Notes from Dumbing Us Down by John Taylor Gatto

  • When the bell rings I insist they drop whatever it is we have been doing and proceed quickly to the next work station. They must turn on and off like a light switch…the lesson of bells is that no work is worth finishing, so why care too deeply about anything? Years of bells will condition all but the strongest to a world that can no longer offer important work to do. Bells are the secret logic of school time; their logic is inexorable. Bells destroy the past and future, rendering every interval the same as any other…bells inoculate each undertaking with indifference. (p. 6)

These days SMS messages, alerts, email arrive every moment on our phones, in our inboxes. We’ve become so acclimatized to interruption we invite it into our lives and don’t see how it trivializes everything we do.

  • …Reading, writing and arithmetic only take about one hundred hours to transmit as long as the audience is eager and willing to learn. The trick is to wait until someone asks and then move fast while the mood is on. (p. 12)
  • School takes our children away from any possibility of an active role in community life — in fact, it destroys our communities by relegating the training of children to the hands of certified experts — and by doing so it ensures our children cannot grow up fully human. Aristotle taught that without a fully active role in community life one could not hope to become a healthy human being. (p. 13)
  • Where meaning is genuinely to be found: in families, in friends, in the passage of seasons, in nature, in simple ceremonies and rituals, in curiosity, generosity, compassion, and service to others, in a decent independence and privacy, in all the free and inexpensive things out of which real families, real friends, and real communities are built. (p. 15)
  • Is it any wonder Socrates was outraged at the accusation he took money to teach? Even then, philosophers saw clearly the inevitable direction the professionalization of teaching would take, that of preempting the teaching function, which, in a healthy community, belongs to everyone. (p.16)
  • School children…cannot concentrate on anything for very long; they have a poor sense of time past and time to come. They are mistrustful of intimacy like the children of divorce they really are, for we have divorced them from significant parental attention; they hate solitude, are cruel, materialistic, dependent, passive, violent, timid in the face of the unexpected, addicted to distraction. (p. 17)
  • Children and old people are penned up and locked away from the business of the world to a degree without precedent: nobody talks to them anymore, and without children and old people mixing in daily life, a community has no future and no past, only a continuous present. We live in networks, not communities, and everyone I know is lonely because of that. (p. 21)
  • The children I teach are uneasy with intimacy or candor. They cannot deal with genuine intimacy because of a lifelong habit of preserving a secret inner self inside a larger outer personality made up of artificial bits and pieces of behavior borrowed from television or acquired to manipulate teachers. Because they are not who they represent themselves to be, the disguise wears thing in the presence of intimacy; so intimate relationships have to be avoided.(p. 28)
  • Networks don’t require the whole person, only a narrow piece. If, on the other hand, you function in a network, it asks you to suppress all the parts of yourself except the network-interest part — a highly unnatural act although one you can get used to. …If you enter into too many of these bargains, you will split yourself into many specialized pieces, none of them completely human. (p. 48)
  • Mass commercial entertainment, as addictive as any other drug, has blocked the escape routes from mass schooling, blotting up any attention spared by school. (p. 49)
  • A community is a place in which people face each other over time in all their human variety: the good parts, bad parts, and all the rest. Such places promote the highest quality of life possible — lives of engagement and participation….An example might clarify this. Networks of urban reformers will convene to consider the problems of homeless vagrants, but a community will think of its vagrants as real people, not abstractions. Ron, Dave, or Marty — a community will call its bums by their names. (p. 51)
  • Networks do great harm by appearing enough like real communities to create expectations that htey can manage human social and psychological needs. The reality is that they cannot. Even associations as inherently harmless as bridge clubs, chess clubs, groups of social activists will, if they maintain a pretense of whole friendship, ultimately produce that odd sensation familiar to all city dwellers of being lonely in the middle of a crowd. Belonging to many networks does not add up to having a community, no matter how many you belong to or how often your telephone rings. (p. 53)
  • In the growth of human society, families came first, communities second, and only much later came the institutions set up by the community to serve it. (p. 55)
  • Networks…isolate [people] by some limited aspect of their total humanity — their age, in the case of compulsory schooling (p.56)

One law for lion and ox is oppression — William Blake

  • Nearly a century ago a French sociologist (?) wrote that every institution’s unstated first goal is to survive and grow, NOT to undertake the mission it has nominally staked out for itself. …It was this philistine potential — that teaching the young for pay would inevitably expandinto an institution for the protection of teachers, not students — that made Socrates condemn the Sophists so strongly. (p. 58-59)
  • Sixty-five years ago Bertrand Russell…saw that mass schooling in the United States had a profoundly anti-democratic intent, that it was a scheme to artificially deliver national unity by eliminating human variation and by eliminating the forge that produces variation: the family. According to Lord Russell, mass schooling produce a recognizably American student: anti-intellectual, superstitious, lacking self-confidence, and having less of what Russell called “inner freedom” than his or her counterpart in any other nation he knew of, past or present. They [held] excellence and aesthetics equally in contempt; were inadequate to the personal crises in their lives.(p. 70)
  • In Colonial New England Each town was able to exclude people it didn’t like! People were able to choose whom they wanted to work with, to sort themselves into a living curriculum that worked for them. The words of the first Dedham charter catch this feeling perfectly; the original settlers shut out “people whose dispositions do not suit us, whose society will be hurtful to us.” So in a funny way these early towns functioned like selective clubs or colleges, like MIT and Harvard do today, narrowing human differences down to a range that could be managed by them humanely.
  • …If you have to accept everyone, no matter how hostile they may be to your own personality, philosophy, or mission, then an operation would quickly become paralyzed by fatal disagreements. …living dialectically as the New Englanders did produces spectacular accomplishments and brings out strong qualities of character but isn’t possible to manage where the whole catalogue of human beings is thrown together haphazardly or forced together, as it is in government monopoly school life. To prevent chaos in these places, management must aim to make everything — time, space, texts, procedures — as uniform as possible. (p. 78-79)
  • “The capacity for loyalty is stretched too thing when it tries to attach itself to the hypothetical solidarity of the human race. It needs to attach itself to specific people and specific places, not to an abstract ideal of universal human rights. We love particular men and women, not humanity in general.” (Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven) (p. 79)
  • People are less than whole unless they gather themselves voluntarily into groups of souls in harmony. Gathering themselves to pursue individual, family and community dreams consistent with their private humanity is what makes them whole; only slaves are gathered by others. (p. 87)

