I want to be a scuba diver!

I love to read. I love books. There are few things that bring me such joy as getting lost in the “sea of words” where characters are of my creation and I grow attached to fictional places. I have even mourned the loss as I ended a book series. The book itself is wonderful, but I am slowly crossing into the technology world by reading some electronically. The point of it all is that I enjoy the depths of the written word, pondering over the meanings of things, or finding how what I have been reading works into the things I already understand. Then I read an article by Nicholas Carr called Is Google Making Us Stupid? which discussed how technology is changing the way we read, process, and absorb information. He used the analogy about how he was once a scuba diver in a sea of words, but now is more like a person covering a lot of area skimming along quickly on a jet ski. That is something that resonated with me in a deep way. Before I started working on my PhD, I asked those in the program how difficult the work was and how that work impacted their daily lives. Everyone seemed to be in accordance, that “it is a lot of work, but it is manageable”. This loosely translated to the work was at a doable level, but just LOTS of it you have to do in a short amount of time. So now that I am nearing the end of my first year, I find out that the work is training me to be a jet skier. I say this because I constantly feel like I’m not reading the material deep enough and having enough time to really process and consider what I’m reading. Which makes me sad. As much as I adore reading and learning, it is not feasible to invest the amount of time I feel necessary to each subject. So, alas, I jet ski. I read for the information I need to, process at warp speed (I am a slow processer naturally), and churn out my work. In my heart, many times I do not feel I am producing my best work. But it is the best I have at the speed in which I must go and I have found some balance in it as well as acceptance. Nevertheless, I am a scuba diver at heart. I am looking so very forward to being able to find the time to read for pleasure and at the slower pace and depth I wish. Perhaps many things I will read again with some free time, as I found I did following my master’s program. Until then, I will keep my scuba gear close by in case I have the extra time, where I will eagerly leap from the jet ski and dive deeper!

Experience vs. Memory

Now, I’m certainly not a Luddite but, I have some humanistic concerns about the increasing tendency for people to rely on external memory.  If the unexamined life is not worth living, what about the unremembered one?  One may argue that external memory still counts, that I can look at pictures on Facebook and remember the event in which it was taken; relive the experience that way.  But can you really be said to know something or remember it if you must constantly check with some outside reference?  It seems like technology is a tool for reminding more than remembering.  My fear is that too much focus on memory will cost us in our experiences.  The past is gone; it isn’t real.  There is only the eternal present – the here and now.  It always confuses me to see a concert goer holding an Ipad to record the show rather than enjoying the music.  Daniel Kahneman talks about the conflicts between the experiencing self and the remembering one in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow.  There is also a TED talk that deals with it. 

I did enjoy the excerpt from Smarter Than You Think.  It presented a pretty balanced argument and I intend to read the whole book.

Sith Kristen 2016-03-30 14:05:25

Technology Gets in the Zone

Our equipment changes how we process, how we remember, and what we produce.  As Nietzsche said, “our equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.”  The trick is to hack the advantages of each, and be ready to shift equipment as one type of equipment or interface is better for the purpose.  And even if we don’t know exactly what we want from each form of equipment, using diverse equipment will diversify the input that goes into our analysis, memory, and output.   In short diversify equipment, expand learning.

If our equipment changes how we analyze, input, and produce information, can we use this to our advantage?  This is exactly how Benjamin Franklin described the way he taught himself how to write.  He took an essay whose style he wanted to emulate, made a sort of an outline.  He gave himself time to forget the original, then fleshed the outline out again.  He also switched between essay and poetry and back.  Could this approach take advantage of different equipment we commonly use to learn and share information?  I could envision giving an assignment in which students are asked to make a PowerPoint presentation of a paper, including all important figures.  Then they could be asked to write a scientific paper from that PowerPoint (it would be tricky to reliably take away access to the original paper for the second part of the assignment, but I’m sure something could be done).  I can imagine paper notes to be used during the lecture-format portion of a class, and laptops to be used for in-class review for example to generate a list of questions about the material in a google document.

Every technology comes with pushback.  They are tools with their own set of advantages and disadvantages.  So what are our goals, the things we want to increase through technology and avoid disrupting?  How do we optimize?

I see three main goals of technology and format which both aid learning and enable learning to be better utilized:

  • To enable communication
  • To enhance productivity, either individually or as a group
  • To complement individual faculty – augmenting skills and opening access to enjoyable challenges

For each of these goals our use of our use of technology, equipment, and medium will affect them.

The point is to optimize the positive effects and utilize a diversity of effects, knowing that there is no form of learning that does not use a medium of some sort.   Does this piece of equipment in this context put you into communication or out of it?  Does more get accomplished in the end because of it – either individually or as a group?  Does it facilitate challenge and interest, or is it leading to worry, to apathy, and distraction?  Is a tool that draws you to be constantly “thinking about the task [you] weren’t doing,” or helps you is it something that helps you do the thing you were doing better?


A number of people have talked about how Plato critiqued writing as a new-fangled technology that would inhibit real learning and thinking.  This is often in the context of making a point like “well we know writing is a critical tool for our individual and societal development, so now we know his critique of this new technology was invalid – a fear of something new.”  I’m not sure this argument holds.  We do know that writing is critical.  But listen to his explanation:

Writing… has this strange quality, and is very like painting; for the creatures of painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing.

Although in other places his criticism is harsher, the point he makes here is that writing can’t replace interpersonal communication, and has weaknesses in that it cannot replicate the accountability and inspiration of interpersonal communication.  To this extant I think his comment is very valid and many modern technologies address exactly this weakness of writing, making written word more interactive.

