Teaching, Learning, and Navigation

Motion

It’s not getting there, it’s the journey. The saying is so hackneyed we tune it out. It’s so 60’s, so hippy. But think of how we perceive motion.

I am looking out a motel window. It is raining. If I hold my head still the frame doesn’t change but I am aware that the leaves in the trees across the street are moving and that rings are coming and going on the puddles as the raindrops hit. My brain does the differentiation, the time-lapse photography, the video recording. I’m not aware of all that. I am only aware of movement, of change, in the leaves and the puddles. They are alive.

Learning

I recently watched a video of an interview with Elon Musk, the man behind PayPal, Tesla, and SpaceX. He was asked how he learned rocket science. He thought for a second or two, and answered with a complete absence of irony. He said he read a lot of books on the subject. He said he sought out and hired many people who had experience in the field. He said together they worked on and solved many problems.

Then he paused, and said, You know, that’s how I hire people.

How so? asked the interviewer.

Elon Musk said he would ask the candidate to describe some difficult problem he or she had solved. He said someone who had worked the problem through could discuss it to any depth; those who were on the periphery or along for the ride could not.

Check out this wonderful short video from Sal Khan: You Can Learn Anything. Knowing something is not a state. It is a history of struggle and failure. It is experience in the most alive sense of the word.

I recently met a young man new to teaching. His field is transportation, and has years of experience, much of it driving big rigs. I asked him how he was enjoying teaching. I love it, he said. But sometimes I go home frustrated. How so? I asked. Well, he said hesitantly, some of the teachers, they’re good people, but they went from grade school to high school to teachers college and then right into the classroom. They’ve never been anywhere but a classroom.

We were both silent for a while. I thought about how that applies to my trade, flying airplanes. About the pilot shortage that is upon us. About how a lot can be learned in the classroom and on the internet (look at the Khan Academy!) and in simulators and even in airplanes. But something is missing: the struggle and failure of flying a real airplane in real weather and wind.

How can I even speak of failure in the same breath as flying?

Because I had the luxury of learning by doing and stumbling and failing under the guidance of vastly more experienced captains who had flown Sabres or Starfighters or Clunks. I was an apprentice. I learned from masters of the trade. Their lessons stayed with me because we solved problems together. I learned judgment. I learned to respect the airplane’s limits and my own. I learned that sometimes you just don’t go.

I also thought of how the world changes. I thought of how I flew the fly-by-wire Airbus for nine years and even instructed on it. It was a state-of-the-art machine. And yet we never did a GPS approach. They weren’t ready yet in 2004. Now I have been retired for a decade and I am seventy years old, I am flying mostly GPS approaches. These approaches did not exist when I was flying the line.

Navigation

When I was a First Officer on the DC-8 in 1979, INS had just replaced the Navigators. INS (and later, IRS) imitates the human body, specifically the semi-circular canals in our ears. They are miniature accelerometers (one in each of three axes) and among other things they help us to walk upright. INS uses the Calculus and integrates acceleration: what is the sum of all these accelerations over time? GPS does the opposite: with its ability to rapidly calculate positions to within a few meters, it goes  the other way with Calculus: differentiation. It asks, if I look at how my position has changed over time, what does that say about my velocity? About my acceleration?

In essence, navigation is describing dS/dt.

What does all that have to do with learning?

Well, learning is change of ideas. Remember the video, You Can Learn Anything? “Because the most beautiful, complex concepts in the whole universe are built on basic ideas that anyone can learn; anyone, anywhere, can understand.”

Learning is change. Change of mindset, change of assumptions, changes in your idea of yourself. It is a journey of struggle. It is navigation. It is hard work.

But the destination is not static. It is a moving, living thing: the apprehension of a beautiful concept. It becomes a beautiful tool you can now use to bring your talents to bear on the problems facing humanity. It is joy.

Teaching

What does all that say about teaching?

How shall we teach? How shall we pass on what we know?

How shall we learn as a people, a civilization, a species? Will each generation have to learn anew how to rub two dry sticks together? Or will Galileo read Aristotle, and Newton read Galileo, and Einstein adapt Newton to the scale of the galaxy?

That is not for me to say. But having in small measure experienced the joy of understanding and the joy of helping others understand, and having experienced the joy of change in myself over years and decades, I will not willingly let it go.

