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Seymour Papert, RIP

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — on a somewhat personal note ]
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Seymour Papert, photo by L. Barry Hetherington, via Papert’s NYT obit

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Seymour Papert, artificial intelligence pioneer and one-time research colleague of Jean Piaget who was keenly interested in bringing children, education and computers together, has died.

The Jewish paper, Foward, has an obit which touches me personally, since it turns out that Papert knew and learnjed much from my own mentor, Trevor Huddleston. Key graphs from the obit:

Another activity that became more than a pastime was improving life conditions for his black neighbors in South Africa. Daniel Crevier’s “A. I.,” a history of machine intelligence, notes that Papert grew up in an otherwise all-black area. Papert acquired further insight and sensitivity into the issue of racism from lengthy discussions with Father Trevor Huddleston, an anti-apartheid Anglican clergyman who often collaborated with Jewish activists sharing his views, notably the artist Hyman Segal of Russian Jewish origin, who illustrated Huddleston’s 1956 anti-apartheid study, “Naught For Your Comfort.”

As Desmond Tutu told an interviewer last year, Huddleston visited him regularly “when I nearly succumbed to tuberculosis. He taught me invaluable lessons about the human family; that it doesn’t matter how we look or where we come from, we are made for each other, for compassion, for support and for love.” This interfaith belief impressed young Papert as well, who like other South Africans of his generation was stunned when Huddleston did simple things like politely greeting black people in the street, acknowledging them as fellow human beings; one such recipient of unexpected civility was Desmond Tutu’s mother. In high school, Papert tried to arrange evening classes for illiterate black domestic servants, an activity strictly forbidden by the apartheid government.

Ever a logical thinker, Papert asked why black Africans were not permitted to attend white schools. The response was because of the threat of infectious disease, to which Papert replied that black servants prepared food and cared for children of the same white families, so the thought process at the basis of apartheid was clearly illogical.

For my own recollections of Fr Trevor, see:

  • Between the warrior and the monk (ii): Fr Trevor Huddleston
  • Between the warrior and the monk (iii): poetry and sacrament
  • h/t Derek Robinson

    Rumi One: the poet and his poems

    Sunday, June 12th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — first of four posts on the poet Jalal al-Din Rumi, hugely popular, perhaps soon to be the pivot of a blockbuster movie ]
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    Rumi has been in the news recently and in Rumi Three I’ll say a bit about why. But first, in this post, Rumi One, I’ll say something about the poet and his poems — leaving his ineffable spiritual attainments ineffable, since if they’re anything, they’re ineffable — and in Rumi Two I’ll consider a current attack on Rumi and “Rumism” in Turkey, little observed in the western press, which may be of interest to the poet’s many followers here. Rumi Four will contain some recommended readings.

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    Let’s start with some praise of Rumi from Will McCants:

    It’s a powerful poet who turns a scholar to the study of his language, the better to read him.

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    I’ve been reading Rumi at least since the first Arberry translations of his Mystical Poems came out in 1968, and in the mid-eighties between then and now had the delight and privilege of doing a joint poetry reading with his more recent translator / popularizer, Coleman Barks, at Lake Tahoe.

    I’m in no way surprised — but yes, delighted — that a scholar of McCants’ stature should appreciate Rumi so warmly, and envious of his ability to read the Divan, the Masnavi, the Discourses in the original. Did not the great poet Jami write of Rumi’s Masnavi that it is “the Qur’an in the Persian tongue”?

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    Here’s the poem with which Chicago University Press introduces Arberry’s Mystical Poems of Rumi:

    My verse resembles the bread of Egypt—night passes over it, and you cannot eat it any more.
    Devour it the moment it is fresh, before the dust settles upon it.
    Its place is the warm climate of the heart; in this world it dies of cold.
    Like a fish it quivered for an instant on dry land, another moment and you see it is cold.
    Even if you eat it imagining it is fresh, it is necessary to conjure up many images.
    What you drink is really your own imagination; it is no old tale, my good man.

    Set beside this, another comment of Rumi’s, considering his poetry:

    I am affectionate to such a degree that when these friends come to me, for fear that they may be wearied I speak poetry so that they may be occupied with that. Otherwise, what have I to do with poetry? By Allah, I care nothing for poetry, and there is nothing worse in my eyes than that. It has become incumbent upon me, as when a man plunges his hands into tripe and washes it out for the sake of a guest’s appetite, because the guest’s appetite is for tripe.

    The secular mind may think of that second quote as something of a pose, imagining the poetry of a great poet to be the poet’s own primary concern — but the poems of Rumi themselves, like the poems of St John of the Cross, speak of a love of the divine of which the poetry itself can be but an offshoot, a byproduct.

