Notes on A Dialogue with Daniel Zaruba on Education

How Mediums Educate and Intelligence Explores

If none of us can hope to even read a percent of all the books on earth, what does it mean to be educated?

Photo by Kimberly Farmer

Mediums teach, which is to say that McLuhan was right that “the medium is the message,” which means “the medium is the education.” Cellphones teach us to how to see, think, apprehend — the very use of them changes the way we are “toward” the world. To use a medium is to receive a degree, even if we use the medium simply for fun.

Later, we had the pleasure of a second conversation on the topic, with the added joy of Joshua Hansen joining the discussion. Mr. Hansen’s work at “Philosophy of the Metaverse” is insightful, nuanced, and important.

“What does it mean to be educated?” — an inquiry which arose in our discussion. Does it mean we know a lot? Well, who amongst us “knows a lot” compared to all we could know? I’d be surprised if anyone has read a single percent of all the books on earth, suggesting that “knowing a lot” is a poor standard to judge our level of education. If an “educated person” is someone who knows a lot of facts (someone who is “good at trivia,” as discussed in “Triva(l)” by O.G. Rose), then it is doubtful anyone is educated, because I doubt anyone knows a percent of all the facts there are to know. Again, this begs the question: “What does it mean to be educated?”

Memory is very important, but if all we do is “recall” what we’ve learned, I’m not sure if we’re exhibiting intelligence. Perhaps we can make a distinction between “education,” which is more memory-based, and “intelligence” which is more “in the moment.” I’m not sure, and I hesitate to make a hard distinction between the terms, but I do think intelligence is more akin to “improvisation” than “recalling.” For me, a few characteristics of intelligence (which I think should be the goal of schooling):

1. The ability to avoid unnecessary problems.

2. …to solve problems we don’t know ahead of time.

3. …to think about information that we’ve never seen before.

4. …to improvise off the unpredictable and unforeseen.

5. …to tell what’s worth pursuing and what isn’t worth pursuing.

6. …to pull something out of its context, examine it, and then place it back within its context, rethinking it each step of the way (without losing sight of the context, bigger pictures, etc.).

7. ….to rotate between mental models, to recognize the best epistemology to use at the best time, etc.

8. …to think beyond what is “vivid” and socially-emphasized, which is to not have our thinking “captured” by the zeitgeist, “the system,” and the like.

9. …to think in a manner that takes seriously “true ignorance,” which is that “we don’t know what we don’t know.”

10. …to move between “big picture” and “zoomed in,” the general and the particular, the universal and the specific — intellectual gymnastics.

11. …to move between disciplines and see an entity according to and through different lenses.

12. …to engage in “The Socratic Embodiment” (as discussed in the paper by O.G. Rose with that title).

13. …to hold up a pencil and ask, “What is this?” which is to say that we manage to be someone who is “surprised by the ordinary,” who realizes that the simplest of entities entail a hundred different “layers” and details which can be examined and considered.

14. …to recognize that “the true isn’t the rational,” as discussed throughout O.G. Rose.

15. …to make space for “nonrationality” versus just “rationality” and “irrationality” — another topic discussed throughout O.G. Rose.

16. …to recognize and stay “ever-vigilant” about self-deception.

17. …to be tricked by our “necessary” experience to assume that we are right.

18. …to live with “confidence” and accept the loss of “certainty,” as discussed in The Conflict of Mind (please note that if certainty was possible we wouldn’t have to worry about “Pynchon Risks” so much — but that’s all another topic for another time).

And so on. We can’t read even a percent of all there is out there to read, and we can’t memorize everything, so these metrics strike me as problematic. Also, we can look up just about anything at any time, so the need to “memorize” a lot of information is much less now (and feels arbitrary). Also, I think this list suggests something important: the only person even approaching “being educated” is someone who is a lifelong learner.

It is not easy to know when thinking should conclude in apprehension, which is when we can “judge” that what we thought was “Mom’s favorite cup” was indeed “Mom’s favorite cup” (when idea, appearance, semblance, etc. corresponds with actuality), for if we make such a judgment early, our mind will still easily “fill the gap” and make it seem like we’ve done more work than we ultimately have done. We are always at risk of self-deception, and when it comes to judging some things, like human intention, we might always have to live with ambiguity. For example, a cup placed on a shelf with “the utmost intention” has the same phenomenological experience as a cup placed on a shelf with “the utmost lack of intention”: the cup ends up in the same place, regardless. The experience hence won’t “give us” the intention behind the experience: we must determine that independently, and how is that possible? It might not be unless we know the person who put the cup on the shelf (a point which suggests “the death of the author,” as Barthes discusses).

“The death of the author” can be associated with “the death of God,” which is the “loss of a transcendent point from which an immanence can be understood,” which is to say a point from which “everything can be known” and “certainty gained.” What does it mean to think beyond the possibility of “a transcendent point?” In the past, we could associate thinking with “finding a transcendent point,” but what now? Well, this is where for me phenomenology and thinking are deeply connected: we must pay the utmost attention to “how” we experience the world. How does our brains structure reality “toward” us? Keep in mind that our minds our frenemies: they make thinking possible and also making thinking incredibly hard to do well. This suggests another characteristic of education: teaching us to pay attention to our how brains “present the world” to us, which is critical to note because our brains are more interested in “feeling right” than “being right.” Of course, this isn’t easy to do, because we must do it with the very brains we are trying to master — hence the need for constant diligence.

The ability to “pause” also seems important, which is the ability to stop ourselves from rushing ahead to “know something” and first ask ourselves, “Can this be known?” To be educated involves knowing that there is “prework” we need to do before we can work well: in the same way that we need to bring “the right tools” to a job to carry the job out, we also need to bring “the right mental tools” to carry out an intellectual job. We need to ask if something can be known, which will suggest to us the mental models and tools we need “to know the thing,” and from there we can inquire into what those tools are — none of which we will likely carry out if we don’t “pause.” “Is this knowable?”; “How can I be so sure I’m right about this?”; “Is this worth trying to figure out?” — these are the questions which we can ask during “the pause.”

More could be said, and I have a paper on Austin Farrer and “verifiable education” which hopefully adds to this discussion in valuable ways. There is also the paper “Triva(l),” as well as my talks with the excellent Joshua Hansen, but I’ll close this work with a claim that being educated involves the ability to “see abundance” wherever we look. Let us look at a coffee cup. Look at the design, the colors. Imagine the possible ways it could be used. Imagine all the stories “behind” the cup. Imagine the lives of all the people who have used it. Look at our house. Who has lived in it? How many years have we spent in it? How many stories are housed in the walls? And so on — everything contains worlds, but we are often trained and taught not to see world, but to treat things linearly, which is to see them as what they “are” and nothing else. No wonder then the world feels to be in a “Meaning Crisis.” No wonder then that many people feel that they are lacking inspiration in life.

Trivia(l) by O.G. Rose

A world lacking inspiration strikes me as likely a world that has not been educated to see “abundance” in everything, to not see “story” and possibilities. Perhaps that’s to be expected though in a world where most questions which are asked are questions to which someone already knows the answers. There’s no mystery. Everything is known. And this suggests that most of us perhaps have never asked a real question — a question which no one knows the answer to and perhaps even thought. Personally, I would wager that the person who can think “a real question” will be a person who find meaning and inspiration. “Real questions” might end “The Meaning Crisis,” and a “real education” inspires us to consider “real questions,” which is to say intelligence explores. Where there is exploration, there is meaning in the search for it.




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O.G. Rose

O.G. Rose

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