Philosophy McNuggets I

Copyright (c) 2008 by Kenny Felder

When I'm trying to come up with a new essay topic, I try to think of something I have said or thought that seems worth sharing. Sometimes I think of things that seem useful, but are too short to make a whole essay out of. So I've collected a bunch of those here.

Let's say you're talking to someone—male or female, young or old, close friend or new acquaintance—and you want convince that person that you are insightful. Say this:

"I can tell what kind of person you are. You give the impression that you've got it all together. People see you being on top of things, someone they can depend on, someone who finds a reasonable response to every situation. But inside are turmoil, insecurity and panic. And along with them is the fear that people will discover that panic inside, and see the helpless child that you so often feel like."

The person will react as if you had looked straight into his soul.

Many years ago, I attended a number of "lucid dreaming" workshops given by Dr. Stephen LaBerge of Stanford. Dr. LaBerge offers a brilliant combination of modern science, traditional spirituality, and just plain common sense. I learned a tremendous amount from him, and I recommend his books and workshops to anyone who is interested in the topic.

And yet, at some level, I found his ideas about dreams insufficient.

To Dr. LaBerge, the defining characteristic of the dream state is that our sensory impressions—the things we see, hear, and so on—are not directly tied to inputs from the external world. You see a dog, but there isn't really a dog there. Your body is physically hot because of the conditions of the bedroom, but you interpret that heat as a desert.

This is true, of course, but it isn't the most interesting aspect of the dream world to me. In dreams, I don't respond the way that I normally would. If I am walking down the school hall in my underwear next to a giant bird, I might try to hide behind the giant bird, but I don't say "Wait a minute, I don't remember coming to school. And I would never forget my pants, and that bird can't possibly be real." The feeling-like-me sense is as strong as ever, but the rational-connection sense is completely disabled.

And even that example doesn't capture the dream mentality. Maybe I'm fighting a dragon, but I'm also trying to solve a math problem, but solving the math problem is actually fighting the makes no sense when I try to reconstruct it the next morning, but somehow, solving that math problem was fighting the dragon. And the song going on in the background was not the background, but was inextricably a part of the math and the dragon.

This insight leaves me very suspicious of rationality in general. Rationality is a feeling that something makes sense, not a direct line to truth: you can have the feeling without any actual rational process going on at all. The things that make perfect sense to me right now may prove every bit as random as last night's math problem.

The Waldorf school strongly discourages "media" of any type. Children should read books, play games, make music, and hear stories. They should not watch TV, go to the movies, or do anything on computers. Books stimulate the imagination; TV deadens it.

For a long time, this struck me as pointlessly technophobic. Some books are trashy, and some TV shows are wonderful. Shouldn't we be worrying about creative stories, values we want to convey, and three-dimensional characters, instead of pages vs. screens?

Here is one argument that convinced me to take their anti-media bias seriously. When I'm sick, and my head feels swollen and exhausted, I don't want to read; I want to watch TV. Why? Because reading of any kind requires mental energy. TV—even good TV—allows me to "zone out" with glazed eyes and a dormant mind. That is what the Waldorf folks see as dangerous, especially for children.

Why do I love math and Physics?

Different nerds will give you different answers. Some like the "right answer"—you work through the problem systematically until you arrive at a nice, clean "6" and there's no ambiguity—QED. Some like applications to the real world: they thrill to think that these calculations can build bridges and send rockets to the moon.

Those are not my reasons.

You explain a new math concept to me, and I'm confused. I can repeat the words, but they don't quite make sense. I play with the concept, work problems, ask questions, and suddenly...Aha! I get it! I should have thought of it myself! It makes sense!

What changed in that moment? I didn't learn any new facts. But my feeling of "common sense," of "obvious," expanded. I can't remember why this concept used to seem difficult. It feels, to be honest, like I'm smarter than I used to be.

The same thing happens in chess. I look at a chess board, and a good chess player looks at the same board. We both see the same pieces and know all the same rules, but he sees possibilities and makes connections that I don't. If we discuss what we see, we will both come away feeling like he is just smarter than I am. But in reality, if I keep practicing and learning, I will some day be able to do what he does.

I love liberal arts too. I love great literature, history, and (obviously) little philosophical essays. But only left-brain activity gives me that feeling that my brain is getting bigger while I watch.

Why am I so opposed to changes in English?

I hate it when politically correct people replace words like "mankind," "oriental," and "B.C." with newspeak. I carefully speak with correct—some would say archaic—grammar. (My 6-year-old daughter uses "whom" correctly.) Why don't I just admit that language is a living thing, dynamic and always changing, and stop trying to hold it back?

The reason is literature. Let's take a walk backward through the classics of our language.

You see what I mean? English is a window stretching back into the past. The slower the language changes, the longer that window is. So of course I acknowledge that language has to change. We have to add words like "Email" when new concepts come along, and every generation invents new words for "cool," and some future generation will have to read Mark Twain in translation. But deliberately reshaping the language is deliberately shortening the amount of the past that we can still grab onto. It seems crazy to me.

Hungry for more? Order an extra-large basket of Philosophy McNuggets II, Philosophy McNuggets III, and Philosophy McNuggets IV!