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    There are none so happy, I would suggest, as those who keep company with the lovers of the divine beloved, and it is that companionship that I see depicted in the poem of Rumi’s I most treasure:

    Little by little the drunkards congregate, little by little the wine-worshippers arrive.
    The heart-cherishers coquettishly come along the way, the rosy-cheeked ones are arriving from the garden.
    Little by little from the world of being and not-being the not-beings have departed and the beings are arriving.
    All with skirts full of gold as a mine are arriving for the sake of the destitute.
    The lean and sick from the pasturage of love are arriving fat and hale.
    The souls of the pure ones like the rays of the sun are arriving from such a height to the lowly ones.
    Blessed is that garden, where, for the sake of the Mary’s, new fruits are arriving even in winter.
    Their origin is grace, and their return is grace; even from the garden to the garden they are coming.

    Indeed, that grace, that garden is woven throughout Rumi’s poetry:

    The springtide of lovers has come, that this dust bowl may become a garden; the proclamation of heaven has come, that the bird of the soul may rise in flight.

    And where is that garden, when is that springtide of lovers?

    Alfred North Whitehead was thinking of education as a stepped-down version of that same garden when he wrote:

    The present contains all that there is. It is holy ground; for it is the past, and it is the future. … The communion of saints is a great and inspiring assemblage, but it has only one possible hall of meeting, and that is, the present, and the mere lapse of time through which any particular group of saints must travel to reach that meeting-place, makes very little difference.

    Why the Secret Service may need to address the issue of crayons

    Thursday, April 28th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — cultural criticism and the White House lawn ]
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    Tablet DQ outside the lines

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    The Secret Service (lower panel, above) is exactly right:

    We have now a society that tends to want to jump over the fence..

    That box of crayons in kindergarten is where the trouble begins.

    The slogan in the t-shirt design (upper panel, above) shows us how society got that way: it’s creative, which means entrepreneurial. Indeed, for a succinct explanation of the dualism between coloring outside the lines and jumping the White House fence, how about this article header from an entrepreneurial site?

    criminals & entrepreneurs

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    Sources:

  • ShirtWoot, Color Outside the Lines
  • NBC Washington, Secret Service Plans to Raise White House Fence by 5 Feet

  • Inc.com, Criminals and Entrepreneurs
  • FYI: Mike Sellers, game designer extraordinaire

    Monday, December 14th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — game design, systems thinking, education ]
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    An old and valued friend just popped up in my feed:

    Enjoy!

    America’s Anti-Agoge

    Wednesday, November 18th, 2015

    [by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

    “….Instead of softening their feet with shoe or sandal, his rule was to make them hardy through going barefoot. This habit, if practiced, would, as he believed, enable them to scale heights more easily and clamber down precipices with less danger.”

    – Xenophon, The Polity of the Lacedaemonians

    Be quiet! In your position, it is your job to create a place of comfort and home for the students who live in Silliman! Then why the fuck did you accept the position? Who the fuck hired you? You should step down! If that is what you think of being headmaster, you should step down! It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not!”
    Jerelyn Luther, the Shrieker of Yale

    “I personally am tired of hearing that first amendment rights protect students when they are creating a hostile and unsafe learning environment for myself and for other students here.”

    – Brenda Smith-Lezama, Vice President of the Missouri Students Association 

    Much has been written this week of the protests at Mizzou and Yale universities now sparking more absurd copycats elsewhere.  Pundits have covered the dangerous illiberalism of campus political correctness and speculated that the students are the result of a generation of helicopter parenting. There were earlier essays recently on the “coddled” nature of elite university students generally and skewered Ivy League students in particular as the products of a deeply flawed, intellectually shallow,”meritocratic” rat race that serves as the gateway to the nation’s elite. There have also been conservative suggestions that the students lack the maturity to vote and a furious counterattack by social-justice faction lefties defending the students and their authoritarian anti-free speechsafe space” ideology.

    While all interesting and moderately important, I don’t think any of this gets to the heart of the matter.

    Up until today, every society in history has had a process, formal or informal, to prepare the next generation of leadership and inculcate virtues in them that would assure their society’s cultural continuity and physical survival. The ancient Chinese mandarinate was based on mastery of Confucian classics; the British Empire had its public schools and storied regiments where the sons of the gentry and peerage bonded; the samurai and daimyo of Tokugawa Japan continued to uphold bushido and cherish antique tactics in warfare centuries after Japan’s unification made such things more ritual than reality.

    The definitive example of an educational rite of passage from student to member of the ruling class however, remains the Agoge of ancient Sparta. Established, according to Spartan legend, by the semi-mythical law-giver Lycurgus, the agoge (“the upbringing”) existed to mold Spartan boys through a ferocious training regime into the hoplite soldier-citizens who comprised the social apex of Sparta’s militaristic oligarchy. The agoge ceaselessly battered the students with physical exertion, corporal punishment, exposure to the elements and hunger in a bid to harden them  in mind and body. There’s much about life under the agoge that moderns, even admirers of classical Greece, would find distasteful or even appalling, but it was very effective at inculcating that ascetic toughness, communal discipline, martial prowess and laconic wit that Spartans prized.  For at least three centuries, the agoge helped sustain Sparta’s qualitative military edge and its hegemony over the Greek world and subsequently, its political independence for two centuries more. Not a record that was frequently matched in history.