Bring Back Doubt

Certainty?

Is there nothing that needs to be fixed in today’s world? One might think so from some reaction to recent events. But if you look closely at today’s New York Times there are clues:

So does religion makes sense or not?

Religion

Critics look at the blood shed in the name of religion. Indeed, our history is littered with holy wars. But there must be something in the quest for the unknowable and unnameable: our ancestors have found it impossible to live without it. And the diverse religions in world history have much in common. What do they preach? Four paths to peace of mind:

  • Wonder
  • Gratitude
  • Communion
  • Acceptance

The words are different, but the concepts are the same. We find peace by getting outside of ourselves. We start by being amazed at the beauty of all creation. We continue by being thankful for being alive and having a place in this beauty. Then we join hands in recognizing our common humanity (Christians would say we share one bread, one cup). Finally, we try to accept what we must: our own mortality, for example.

Doubt

The ISIS recruit is rightly troubled by our society’s reliance on money, wealth, and markets to bring meaning into our lives. They will not, and somewhere we know that. But through history we (and especially the young) grab new and different certainties as solutions. They are right in seeing the need for change. But history, and especially the history of religion, show us that no sudden truth stands as the eternal panacea.

There is a fifth path: doubt.

What is education, after all? Why are we endowed with intelligence in the first place? What is free will, and how can it be reconciled to God’s will? Or that of Allah, or Buddha, or Vishnu, or the Great Spirit?

The Latin educare means to draw out that which lies within. A young child has a natural bent toward learning. If Dad answers a question with a fact, a certainty, the child will ask back, “Oh, why?”

That is doubt, a natural quality that we extinguish at our peril.

Clues

Of course maintaining rule of law and the social contract requires order. We must respect one another and our need for a safe social milieu. But let’s not blot out or deny the clues:

  • Protesters persist in Ferguson, MO
  • Putin shuts down MacDonald’s
  • Children push through the U.S./Mexico border

Are these just bad things? Signs that the world is going to Hell in a hand-basket? Or do they have something to say, something to teach us? Do we have enough of the child left within us to take a moment for doubt? A moment to learn, to be drawn out, away from certainty? To be educated?

Passing the Squonk

The Dream

In the dream only the exact name of the term was unclear. There were equations, but the equality was in question. Did that term, whatever it is called, really cancel out? Situation followed upon situation with no logical relationship. Always, though, there was the missing term. What was it called? Was it really ever there at all?

As I emerged into semi-wakefulness the question remained, more urgent than ever. What is it? Why does it disappear? I lay quietly, trying not to breathe, not to think of anything else, to remain open to wherever I had been.

Johnny Jellybean

In the 1960’s I worked at a television station as a studio assistant, the station’s euphemism for stagehand. A local actor/comedian/magician had pitched them a solo show called Lunchtime Little Theatre. In those days television was black and white, and low budget was live to air with no camera men or sound men. Low budget was me and a video switcher and Johnny Jellybean. Johnny and I would set up and aim the three vidicon cameras. We would go live and Johnny would act his heart out, mostly improvising I’m sure because he never had any script or notes; the switcher would dance around between cameras, and Johnny would sometimes ride one of the vidicon dollies, pushing it around the ten by twelve studio space with one foot and grinning into the lens as the switcher focused alternately on Johnny and the moving background. It was a lot of fun. Then it would be over and I would strike the set.

Johnny was the first thing that came into my head as I lay there after the dream. I thought, my God, that’s fifty years ago, where did that come from? Then I began thinking about dogs.

Dogs

They greet you like no one else does. They take pleasure in the day, sticking their heads out of the car window. When the wind comes up they delight in it – they get a gale in the tail, as Grandpa used to say.

They shed. Their farts are silent but deadly. They eat grass and puke. They drink from the toilet.

It’s a package. Sure, kennels advertise expensive Labradoodles, guaranteed hypo-allergenic, but really you’ve still got a dog. A dog is a dog, as somebody said.

The Squawk Box

By now I was awake. Dogs and Johnny Jellybean stayed with me, wandering around, trying to be relevant. And the term, too: squank? squonk? Wait – Johnny had the Squawk Box! It was like a little wooden bird house hanging from a rope, except that there was no perch or hole. Was there a grille? Sure – it was like those speakers high on the wall aboard navy ships. Now hear this!