I’m sure Plato would be happy to know we have not abandoned spoken conversations as a format in education.  Now we chose among many formats and technologies as we need to.  For example, in order to become a PhD candidate, I had to pass an oral exam.   The biggest exam and most formal exam I will probably have to take in my education is actually very Socratic in its structure.  We pick the format we want to use for the purpose at hand.  (Still, I am glad he did not live to see the invention of the scantron….)


Technology is a huge enabler of productivity.  But this is an area that is rife with paradoxes and optimization problems.  As science and technology writer Clive Thompson says we are “social thinkers

and technology that enables communication makes us more able and productive as a whole.  I would argue that productivity (in some form or another) is an almost automatic byproduct efficient communication.  (I don’t argue that this productivity automatically produces something that is necessarily good – effort and wisdom will always be important.)  Technology (whether it’s a bugle, pen and paper, or a super computer) is critical to communication-derived productivity.  I really wish google docs were around when my debate partner and I were writing up case briefs in high school.  I had an online class once in which we each had to post questions to a forum, and we could get credit for answering them as well.  The professor would clarify points we couldn’t.  My lab’s collaborators meet regularly via WebEx, which has options for screen share, document share, and chatting – a Skype for professionals.

When it comes to an individual productivity, the story is more nuanced.  On an individual level, productivity has a lot to do with an ability to focus, not just on topical knowledge, ability, and insight.  Technology certainly effects our focus.  Our technology effects the way we process information as we acquire it, the way we avoid distraction and prioritize information, and how we “get in the zone” really engaging in what we do.  The effect is very individual by person and context.  Sometimes technology streamlines this.  Other times simpler is better.   If I have writer’s block or am trying to jot down a poem without disrupting my flow of thought, you better believe the pen and paper is coming out.

The big productivity risk of technology comes with multitasking.  Since reading about the 2009 study done at Stanford on the disadvantage of multitasking on mental performance, I have been trying to be more conscious about focusing on one thing at a time and not letting myself think or work on something else until it is finished.  What is interesting is that multiprocessors were pulled from a group of people who regularly multi-process via technology.   That said, I found a lot of benefit from tying to make a point to consciously say “this is what I am thinking about for this next minute or so.”  And this helped me while I was doing work on a computer.  I needed the computer to accomplish what I wanted to do.  I also needed to be conscious about how I use it.  I noticed something while I was trying this that goes beyond an increase in productivity.  The increased focus came with clarity and motivation.

Flow – Or being in the zone

If productivity is a sign of equipped social thought, then being “in flow” is a sign of well-quipped individual thought.  Being in flow is what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes as “a state of heightened focus and immersion in activities such as art, play and work.”   I like to call it being in the zone.  It is essentially the signature of someone who sustainably and intrinsically enjoys what they do.   Flow comes from feeling both challenged and skilled.  It has seven basic features:

  1. Focus, concentration
  2. Ecstasy
  3. Clarity – know what to do
  4. Sense of the challenge being doable, even if hard
  5. Serenity, loss of a sense of self (too focused on something bigger)
  6. Timelessness
  7. Intrinsic motivation

What I noticed when I chose not to multi-process is that a I noticed a number of features of being “in flow” increase in addition to the obvious increase in focus.  Even when I don’t particularly enjoy the things I was doing at that point.  I had more clarity, a sense that I could finish what I was working on, and less of a worry about waiting time or of paying attention to it.  I wouldn’t say that my busywork acquired more ecstasy, but it was more enjoyable.

In other words, we have a significant about of control over how much our work resembles being in flow, even busy work.  We don’t have to reach the frenzied passion of an inspired artist to take advantage of flow by degree as part of the way we are wired as humans.  One of my new goals as a teacher (and as a learner!) is to encourage myself and my students to find as many of these seven features in whatever work we do to whatever extent it is up to us.

Focus.  Skills. And challenge.

And a diversity of technologies to help you do it.


The Technology Conundrum

For the 30th anniversary of the TED conference, held in Vancouver in 2014, artists Janet Echelman and Aaron Koblin created an immersive sculpture titled Skies Painted with Unnumbered Sparks. The sculpture consisted of five, high-definition projectors beaming digital animations of biomorphic forms onto a 745-foot net stretched over the plaza of the Vancouver Convention Center. The morphic animations and visuals were able to be manipulated by pedestrians touching screens on their smartphones. Audio capabilities of smartphones were also utilized as part of the interactive exhibition with high-pitched sounds being broadcast across the mobile phones while deep bassy sounds were played through nearby loudspeakers. Skies Painted with Unnumbered Sparks created a work of art where participants became much more than observers through the use of innovative technologies and the integration of smartphone technology. The result was astonishing.

Technology integration in the arts can sometimes face a slippery slope. Traditional performance experiences such as theatre, symphony, opera, and ballet come with a long established rules for audience etiquette where observers play a passive role in the arts experience. In orchestra settings for instance, audience members are not even supposed to clap between movements of the same orchestral piece of work. Applause is reserved once the final movement of a piece is played. Technology often clashes with the performing arts as was the case during the famous Patti LuPone incident of last year when the actress took the phone of an audience member during a performance. Another well known incident occurred around the same time when an audience member jumped on stage during a performance of the Broadway show Hand of God and proceeded to plug his cell phone into a fake electrical outlet that was part of the set

Technology can often be observed as something that is happening to us. This idea seems to be the central focus of an article written by Nicholas Carr where he questions Is Google Making Us Stupid? Carr suggests that the advances of the internet and the technologies we use to interface with it is changing the way we think. In his article, Carr describes the all too familiar scenario of becoming easily distracted when reading large bodies of text such as a novel, textbook, or long article. I find it somewhat amusing considering Carr’s article is quite lengthy. Carr suggests that the over-saturation of media and the instant gratification of internet searches is changing the way we read. Rather than delving deeply into a source text, we are being conditioned to skim for information, hopping quickly from one source to another. While skimming through large amounts of information may becoming commonplace, is it such a bad thing?

