·      in this poetic meaning, everything in the haiku becomes symbolic

·      second: we see the three lines of the haiku as a syllogism: rise, suspense, conclusion

·      if we renounce both these systems, commentary becomes impossible: to comment on the haiku means simply to repeat it

·      Western methods of interpretation fail the haiku


The West moistens everything with meaning like an authoritarian religion which imposes baptism on entire peoples.


The work of reading which is attached to it is to suspend language, not to provoke it.


How admirable he is

Who does not think "Life is ephemeral"

When he sees a flash of lightning

Basho


 

2. Exemption from Meaning
·      the Buddhist syllogism contains four propositions:

·      this is A

·      this is not A

·      this is both A and not-A

·      this is neither A nor not-A

·      this is the obstructed meaning, an impossible paradigm

·      in this way, Zen wages a war against meaning

·      for example, the Sixth Patriarch recommended his students to give the following answer: if questioning you, someone interrogates you about non-being, answer with being. If you are questioned about the ordinary man, answer by speaking about the master etc

·      (The Sixth Patriarch is one of the major figures of Zen/Chan Buddhism, a Chinese Scholar/monk 大鑒惠能 Dajien Huineng early 8th C BCE)

·      the patriarch's recommended response is designed to disrupt the paradigms of Q&A/language and therefore to imperil the search for meaning

·      Zen makes the mere mechanism of meaning apparent


·      the haiku is an attempt to attain a flat language, a language with no layers of meaning (Barthes calls this 'a lamination of meaning') - a first level signifier: a signifier which is matte

·      all we can do with this matte signifier is scrutinize it, not solve it

·      Zen and the haiku are a praxis designed to halt language

·      Satori (Nirbana, enlightenment) is a suspension of the constant inner language of consciousness

·      because language sums up other languages to penetrate meaning - secondary signifiers, thoughts of thoughts - Zen perceives of this a kind of jamming

·      the abolition of secondary thought is one of the aims of the haiku

·      the haiku attacks the symbol as a semantic operation (by refusing the possibility of a secondary language)


·      it does this by measuring language, a concept which is inconceivable to the Western mind

·      the Western mind always tries to make signifier and signified disproportionate (by saying a little with many words, or by saying a lot with few words)

·      the haiku, on the other hand is an adequation of signifier and signified, a suppression of margins, smudges and interstices

·      in the haiku, signified and signifier are measured ('get the measure' of something is also meant by this)


·      the practice of saying haiku twice:

·      saying it once is to give the meaning of surprise to its sudden, perfect appearance

·      saying it more than twice is to simulate profundity, to postulate that meaning can be discovered in it

·      saying it twice is an echo, neither singular, nor profound


There is a moment when language ceases and it is this echoless breach which institutes at once the truth of Zen and the form -brief and empty- of the haiku.


...perhaps what Zen calls 'satori' is no more than a panic suspension of language, the blank which erases in us the reign of the Codes, the breach of that internal recitation which constitutes our person...('Codes' is a Barthesian term, from S/Z, meaning the reference discourses which underlie Western literature. Basically, here he means any kind of secondary thoughts.)


The echo merely draws a line under the nullity of meaning.


I come by the mountain path.

Ah! this is exquisite!

A violet!

Basho


I saw the first snow

That morning I forgot

To wash my face

(unattr)



 

3. The Incident
·      Western art transforms the 'impression' into a description

·      in the West description - A Western genre- is the equivalent of contemplation

·      two kinds of contemplation: forms of the divinity (Loyola), evangelical narrative episodes

·      in the haiku, there is no metaphysics centred around a subject or around a god

·      the haiku is centred around the Zen character Mu (nothing), an apprehension of the thing as an event, not as substance

·      the haiku is centred on what happens to language, rather than what happens to the subject producing/receiving the language

·      the haiku does not describe (this seems counter intuitive until one realises what Barthes means by ‘describe’, namely, the relationship between the sign and the signified. According to B this relationship doesn't exist in the haiku. In the haiku, language has no referent, is the essence of appearance, and an untenable moment. It is language degree Zero. Barthes calls this later in the essay an 'escheat of signification')

·      it presents language as a category, as a painting, a miniature picture


·      the order and dispersion of haiku, in anthologies and other texts

·      on the one hand there is plethora, on the other brevity

·      this creates a dust of fragmentary events with no direction or termination

