Justin Li


Thoughts on Being a Student

2009-05-29

I recently read the first few chapters of The Closing of the American Mind, by Allan Bloom. I didn't finish it - while the content was interesting, I find Bloom taking too long to get to a point - but be that as it may, I would like to first offer a summary of what I think Bloom's point is, before offering some thoughts.

Bloom's basic thesis is that the modern drive for openness and tolerance takes away the individuality of cultures and of people. By asking students to be open to different ideas, everything becomes relative to students, and therefore unimportant. They are equally passionate - or rather, equally dispassionate - about everything. They do not argue for a way of life, and do not see things above money, happiness, and life. In Bloom's words, "they do not drink the spirit of life, but prefer the water of the crowd."

Bloom's explanation of this is the lost of the classics: people are not reading great books anymore, and therefore do not experience, through the characters in the book, what it means to sacrifice their lives for a cause, or to struggle through truly difficult circumstances. They do not have anymore what Bloom calls "wisdom". The Bible is one of Bloom's classics, and he writes,

"With [the Bible's] gradual and inevitable disappearance, the very idea of such a total book and the possibility and necessity of world-explanation is disappearing. And fathers and mothers have lost the idea that the highest aspiration they might have for their children is for them to be wise - as priests, prophets, or philosophers are wise. Specialized competence and success are all that they can imagine. Contrary to what is commonly thought, without the book even the idea of the order of the whole is lost."

Personally, I'm not convinced that students are truly lost without the classics. I do, however, agree with Bloom's general belief that today's students are lacking something. I'm not sure there's a word for it, but it encompasses the desire to keep learning, the desire to be convinced of something and to work to proof or defend that conviction. Bloom uses this anecdote to illustrate what students are missing, and how modern education are failing to help students regain that drive:

I once had a debate about education with a professor of psychology. He said that it was his function to get rid of prejudices in his students. [...] I began to wonder what he replaced those prejudices with. He did not seem to have much of an idea of what the opposite of a prejudice might be. [...] Did this professor know what those prejudices meant for the students and what effect being deprived of them would have? Did he believe that there are truths that could guide their lives as did their prejudices? Had he considered how to give students the love of the truth necessary to seek unprejudiced beliefs, or would he render them passive, disconsolate, indifferent, and subject to authorities like himself, or the best of contemporary thought?

After reading this story I was reminded of an AI koan in the Jargon File:

In the days when [Gerald Jay] Sussman was a novice, [Marvin] Minsky once came to him as he sat hacking at the PDP-6.
"What are you doing?", asked Minsky.
"I am training a randomly wired neural net to play Tic-Tac-Toe" Sussman replied.
"Why is the net wired randomly?", asked Minsky.
"I do not want it to have any preconceptions of how to play", Sussman said.
Minsky then shut his eyes.
"Why do you close your eyes?", Sussman asked his teacher.
"So that the room will be empty."
At that moment, Sussman was enlightened.

The moral of this story is that randomized preconceptions are not the lack of preconceptions. You just don't know what they are. The psychology professor is doing much the same thing. Simply by getting rid of what prejudices the students have which the professor can detect, doesn't mean that the students don't have any prejudices left. Worse, now no one knows what those prejudices are, and cannot act to instill a more useful set of beliefs. In computer science terms, the goal of initializing a neural network is not to get rid of any "preconceptions", but to give it the best "preconceptions" for the the neural net to start learning with.

Students, following only the common and mundane goals of money, fame, "success", are missing out from the greater enjoyment of life. Too few, and very often far too late, realize that they don't like what they're doing. "The most common student view lacks an awareness of the depths as well as the heights, and hence lacks gravity." There needs to be some energy, some driving force, whether from the reading of the classics or from some other source to propel students above hoi polloi. Bloom at one point called this "indignation". "Indignation is the soul's defense against the wound of doubt about its own; it reorders the cosmos to support the justice of its cause. It justifies putting Socrates to death. Recognizing indignation for what it is constitute knowledge of the soul, and is thus an experience more philosophic than the study of mathematics."

But what can schools and universities do? "Education in our times must try to find whatever there is in students that might yearn for completion, and to reconstruct the learning that would enable them autonomously to see that completion."

My favorite quote in the book simultaneously points out the problem and the solution:

The only way to counteract this tendency [that the here and now is all there is] is to intervene most vigorously in the education of those few who come to the university with a strong urge for the un je ne sais quoi, who fear that they may fail to discover it, and that the cultivation of their minds is required for the success of their quest. We are long past the age when a whole tradition could be stored up in all students, to be fruitfully used later by some. Only those who are willing to take risks and are ready to believe the implausible are now fit for a bookish adventure. The desire must come from within.

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