Ivan Illich – Deschooling Society

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Ivan rages against the machine. He rages so much that the book might as well be considered the pioneer of Rap Metal with how angry it is. Has intellectual writing ever been so energetic, so kinetic? The medium of text isn’t very good with emotions. It is, after all, just ink on paper. It can explain an idea, but the sensory experience of taste and touch, the emotions of anger and sadness can never be summed up with words. Deschooling Society is an expressive book.

The comparison to the political ‘rap’ metal band (Zack cannot rap for shit) doesn’t end with simply raging and machines. Rage Against the Machine made impressive noise that was fun as it lacked insight. Anyone reading the band’s lyrics will only hear some frustrated dude screaming about taking the power back and how we should settle for nothing. These are great lyrics for rock shows, but they mean nothing. Illich’s situation isn’t that bad, but it’s close.

His paragraphs are often a series of attacks without much explanation or defining terms. Without defining terms, you cannot have a sensible discussion. Every word is just a collection of syllables or symbols until you attach meaning to it. If you don’t explain what you mean by ‘learning’, what are you discussing? Illich operates in the realm of the abstract. He doesn’t talk about physical objects like rocks or guns or tables, which are easier to define.

Many concepts we use everyday aren’t defined well. Schools are a perfect example of how warped our concept of ‘learning’. I agree with Illich that schools don’t cause learning, but I never understood what Illich meant when he was talking about ‘learning’. When Postman attacked the education system, he had an idea of what ‘learning’ should be. In general, ‘learning’ for Postman is finding meaning in data. That’s why he provided some narratives that schools can adopt. For him, knowing a bunch of equations isn’t learning but just gathering data.

In fact, it seems Illich’s ideas about what learning is, are close to what schools say about learning. He claims schools must provide people resources for information, but is it enough? We’re currently living in the age of information. The internet doesn’t have all the info you need, but you can use it to track down enough.

Yet are we learning? Are we being flooded with intellectuals and philosophers making breakthroughs everyday thanks to all that information available? It’s not enough for information to just be available. You can’t publish a book that contains an essay about history, an essay about psychology and some sport statistics. Connecting pieces of data is the actual process of learning. It’s what separates active organism, which observe their environment and react to it from passive ones. The octopus realizes he can push the lid off or use a stick to beat a shell. The squid doesn’t.

Then again, Illich’s gripe isn’t so much with schools themselves as with institutions. Talk about being able to connect pieces of data. Illich has some interesting things to say about institutions, especially the idea that some create the demand for their product. What he says about our reliance about institutions is especially important.

We do rely on institutions a little too much. How many of you met friends through places that are not work or school? When I talk about how harmful schools are, I often hear about how school is important because it’s where you meet friends. Yet how deep can these connections be when the main common ground is an institution? What connects people are shared experiences, common ground and chemistry. Some of it institutions can create, but it says a lot about our society when we have a hard time meeting people outside workplaces or schools.

Some institutions are necessary. I wish he’d gone in-depth about why hospitals are so wrong. Medicine is a serious subject. There should be authority figures in it, because screwing up in medicine means causing often irreversible harm. Imagine if an uncertified doctor performed a surgery. We have institutions like hospitals to make sure only the experts perform difficult and dangerous activities. Yes, they are trustworthy. Imagine a doctor screwing up a surgery so bad that the patient dies. Can the secret be kept?

Illich admits not all institutions are the same. He offers a scale which includes on one side institutions that promote activity. These institutions provide services, but the client has a lot of options and can quit or stay any time. They’re toolboxes the client can run with. Authoritarian institutions punish and force clients to stay. They give them something to consume, but the client is more passive.

That’s an interesting thing to explore that Illich doesn’t. He’s too busy ranting. If institutions aren’t all the same, then you can’t create several groups and be done with it. The military and the schools are both fucked, but for different reasons. If Illich wanted to show that authoritarian institutions are problematic by nature, he needed to go more in-depth into why they fail. He needed to present many examples and show why despite the differences their effect is overall bad.

His ideas about ‘learning webs’ are important. He may not define what he means by ‘learning’, but his ideas how to do it are useful. He offers more social, more open ways of educating and teaching. The most important idea here is the web itself. Illich proposes a computer (nowadays it’d be an app) where people can insert their subject of interest and then connect with others who share the same passion. No, the internet hasn’t provided this yet. Reddit is too impersonal. Facebook groups are messy. Illich doesn’t talk about a message board but a private chat. His program would encourage people to meet to explore their subject further, not just discuss it on the internet.

He’s a bit too ahead of his time. If he were alive today to see how message boards rise and fail, I’m sure he’d either taken the initiative or write a more detailed essay about this. As it stands, the idea is buried here. Someone should run with it. I should nag my programmer friends and hopefully it’ll spawn copycats. It’s so simple, but so brilliant. Offering an easy platform for people with the same interests to talk to each other.