·      the haiku and the self, the self is nothing but the site of reading, timeless

·      the haiku reflects the self

·      for example, in the Hua Yen doctrine (one of the key tenets of Mahayanna Buddhism, the Buddhism of China and East Asia, the origin, one can say, of Zen), a haiku is a jewel which reflects all the other jewels in a kind of irradiation, but one with no centre

·      in the West, the analogy of this is the dictionary, a play of reflections without origin

·      reflection: in the West, the mirror reflects the self, in the East, a mirror reflects nothingness, it is empty


·      this can be applied to everything which happens in the street in Japan

·      the streets are full of incidents, which a Westerner can only read in the way he reads a haiku

·      but the ability to create haiku is denied the Westerner (because of the way his consciousness is founded in language and his concept of language as a system generating secondary languages)

·      the incidents observed in the street do not have anything picturesque about them, nor do they have anything novelistic about them

·      novelistic: they do not contribute to the chatter which would make them descriptions or narratives

·      the incidents of the street present a rectitude of line, a stroke, a gesture

·      the graphic nature of Japanese life, writing alla prima

·      the line does not express, but causes to exist

·      there can be no hesitation, no regret, no trial and error in the stroke of the brush

·      these gestures do not refer back to the self, there is no self-sufficiency, only graphism


The haiku's time is without subject: reading has no other self than all the haikus of which this self, by infinite refraction, is never anything but the site of reading.


The haiku reminds us of what has never happened to us; in it we recognize a repetition without origin, an event without cause, a memory without person, a language without moorings.


The old pond:

A frog jumps in:

Oh! the sound of the water.

Basho


4. So

·      the purpose of haiku is to achieve exemption from meaning

·      this is impossible in Western lit, which contests meaning only by making it incomprehensible

·      the haiku resists commentary, and it's this commentary which is the most ordinary exercise of our consciousness

·      the haiku doesn't instruct, express, divert- it serves none of the purposes usually attributed to literature due to its insignificance and due to the way it resists finality

·      the haiku is written just to write


·      in Western lit there are two basic functions: description and definition (again Barthes is using ‘describe’ in a special sense here: embellish with significations, with moralities, committed as indices to the revelation of a truth or of a sentiment)

·      the haiku resists both of these

·      the haiku does not describe in the sense of giving meaning to reality

·      the haiku does not define except only in the sense of giving a gesture, but this gesture is only an efflorescence of the object

·      the haiku only designates, it has no vibration or recurrence

·      it says: 'it's that', or 'it's thus' or 'it's so', or even just 'so.'

·      it's like the flash of a photo one takes very very carefully, but with no film in the camera

·      the haiku is stripped of any mediation of knowledge, of possession, of nomination,

·      it's like a child pointing at something and saying 'That!'


The haiku's task is to achieve exemption from meaning within a perfectly readerly discourse (a contradiction denied to Western art, which can contest meaning only by rendering its discourse incomprehensible).


The haiku is a faint gash inscribed upon time.


Nothing special says the haiku, in accordance with the spirit of Zen...nothing special has been acquired, the word's stone has been cast for nothing; neither waves nor flow of meaning.


Full moon

And on the matting

The shadow of a pine tree


In the fisherman's house

The smell of dried fish

And heat


The winter wind blows

The cat's eyes

Blink

unattr.



How many people

Have crossed the Seta bridge

Through the autumn rain?

Joko

13 May 10:30

Don’t Go Back to School: How to Fuel the Internal Engine of Learning

by Maria Popova

“When you step away from the prepackaged structure of traditional education, you’ll discover that there are many more ways to learn outside school than within.”

“The present education system is the trampling of the herd,” legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright lamented in 1956. Half a century later, I started Brain Pickings in large part out of frustration and disappointment with my trampling experience of our culturally fetishized “Ivy League education.” I found myself intellectually and creatively unstimulated by the industrialized model of the large lecture hall, the PowerPoint presentations, the standardized tests assessing my rote memorization of facts rather than my ability to transmute that factual knowledge into a pattern-recognition mechanism that connects different disciplines to cultivate wisdom about how the world works and a moral lens on how it should work. So Brain Pickings became the record of my alternative learning, of that cross-disciplinary curiosity that took me from art to psychology to history to science, by way of the myriad pieces of knowledge I discovered — and connected — on my own. I didn’t live up to the entrepreneurial ideal of the college drop-out and begrudgingly graduated “with honors,” but refused to go to my own graduation and decided never to go back to school. Years later, I’ve learned more in the course of writing and researching the thousands of articles to date than in all the years of my formal education combined.

