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

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