Another article, written by Jason Farman discusses The Myth of the Disconnected Life. Farman takes a different approach towards the use of technology describing it as a way of enhancing our real world experiences. Farman describes apps such as Murmur which is a Toronto based mobile story telling project that allows users to connect and contribute to the multiple histories of a specific place through their smartphone. Arts and technology integration is exponentially growing by leaps and bounds as artists continuously explore the intersection of immersive environments, site specific theatre, and various ways to embrace technology rather than distance themselves from it. In fact, Appcrawler recently published a list of the top 100+ apps for interactive art.

Echelman and Koblin saw an opportunity where technology could be utilized to change the passive role of the arts observer into an active one. By embracing the possibilities and inviting their audience to move beyond the role of observer into the role of practitioner, they created something that gave audiences the ability to pause and interact with the world around them. Skies Painted with Unnumbered Sparks realizes technology is a tool and uses it to create meaningful experiences between artists and audiences. Does technology change the way we think? Of course it does. The real question becomes do we utilize it in ways that enhances meaning within our lives? There is no easy answer but the important thing is to explore the endless possibilities and not be afraid of the outcomes.


Teacher evaluation: how much it shows the truth?

This semester I am teaching principle of microeconomics. My class is a large class with more than 100 students. This is my first time that I teach such a large class and in this view, it is a fascinating experience. I have a policy to ask from my students to give me a feedback about my teaching. I ask my student to fill out a survey and also write their comments in the middle of semester. This semester I asked from students before spring break and more than 65% of class filled out the survey. The survey helps me a lot to improve my teaching skill and after the spring break I try to apply some of the feed back I got into my teaching approach. However, I found their evaluation is not completely accordant with reality. For instance, I do my best to bring the real world examples into class and since the course is talking about the theory of microeconomics, most of the time it is hard to find a good example that matched with real life situation. I showed them a video of presidential candidate to explain different economic systems. I found a graph that shows younger people tend to vote to Bernie whereas middle aged people tend to vote for Hillary and from this example and graph, I explained the notion of opportunity costs. I talked about Martin Shkreli case which increases the price of a drug used for curing AIDS by more than 700% overnight last September and then I ask a question why he can do it easily without being worry to loose money and from this approach I explained the notion of elasticity of demand. All in all, the feed back I gained was that they don’t get examples from real world and they don’t know how these theories can be applied into real world. I also get a feed back for instance that I read from slides while I never do that and I don’t remember I teach by reading slides. After the survey was closed, I think a lot how much these surveys and teaching evaluation questionnaire shows the reality? When I consider the part of the survey which was related to evaluation of students, almost all of students read the course carefully, do their assignments regularly and attend in class seriously, but when you consider the course and teacher evaluation, students tend to be pessimistic and think that all of their problems with this course comes from a fact that either teacher or books are not helpful and the teacher does not teach effectively. In this atmosphere, I look at teacher evaluation done with a students with lots of doubt. I don’t want to exculpate myself, however, after getting those feedback where part of that (and for sure not all of that) is far from the truth, I am thinking about this question that is teaching evaluation done by students can evaluate truly the teacher? My answer to this question is “No”. In my opinion, student based evaluation of teachers are really good tools for considering teaching effectiveness of a teacher from point of view of those who are going to learn the materials, but this evaluation is not enough. In fact, students are biased and if they think they are not good in a course, they give more negative weight to teacher and they don’t look at themselves that maybe they don’t study hard or take the course seriously. In my view, in addition to student based evaluation, teachers need to be evaluated by their colleagues. The feedback of other faculty members about teaching policy would be much helpful due to their experiences and the fact that their views are not biased. Evaluation of teachers both by students and faculty members can give a big and clear picture to a teacher to improve her positive skills and remove the negative issues from her teaching approach.