My memory is fuzzy. What did the squawk box squawk? Was it random tapes the switcher chose? Was it stuff Johnny had prerecorded? But I do remember the progression.

At first the box would squawk perhaps twice during a show, interrupting whatever Johnny was doing. He would mime anger, grab his wooden mallet, and hit the box. The squawk would stop. That was then. But as the months (and years, I think) went on the play got more sophisticated. It became a game between Johnny and the switcher. The box would squawk again after Johnny turned away. Or Johnny would turn away and then turn back, raising his mallet, daring it to start up again. The play would go on, keeping us high-school students, home for lunch, in stitches.

But in high school I wasn’t working at the TV station yet. Maybe in those days Johnny still had cameramen. That’s when he rode the dollies. The cameramen pushed him around, changing focus. The vidicons had tripods, not dollies. Could the switcher even change the focus of the vidicons? Did they have zoom?

After the Dream

Still I tried to stay in the space, keeping dogs and Johnny in mind, trying to follow the scent. Even on those rare occasions where dreams stay close, that’s hard. It is like flying at night, looking for traffic, when you have to scan the sky not looking at anything because if you look it will disappear into to the cone-rich fovea. Just so I stayed aware of the space without looking.

I began reliving the dream in consciousness. Scene after scene played in my head, and indeed they are still doing so today, weeks later. As in the dream each scene is seemingly unrelated but has a common term, the term we want to make disappear.

Our Human Nature

Memory of pain fades. We are natural optimists. Sometimes a little naiveté makes the day go more smoothly.

And why not? Should we be perpetually conscious of all the evil in the world? Should we feel pain all the time? Of course not. We would become cynics, insensible to the beauty around us. That’s no way to live.

But neither do we, as independent thinkers, really want someone or something else to pull the wool over our eyes, and that’s where it gets tricky. We are vulnerable, you see, to those who would for their own reasons present us with a pretty picture.

 

The Scenarios

There are many, limited only by the extent of human creativity and cunning.

Pension funds, desperate for the 8% returns of yore, snap up fancy financial products composed of slices of sub-par mortgages, themselves issued fraudulently. No risk! Eight percent return!

Hedge funds return 20% by trading illegally.

The football industry gives fans what they want – tough, violent conflict – and sweeps the bodies under the rug.

Airline industry management gives travelers what they want – cheap tickets – while gutting the pioneering companies and pocketing their shareholders’ savings.

Too big to fail banks trade for their own accounts, seeing their mission as making money rather than as lending money to entrepreneurs.

What is the missing term?

Risk

CDO’s are rated AA or AAA. Hedge funds will take your money if you have enough. You don’t have to know how they make your 20% return. Football gives you spectacle. You can luxuriate in the vicious hit as the players relish their salaries and fame. Neither of you needs to watch the dementia and death that follows. Flying is safer than driving a car. Airplanes land themselves. The inherent risk of flying and crashes and death are irrelevant. You just bought a cheap ticket. And of course you own shares in MegaBank. It’s nothing to you if they are not meeting their primary obligation or if the taxpayers have to bail them out. Or is it? Do you pay taxes?

The Pretty Picture, Bad News, and Drool

Dogs drool. Some breeds are olympic-caliber droolers. Chances are if you own one of these dogs you have come to terms with drool. It makes you laugh. After all, you’ve got the whole dog. Same with your life. You laugh, you cry. It’s all there.

Near the end of the run of Lunchtime Little Theatre, the Squawk Box antics began to merge toward the manic. Increasingly, the box just would not shut up, and Johnny mimed more madness. One day the whole thing came to an end. As Johnny hit the box, it got louder. More and more voices emanated from the box as he hammered it with his mallet. He didn’t stop. He beat the shit out of it. Beat it to a pulp. Beat it to splinters.

Management: Blinded by Success

Blinded

We have become very good at management – so good that we have set it (and ourselves) on a pedestal. But management is not a panacea. We throw it at every problem, expecting the usual success. More and more we are encountering intransigence as we attempt to solve problems with measurement and money.

Two of the most pressing problems facing us today are health care and education. The cost of the former is out of control. The quality of the latter is declining and testing isn’t fixing it.

