26 April 2014

Killing our Minds one Lesson at a Time - Part 3: The Monopath

PART 1 and PART 2

So far, we've looked at five examples of the ancient world's attempt at participation. The merging of theology and music (early music theory) the merging of the physical and mental (the liù yì) the merging of the natural and the supernatural (alchemy) and finally, the merging of philosophy and science (the ancient Greeks).

When we got to the Geocentric Theory, you may have felt inclined to toss out everything I've been saying up to this point. After all, geocentricism is obviously wrong, and it was a direct result of this supposed "participation".  That must have been what the rest of the world thought, because after 1600, Western education was thrown into a long period of existential confusion. What we call the "industrial age" would, in my opinion, be more appropriately called "the age of imbalance", a period where scientists and philosophers only vaguely understood each other, and the breed of "scientist philosophers" was gradually replaced with mere "scientists" and "philosophers". The result is modern-day compartmentalized education, in which no subject bears relation to the other.

Admittedly, it was a logical response.  After all, both the Ancient Greeks and the Catholic Church came to the wrong conclusions when they tried to link their philosophy and science. So why do I insist on bringing them back together?

Here’s why. When the ancient world looked at these broken pieces of glass, their ONLY mistake was putting the pieces in the wrong places.  That didn’t prove that there was no original glass--it simply wasn’t fitting.  But our culture has made a bigger mistake. We’ve come along and said “this proves that there was no original glass in the first place”.  

That makes no sense whatsoever. What if I asked you to make a triangle out of three lines and right angles? (Here’s a hint: you can’t do it). And after you have failed, would you then say: “Oh well, I guess triangles don’t exist.”?  

I mean, come on, don't we all know it's downright crummy science to discard the results of an experiment just because it didn't turn out the way you expected? If you hypothesized that one plus one equaled three, and discovered that it equaled two, would you throw addition out the window? No, but that’s exactly what we've done. And as a result, our education has transitioned from cooperating thinkers to competing specialists. 

The source of all our grief in Western education is NOT the greedy government. 

It is NOT Hollywood.

It is NOT the pot-smoking students. 

It is NOT the abusive parents.  

It is NOT the even the psychopaths and sociopaths.

It is the ones who decide for us what is worth learning and what isn't. The ones who are turning students into culturally brainwashed drones whose heads are full of answers and completely empty of questions. There is a name for this person, and Robert Twigger calls him the Monopath. 

In his article, the monopath is described rather ungraciously.

“It means a person with a narrow mind, a one-track brain, a bore, a super-specialist, an expert with no other interests — in other words, the role-model of choice in the Western world.”

The monopath is the xiăorén of American culture. Of course, we don't recognize them, because they come with big shiny P.h.D. badges.  Thus we revere them for their "small and petty minds" and don't realize that they are no smarter than the rest of us and probably couldn't locate Australia on the map unless they wrote their doctorate thesis on it.  An Austrian zoologist named Konrad Lorenz once wrote:

"Every man gets a narrower and narrower field of knowledge in which he must be an expert in order to compete with other people. The specialist knows more and more about less and less and finally knows everything about nothing."

The worst part of it is that those who do not receive this treatment are called "deprived" "narrow-minded" and "underprivileged".  The people who are "really serious" will choose their major and stick to it--never express interest in learning anything else. The polymathic model is not only ignored--it is scorned. Not explicitly--we are too brutishly civilized for that--but by casting demeaning glares on anyone who dares to venture outside his specialized field.  

But don't you see that the joke is on us? We are the deprived, the narrow-minded, and the underprivileged. Here are a couple examples of what the monopathic generation is capable of destroying.


In business, the side-effects of monopathy are embarrassingly obvious. Take, for example, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. It may as well be called a dream liner, or maybe a nightmare liner, because that's how most employees would describe the miserable fifteen years they spent making it.

You may not have followed the process closely, but you probably knew the 787 had been running into problems. Big problems.  So many that Boeing began laying off employees like flies--my dad being among the numbers on two different occasions. The commercial use of the jet was three years overdue, and ended up costing over twice their original 5 billion dollar budget--12 billion dollars total. And when it was finally released commercially, one of them had an electronic failure and the cockpit caught on fire.