An Argument Older Than Christ

Socrates once told a story to his student Phaedrus, which Plato recorded. It went like this: I heard, then, that at Naucratis, in Egypt, was one of the ancient gods of that country, the one whose sacred bird is called the ibis, and the name of the god himself was Theuth. He it was who invented numbers and arithmetic and geometry and astronomy, also draughts and dice, and, most important of all, letters. Now the king of all Egypt at that time was the god Thamus, who lived in the great city of the upper region, which the Greeks call the Egyptian Thebes, and they call the god himself Ammon. To him came Theuth to show his inventions, saying that they ought to be imparted to the other Egyptians. But Thamus asked what use there was in each, and as Theuth enumerated their uses, expressed praise or blame, according as he approved  or disapproved. The story goes that Thamus said many things to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts, which it would take too long to repeat; but when they came to the letters, “This invention, O king,” said Theuth, “will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories; for it is an elixir of memory and wisdom that I have discovered.” But Thamus replied, “Most ingenious Theuth, one man has the ability to beget arts, but the ability to judge of their usefulness or harmfulness to their users belongs to another; and now you, who are the father of letters, have been led by your affection to ascribe to them a power the opposite of that which they really possess. For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise. I heard, then, that at Naucratis, in Egypt, was one of the ancient gods of that country, the one whose sacred bird is called the ibis, and the name of the god himself was Theuth. He it was who invented numbers and arithmetic and geometry and astronomy, also draughts and dice, and, most important of all, letters. Now the king of all Egypt at that time was the god Thamus, who lived in the great city of the upper region, which the Greeks call the Egyptian Thebes, and they call the god himself Ammon. To him came Theuth to show his inventions, saying that they ought to be imparted to the other Egyptians. But Thamus asked what use there was in each, and as Theuth enumerated their uses, expressed praise or blame, according as he approved  or disapproved. The story goes that Thamus said many things to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts, which it would take too long to repeat; but when they came to the letters, “This invention, O king,” said Theuth, “will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories; for it is an elixir of memory and wisdom that I have discovered.” But Thamus replied, “Most ingenious Theuth, one man has the ability to beget arts, but the ability to judge of their usefulness or harmfulness to their users belongs to another; and now you, who are the father of letters, have been led by your affection to ascribe to them a power the opposite of that which they really possess. For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise. (From Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 9, translated by Harold N. Fowler. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London) Now, while I apologize for the lengthy quote, I hope that this strikes a chord of recognition for you with this week’s readings; it should. Within the parable Socrates is using the discussion of two gods to make a point about writing. Socrates is taking his position behind Theuth, whilst his students are presumed to be behind Thamus. He makes logical points about the entire argument, and even reaches a viable conclusion when he states that “this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory,” but, as we are aware, history has proven that his final statements about wisdom and the human condition remain untrue. He attempted to frame the narrative in the form of two gods speaking with one another to give the tale credibility. Gods are powerful an knowing so certainly what they say should be accurate, but this is just an empty attempt at an argument created from an ethos that doesn’t even exist. He structured himself in a false argument to attempt to accurately convey his predictions for the Human race. However, it fell short. By in large, humans have been better off since the invention of writing. Our memory has remained, and our thinking has deepened. The Greeks were not the last people on the planet to invent and produce, and Socrates was disproven. So why do I bring this up? What does an old argument have to do with this week’s readings? Simple, it’s the same argument. Look at the article Is Google making us stupid? by Nicholas Carr. He begins the article with an excerpt from a made up story about humankind in the future and the problems of technology. He is using this story in the same way that Socrates was, as a means to bring an ethical appeal to his argument. In essence, he was saying, “look! This movie acts like a glimpse of the future and what a dark future it portrays. Humans will be like robots!” This argument is meant to tug on your fears and make you see him as an authority on the future. But, in the end, Mr. Carr is just a storyteller like Socrates. His fear isn’t unwarranted, but I doubt it will come to pass. Like writing, the internet and new technology is a massive leap forward in the progress of mankind. And, like writing, there are those who will oppose the change that it brings. However, to say that Google will somehow halt the wisdom of people or their ability to read carefully is akin to saying it about reading. There will be negative effects associated with these changes, but the positive ones far outweigh the downfalls. Life will carry on, and humanity will adapt. Google gives us a chance to stop focusing on the memorization of facts and data and start focusing on the skills required to use those facts to benefit humanity. We will all be better because of the internet, because we will have more time to be better. Mr. Carr’s concerns about emerging technology are valid, but they are not new. People have been complaining about change since the dawn of time, and his is one more concern in the wake of many. The point of this is not to criticize Mr. Carr or Socrates, but instead to pose another position to them. Instead of worrying about the change that is occurring, we should spend our time worrying about what we are going to do with that change. I would direct you back again to connected learning. Connected learning is what happens when we stop fretting about the change that might occur in the future and start worrying about how we can use this change to benefit our students. They are the ones who will live through this massive change in human culture; it is important that we train them to make the best of it. As always, let me know what you think below!

Smarter, Dumber, or Lazier?

This week I read an article entitled “Is Google Making us Stupid?” 

This article raised some really interesting points. I can say in all honesty, I don’t know how the brain works enough to really weigh-in on a scientific scale; however, I do have some thoughts about how the age of technology manifests in the classroom. While I think the age of technology has revolutionized the world in numerous positive ways, I think it has perhaps created a level of dependency that no one really anticipated. I can’t count the number of times basic math has been on an exam, and students in the classroom panicked because calculators weren’t allowed. There have also been a number of times when working in teams and drafting group documents where a student asks siri how to spell a word (I guess spell check has too many steps)!

I don’t honestly believe that the majority of students don’t know how to do basic math in their head or spell words over two syllables… but the dependency on technology is rather alarming. Given the trends I have observed as well as the changes in learning patterns highlighted in the article, I wonder: are we doing students a disservice by catering to this new era of “technology enhanced” learning? 

What are your thoughts? Feel free to use the comments section below!

Lessons from Castalia (Part III)

Part I & Part II

Part III re-imagines current educational institutes to serve more comprehensive goals.

Part III

                It is instructive here to consider the Castalia of Greek mythology.  Castalia was a nymph whose ultimate fate was to be turned into a water fountain.  But fountains must flow – that’s how they maintain their shape.  Knecht resigns his office because he recognizes that the pedantic arrogance of the Province and the growing divide between it and the outside world threaten its sustainability.   His observations and concerns allow for a critical reflection on current reasons for schooling and serve as an invitation for all to reexamine the purposes of education and reevaluate its priorities.

Before addressing what the particular values scholarly institutes are to society or which values they should primarily pursue, it is important to discuss ways in which such institutions can be practically sustained.  The answer is obvious.  To maintain and grow societies’ educational institutes and their capacity to school a population of assertive, critical thinkers, it must promote teaching excellence in its students – the ability to teach each other and future generations.  Societal education into the distant future can only continue if students become teachers in cyclical fashion.