So, in 2012, when I found out that writer Kio Stark was crowdfunding a book that would serve as a manifesto for learning outside formal education, I eagerly chipped in. Now, Don’t Go Back to School: A Handbook for Learning Anything is out and is everything I could’ve wished for when I was in college, an essential piece of cultural literacy, at once tantalizing and practically grounded assurance that success doesn’t lie at the end of a single highway but is sprinkled along a thousand alternative paths. Stark describes it as “a radical project, the opposite of reform … not about fixing school [but] about transforming learning — and making traditional school one among many options rather than the only option.” Through a series of interviews with independent learners who have reached success and happiness in fields as diverse as journalism, illustration, and molecular biology, Stark — who herself dropped out of a graduate program at Yale, despite being offered a prestigious fellowship — cracks open the secret to defining your own success and finding your purpose outside the factory model of formal education. She notes the patterns that emerge:

People who forgo school build their own infrastructures. They create and borrow and reinvent the best that formal schooling has to offer, and they leave the worst behind. That buys them the freedom to learn on their own terms.

[…]

From their stories, you’ll see that when you step away from the prepackaged structure of traditional education, you’ll discover that there are many more ways to learn outside school than within.

Reflecting on her own exit from academia, Stark articulates a much more broadly applicable insight:

A gracefully executed quit is a beautiful thing, opening up more doors than it closes.

But despite discovering in dismay that “liberal arts graduate school is professional school for professors,” which she had no interest in becoming, Stark did learn something immensely valuable from her third year of independent study, during which she read about 200 books of her own choosing:

I learned how to teach myself. I had to make my own reading lists for the exams, which meant I learned how to take a subject I was interested in and make myself a map for learning it.

The interviews revealed four key common tangents: learning is collaborative rather than done alone; the importance of academic credentials in many professions is declining; the most fulfilling learning tends to take place outside of school; and those happiest about learning are those who learn out of intrinsic motivation rather than in pursuit of extrinsic rewards. The first of these insights, of course, appears on the surface to contradict the very notion of “independent learning,” but Stark offers an eloquent semantic caveat:

Independent learning suggests ideas such as “self-taught,” or “autodidact.” These imply that independence means working solo. But that’s just not how it happens. People don’t learn in isolation. When I talk about independent learners, I don’t mean people learning alone. I’m talking about learning that happens independent of schools.

[…]

Anyone who really wants to learn without school has to find other people to learn with and from. That’s the open secret of learning outside of school. It’s a social act. Learning is something we do together.

Independent learners are interdependent learners.

She critiques the present boom of massive open online classes, or MOOCs, for their tendency to attempt replicating the offline experience online rather than building a new model for learning from the ground up:

Simply put, MOOCs are designed to put teaching online, and that is their mistake. Instead they should start putting learning online. The innovation of MOOCs is to detach the act of teaching from physical classrooms and tuition-based enrollment. But what they should be working toward is much more radical — detaching learning from the linear processes of school.

But that, Stark found, is missing the point. When she interviewed people who did go to school and asked what they most liked about the experience, they “unanimously cited ‘other people’ as the most useful and meaningful part of their school experience.” So, then:

Given the primacy of community in the experience of learning, the question of how to take the auto out of autodidactic is the first and most central question for learners.

Much of the argument for formal education rests on statistics indicating that people with college and graduate degrees earn more. But those statistics, Stark notes, suffer an important and rarely heeded bias:

The problem is that this statistic is based on long-term data, gathered from a period of moderate loan debt, easy employability, and annual increases in the value of a college degree. These conditions have been the case for college grads for decades. Given the dramatically changed circumstances grads today face, we already know that the trends for debt, employability, and the value of a degree have all degraded, and we cannot assume the trend toward greater lifetime earnings will hold true for the current generation. This is a critical omission from media coverage. The fact is we do not know. There’s absolutely no guarantee it will hold true.

Some heartening evidence suggests the blind reliance on degrees might be beginning to change. Stark cites Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh:

I haven’t looked at a résumé in years. I hire people based on their skills and whether or not they are going to fit our culture.