What was the problem?  Up to this point Boeing had been producing all their commercial airliners within the walls of their own factories. But with the 787, Boeing chose to hire manufactures in over 135 sites around the world. The wings were made in Japan, the fuselage in Italy, the passenger doors in France, and the wing flaps in South Korea. But when they were all shipped to my home state for the final assembly in Everett, Washington, they found out that--surprise surprise--the pieces didn't fit.

You, who have been reading all about how broken glasses are useless, should have foreseen this. A glass is only useful when it is one piece: specializing in individual pieces of the puzzle only results in confusion when you try to assemble it all. You can't make a fuselage fly any more than you can drink out of a broken glass.  The pieces, independent of each other, are useless. Even the Boeing Commercial Airlines Chief Jim Albaugh admitted this, stating in a speech: "We spent a lot more money in trying to recover than we ever would have spent if we'd tried to keep the key technologies closer to home."

My dad isn't the only one who's had to suffer from over-specialization. Recently my mom was having problems with her eye getting dry. Naturally she went to the optometrist, the eye doctor. 

By "eye doctor" I mean he specialized in eye correction, not eyes. He ran a lot of tests on her eyes, but since he only knew how to prescribe spectacles, he couldn't interpret the results.

So he sent her to the optomologist, the man who specializes in the pupil of the eye.

The optomologist looked at the results and SUSPECTED that the cause was Sjögren's syndrome, a condition where the eye glands misinterpret tears as foreign objects and thus prevent your tear ducts from producing them.

But he wasn't sure.

So he sent her to Primary Care to run more tests.

Primary Care confirmed this, yes, she did indeed have Sjögren's syndrome.

But unfortunately, they didn't know how to treat it. 

So they sent her to the rheumatologist.

The rheumatologist prescribed my mom a medication that would supposedly fix her dry eye. Unfortunately, it only succeeded in causing inner bleeding in her intestines and landed in her in the ER just two days ago. And now nobody knows what's wrong. Nobody, of course, but us.

Some naysayers may say that the  the human body is so complicated that it can't be understood by a single person. They are wrong. It is much more complicated than that.  In fact, it is so complicated that our only hope is getting a grasp on it's very basic functions. As we saw from the 787, simply divvying up the roles tends to result in global misunderstanding, not progress. And anyway, that whole argument is placing gross simplicity on what we are actually capable of. Doesn't it neglect the complexity of a singularly important organ--namely our brains?


Our brain produces an organic molecule called acetylcholine (ah-see-till-co-lene) a neurotransmitter that controls the rate at which new connections are made between brain cells, located in the nucleus of the basal forebrain. Essentially, it's our learning chemical. It also controls our attention, reflexes, and both short and long term memory. When we are young, we are actively making connections, so the basal nucleus produces a steady flow of acetylcholine. This is supposedly why children "learn so fast".

But it turns out that the basal nucleus isn't "involuntary" like your heartbeat. It doesn't just stop producing acetylchholine when you hit 30 or something.  True, acetylcholine production decreases with age, but it's not as inevitable as you think. Tests have shown that some 90 year-olds are perfectly capable of learning and retaining new information. However, most of them have ceased producing this chemical entirely. This is likely because 30 or 40 is the typically the point where we begin to think that we've pretty much have life "figured out", and therefore consciously stop learning things. Of course the brain figures there's no reason to keep on producing a chemical that is no longer being used. The brain is very efficient that way. 

When we specialize in a single subject, the concept of participation inherently stored in us is stifled. With no new connections being made, the basal nucleus stops producing acetylcoline, creating a vicious circle in which it is harder and harder to learn anything new, until eventually, we can only defend what we have already learned. The only way you can retain your ability to learn is to keep on learning. If you stop learning, the harder it gets to start again.

You may be wondering: if there is all this scientific evidence that overspecialization is devastating to health and society, why hasn't anyone spoken up about it?  I'm not entirely sure, but I have a feeling it is most likely because the neurologists who provided us with this information never made such a connection.

