Tuesday, June 19, 2007

This book is not required

Wow. Some great insights on social entrepreneurship in the comments from the last post - I'm going through some books and articles on the topic before I respond, but right now my position is very similar to Matt's phrasing.

In the meantime, I grabbed a $1 book on the way down Mass Ave and read it tonight. It's an underground-education book (best read with a grain of salt; like many good books, it points out interesting topics but has a bias of its own) titled This Book Is Not Required. Ironically, it's since become required reading on several sociology syllabi.

The fundamental premise is that the goal of education is not knowledge, but wisdom, which it (loosely) defines as the ability to live, understand, and direct one's life no matter what that life may turn out to be. The book has strong Buddhist and sociology overtones but is gracious enough to tell you so repeatedly. It's meant as a "everything [the author] would give as advice to her incoming college self" sort of book, and was revised and extended by a spontaneously-formed group of college students after the author's death.

A few interesting passages. As usual, I'll start with one on grades.

I want you to understand the vital difference between operating within a set of rules and internalizing those rules. The cardinal point here is that what you don't internalize can't really hurt you...

In the next few pages, Bell suggests an experiment which I'd unknowingly been doing for the past three years; in order to tell how affected you really are by grades, notice how tense you are right before you're being handed back a graded paper. The amount of anxiety you have that moment is a good indicator of how invested you actually are in grades, regardless of how you think you're doing or where you'd like to be with respect to them. (It's totally ok to be invested in grades and have them as goals - just understand what that means and why you're doing it.)

How much, Bell asks us, does our education enable us to understand and live our own lives better? To that I would answer "as much as you make it," and also that Bell is probably a Myers-Briggs introvert-intuitive (INXX) who places a high value on self-knowledge. I don't dispute it's a portion of education we often ignore in formal institutions. I'm a very "know thyself" sort of person, and this "how can I use this to understand my life?" aspect was one of the things I valued highly about MetaOlin. Self-knowledge is not the primary driver of everyone, nor should it be; some folks have temperaments that pull them in different directions.*

* I can't resist saying that some modicum of self-knowledge is helpful to know what direction you're being pulled in, but that's my inner INFP speaking.

Another section reflects on perceptions of self and how they're influenced by the media. Another (one of my favorites) dissects college relationships in Western culture by looking at it through the lens of an Eastern philosophy ("Hm," I thought for a moment, "perhaps I'm not asexual - just unconsciously a Buddhist sociologist with regards to this topic.") It also has the calmest "Fight The Establishment! The Big Bosses are blinding us! Down with The Man!" passages I have ever seen, mostly on the topic of lack of self-directed inquiries in college.

The very format of school works to ensure boredom. At 9:00 a.m. three times a week you are supposed to become engrossed by medieval history. Never mind that you broke up with your boyfriend last night, or that your parents are on your back for not majoring in business administration, at 9:00 a.m. it's medieval history... our education has, all along, been answering questions we never asked.

It's a mildly written but quietly counter-cultural book and satisfyingly chewy food for thought. Because of the clear biases in the book, you have to mentally masticate the material instead of swallowing it blindly, but that's exactly what the author advocates - so hey. Nice meta-book-design.

1 comment:

nikki said...

I like to kick myself internally every time I worry about a graded paper. I guess it's because in a lot of classes it's really the only feedback you get, and I don't like feeling judged...

("Hm," I thought for a moment, "perhaps I'm not asexual - just unconsciously a Buddhist sociologist with regards to this topic.")

And, of course, this jumps out at me. By the way, have you actually checked out AVEN [the forums are the most interesting part]?

Also, I'm sure there are people who ask questions about medieval history. I mean, who else would teach a class on that?