Another common argument for formal education extols the alleged advantages of its structure, proposing that homework assignments, reading schedules, and regular standardized testing would motivate you to learn with greater rigor. But, as Daniel Pink has written about the psychology of motivation, in school, as in work, intrinsic drives far outweigh extrinsic, carrots-and-sticks paradigms of reward and punishment, rendering this argument unsound. Stark writes:

Learning outside school is necessarily driven by an internal engine. … [I]ndependent learners stick with the reading, thinking, making, and experimenting by which they learn because they do it for love, to scratch an itch, to satisfy curiosity, following the compass of passion and wonder about the world.

So how can you best fuel that internal engine of learning outside the depot of formal education? Stark offers an essential insight, which places self-discovery at the heart of acquiring external knowledge:

Learning your own way means finding the methods that work best for you and creating conditions that support sustained motivation. Perseverance, pleasure, and the ability to retain what you learn are among the wonderful byproducts of getting to learn using methods that suit you best and in contexts that keep you going. Figuring out your personal approach to each of these takes trial and error.

[…]

For independent learners, it’s essential to find the process and methods that match your instinctual tendencies as a learner. Everyone I talked to went through a period of experimenting and sorting out what works for them, and they’ve become highly aware of their own preferences. They’re clear that learning by methods that don’t suit them shuts down their drive and diminishes their enjoyment of learning. Independent learners also find that their preferred methods are different for different areas. So one of the keys to success and enjoyment as an independent learner is to discover how you learn.

[…]

School isn’t very good at dealing with the multiplicity of individual learning preferences, and it’s not very good at helping you figure out what works for you.

Echoing Neil deGrasse Tyson, who has argued that “every child is a scientist” since curiosity is coded into our DNA, and Sir Ken Robinson, who has lamented that the industrial model of education schools us out of our inborn curiosity, Stark observes:

Any young child you observe displays these traits. But passion and curiosity can be easily lost. School itself can be a primary cause; arbitrary motivators such as grades leave little room for variation in students’ abilities and interests, and fail to reward curiosity itself. There are also significant social factors working against children’s natural curiosity and capacity for learning, such as family support or the lack of it, or a degree of poverty that puts families in survival mode with little room to nurture curiosity.

Stark returns to the question of motivators that do work, once again calling to mind Pink’s advocacy of autonomy, mastery, and purpose as the trifecta of success. She writes:

[T]hree broadly defined elements of the learning experience support internal motivation and the persistence it enables. Internal motivation relies on learners having autonomy in their learning, a progressing sense of competence in their skills and knowledge, and the ability to learn in a concrete or “real world” context rather than in the abstract. These are mostly absent from classroom learning. Autonomy is rare, useful context is absent, and school’s means for affirming competence often feel so arbitrary as to be almost without use — and are sometimes actively demotivating. . . . [A]utonomy means that you follow your own path. You learn what you want to learn, when and how you want to learn it, for your own reasons. Your impetus to learn comes from within because you control the conditions of your learning rather than working within a structure that’s pre-made and inflexible.

The second thing you need to stick with learning independently is to set your own goals toward an increasing sense of competence. You need to create a feedback loop that confirms your work is worth it and keeps you moving forward. In school this is provided by advancing through the steps of the linear path within an individual class or a set curriculum, as well as from feedback from grades and praise.

But Stark found that outside of school, those most successful at learning sought their sense of competence through alternative sources. Many, like James Mangan advised in his 1936 blueprint to acquiring knowledge, solidified their learning by teaching it to other people, increasing their own sense of mastery and deepening their understanding. Others centered their learning around specific projects, which enabled them to make progress more modular and thus more attainable. Another cohort cited failure as an essential part of the road to mastery. Stark continues:

The third thing [that] can make or break your ability to sustain internal motivation … is to situate what you’re learning in a context that matters to you. In some cases, the context is a specific project you want to accomplish, which … also functions to support your sense of progress.

She sums up the failings of the establishment:

School is not designed to offer these three conditions; autonomy and context are sorely lacking in classrooms. School can provide a sense of increasing mastery, via grades and moving from introductory classes to harder ones. But a sense of true competence is harder to come by in a school environment. Fortunately, there are professors in higher education who are working to change the motivational structures that underlie their curricula.