With all that said, you may be surprised if I told you that specialization, in moderation, can be a very good thing. In fact, as we will see in later posts, it’s necessary to survive and thrive. What I’m criticizing is the motivation that is driving us. The ancient motivation to gain general understanding of the universe has been long swept under the rug, and been replaced with—what? To study broken pieces of glass? The only way you can drink out of a broken glass is if you put it back together. A broken glass can’t hold water!

But failure in business and a dysfunctional society is not the worst of the aftermath that monopathy leaves in its' wake. In the next post I will talk about the most tragic consequence of all.

-The Minstrel Boy

22 April 2014

Killing our Minds One Lesson at a Time - Part 2: The Polymath


In my research, my sister directed me to an article by the British poet and writer Robert Twigger titled "Anyone can be a polymath". The word "polymath" emerged from the Renaissance era which produced people like Da Vinci, followed up later by Goethe and Benjamin Franklin.  You may also be familiar with the term "Renaissance Man", someone who is competent in multiple fields. If you're like me, you probably used to have only a vague idea of exactly who Da Vinci was, because he was introduced to you as a painter.  Later, however, when someone told you he was an inventor, and someone else insisted he was a writer, you may have looked him up and discovered (with slight annoyance) that he was also a sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, and botanist. And perhaps like me you began to wonder what in the world you were doing with your life.

Am I saying everyone needs to become a Leonardo Da Vinci in order to have a good education? Well, not exactly, but don't shy away from the idea. As Twigger writes, "The real master has no tools at all, only a limitless capacity to improvise with what is at hand. The more fields of knowledge you cover, the greater your resources for improvisation."

The crazy part is just how little these "polymaths" are talked about today.  No one praises them for their multifaceted abilities or encourages anyone to do likewise. They seem to be existing in a world infinitely remote to the modern world. Taking classes at Bellevue College, I was baffled to find the name "Pythagoras" appearing in at least three different textbooks, and even more baffled to find that none of the respective professors seem to have the slightest clue who he was.  One introduced him as "The Greek philosopher Pythagoras", the other as "The Greek mathematician Pythagoras" and another, "The Greek astronomer Pythagoras" and then proceeded to talk about whatever theorem or constellation he discovered, as if the elusive Pythagoras did nothing but sit around doing sums or counting stars. Any of his accomplishments outside their own field was of no interest to them.

As you probably know, Pythagoras was around long before the Renaissance era. The concept of polymathy has existed long before the word was invented. After all, doesn't it sound awfully similar to... participation?

Humans have been trying to put the broken glass of reality back together since the beginning of all recorded history. It transcends all cultures and times.  We know everything is connected. It is only at the turn of the 20th century that we have finally managed to convince ourselves that the glass isn't really broken at all. Let's look at some of those attempts at that re-assembling.

1. The Liù Yì 六藝

In ancient China, students were required to master what was called the "liù yì", which means "The Six Arts". There was none of this "just take whatever classes interest you", it was "take all of it or none of it." And these were the fields:
  1. Rites (or philosophy) 
  2. Music
  3. Archery
  4. Charioteering
  5. Calligraphy
  6. Mathematics
When a man showed himself to be sufficiently proficient in all six areas, he was called a jūnzǐ (君子) which loosely translated means "the perfected gentleman".

Now doesn't that sound familiar? It seems that a "participatory" person has all sorts of names. The polymath. The renaissance man. The jūnzǐ. And if you are a long time reader of this blog, you may know him by yet another name: The Warrior-Poet.

But lets put things in perspective. Do you think your ten-year-old would be complaining about his math homework if he knew the next day he would need it to calculate distances for hunting wild beasts and winning chariot races? I think not. Apparently the Ancient Chinese do NOT share the Western view that "work" and "play" are two independent worlds. In fact, they had a name for those who held that view--the xiăorén, meaning "small or petty person". The Chinese can be very blunt--they don't mean small in stature, they mean small in brain. The xiăorén are said to be egotistic and narrow-minded. They are either exclusively interested in power and fame or sensual and emotional pleasures, which as you already know, renders them both useless.

