Saturday, May 30, 2015

Squelching Thought

Hedges and Chomsky both complain about the education system of the universities being neo-liberal proponents of the free market schema that tell students what to think instead of how to think.  Ken Robinson says it all happens in grade school - although he's not even in the same ballpark as the other two when it comes to developing supports for his claims.  But I think the problem starts much earlier.

Our brains are wired to get better at doing whatever we do regularly.  Pathways form that make that task faster and more efficient each time, and tasks we avoid get harder to do as those pathways close up.  One of the most important things we have to do, as a species, is to think for ourselves.  It's a strikingly creative act, thinking is.  Luckily we're also wired to be creative and original, but we lose it if we don't use it.  And when parents sit their kids down in front of hours of TV shows and games, they lose their ability to invent new ways to play.  Parents organize playgroups and activities instead of kids knocking door to door and designing their own worlds with small groups of neighbours without any adult input.

Boredom is necessary to inspire kids to develop their own ideas about games and rules and entertainment.  Far too often children's boredom makes parents anxious, so they alleviate it before the kids can come up with their own brilliant ideas.

Some of the games we played had rules that changed by the minute, which was frustrating, but it allowed for decision-making and collaboration and assertiveness-training.  If the rules are rigid and enforced by an adult, then the thinking goes out the window.

Many years of being passively entertained makes it that much harder for teachers to inspire creative thought or initiative-taking.  But it makes it much easier to get kids to fill in the blanks and colour within the lines.

We have a huge capacity for imagination through songs, poetry, theatre groups.  It's through our creations that we can effect change.   But those won't happen if people get used to being told what to do - and if they get to liking it.  It will be a hard struggle to convince them that there's something more for them later on if they do a bit more work now.

It's always the way.


Ron Waller said...

It's certainly true that humans were not designed to think outside of the box. We were made, via the process of evolution, to be programmed with a culture. One could say we are cultural androids. After all, how much does any person know that they didn't learn somewhere else?

People, including children, are treated hostilely when they venture outside of the bounds of culture. People learn to doubt their own rational view of something and look to leadership for guidance. (Leadership is a primitive model and weakest link, easily corrupted.) This dulls one's analytical skills when they need to be continuously developed to build up a talent for it (which I recently learned from the late PBS painter, Bob Ross, is a "pursued interest", meaning anyone can achieve it with persistence.)

One problem with macroeconomics is this: students are inculcated with a culture in a post-secondary educational institution. Physics students, for example, learn a culture of definite knowledge. Theology students, a culture of fiction. Economic students fall towards the latter end of this spectrum.

Another problem is that economics is the agenda-driven science. Which is to say it isn't. Free-market ideology, for example, is entirely self-serving to business people and the rich. So the field failed to launch as a real science because political agendas (and people with money and power) corrupted it. (Unlike democratic government, this field was "captured" a long time ago.)

Frankly, I wish Chomsky would crack some books on economics. Perhaps, then, he would have more to contribute to the debate than generalizations. For some reason, political activists think getting a layperson's grasp of economics is unimportant, when it is the most important issue of all. From my understanding (after decades of following and reading books on economics,) the survival of civilization depends on making economics a real science.

Ron Waller said...

BTW, all economic systems (and issues) fall along a left-right spectrum: 100% left is communism or full government control over the economy. 100% right is free-market ideology or no government involvement in the economy. In the center is the mixed-market system created by John Maynard Keynes during the Great Depression and put in practice, to phenomenal and unprecedented success, during the post-war era (1945-1980.)

Today, in North America, the "center" is actually about 45% on the right side of the economic spectrum. The neoliberal/neocon movement was based on Milton Friedman's resurrection of 19th-century "classical" ideology (about 90% right, called "neoclassical" or New Classical; but many market fundamentalists will scoff at any kind of categorization even though economics is divided into many schools across the spectrum.) Friedman just threw in monetarism to explain away the free-market system collapsing into the Great Depression in the 1930s. (One doesn't need a PhD in history to see history repeating itself in the 2008 housing/derivatives meltdown, which has led to our present slump that has lasted 7 years so far — 14 if one excludes the wasted housing/derivatives bubble business cycle.)

One of the reasons the economy is failing is a distribution problem. Thomas Piketty, for example, sifted through a century of economic data and discovered that when "r > g" — that is when the rate of return on investments is greater than GDP (economic) growth — this indicates conditions of towering inequality and economic stagnation (which we also see today.) The mixed-market system ensures all segments of society benefit from economic growth (a form of development through wealth creation) and productivity growth (machines and energy doing more of the work.) Over the past 35 years of free-market economic reforms, only the top 20% benefited. Real incomes fell significantly (and are still falling) among all other income groups.

Another problem is, of course, regulations. Free-trade globalization creates a regulatory race to the bottom. If a multinational corporation can't exploit slave child labor in the US, it will find some country somewhere to take advantage of while claiming they are doing the victims a good deed. This is also why climate change treaties keep failing to accomplish anything. The solution is also the mixed-market system. It creates the right conditions for strong democratic influence over regulations. Managed trade is needed (in the middle of the spectrum between protectionism/mercantilism and free-trade ideology.) Not only can it leverage jobs and keep demand alive, it can use tariffs to force environmental freeloaders and abusers of workers to clean up their act. (So common regulation blocs are required — the very opposite of free-trade and investor-protection blocs and treaties.)

Ron Waller said...

Sorry this essay is getting out of hand. But if one wants to know more about what's going on and what's going wrong with the economy, people should read recent books from Joseph Stiglitz, Robert Reich and Paul Krugman (in that order; Krugman is like Schrodinger's cat: he both rejects and accepts neoclassical ideology; but his criticisms really nail it. Stiglitz and Krugman are Nobel Laureates. Krugman's blog for the NYT is a great read.)

The most important book, in my opinion, would have to be Stiglitz's "Freefall." Robert Reich also has a great documentary out called "Inequality for All." If one wants to read an incredible book that documents, in great detail, the misery Friedman's free-market ideology has wrought around the world — from fascist dictatorships in 1970s South America, to the botching of Russia's conversion to democracy, to the seemingly racist currency crises in Latin America and Asia, to the astoundingly corrupt plundering of Iraq after the occupation — read Naomi Klein's "Disaster Capitalism". (Krugman's book "Return of Depression Economics" provides an interesting parallel interpretation of events, moderated by his support of free-trade globalization, which he may or may not support today.)

A related Krugman blog: "The New Classical Clique".

Marie Snyder said...

Sorry it took a week to post this; for some reason it didn't forward to my e-mail like comments typically do.

I'm not quite sure what your point is except that people should read more economics. I think Chomsky may have cracked an econ book or two over the years. And I summarized Reich's film here for anyone interested.