The last chapter is ridiculous and a little insulting. All that praising of a primitive men reeks of the Noble Savage cliche. The problem with praising or condemning the primitive is that we don’t know exactly how they lived. We imagine them as peaceful or in harmony with nature or living perfect lives, but that’s just the Fall of Adam story without the Jewish stuff. Besides, if the primitive life was so good why did the primitive ended it? Why did they build fires, invent writing and used tools? If life was so good for them, they wouldn’t starve for change.

As a critique of schools, Deschooling Society is disappointing. It shows a bit of the economical side and has a less spiritual approach than, say, Dumbing Us Down. Illich has some insight and good ideas. His critique of the general nature of institutions is needed when discussing schools. Although Neil Postman wrote a great book, he didn’t consider deschooling. Sadly, Illich is too excited over his ideas to explain them coherently, to slow down and define his terms. There are building blocks to take from here, but this isn’t going to revolutionize your philosophy of education.

3 institutions out of 5

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Network (1976)

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Someone decided to take all the literature by Neil Postman and Jerry Mender and make a film out of it. Countless of films and works about technology are praised for ‘staying relevant’. It’s a vague statement. A lot of works remain relevant because many themes are universal. Network is still relevant because it doesn’t actually criticize television, but viral content.

Content becomes viral when it gets people talking. Viral content has built-in emotional appeal. It’s immediate, doesn’t demand too much of us and is escapist. It makes us either mad as hell, or forget that we should be mad as hell.

There was a story about a girl who became an ‘advice animal’, and how this disabled person was exploited for cheap laughs. It’s no different than what the network, or even the world does to Howard Beale. People get their entertainment and their release, so they don’t care that the person on TV clearly needs some help. Sometimes the person has to exploit themselves on TV in order to get ahead. Budd Dywer exploited the viral nature of suicide on TV for his own gain.

Some viral content may seem like it has a noble purpose, but it is all just emotional manipulation. Beale rants and raves about a deal with the CCA. Sure, it got the people to send telegrams to the white house but it did more harm than good. That’s because the people didn’t care about learning or understanding. Viral charities give us a simple cause – an evil corporation, a terrible disease – and encourage us to do something simple to solve it. Problems aren’t just solved by pouring ice on ourselves, and spamming the government with uninformed telegrams only leads them the wrong way.

Of course, there’s great irony in the fact this is a film that criticizes television. A book called Nation of Rebels deals with this situation. Often, ideas are co-opted by the same groups the idea fights against. Television destroys or makes presidents, but both are good for them. Criticizing television can also make for great TV, because every idea can be oversimplified.

This is what’s so scary about the medium and why Jerry Mender doesn’t sound so irrational in his book. No idea is too pure that it can’t be simplified, commodified and stripped of its depth. Both fear and sedation make for great television. Beale hates television, but the institution is so strong that it swallowed him. Instead of fighting television, he made it stronger by criticizing it on television. Instead of people turning off their sets like Beale tells them so, they keep watching to hear his rants against television.

It’s the format that simplifies those ideas. When watching TV, a video of terrorist shooting up the place is more attention-grabbing than their background. These various types of content – terrorists, funny videos, weather are all smashed together with no rhyme or reason. Neil Postman pointed out the absurdity of this, how news is more entertainment than informative.

The information is supplied by beautiful or charismatic people. The presenters choose the content based on what will grab the most attention. The show jumps from one topic to the next with no connection, complete with cool transitions.

While the film doesn’t elaborate too much on the nature of profit (besides a slightly cheesy monologue), it does presents how it harms the news. The purpose of news may be to inform people about the world, but the network needs money. News shows are in competition with all other shows. The only way to compete is create viral content. Diana cares more about viral content for that reason, a story that will grab people’s attention rather than inform them.

It’s a dark film, but not a grimdark one. What makes it so dark aren’t the people but the ideas. Jensen’s monologue is a perfect example of that. It should’ve been a weakness since it lays out an idea, rather than show it. However, it’s both written well and helps the film focus on its purpose. It’s not a story of cruel people being cruel to innocent ones. Rather, it’s how certain ideas – profit, viral content – are so tempting, and make us into cruel people. As Schumacher criticizes Diana, he points out the specific thing that turns her into a profit-chaser. Beale is just as guilty as everyone in the network, since he goes along with his exploitation.

The darkness of the film isn’t like real news. Its purpose isn’t to shock the audience but make them understand. Diana’s main role is to warn us of the appeal of viral news. If it’s hard to watch, it’s only because we see ourselves in Diana. Such a film isn’t misanthropic. It’s concerned about humanity and its nature, so it tries to show us its flaws in-depth rather than just make us hate them.

It does suffer from being very obvious. It has a clear mission statement and never for a second it pretends it’s realistic. People give off long, meanigful monologues that only happen in online communication. The balance is a little off, since it often wants to be and then satirical and then dramatic. Eventually though it settles on being exaggerated instead of realism. This way the writers take advantage of their skill. Even if the monologues are obvious, they’re beautifully written. Jensen’s monologue doesn’t make us hate him, but persuades us.