Knecht fears that Castalia is becoming the aristocratic class of its time, doomed to corrupt itself if it forgets its privileged position and will share the fate of many similar societies that preceded it.  Knecht criticizes the average Castalian for being self-absorbed in study:

The purpose of his life seems to him to be cultivation of the scholarly disciplines for their own sake,… Castalian culture… is for most of those associated with it not an instrument they play on like a great organ, not active and directed toward goals, not consciously serving something greater or profounder than itself.  Rather, it tends somewhat toward smugness and self-praise, toward the cultivation and elaboration of intellectual specialism (349).

The Castalians who leave as teachers to serve in the surrounding country Knecht recognizes as “men of integrity and worth, who really desire only to serve.”  Their work is described as “incalculably important” to “the pleasant climate and the intellectual luxuries of [the] Province.”  Knecht explains to the Board of Educators, “These fine teachers out there are, strictly speaking, the only ones among us who are really carrying out the purpose of Castalia.  Through their work alone we are repaying the nation for the many benefits we receive from it” (351).

Teaching is clearly important in Hesse’s view.  But it’s critical to realize its limits. Knecht’s biographers make an interesting distinction between teaching and educating.  Teaching relies on pedagogical skill and involves the transference of information; it’s the joy of seeing students rearrange materials into original configurations (238).  Teaching is about skills, knowledge, talent, and experience.  Education relies on the teacher’s personality; it relies on the ability to win students over and lead them by ones’ inspirational example (238).  Educating is about transmitting values, wisdom, character and meaning.

As Kohn warns, we should be wary regarding education and skeptical of our ability to pass on transcendent truth.  It is the same counsel that the Music Master gives Knecht during a correspondence about the meaning of the Glass Bead Game.  Knecht claims to be on the path to

The real mystery of the Game and its ultimate meaning…, down into the One and All, into those depths where the eternal Atman eternally breathes in and out, sufficient unto itself.  One who had experienced the ultimate meaning of the Game within himself would by that fact no longer a player; he would no longer dwell in the world of multiplicity and would no longer be able to delight in invention, construction, and combination, since he would know altogether different joys and raptures” (121-122).

The benevolent Music Master responds,

A Game Master or teacher who was primarily concerned with being close enough to the ‘innermost meaning’ would be a very bad teacher.  To be candid, I myself, for example, have never in my life said a word to my pupils about the ‘meaning’ of music; if there is one, it does not need my explanation.  On the other I have always made a great point of having my pupils count their eighths and sixteenths nicely.  Whatever you become, teacher, scholar, or musician, have respect for the ‘meaning,’ but do not imagine that it can be taught.  Once upon a time the philosophers of history ruined half of world history with their efforts to teach such ‘meaning,’… The task of the teacher and scholar is to study means, cultivate tradition, and preserve the purity of methods, not to deal in incommunicable experiences which are reserved to the [students]. (122)

Hesse teaches the same message about the limits to which the lessons from ones’ experiences may be clearly taught to others in such a way as to impart wisdom as well as knowledge through the title hero of Siddhartha.  Siddhartha explains his reasons to not study the Buddha’s teachings,

You have [reached the highest goal] by your own seeking, in your own way, through thought, through meditation, through knowledge, through enlightenment.  You have learned nothing through teachings, and so I think, O Illustrious One, that nobody finds salvation through teachings… That is why I am going on my way – not to seek another and better doctrine, for I know there is none, but to leave all doctrines and all teachers and to reach my goal alone. (27-28)

This echoes the lessons Knecht gave to the elite Glass Bead Game players about the dangers of disciplines and specialties.  Hesses’ novels make a coherent argument for the ‘highest goal’ of an education.  As Knecht explains to Designori, it is to become like the Music Master – one of Hesses’ “Immortals”:

Whose serenity is not playful shallowness, but earnest depth… this man possessed the virtue of serenity to such a degree that it radiated from him like the light from a star; so much that it was transmitted to all in the form of benevolence, enjoyment of life, good humor, trust, and confidence…To achieve this cheerful serenity is to me, and to many others, the finest and highest of goals… Such cheerfulness is neither frivolity nor complacency; it is supreme insight and love, affirmation of all reality. (315)

Teaching and educating find a unity in Joseph Knecht.  While professors and instructors should strive to achieve both, only the most exceptional among teachers will have the ability to educate.  Students mostly have to educate themselves – they’re the only ones who can attached personal value to their skills, derive meaning from their experiences, express their character through the force of their talents, and learn to apply knowledge wisely.  It is a challenging course, but “only the weak are sent out on paths without perils” (81).  Joseph experiences a kind of schizophrenic tension in his personality as a youth when he first begins to grasp that no way of thinking or being can be correct or perfect.  In desperation, he exclaims,

Oh, if only it were possible to find understanding… If only there were a dogma to believe in.  Everything is contradictory, everything tangential; there are no certainties anywhere.  Everything can be interpreted one way and then again interpreted in the opposite sense.  The whole of world history can be explained as development and progress and can also be seen as nothing but decadence and meaninglessness.  Isn’t there any truth? Is there no real and valid doctrine? (83)

His devotedly cheerful tutor, the Music Master, consoles young Knecht,

There is truth, my boy.  But the doctrine you desire, absolute perfect dogma that alone provides wisdom, does not exist.  Nor should you long for a perfect doctrine, my friend.  Rather, you should long for the perfection of yourself.  The deity is within you, not in ideas and books.  Truth is lived, not taught.  Be prepared for conflicts, Joseph Knecht – I can see they have already begun. (83)

With these considerations in mind, it is interesting to compare Knecht’s evaluation of Castalia to Chris Hedges’ critique of American higher education in his Empire of Illusions: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.  Hedges argues that American culture has degraded to the point of consumerism, fetishized competition, celebrity worship, and banal conversation while the American people – who mostly rely on corrupt or at least pitifully substantive media for their news – ignorantly or uncaringly allow corporations to externalize the costs of their actions regarding environmental restoration and maintenance of social justice to the public.  The fountain of ideas to update our economic and social structure has stopped flowing.  Hedges lays many of these problems at the feet of institutes of higher education, especially Ivy Leagues, for producing a citizenry that perpetuates the status quo without questioning or critically assessing the power dynamics in their culture or society.

