February 17th, 2019

In Plato’s dialogue Theaetetus, Socrates equates his work as a teacher to the citizens of Athens with the work of a midwife. Socrates, himself, doesn’t give his students knowledge. Rather, he probes and questions his students in such a way that they give birth to knowledge themselves. I find this to be a rather enchanting conception of the student-teacher relationship, but one that sharply diverges from the practice of education in the modern era. While of course every teacher wishes for their students to flourish to their maximal potential, a great deal of the educational process involves handing over the concrete content of knowledge as well.

Gotthold Lessing, a German Enlightenment-era playwright and philosopher, has a wildly different notion of education than Socrates. Lessing began his modestly-titled essay “The Education of the Human Race,” with the premise:

“What education is to the individual man, revelation is to the whole human race.”

Here Lessing puts forth a theory of education in which education is analogous to religious revelation. In a religious revelation, God imparts divine knowledge upon humanity. Controversially, Lessing believed that it is possible that collective humanity could have stumbled upon the same divine knowledge if they thought long and hard enough. But, God sped up the process by sending this moral knowledge through Moses, then later Christ.

Lessing found this process of revelation similar to the process of educating an individual student. If the student had a long of enough lifespan – it would have to be nearly infinite – they could deduce all of the scientific and philosophical truths of the world on their own. This student would have time to carry out all of the scientific experiments that have ever been performed. If the student observed the photoelectric effect enough times, they, like Einstein, would deduce that light must have both wave-like and particle-like properties. If the student had enough time to ponder the questions of human existence, they too would have posited Descartes’ cogito ergo sum – “I think, therefore  I am.” Because we don’t have near-infinite lifespans, though, we require a teacher. The teacher collects the knowledge that has been deduced by the lives of the past during their brief flicker in human history. They then package that knowledge for the student’s consumption, so the student can pick up where the rest of humanity left off and continue the process of knowledge collection – teaching themselves and, hopefully, future humanity, as well.

Lessing’s conception of education raises two major question. Firstly, would a human really arrive at the whole of human knowledge on their own if given sufficient time? If we follow the advice of 20th-century historian of science, Thomas Kuhn, probably not. According to Kuhn, in his hugely influential work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, intellectual progress is not a linear path. Rather, an individual scientist or thinker is strongly influenced by the paradigm in which they work. This paradigm strongly influences the questions their investigate, the methods they use to investigate these questions (whether it be the polymerase chain reaction for biology, or formalism for literary critics), and the ways in which they interpret the results that they collect. Oftentimes thinkers can become trapped in these paradigms – hesitant to challenge what they learned from their own teachers in their textbooks, even when the evidence that they collect contradicts their education.

This brings us to the second question: If our education is akin to revelation, does this mean that we have a near-religious reverence for our teachers? I’m inclined to say yes. In our finite life spans it is impossible for us to go back and test every conjecture stated in a textbook or journal article. (And time is not our only limited resource – most intellectual enterprises require extensive funding and infrastructure, whether it be in the form of a public library or a bustling research hospital.) Thus, we place tremendous faith in our teachers and the academic institutions in which they operate.

The atheist’s first line of attack against religion is: How can you possibly believe in something that can’t be proven by, or even contradicts, science? My question would be: Why exactly do we trust science, and larger academia? Is our relationship to academia in some sense religious? The purpose of this discussion is not to recommend extreme cynicism towards academia – I intend to center my own life around scientific research. Rather, I hope to tip off an acknowledgement of the blind faith that we often place in our teachers, a healthy doubt towards our sources of “knowledge,” and the confidence to challenge the paradigm in which we operate.

I’ve been pouring over the work of self-taught Chinese fashion photographer Zhong Lin. In an interview with It’s Nice That, Lin states that her “primary goal is to capture the moment in between shots.” And that she does, in both her editorial work and her most recent series exploring the theme of bullying.

This week in music: on Valentine’s Day, M.C. Schmidt and Drew Daniel, a duo who produce music under the moniker Matmos, released the first single off of their upcoming album Plastic Anniversar(SpotifyYouTubeThrill Jockey Records), to celebrate the couple’s anniversary. The album was recorded using exclusively sounds derived from plastic objects from Bakelite dominos to pinpricks of bubble wrap to silicone gel breast implants (!) with the intent to explore our intimate relationship with a substance that has only entered the realm on human experience in the modern era: “At once hyper-familiar in its omnipresence and deeply inhuman in its measured-in-centuries longevity and endurance, plastic supplies, surrounds and scares. Seemingly negligible, plastic is always ready to hand but also always somewhat suspect, casting toxic shadows onto the everyday.”

Inflating the auditory possibilities of the mundane is not uncharted territory for Matmos, whose 2016 album Ultimate Care II (SpotifyYouTubeThrill Jockey Records) was produced entirely from the sounds of washing machines. This past Fall when I first got my hearing aids I felt like I was living a Matmos track in real time – all of the little sounds that fade into the pleats of daily life were suddenly amplified into an overwhelmingly rich soundscape. I sat in my car and crinkled a Jolly Rancher wrapper for five whole minutes because I was so mesmerized by the new sound coming out of this little plastic instrument.

I was gifted this fascinating interview by my friend Emily from one of my favorite science news publications, Nautilus. Cailin O’Connor and James Owen Weatherall are a couple (and a married couple!) of philosophers of science at UC Berkeley who have shifted their focus from the abstract to the actual: investigating how information and our consensus on truth and falsity spreads in our society, especially during the process of information transfer between the scientific community and the general public.

Okay, so I know there was lotsa yarn stuff in last week’s newsletter, but I couldn’t resist sharing the work of Liisa Hietanen, a Finnish artist who crochets life-size replicas of her fellow villagers in her tiny town of Hameenkyro in their natural habitats, going about their daily lives. I was especially taken by the statues of her elderly neighbors, exuding warmth and wisdom.

That’s all for this week! Please send in original work, cultural recommendations, responses to the stuff here, or stray thoughts to butterforthebrain@gmail.com. Older newsletters are archived at butterforthebrain.blog. Share with your pals. Feedback in all forms is always appreciated. If you or your friends aren’t on the listserv already, please use this form to sign up!

Much love,

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