From: Michelle Williams
September 2, 2008

"I love liberal arts too. I love great literature, history, and (obviously) little philosophical essays. But only left-brain activity gives me that feeling that my brain is getting bigger while I watch."
I found this interesting because, for me, it's the opposite. Learning to do math is learning new ways to get those tidy answers. It's a new skill like learning to do counted cross-stitch or learning a more efficient way to clean. It's not making me smarter and certainly not wiser. Reading new ideas—thinking them through, trying to decide what I truly think about them aside from what the author wants me to think and what I think the other people important in my world will think—feels like it makes me smarter.

From: Kenny Felder
September 2, 2008

Alas, I spend my entire teaching career trying to convince my students that that is not what math is. *sigh* I think I'll add something about that...<that thought turned into a subsequent essay, Math and the Obvious>.

From: David Ramesh
November 11, 2008

I agree with the comment on TV and Waldorf. When I was in college, I didn't even own a TV (in fact, we don't own one now!) I've learned that when focused on writing (like the 50+ page business plan I'm struggling through at this very moment) I can have a radio or CD blasting to keep extraneous noise out of the way, but having a TV on will inevitably take my attention and I get nothing done. I learned that in high school, and it's still true today, 20 years later.

On the evolution of English, you probably know (although I didn't until I read it in one of those "Misinformation you THOUGHT you knew" books) that formalized spelling is basically a recent invention, brought about largely by the invention of the printing press. Shakespeare was not necessarily William's last name. He himself spelled it "Shakespear" and "Shakspear" in various signings, and his writings were largely phonetic, especially since many of the copies written for actors and stagehands were copied by semi-literate scribes.

Being (originally) an English major myself, I cringe when people explain the difference "between" three things (you can't be "between" three things, as I'm sure you know, you can be "among" them, though...) and have various other pet peeves. I'm not sure the literary world is better served by having "gynormous" in the dictionary and I am roundly criticized by our younger generation for typing out words like your ("ur") and great ("gr8") when I'm using text on my cell phone.

I think that this shortening of our culture you speak of is endemic to our rapidly changing culture and overload of information. John McCain mentioned tonight that within hours of the debate, "Joe the Plumber" went from zero national recognition to 70%. When I pick up Huck Finn, I notice some asteriks starting to appear on the bottom of the pages, for the moment mostly explaining away the references to "niggers" and such, as we have become more culturally aware. If you notice, the Andy Griffith Shows with Otis the town drunk are rarely shown on television any more because we now categorize alcoholism as a "disease" that people can't escape.

Historical context is difficult for a nation with a ten minute attention span. So, we will need to create new words to reflect where we are, or were ten minutes ago. Or, we'll need to fix our attention span (see Waldorf comments above!) :)

From: Keller Scholl
March 1, 2012

Firstly, thank you for posting this.

In reference to use of media at Waldorf schools:

While I understand the idea of a total ban on media, I am saddened that there is a total ban on computers. Used as calculators or elegantly indexed reference materials, they are useful. Programming is almost the antithesis of having "glazed eyes and a dormant mind." As such, I think the Waldorf schools go to far in banning all computers. Banning web browsers seems to solve the problem to me. But a computer with wikipedia downloaded (I keep it on my laptop), documentation and programming environments for several languages, music manipulation software, and such useful tools can be a great benefit. Would you disagree?

From: Kenny Felder
March 1, 2012

You're asking a great question, and I'm sorry I don't have a better answer for you. I'm still very torn about this issue. The one thing I can say conclusively is that our family's media policy, which kept evolving and changing, did not work very well, and if I had to do it over again I would definitely try something different. So I'm about a million miles away from being confident or expert here.

I can say, for instance, that I never did understand why radio and CD music are frowned upon by Waldorf schools. Singing around the piano is wonderful, but so are my early Simon & Garfunkel records.

I do have very strong feelings about calculators, which is kind of peripheral to your point, but you did bring it up. As a high school math teacher (in a public school, not Waldorf-connected in any way), I see every day the terrible damage that gets done by middle school teachers (or even earlier) who allow calculator use. I ask what's half of 1/3, and see kids who think it might be easier if they turn the problem into decimals. I see kids reaching for their calculator to do 13*10. This numerical ineptitude absolutely kills them as they move into higher level math.

But none of that addresses your direct question about, for instance, Wikipedia. Or, by extension, educational software, educational programming, and so on. I can say that it's very clear to me that such tools are good and useful in high school, and not in kindergarden. But where is the transition? Is it better for a third grader to spend some time with actual dictionaries, and a seventh grader to take a trip to the library for reference materials? I took a class in BASIC when I was in Junior High and found it absolutely enthralling; of course, that was a very different world, technologically, and there was no such thing as a home computer.

So I'm sorry I don't have a clear answer for you, except to say that I hope you handle this situation better than I did. Don't make media the "forbidden fruit of adulthood," always there but always off-limits to minors, like Dad's liquor cabinet.

All that being said, I appreciate you taking the time to reply to my essay!

From: Keller Scholl
March 1, 2012

I appreciate the disclaimer, but as a high school student my own experience with designing a media policy for other children is far more limited than your own.

My own feelings about calculators are similarly strong.

My personal and rather arbitrary idea of when the average student should begin primarily using external resources is entrance into junior high. The combination of subject specific classes, full literacy, and pre existing transition point of entrance into junior high to me marks a good time to make the switch.

It was my pleasure.

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