2. Alchemy

Another historical attempt at participation was the practice of a branch of science called alchemy.  Alchemy is actually the foundation of modern day Chemistry, except it had one extra ingredient: Magic. Yes, Alchemy was a class that Harry Potter most likely took at Hogwarts School. In fact, that's probably where J.K. Rowling got the idea. Before anybody starts saying that Harry Potter promotes witchcraft and sorcery, remember that Magic can be simply another word for the supernatural. There are good supernatural powers as well as evil supernatural powers. “Magic” is, in the ancient sense, an amoral word. 

Alchemical imagery
The practice of the alchemist was to perform scientific experiments by connecting with the spiritual realm.  For example, they believed that by getting in the right spiritual frame of mind, they could, in theory, transform a block of silver into a block of gold.  The Catholic term “transubstantiation”, where wine and bread are believed to actually molecularly transform, originated from this alchemical practice.

Some may cast a skeptical eye on the truth behind this, but I'm inclined to believe that those scenes about Ron turning teacups into rats is not as far-fetched as we think. And I don't speak from wishful thinking.  I have said this countless times before, and I will say it again: A miracle is no less miraculous merely because it can be scientifically explained. That's like saying there is nothing remarkable about a sunset simply because it's nothing more than a giant burning globe of nuclear energy ninety-three million miles away. (This truth is probably what makes Doctor Who currently the most popular TV show in the world--and what makes me shamelessly participate in the hype).

Again, how cool would it be to be a kid and find out that the lines between his "fairy-tale" world and his "real" world aren't quite as distinct as he was told? Is imagination and reality yet another paradox that is rendered useless when separated? I submit that it is.
If alchemy really is possible, it is admittedly questionable.  It’s hard to say whether these druids and wizards were getting their powers from God or from Satan.  What we do know is that we have several eyewitness accounts of alchemists actually performing this feat (the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza was one of them).  If it is true, it is a very high form of participation. It is man in direct communication with God and His creation. 
3. The Greeks
Now, The ancient Greeks believed that the fields we now call the sciences and humanities were actually flip-sides of the same coin. At that time, the scientific method was called The Greek Method of Inquiry: Observation leads to hypothesis, which leads to theory, which leads to law. 

But there was another step, a step that our culture has disposed of. And it was this. Is the hypothesis meaningful?

(note the curious completion of a question mark: I thought that extremely clever)

 In other words, did the idea fit into their philosophical beliefs about the universe? Why was this step dropped? Well, turns out that it often led the Greeks to the wrong conclusions.
For example, when they observed that a rolling ball will eventually come to a stop, they concluded that the natural state of all objects was to remain stationary. Furthermore, they believed this was the result of living in a sinful world, because "humans are lazy and prefer to remain stationary." When they saw that the planets in the sky appeared to be in constant motion (to them, the opposite of laziness) they concluded that untainted perfection lay in the heavens.  
How’d they come up with that? Through the participation of science and philosophy. Now later, Isaac Newton showed us that this was wrong—any object in motion will stay in motion until acted upon by an outside force.  It is true that the art of general or integrated education runs the risk of making some pretty big mistakes. The biggest one being, of course, the theory of Geocentricism. 
4. Geocentricism

Until about 1500, it was universally accepted among astronomers that the Earth was the center of the solar system and that the sun and the planets all revolved around us, because—and here’s the integration—mankind, created in God’s image, ought to have a special place in the universe. Copernicus was the first to question this idea, but backed off in the fear of the Catholic Church.
Naturally, when Galileo came along in 1600 suggested that the Earth actually revolves around the sun; he really got on the Church’s bad side.   Not because the Catholic Church could deny Galileo’s calculations, but because his ideas were posing a dangerous threat to that fragile unity they had spent so long in constructing.  It didn’t matter if the Earth wasn’t the center of the universe—it should be.  In short, they told Galileo to shut the book—it didn’t matter if they were wrong as long as it worked.  Eventually, the Church accepted the Heliocentric Theory, but that was long after Galileo’s death.

Now we come to the critical point in our journey. This is where modern culture comes in and says “See, this is why we keep the peas from the potatoes. Look what happens when we mix our subjects—everything gets messed up!” Countless materialists have used this story to say that Christianity is a hindrance to science. Maybe that is true--to an extent. But then again, what exactly is our alternative? 

Continued in Part 3: The Monopath.
-The Minstrel Boy