The reason is straightforward: health care and education require a relationship between individuals – one person helping another. True, there is more to it than that – but the basic requirement remains. Ask anyone whose life was changed by a good teacher.

Atul Gawande

I am a huge fan of Dr. Atul Gawande. He writes like a dream, takes me into his world of medicine and surgery, and seriously addresses the problems facing his profession. But his most recent article Big Med (the New Yorker, August 13) took me into new territory. He describes how hospitals (including his own) are forming into conglomerates, and compares the management of these conglomerates with that of The Cheesecake Factory, a large and successful restaurant chain.

I devoured the article with my usual fascination and perhaps a touch of trepidation. The next day, I brought it up with one of my sons, who had also read it. He had been horrified, he said, both by the idea that health care could be “managed” like a restaurant chain, and by the “creepy” remote monitoring (by closed-circuit TV) of doctors on the job.

We had a lively discussion. In hindsight I can see my son brought me around to his point of view.

Finland

For the last decade the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has been ranking countries in educational achievement using PISA tests. (Program for International Student Assessment). Finland has consistently ranked at or near the top. What is its secret? Respect for teachers.

The Finnish position on education is the opposite of the North American (especially the U.S.) position. There are tests, but they are not standardized. Teachers make and give tests to see if the student has learned and if they themselves have taught. Teaching is a higher-prestige occupation than medicine or the law. Teachers must have a degree, but it is not in education. The degree itself (at least an M.A. with a thesis) is the license to teach. When asked what might make them leave the profession for, say, business, Finnish teachers cite not higher pay, but loss of autonomy.

Management or Collegiality?

As recently as a generation ago, doctors and teachers could and did operate alone: the private practice and the one-room schoolhouse. Since then huge advances in technology have made that impossible. So much knowledge is available today that health outcomes are compromised if the patient’s medical history is not instantly available to the specialist. Learning is limited if the teacher cannot back up her teaching with the Khan Academy and Coursera and learn from these herself. As Dr. Gawande points out, doctors (and teachers) must continue to learn from each other.

All this argues for collegiality. Good management can make sure fresh food isn’t wasted at The Cheesecake Factory and it probably has a role running schools and hospitals. But as Finland’s example shows, it is counterproductive when used to control doctors and teachers.

Why is this so? And why now, more than even a decade ago?

Financialization

Financialization. The word is not in the dictionary, at least not yet. But there it is in Nicholas Lemann’s Transaction Man, the excellent and revealing article about Mitt Romney’s background in the October 1, 2012 issue of The New Yorker. With financialization – financial “products”, hedge funds, and private equity – management has been taken to a new level where, effectively, only money matters.

Of course, money is called productivity and efficiency among other euphemisms. But what it means in practice is that human interaction, energy, and invention are now virtual qualities at best, and at worst ignored altogether. Is it any wonder that in North America and especially in the U.S.A. health care and education have the highest costs in the world and some of the worst outcomes?

Human Potential

George Romney told his son, who idolizes him, that “there’s nothing as vulnerable as entrenched success.” During Wednesday night’s debate Mitt himself said his goal was to maximize the potential of each individual. How ironic is it that the son’s policies and politics – the real policies, not the slight-of-hand wordplay visible Wednesday night – are systematically dismantling his cherished management and stifling each individual’s God-given gifts, effectively fulfilling his father’s prophecy?

Mitt Romney may, in his heart of hearts, believe in the sacred gifts of each human being, and even in the absolute necessity of their being channelled into paths that benefit society as a whole. It is, alas, probably too late for him to see how his actions are undermining his belief. That is for us to see and correct.

How To Live: What Humanity Has Learned So Far

Be grateful. Do good work. Keep the faith. This is how to live, according to two millennia of world culture.

Different cultures put it differently. Within a cultural tradition, the religion might put it differently from the philosophy or from the literature. And of course there are many religions, philosophies, and works of literature, each with its own voice.

But that is not what we are concerned with. Here we want to speak of what they all say, even if they do so in different words.

Be Grateful

This is the starting point. Without gratitude it is difficult, if not impossible, to move ahead into a productive life, into happiness, into peace. All religions address this point. The clearest exposition is the awakening of the Buddha. Sitting under the Bodhi tree, he saw that the self is the source of all unease.

