Tag Archives: Robert Heinlein

What Do We Really Need to Know?

thumbby Hap Aziz

For much of my life, I’ve been fascinated by the process of learning; how people come to know what they know, why some people are able to learn some things more easily than others, and what might influence people to want to learn or not want to learn about particular topics. This fascination is what motivated me to study Artificial Intelligence through the lens of Marvin Minsky’s own reflections regarding the human mind, and how we might understand how the mind works by examining machine models. Ultimately, I came to the field of higher education where I would be able to consider the mysteries of learning as part of my daily work and life’s passion.

It seems ironic to me that when students choose to continue their academic journeys past high school is the question, “Why are we learning this?” so often expressed. Formal education after high school graduation is pretty much a voluntary decision (certainly in the United States), yet there is so much push back against the curriculum that students themselves decided to take. Of course, I can understand much of this push back in the context of the outcomes expected by many of today’s students. Marketable skills leading to good jobs is often the end goal, and with that destination in mind it becomes easier to see why students might hold up different pieces of their curriculum and wonder how, precisely, those pieces move them closer to where they want to be. And that thinking is not unique to students themselves; with the cost of education becoming such a concern, even the Federal government has weighed in and added concepts such as “gainful employment” to the conversation.

In any event, there are a number of apparent reasons for students to be so focused on particular outcomes that they question the wisdom of what has been part of the traditional liberal arts education process. Students continue to ask why they need to learn things that they do not see as relevant to their acquisition of skills, and educators look for ways to convince students to buy into the broader theme of education. Socrates told us that the unexamined life is not worth living, yet how can we even begin to examine our lives without broad knowledge of the human condition as a basis for comparison?

With every generation of students transitioning into higher education, the question continues to come up, and educators continue articulate the value of a liberal arts education. Richard Muller, Professor of Physics at UC Berkeley addresses the issue in a post on Quora, specifically talking about what students could (or should) be learning by studying both Shakespeare and Geometry:

In my mind, Shakespeare and Geometry teach the most essential lessons needed for a productive and successful life. Properly taught, they teach you to think, to take in the evidence, to analyze, and to deduce.

While I agree with Prof. Muller in principle regarding the value inherent to Shakespeare and Geometry instruction, there are two points of exception I’d take with his premise.

  1. Shakespeare and Geometry are too narrow. To suggest that there are particular subject matter areas that serve as keys to unlocking the mind does a disservice to the idea that learners are individuals that enter the teaching and learning environment with their own strong preferences. Prof. Muller isn’t explicitly stating that Shakespeare and Geometry are the only paths for students, but his argument does imply that it would be wise to route students through particular subject matter areas, if not these in particular. Why not Heinlein instead of Shakespeare? Why not Computer Science instead of Geometry? That leads to my second point:
  2. Shakespeare and Geometry are too late. By the time students have the requisite background education and cognitive maturity to contextualize Shakespeare and Geometry, they are old enough that their learning preferences have already been formed and quite likely solidified… which means they’re already going down the path of deciding what subjects have relevance in their lives. The love for learning needs to be kindled much earlier, and the lesson that all things are relevant needs to learned in a non-academic framework.

When I first started teaching undergraduates in the mid-1990s, I had the opportunity to conduct a seminar on the creative process for the incoming students. I shared with the students that the essence of the creative process was in taking seemingly unrelated ideas and bringing them together in new combinations. It was the combination of those ideas that marked eureka moment and invention took place. And in order to have those opportunities to combine ideas, the creative individual had to have a deep repository of ideas to begin with–which meant learning a lot about as many things as possible.

That line of reasoning appealed to many of the students, but I wanted to break it down into something perhaps easier to understand, and that’s when I hit upon a justification that would make sense even to–or perhaps especially to–younger learners. I talked about the structure of comedy, and how it was all about juxtaposing ideas that seemed to have no relation with each other. The joke often was a set up that introduced the component ideas, and the punchline was the mechanism that connected those ideas. Therein lies the humor, and that resonated with the students. It’s not difficult to see younger learners have a natural grasp of the essence of humor–even if they haven’t mastered the mechanics. Listen to a 4-year-old tell a knock-knock joke:

Child: Knock, knock.
Adult: Who’s there?
Child: Elephant.
Adult: Elephant who?
Child: Elephant with an umbrella! Hahahahaha!

There you have it: elephant and umbrella, two unrelated items combined in an unexpected way. Hilarity ensues, at least from a child’s point of view. But it is the essence of humor, even if it’s not that humorous to those of us old enough to tie our own shoes. The argument for learning things you think you don’t need to know becomes fairly straightforward, then, and it doesn’t depend on making a case for particular subject matter areas in order to understand logic or the human condition. It really comes down to fact that the more you know, the more likely you are to get the joke–no matter what that joke might be. No one wants to be the person who doesn’t get the joke, after all. And to be able to go through life seeing humor everywhere is one of the keys to examining life. I’d be willing to bet that Socrates was probably a pretty funny guy.