    America too has a system of education to prepare – or rather, certify – our future business, academic, judicial and political leaders based on matriculation at a small number of highly selective, elite universities and liberal arts colleges. Broadly speaking, this includes roughly the top 100 higher education institutions ranked by US News & World Report and narrowly, for filling the very top tiers of finance, law and government service, the Ivy League plus a handful of comparable schools. This would place Mizzou at the bottom of the barrel of our elite education system while Yale is at the very pinnacle. The kids going to exclusive, elite, universities are very bright for the most part, but even more so they are wealthy.

    This upper class status includes the campus protestors screaming loudest about their wretched oppression. The hunger striker of Mizzou’s father is a multi-multi-millionaire while the Shrieker of Yale reportedly comes from the relative poverty of her parents $750,000 home. The aggressive authoritarianism on display at Yale, Mizzou, Amherst, Dartmouth or Claremont is less the “Rage of a Privileged Class” than the petulant tantrum of the 1%.  In other words, despite their heroic efforts at a public pathos orgy of political correctness to portray themselves as victims in grave danger as they bullied and assaulted professors other students, these are spoiled rich kids used to getting their way, pitching an unholy fit to get undeserved power over others who disagree.

    However obnoxious and unlikable these petty tyrants are or how totalitarian their demands to end free speech and academic freedom, fire and expel all their critics or put social-justice commissars in charge of every university department, they didn’t educate themselves. The students embody, perhaps in a more militant form, what they were taught. The problem isn’t that this year has a random surplus of student radicals, or that sinister racist conspiracies exist in the administrations of our most left-wing universities as protestors claim or that these helicoptered students are all psychologically fragile waifs raised in a culture of self-love and psychodrama. No, the problem is that the system to educate our future leaders tends to inculcate deep hostility and loathing toward their fellow Americans, extolls anti-empirical, witch-hunting dogmatism as a virtue while rewarding narcissism and anti-social aggression in interpersonal relations. This needs to change.

    We have built an American anti-Agoge that cultivates values, ethics and habits in future leaders that are politically repulsive in their authoritarian rejection of Constitutional rights and are antithetical to ruling wisely or well. At times they would seem to conflict with a life as a functionally competent human being. Half of all Yale students in this pressure-cooker require at least some mental health counseling. This is an astounding statistic. Imagine if Polybius or Livy had written that half of the sons of the Patrician class were at least slightly mad. A toxic ruling class that is certain that they have been victimized by the citizens they govern and who lack the normal resilience to withstand minor stresses of life without concocting conspiracy theories or taking to their bed is a recipe for disaster. In a liberal democratic state such as ours, dependent as it is on the values of an open society to function politically, this state of affairs is a sign of political decay and creeping oligarchy.

    What is to be done?

    We did not arrive at this juncture overnight and fixing a fundamentally broken academic culture will take time, but here are a few simple suggestions to start.

    1. Legislation to Secure Academic Freedom, Due Process and Free Speech on Campus:  This will defang the PC bullies, social justice warriors and their allies in university administration by hamstringing their ability to coerce and punish dissent. Obviously, this will be easier in public universities but these provisions could be attached to receiving Federal funds, including guaranteed student loans.
    2. Draconian Reduction of University Administrative Positions relative to Tenured Faculty: This will save a great deal of money better spent elsewhere in by axing bureaucracy while de-funding and disempowering the diversity commissariat on campus that is the source of much illiberal mischief. Again, this is a matter more for state level action initially.
    3. Restore a Core Undergraduate Canon rooted in Real Courses in Real Academic Fields: This will reduce the Melissa Click problem of academic sinecures for full-time radical political activists posing as professors with Fifty Shades of Gray “scholarship”. The money saved by getting rid of an army of administrators in #2 leaves a lot of room to hire mathematicians, biologists, historians, economists, physicists, philosophers and linguists who earned a doctorate in something real.
    4. Require Elite universities Receiving Federal Funds to allocate 20% of their Student Body to Students from Middle-Class, Lower Middle Class and Working Class backgrounds, Geographically Balanced: I have mixed feelings about this in principle, but it would definitely break up the overwhelming UC-UMC Superzip monoculture at our gateway institutions and bring new talent and perspectives into our ruling class that the university administrators at present work extremely hard to systematically exclude. It will also increase social mobility and provide competition for the progeny of our game-rigging “meritocratic” elite.

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    None of these will usher in a utopia. Much of radical academia will muddle through doing what they have been doing until retirement, but the system itself will be on a trajectory for better health rather than for getting steadily worse.

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