Self-awareness is a great gift, but it is a double-edged sword. One can easily become drunk on self-awareness and slide further into addiction to its many temptations. Self-pity. Depression. Unhappiness.

Other religions are not so direct in their path to peace. Most approach from the other end, from faith. Believe in a god or gods, they say. Then by surrendering you will have expanded your awareness beyond your self. Believe and your problems will be solved.

This approach, it seems to me, is less attractive for two reasons. First, we are endowed with intellect and curiosity, and to be well we must use our gifts. To be told to suspend them, right off the bat, goes counter to our valid instincts. Second, there is a temptation to laziness in any belief. By accepting Jesus, for example, we can be saved. Or perhaps by saying we have accepted Jesus we can be saved, from one moment to the next. Have we really stepped outside ourselves, or is it a delusion? Are we instead inside ourselves, thinking of ourselves as good persons? And maybe of others as not quite as good persons?

I am not saying it is impossible to get to gratitude through faith. Or through good work, for that matter. It is just harder. And there are more pitfalls along the way.

Think of a cow, lying in a field of clover, chewing her cud. Is she content? Probably the question is meaningless. She is one of many cows eating clover and ruminating. She is surrounded by green and birdsong, by life, by creation. She knows she is not the center of the universe, or rather, she would never be tempted to think such a thing. She is already saved.

We humans can always be tempted. The doctrine of original sin is a way of pointing this out. The Christian cycle of acceptance and absolution, the ritual of the mass, is a path to awareness beyond the self. But it is not the only path. True, pain is part of life, and through the pain of transgression we can walk into gratitude. But it can be simpler. We can hear a thrush sing its greeting to the dawn and be made whole, which is to say to be made part of a whole, our awareness extending beyond our selves. Gratitude. For nature. For creation. For not being alone. For not being the center of the universe.

Do Good Work

I said earlier that we are endowed with intellect and curiosity. From birth, we have many other gifts as well, although just as each of us has different DNA, so each of us differs in our particular combination of gifts. Good work is putting these gifts to work for the benefit of mankind.

Of course we need money. Or maybe some land on which to grow food. Our first goal, after all, is survival. Once again, here is a valid instinct to be heeded. But the goal is not land. The goal is not money. The goal is survival for the purpose of doing our good work. Work which is unique to each one of us. So yes – as individuals we are important. But not because we are better than others. We are important because humanity and all creation will be better off if we manage to realize our gifts and give them back. We will be better off if we don’t die with those gifts still clutched to our bosom.

Keep the Faith

This is another way of saying, be hopeful.

Be in the moment. This is important. When we are doing our best work we are in the moment, fully engaged, like the cow chewing her cud. But we are humans, endowed with intellect and curiosity. So we remember the past and think of the future. So yes – be in the moment when you can, as much as you can. But don’t be dismayed if your thoughts turn to the past or the future. Our ability to do so is one of our gifts. But like many of our human gifts, it comes with temptations. To regret the past. To worry about the future. Some regret and worry is fine, of course. Regret and worry have their purpose. But don’t get stuck there. The past must be accepted if we are to move on. And the future must hold promise. We have to believe in a future, whether it is in this life or beyond. We have to be hopeful.

I will finish with a personal parsing of the Lord’s Prayer:

Our father who art in heaven. I am not alone. There are others. There is all creation.

Hallowed be they name. This creation is beautiful, and beauty will feed me.

Thy kingdom come. Let there be a future which is better than today.

Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Let me understand the limits of my gift of free will. Let me not suppose that I have dominion over others, or even complete dominion over my own life.

Give us this day our daily bread. May I have what I need to survive, so I have a chance to realize my gifts.

And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. May what I have done wrong not stop me, not prevent me from going on. And I know it is a bargain: I must forgive others as well as myself.

Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. I know that each one of my many gifts comes with temptations. I know that by struggling against those temptations I increase my chances of survival to do what I must do. Once again, this is a bargain.

For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory. When I succeed and do my good work, let me understand that it is not for me. It is for all of humanity and even all of creation. It is not to put me above my fellow creatures. It is not to wield power for power’s sake. If I am given power let me be a leader, not a bully. And if I am successful let me be grateful, not puffed up.

For ever and ever. May this continue beyond and outside of me for a century of centuries. For as long as my intellect can comprehend.

Amen.