Stark prefaces the interviews with a clear mission statement:

For those of you who have experience with learning outside of school, this book is a celebration of what you do. For those of you who haven’t, it’s a warm invitation to give it a try.

The interviews, to be sure, offer a remarkably diverse array of callings, underpinned by a number of shared values and common characteristics. Computational biologist Florian Wagner, for instance, echoes Steve Jobs’s famous words on the secret of life in articulating a sentiment shared by many of the other interviewees:

There is something really special about when you first realize you can figure out really cool things completely on your own. That alone is a valuable lesson in life.

Investigative journalist Quinn Norton subscribes to Mangan’s prescription for learning by teaching:

I ended up teaching [my] knowledge to others at the school. That’s one of my most effective ways to learn, by teaching; you just have to stay a week ahead of your students. … Everything I learned, I immediately turned around and taught to others.

She also used the gift of ignorance to proactively drive her knowledge forward:

When I wanted to learn something new as a professional writer, I’d pitch a story on it. I was interested in neurology, and I figured, why don’t I start interviewing neurologists? The great thing about being a journalist is that you can pick up the phone and talk to anybody. It was just like what I found out about learning from experts on mailing lists. People like to talk about what they know.

Norton speaks to the usefulness of useless knowledge, not only in one’s own intellectual development but also as social currency:

I’m stuffed with trivial, useless knowledge, on a panoply of bizarre topics, so I can find something that they’re interested in that I know something about. Being able to do that is tremendously socially valuable. The exchange of knowledge is a very human way to learn. I try never to walk into a room where I want to get information without knowing what I’m bringing to the other person.

[…]

I think part of the problem with the usual mindset of the student is that it’s like being a sponge. It’s passive. It’s not about having something to bring to the interaction. People who are experts in things are experts because they like learning.

The wonderful Rita J. King, whose diverse and prolific career spans investigative journalism in the nuclear industry, a position as Futurist at NASA, and an executive role in Manhattan’s Science House, recalls boldly defying the cult of credentials:

After I graduated, I wondered if I’d be perceived as less capable or desirable because I didn’t have an Ivy League degree. So I tried an experiment. When I looked for work, I didn’t talk about my education at all. I approached my career like an adventure, accepting work that led to other work and built on itself. I could have been a PhD from Harvard, or a high school dropout, nobody knew either way. It was a fun experiment to see the assumptions people made about my level of education, and also to see how much other people rely on having been educated at a prestigious university for social capital. There has never been a situation in which I needed to prove that I have a degree to get work. People never ask. I was a journalist.

She makes a case for context over mere content:

When you’re learning something, it’s really important not only to understand the system and context in which that thing functions, but also to look ahead and imagine what the world would be like with or without this thing.

Ultimately, she sees learning as a continuum rather than a finite progression with a defined beginning and end, something Susan Sontag touched on when she proposed her radical model for remixing education. King observes:

My career now centers completely on science, art, imagination, and business. I’ve learned about these fields through years of immersion. I continue to live and work that way. Life changes constantly, and flexibility is the best path to keeping your skills and perspectives current. Formal education is valuable in the right context but it tends to be rigid, which can put students at a serious disadvantage when they graduate from academia and enter the world. Each person is at a different stage in the learning process. We need to all take a step back and see ourselves on a continuum of the learning experience.

Scientific researcher and Singularity Institute director Luke Muehlhauser prefaces his advice with an important disclaimer:

Skipping school or dropping out of school is obviously a decision that should be made on a case-by-case basis. You want to come out of your education with certain types of competencies and not a lot of debt. But it has never been easier to learn without school. There are so many resources to become a generally capable and smart person and there is no trouble doing it outside of the school system at all. Your education should amplify your curiosity by giving you the opportunity to pursue things that you actually care about, and learning outside of school is ideal for that. Try to learn as many things as possible and not be afraid to fail quickly and keep trying, or switch tracks. You’ll get experience and valuable lessons in a variety of fields, and you’ll occasionally stumble across things that you thought you were going to be bad at, and it turns out you’re pretty good at.

[…]

Most people assume you need a PhD to publish in peer-reviewed books and journals, but it’s not true—I’ve published in peer-reviewed venues without even a bachelor’s degree, because I learned the material well enough on my own to engage at the cutting edge of human knowledge.