LinkedIn’s Pace is Just Fine

In her piece on LinkedIn in PEWire, Connie Loizos writes about Jeff Weiner’s talk at Web 2.0 Summit this week and exhorts him to pick up the pace at LinkedIn — using Reid Hoffman’s reluctance to introduce photos to LinkedIn as an example of an essential conservatism in the company. I have to completely disagree with her analysis, as I’ve been watching LinkedIn since its inception, and have been impressed with both their willingness to change, as well as their actual implementation of new UX, features and especially experimental features. Their rapid implementation of Groups, Answers, their search refinements, integration with other social networks, etc etc has always been rapidly executed. Their Chief Scientist, DJ Patil and his team are especially agile innovators, with an incredible fund of data to work with and many experimental features cooking in their labs.

I have to especially agree with Jeff’s assertion that the lack of Kegstands and hot tub photos on LinkedIn is one of LinkedIn’s key distinguishing features. It should be preserved and defended at all costs. In building a social network, the standards and mores of a community are its lifeblood; one does not lightly ‘experiment’ with these and LinkedIn is exactly right to defend them. I think Loizos’ article mistakenly conflates the company’s defense of LinkedIn’s culture with conservatism. It’s just not so.

I’d also take issue with the assertion that they haven’t made any “high profile” personnel changes. Weiner coming in as CEO is as high profile as you could hope for, and I believe that hiring name brand talent isn’t as successful of a strategy as hiring great engineers and developers, which I have seen them doing again and again. They should know, they’re a company that specializes in employment and hiring. 🙂

Art criticism

I am writing an essay for an upcoming show at The New Museum, and as a result I am getting caught up on art criticism, which I haven’t been reading much of in recent years, having spent most of my time reading blog posts about activity feeds and their purpose, privacy policies in the age of No Privacy and the social repercussions of superpoking.

So I am reading “Why Are Conceptual Artists Painting Again? Because They Think It’s a Good Idea” and a bunch of other essays on Afterall, which I was not familiar with until today and am finding quite good.

Vacations are good

I’m not good at vacationing. I’ve repeatedly failed at palapas and mai-tais. The word “thong” makes me nervous. And on a vacation to Boring-Boring I mean Bora Bora after snorkeling, waterskiing, visiting the marine preserve, getting stung by a jellyfish, eating at every restaurant and reading the seven books I’d brought, I spent all my time sneaking into the business center and wheeling around the island looking for a functioning cell tower. In any event I’m back from my first vacation in 4 years. I mean, I know I have a reputation for not relaxing, but I didn’t expect when I returned I’d be met with speculation that I’m leaving Hunch. Reporters calling me (Hi Mike!) asking if it’s true. But I’m a full time employee, and I just took a vacation. :-/

Hunch has pivoted. We’ve gone from being a consumer destination site based on user-created topics, to a taste-graph driven platform for partner sites. The things I’m good at are building communities, participatory media, places where people contribute things of their own making. So yes, I am wondering what I can do that best serves Hunch and utilizes my own particular talents. I will find the perfect role for me, and whatever it is, is TBD. I have no plans to parachute off the plane.

Hunch’s dataset has grown incredibly fast: we’ve mapped 30 billion “edges”, we’ve signed dozens of partnerships and 2011 will be the year that the internet gets personalized. Hunch will be at the center of it. I love Hunch, the awesome team, my brilliant cofounders — we’re doing great work and building a great company. Vacations are good, and I come back energized, with the whiff of Hawaiian Tropic in the air and 2,000 messages in my Inbox.

Dramatic overhaul vs. gradual changes

Ben Parr’s analysis of the latest Digg launch was spot on, and his column was full of great analysis and good suggestions of where Digg should go next. One part of his post stood out, and I think it’s right on the money:

2. Digg chose dramatic overhaul over gradual changes. If we’ve learned anything from Facebook’s many redesign and privacy fiascoes, it’s that major overhauls of large websites don’t go over well. The company tried to launch way too many things all at once, and the result was a buggy platform that frightened users.

This is so true. I think after the initial launch, if you have a large number of users the ‘big launch’ should be avoided as much as possible. The main reason being users can’t digest it all at once. If you release separate features continually over time, users can adapt to each of them give feedback on each, and you can debug and alter them as you see fit. What do we want? Gradual change. When do we want it? In due course.

Children in the gulag

Eugenia Ginzberg, who served eighteen years in the camps of Kolyma, wrote that when a camp of child prisoners was given two guard-dog puppies to raise the children at first could not think of anything to name them. The poverty of their surroundings had stripped their imaginations bare. Finally they chose names from common objects they saw every day. They named one puppy Ladle and the other Pail.

On the Prison Highway, Ian Frazier (New Yorker, August 30, 2010)