Culture, to use the words from Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael, is a people enacting a story.  It is the collective narratives we tell ourselves and each other about our origins, purpose, history, future, and priorities.  As much as we feel like rational, self-interested, and intelligent beings, overwhelming evidence suggests we are creatures of little understanding prone to acting automatically; who fool ourselves by subtlety replacing difficult questions with easier ones and comprehend the world largely by constructing narratives of questionable accuracy or legitimacy to provide coherency to our experiences – these narratives more or less allow us to assign significance to our actions and meaning to our lives (Kahneman).

Institutional attempts at education have to settle for teaching, even if individual instructors are exemplary, because students are more likely to – naturally, one might add – discover and accept the dominate wisdom presented throughout the rest of their culture’s narratives.  We have to be aware of that and make it clear to our students: a teacher’s job – like a parent’s – is to put themselves out of business.  If at no point is the student able to teach themselves i.e. learn independently through synthesizing skeptical questions and critically evaluating the reliability of information as well as their most basic assumptions, then there is something wrong with the course structure or pedagogical approach.

Idolatrous scholarship is exactly the kind Knecht would gaily admonish.  The idea of service is emphasized throughout The Glass Bead Game.  In addition to creating teachers to sustain their institutes and spread knowledge, universities have a paramount responsibility to serve by illuminating the intellectual path that most serves society’s needs.  Schools are the primary lens through which young people will learn to critically evaluate their culture and environment; they must be instructed to question skeptically and taught to identify significant information if they are to operate self-sufficiently.

The roles schools serve then should be to identify and evaluate the narratives presented by the surrounding culture while teaching students the tools to refine their perception and analysis of themselves and the world.  Schools should also do what they can to promote reasons for continued learning and criticize narratives which threaten civilization.  Neil Postman identifies several narratives present in public schools in his The End of Education that he feels fail to provide students with transcendent reasons for learning.  For instance, Postman and Hedges both criticize the emphasis placed on economic utility of future workers as the primary purpose of school.  Postman further proposes alternative narratives that do serve to make learning a meaningful experience to students.

It is unfair to hold schools totally accountable for cultural decline however.  They do not exist in a vacuum; cultural degradation neither originates totally in schools nor affects educational institutions exclusively.  There are signs of degradation in American politics, its economy, and its environment which mutually influence each other.  Likewise, a solution to cultural degradation will require restructuring other realms of society as well as schools.

Richard Wolff argues in Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism, that public schools should primarily be conceptualized as tools to maintain democratic society and as sources of fresh ideas that expand and reinvigorate democratic ideals.  He primarily frames his arguments politically as they relate to a need for restructuring the economy to achieve social justice.  Paul Hawken, author of The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability, provides complementary economic arguments that are framed ecologically and primarily address environmental concerns.  Both ideas are centered on increased participation and autonomy of people, either in government or commerce, and an enhanced sense of community.  Each makes the argument that the new economy would ask different demands of schools.  Hawken also offers a more tempered and optimistic view about ethical governance and the potential for corporations to lead the way in solving ecological and social problems created by industry than either Wolff’s or Hedges’ skeptical cynicism.

Two of the narratives Postman promotes in his book involve conceptualizing Earth as a spaceship to encourage globally communal thinking in students, and emphasizing America as a nation founded on seeking truth through continuous argument about which questions are important and experimentation in developing more refined answers.  Postman suggests the study of archaeology and anthropology to help students grasp the narrative of Earth as a spaceship on which all humans and life are ecologically interdependent.  ‘Spaceship Earth’ can serve as the narrative that reinforces Hawken’s vision.  Postman’s narrative of the American Argument could conceivably serve the needs identified by Hedges and Wolff for creating a more engaged public.

Both types of these commitments – to each other as in Wolff’s democratic Worker Self-Directed Enterprises and to their environment as in Hawken’s ecologically conscientious economy – will require practice.  The modern world is demanding new types of thinking that are more nuanced and dynamic than narratives of the past.  Schools are a natural place to plant new seeds of thought and habit.  Future citizens will be best prepared to solve their problems if classrooms are restructured to give students more authority and independence in collectively directing their education.

Empowering students to teach each other is very compatible with the sort of economic and societal systems proposed in Democracy at Work & The Ecology of Commerce.  Classroom structures that rely on students to develop content and educate each other through peer-reviews while under an instructor’s supervision would build the necessary habits of participation, engagement, and social commitment that future communities will require.  It would also be a sustainable way to maintain increasing levels of education in the population by training everyone to be a teacher.


To be educated means to have an awareness of the biases that color one’s perception of the world, the limits’ to one’s knowledge, and to one’s capacity for understanding – in short, to be educated means to know ones’ self; however, an education should make students aware of their ability to grow, and of the potential to experience learning as a transcendent act of consciousness with the power to shape their lives.

Joseph Knecht and the Music Master represent the pinnacle of education: the state of perpetual understanding and awe and child-like peace characterized and evidenced by their radiating, infectious optimism in all situations.  But Hesse warns that people cannot be taught to be this way; they must find their own path to such a place.  While their example should be pursued by individual teachers and students, educational institutions have to set different goals for schooling the pubic.