Filed under artificial intelligence, gainful employment, Hap Aziz, higher education, humor, Socrates

Imagining the Future of Education through Science Fiction

by Hap Aziz

Readers of Science Fiction are quite often drawn to the predictive capacity of the genre. From rockets to robots to nanotechnology to cyborg implants to virtual reality… these things and more have been the domain of Science Fiction literature since early in the 20th century, and concepts like these are the foundation of the genre moving forward. It’s not difficult to see the seeds of our current technology in the story lines from past works by authors such as Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke. But Science Fiction has never been only about the technology. Indeed, Science Fiction has always asked the big “What If?” questions on topics such as social customs and norms, political systems, cultural conflicts, and the concept of identity that transcends gender, race, and even species. Consider novels such as Stranger in a Strange Land and Fahrenheit 451; television programs such as The Twilight Zone and Star Trek; movies such as Blade Runner and Planet of the Apes–Science Fiction has always captured our collective imagination with the Big Idea.

Given the breadth of Big Ideas in the body of Science Fiction literature, it’s rather surprising that the topic of education has not received a more robust treatment, other than mention as supporting plot elements, for the most part. And it the majority of those mentions, the format of education isn’t that much different than the model in place today: the interaction between a student and teacher, often within a cohort of students, usually in a face-to-face technology mediated environment. In episodes of Star Trek, set hundreds of years into the future, there are scenes of young children in what appears to be fairly standard-looking classrooms (with more tech hardware). Consider Yoda teaching the Jedi younglings like an elementary school teacher from the 19th century. Battle School in Orson Scott Card’s novel Ender’s Game is basically a military boarding academy with video games and zero gravity gymnasiums. Even in Flowers for Algernon, a story in which the main character’s IQ is dramatically improved through a surgical procedure performed on his brain, Charlie still learns primarily by reading books. In the majority of these stories, while the human capacity to learn or the actual learning process is enhanced by technology, the act of learning is fundamentally unchanged from the way in which people have learned since the beginning of time.

There are, however, a few notable exceptions. In John Scalzi’s novel Old Man’s War, soldiers’ learning is significantly enhanced through the use of the BrainPal, a neural implant that can download information directly into the human brain at a tremendous rate. Similarly, in the movie The Matrix, people can acquire new skills simply by downloading the appropriate data file. This is also quite like the technology used in Joss Whedon’s television series Dollhouse, in which the brain is literally a blank slate ready for a completely different mind (with it’s own set of memories and skills) to be imprinted. In the episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation titled “The Inner Light,” an entire lifetime of events is loaded into Captain Picard’s brain in 20 minutes–with an artifact of that experience being the ability to play an instrument he never saw before he “lived” his alternate life.

What all those exceptions have in common is that they fundamentally alter the method by which information is loaded into the human brain, and they do so in a digital rather than analog fashion. The result is that the time required to load the desired information is much reduced from the traditional input methods of using our own analog senses to acquire knowledge, then disciplining the mind to retain that knowledge and training the body to function appropriately (memorization and practice). All other methods of instruction, no matter how we reinvent them or try to integrate assistive technology, still encounter the analog gateway (and in some cases, barrier) of our senses. The “data transfer rate” effectively comes down to the learner’s ability to effectively absorb what’s coming through that gateway. I remember when I was in high school and I wanted to record songs from my record albums onto cassette tape so that I could take them with me to play on my Walkman. I had a cassette recording deck connected to my record turntable, but I could only record in real time–I could only record at the actual speed that the records played across that analog gateway.

If I’m imagining the future of education as a storyline in Science Fiction, I see the need for a digital-to-analog converter that serves as a high-speed interface to the brain. That’s what would enable the story examples I cited above, facilitating the speedy transfer of knowledge and possibly eliminating (or minimizing) the need to practice for skills mastery. Right now it takes a lifetime to acquire a lifetime’s worth of knowledge, and even then there is no guarantee that we can successfully access more than a fraction of what we have acquired. Now when I want to digitize my CD collection so I can store it on my portable MP3 player, the ripping process takes a fraction of the time as playing all the songs.

Perhaps I’ve planted the seeds for a Science Fiction story I should write: What would it be like if several lifetimes flashed before our eyes at the moment of death? Somehow we’d have to experience all those lifetimes… and that’s just another way of saying we’d need to figure out how to become life-long learners several times over.


Filed under education, education technology, future technology, Hap Aziz, life-long learning, Science Fiction