Software engineer, artist, and University of Texas molecular biologist Zack Booth Simpson speaks to the value of cultivating what William Gibson has called “a personal micro-culture” and learning from the people with whom you surround yourself:

In a way, the best education you can get is just talking with people who are really smart and interested in things, and you can get that for the cost of lunch.

Artist Molly Crabapple, who inked this beautiful illustration of Salvador Dalí’s creative credo and live-sketched Susan Cain’s talk on the power of introverts, recalls how self-initiated reading shaped her life:

I was … a constant reader. At home, I lived next to this thrift store that sold paperbacks for 10¢ apiece so I would go and buy massive stacks of paperback books on everything. Everything from trashy 1970s romance novels to Plato. When I went to Europe, I brought with me every single book that I didn’t think I would read voluntarily, because I figured if I was on a bus ride, I would read them. So I read Plato and Dante’s Inferno, and all types of literature. I got my education on the bus.

Don’t Go Back to School is a stimulating read in its entirety and a fine addition to these essential books on education.

Public domain images via Flickr Commons

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16 Apr 23:07

Zelda In The Spotlight

by Andrew Sullivan

Four novels based on Zelda Fitzgerald, F. Scott’s wife, are due out this year. Abigail Grace Murdy assesses her legacy:

Confined to a mental hospital, Zelda wrote a novel about her breakdown, Save me the Waltz, which she finished in a mere two months. She sent it off to Scott’s publisher without telling him. When Scott found out, he was enraged. He had been writing a novel about her breakdown himself, Tender is the Night.

“Everything we have done is mine,” he told her. “If we make a trip…and you and I go around, I am the professional novelist, and I am supporting you. This is all my material. None of it is your material.” He insisted that she remove the overlapping sections of her novel. “What’s left of Save Me the Waltz is a jagged, unfinished book. We don’t know what it could have been,” says Sally Cline, who wrote a biography of Zelda in 2002.

Therese Anne Fowler, author of Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, tries to set the record straight:

It is the persistent, damning mischaracterisation of Zelda as “insane” that most needs undoing. The trouble lies in the diagnosis she was given in 1930: “schizophrenia”. While today we know it to mean severe mental illness requiring delicate and often lifelong treatment with medications, therapies, and sometimes institutionalisation, in Zelda’s time it was a catch-all label for a range of emotional difficulties. It was often applied to women who suffered depression or exhaustion brought on by impossible circumstances. Zelda did suffer some mental health crises – depression, primarily – and was an uninhibited, uncensored woman who didn’t always think before she acted, but she wasn’t crazy. Unwise? Sometimes. Insane? No.

Last week marked the 93rd wedding anniversary of the Fitzgeralds. Steve King reflects on their bittersweet union: 

The Fitzgeralds’ personal life has the same sense of a long and irrecoverable springtime. The legendary champagne-and-dancing anecdotes begin with their wedding celebrations — the raucous party was forced out of two of New York’s finest hotels — and last for precisely a decade, until Zelda’s first mental breakdown in April 1930. The following letter is from April 26, 1934, Scott writing to Zelda with hopes for a new beginning even as she undergoes treatment for her third breakdown:

You and I have been happy; we haven’t been happy just once, we’ve been happy a thousand times. The chances that spring, that’s for everyone, like in the popular songs, may belong to us too — the chances are pretty bright at this time because as usual, I can carry most of contemporary literary opinion, liquidated, in the hollow of my hand — and when I do, I see the swan floating on it and — I find it to be you and you only…. Forget the past — what you can of it, and turn about and swim back home to me, to your haven for ever and ever — even though it may seem a dark cave at times and lit with torches of fury; it is the best refuge for you — turn gently in the waters through which you move and sail back….

In an echo of the closing to The Great Gatsby (April 1925), the two would be borne back ceaselessly to only the most troubling and trying aspects of their past.

Mike Springer takes the above video with a grain of salt:

We’re not sure, for example, that the clip purporting to show Zelda being “very lively in a street” is actually of her. It appears to show someone else. And one of the captions claims that Fitzgerald is pictured writing The Great Gatsby, but according to the University of South Carolina’s Fitzgerald Web site, the sentence he is writing on paper is: “Everybody has been predicting a bad end for the flapper, but I don’t think there is anything to worry about.”