Schools and teachers should emphasize the art of questions and tools of inquiry; their efforts ought to direct societies’ intellectual endeavors towards being critically self-aware and reflective.  Communities of the future will necessarily be more socially and ecologically integrated than they are today.  Students can be prepared to create such economies by gaining experience in democratically run classrooms engaged in community service.  This is old wisdom.  Henry Thoreau presents a similar argument in Walden:

[Students] should not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports them at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end.  How could youths better learn to live than by at once trying the experiment of living?

            In addition to restructuring for more collaboration between students and teachers, schools can reevaluate the subjects emphasized in school and the ultimate purpose of education.  As in the Glass Bead Game, all subjects are valid, intimately connected, and capable of leading to genuine enlightenment as well as false, empty virtue.  Students should seek the perfected happiness achieved by the Immortals.  Schools can facilitate this goal by emphasizing the study of anthropology and ecology to understand the deep connections we share with our ancestors, neighbors, and environment.  They can also highlight the importance of narratives to the human psyche and social behavior.  Students should also be encouraged to investigate the interplay of power and morality.  Study of the scientific method – with increased attention to language and rhetoric – will equip students with the tools necessary to skeptically evaluate the narratives of their time and maintain their intellectual autonomy without diminishing their capacity for collaboration.

Hesse’s novel offers many other insights for students, teachers, administrators, and politicians.  It hope my essay serves as an argument for investigating it for yourself.



Hesse, Hermann.  Das Glasperlenspiel (The Glass Bead Game/Magister Ludi): A tentative sketch of the life of Magister Ludi Joseph Knecht together with Knecht’s posthumous writings.  Henry Holt and Company.  1990.

Hesse, Hermann. Siddhartha.  NJF Books.  New York, NY. 1951.

Hedges, Chris.  Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and Triumph of Spectacle.

Postman, Neil.  The End of Education.

Kohn, Alfie.  What does it mean to be well educated?

Quinn, Daniel. Ishmael

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Lessons from Castalia (Part II)

Part II deals mostly with an analysis of the novel’s main characters and the examples they set for students and teachers.  Please see Part I for a brief synopsis of the text.  Part III continues the discussion of Part II and evaluates connections between Castalia and contemporary public schooling.

Part II

            For such a rich text, I think it is appropriate to analyze the novel in two parts.  Part II will be an investigation into the novel’s main characters to see what lessons there are for teachers and students.  The focus of Part III will be on the example and warning Castalia sets for contemporary educational institutions.

Perhaps the most outstanding example of pedagogical excellence that the novel illustrates is the level of collaboration between the instructor and pupil.  Castalia has a seemingly rigid structure and hierarchy; however, the majority of Castalians are afforded the luxury of studying whatever suits their fancy.  In his collection of essays, What Does It Mean to be Well Educated?, Alfie Kohn argues with supporting evidence that education works best when it resembles such a collaborative environment.  Many teachers profess that one of their highest goals is to create life-long learners.  What better way to do so than by giving students some authority to direct their own education?  Students should be involved in creating class assignments and learning objectives.  Of course, senior members of The Order’s Hierarchy do annually review scholarship but, the evaluations are far more qualitative than quantitative.  That is, the quality of Castalian learning is assessed narratively rather than alpha-numerically.

This is an invitation to educators to rethink their use of grades and the educational goals they serve.  Kohn’s essays further argue that a focus on or even use of grades as a means of evaluating students can undermine quality learning.  Grades attract students’ attention away from the content and reduce their interest in learning as they tend to worry about how they will be evaluated instead.  Acting rationally, students opt for easier assignments over challenging ones when grades are emphasized in the classroom.  The pressure to perform is also cited as a reason many students cheat.  He does concede that this kind of very personalized assessment is more demanding of often already over-worked teachers.  However, even if giving students a simple letter grade makes things easier for teachers, does it serve the best interest of the students?

I suspect many educators will feel that they tend to collaborate with their students and their intellectual journeys are mutually beneficial.  And I don’t mean to suggest that students and teachers are equals in this journey.  Teachers obviously are in a position of power and, correspondingly, responsibility; teaching is arguably the most influential profession on the planet.  It has been my experience that professors vary widely in their feelings about their obligations to students.  On one hand, I have seen professors who seem – at least unconsciously – more interested in merely having their own ideas and perspectives paraphrased back to them.  I can understand the joy it must be to see one’s intellect mirrored and echoed in this way with the vitality and vigor that youth are blessed to possess.  The temptation to exert such unjustified influence is surely enthralling.  I’ve also seen contempt for ignorance: as if the last place the professor would rather be is in the classroom sharing their knowledge, that they are primarily researchers and discovers of truth who cannot be bothered to explain the more fundamental aspects of their field to novices.  As a student helping his peers, Knecht struggled with some of these issues.  He admits to being flattered at their tendency to seek his guidance but also annoyed with their lack of self-reliance and temptation to use his influence to exert undue power over them (135).  On the other hand, I have been lucky to have so many educators in my life whose character reflects more closely that of Knecht as Magister Ludi.  They have been caring and patient, willing to earn respect and win authority by interacting with students on a genuinely individualized level.  Like Knecht, the examples they set were far more valuable than any information they were able to transmit.

Students can also learn from Knecht’s example.  For instance, when he is sent as a diplomat to Mariafels on the pretense of introducing Benedictine monks to the Glass Bead Game, “Knecht thought it important to win Father Jacobus’s approval for the Castalian authorities’ project; but it seemed to him far more important to learn as much as possible from him” (191).   Here again, the best learning is shown to be a collaborative effort; the biographers credit his studies with Father Jacobus as an integral part on Knecht’s path to becoming Magister Ludi:

The result [of their “animated exchange of views”] was that at the very time [Knecht’s] areas of study were so notably expanding , he was also forced once again to contemplate, understand, and reinforce his own intellectual and historical base.  In his efforts to present the nature of the Order and of the Castalian system to Father Jacobus with maximum simplicity and clarity, he inevitably stumbled over the weakest point[s] in his own and all Castalian education (194).

The lesson for students is that their education will be of little value to them unless they take an active role in directing it.  Passive learning is just a euphemism for no learning at all.  Their example shows that the best teacher-student relationships are dynamic – where each individual serves alternately, or even simultaneously, as student and teacher.  Plinio Designori, a non-Castalian whose family’s children are privileged to receive Castalian education and who engaged Knecht with lively debates concerning the virtues of the meditative versus natural life during their adolescence together, describes to the Magister how Castalian education served him when studying at university.  Designori explains,

I abided by the rules I had learned among you… They seemed to strengthen and shield me, seemed to preserve my gaiety and inner soundness and to increase my resolve to pass my student years in the Castalian way as far as possible, following the paths that my craving for knowledge indicated and not letting anything coerce me into a course of studies designed to prepare the student as thoroughly as possible in the shortest possible time for a specialty in which he could earn his livelihood, and to stamp out whatever sense of freedom and universality he may have had (297).

In the same way that the Music Master’s peaceful serenity and Father Jacobus’s sagacity tempered “by a profound insight into the inadequacies and difficulties of human nature” highlight the contrasts between contemplative and engaged forms of scholarship, Designori’s juxtaposition with Knecht illustrates the different paths students may take toward exemplifying either form (193).  Knecht, with “his educator’s perception of the various shades of character”, observes a remarkable change in his friend (289) when they are reunited as old men.  Compared to the bold, exuberant, student whom Knecht knew at Waldzell, Designori’s

youthful charm had been submerged and extinguished…, but the traits of superficiality and blatant worldliness had also vanished.  The whole man, but especially his face, seemed marked, partly ravaged, partly ennobled by the expression of suffering” (290).

As their conversation continues, Designori goes on to lament,

You recall how in defending our world against yours I used to extol the unspoiled, naive life? If that was a piece of foolishness deserving punishment, my friend, I have been harshly punished. Because this naive, innocent, instinctual life, this childlike, untrammeled brilliance of the simple soul, may possibly exist among peasants or artisans, or somewhere, but I never succeeded in finding it, let alone sharing in it… I don’t know whether my life has been useless and merely a misunderstanding, or whether it has a meaning. If it does have a meaning, I should say it would be this: that one single specific person in our time has recognized plainly and experienced in the most painful way how far Castalia has moved away from its motherland. Or for my part it might be put the other way around: how alien our country has become from her noblest Province and how unfaithful to that Province’s spirit; how far body and soul, ideal and reality have moved apart in our country; how little they know about each other, or want to know… – in any case, it ended as it was bound to end.  The world was stronger than I was (295-298).

            Knecht – tracing an alternative path to enlightenment – struggles with similar problems reconciling the value of rigorous introspection with our natural instinct to ascribe significance to worldly experience.  And once Knecht

explored all the possibilities the office  provided for the utilization of his energies and had reached the point at which great men must leave the path of tradition and obedient subordination and, trusting to supreme, indefinable powers, strike out on new, trackless courses where experience is no guide (286-287),

he resigns from his office.  His resignation is a means to expresses concerns to his colleagues on the Board of Educators regarding the Pedagogical Province that mirror Designori’s complaints about the inadequacies and limits of Castalian wisdom as applied to the outside world.

We don’t need no Education

“You! You! Yes, you! Stand still, laddie!”
When we grew up and went to school
There were certain teachers who would
Hurt the children anyway they could
By pouring their derision
Upon anything we did
And exposing every weakness
However carefully hidden by the kids

I think Pink Floyd summed up the entire education system (back in the 1970-80’s) fairly well in their song “We don’t need no Education”. The effects of such an oppressive educational model are still present, in fact, the educational model hasn’t changed much in the last few decades. The lyrics (accompanied by the video) articulate in a concise fashion the banking model of education (as described by Paulo Freire’s in his book “Pedagogy of the Oppressed“); it is particularly apparent in the last couple of lines in the song where the students recite along with the teacher:

“An acre is the area of a rectangle

whose length is….”

In the banking model of education, the student is viewed as an empty account to be filled by the teacher. Paul notes that “it transforms students into receiving objects. It attempts to control thinking and action, leads men and women to adjust to the world, and inhibits their creative power”. The following lyrics from the same song “We don’t need no Education” succinctly express that a banking/factory model of education is oppressive and abusive and change is needed:

We don’t need no education
We don’t need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers leave them kids alone

The lyrical brilliance of Pink Floyd shines here where they use double negatives; “don’t” and “no” in the same line negate each other expressing that although education is necessary, operating within the confines of the current system makes the children mindless souls that do not have free creativity or imagination (this argument is not only supported by the lyrics but also through the stunning visuals in their video). The combination of words “thought control” and “dark sarcasm” further argues that teachers can be perceived as authoritarian and controlling. In particular, if the child does not please the teacher then the child is automatically wrong and punished for their behaviour.

I think there are plenty of parallels between Paul’s work and Pink-Floyd’s lyrics. However, both bodies of work seem to paint an extremely pessimistic view of the education system. The lyrics and the book are fairly old (70-80’s) and may have been apt for the post-war era. In the current context, there are several common themes/core ideas that still ring true today.

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