Network is a brilliant film. It may not have a stylistic quirk to make it viral, but then again the purpose is exist is to criticize the nature of viral content. The only hooks it has are satirical and a few good jokes. It’s a well-written, thrilling film that’s emotionally engrossing and explores its subject matter to the limit. People who think entertainment and thoughtfulness are mutually exclusive clearly haven’t watched this. Besides being a little obvious in places, it’s a brilliant film.

4.5 messages out of 5 mediums

Saul Bellow – Seize the Day

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It’s amazing how much you can say in so few words. It’s not even a case of huge paragraphs and a small font. You can read Seize the Day in a few hours, but it covers more topics and points of view than a regular novel. It also feels epic, even though all that happens is that a person talks to his father, checks the market and notices a funeral.

Bellow uses the same starting point as Herzog. His main character is a person who hit rock bottom and is worried that there is a hole there. It’s about being stuck in a terrible situation and being anxious about how worse it can get. The situation is more realistic and troubling this time. It’s no longer the case of a wealthy man who has time to get into trouble. Wilhelm can’t afford it.

It’s an examination of the money-hungry world and its two sides. People who love money make for useful shallow villains that create plot, but here they take a different role. Bellow looks what the ideas beneath just loving money.

We get the two common promises of wealth. Dr. Adler represents wealth via hard work and skills. Despite what your parents say, a degree in medicine isn’t enough to get cash flowing. Dr. Tamkin is the other side, the promise of quick money without a lot of work. Just buy some commodities, sell them later and hope that the changes in the market will be in your favour.

Why do we want all that money anyway? Wilhelm is like many of the middle class who were born into enough wealth. They don’t know the instinct for survival since they never faced the threat of hunger. The main thing they end up searching for is love, fame, quick money that will keep their idle lifestyle and ‘seizing the day’.

There is truth to both sides. Wilhelm fails because he doesn’t take the good parts of the two but the bad. He has the love of money and the reckless attitude, but he doesn’t have the ability to work or to enjoy the present for what he is. His hotel has a pool and a massage parlor, but he doesn’t use them. He thinks he can seize the day and get money from it, but it doesn’t work. You get money so it’ll be easier to seize the day.

Dr. Adler worked hard to gain his position. Being a doctor is agonizing work and after all the time you spend with patients, you will grow to be more dismissive of people who work less hard. This dismissive nature can also spin out of control.

Wilhelm might be lazy and misguided, but Adler is so sure of his ways that he thinks beating him over the head with it will solve his problem. He doesn’t see any other solution besides working hard. It’s a miracle cure for him. Welhelm doesn’t actually want his father to take care of all his funds. He just wants a little affection.

In Tamkin’s world, success is measured not only by how much money you have but how quickly you can get it. It’s all about taking risks, living in the now and so on. The flaw in this, is that what they actually do is not to enjoy the present. They gamble so they could enjoy the money in the future. Buying and selling commodities, at least for Wilhelm, isn’t enjoyable in and of itself.

Even his wife doesn’t have the little bit of kindness to divorce him. She wants money and nothing else. She expects to get it while she’ll simply ‘raise her kids’ despite the fact they can handle a little on their own. Wherever Wilhelm turns, it’s all about money.

Saul Bellow doesn’t write off money completely. You can’t expect to live off society’s kindness. Bellow’s critique against the mindset is that it’s so caught up in so-called ‘survival’, money is so important that they can’t see anything else. Human civilization wasn’t built only by people who could hunt.

His attack in how this society doesn’t give people a chance. Wilhelm isn’t chained to his past mistakes just psychologically. The fallout from his marriage is still after him. He does try to shake it off, but Bellow doesn’t show us whether it worked out or not. Like anything else, putting away our mistakes and moving on is a gamble.

The problem rests not just with the money-hungry society but Wilhelm himself – he’s tied to some his mistakes psychologically, he goes after scam artists although no one points a gun to his head. It’s hard to know where we draw line. If Bellow attempted to do it, he could quickly degenerate into caricatures. What makes this book so convincing and so realistic is that everyone is criticized and understood. We’re not told whether Adler or Tamkin or Margaret are evil assholes who oppress poor Wilhelm. We’re merely shown their sides of things.

You can’t come up with an easy to this conflict and Bellow doesn’t even try to. The only message in the ending seems a cliched one – appreciate your life because someday you will die – but it’s an insightful way of saying it. Some of our problems are our fault and some are our environment’s, but we have to ‘seize the day’ and still enjoy it.

Bellow’s writing is far more focused here. It’s the rambling style again, but it doesn’t feel like a collection of excerpts from essays. There are inner monologues which still feel awkward – Bellow should’ve just wrote this in first-person – but this time they’re tied more strongly to the themes and ideas. They are either Wilhelm’s various thoughts about the characters and how he perceives them, or they are about the Money Society and other such concepts. There’s more of the former, thankfully. The latter still feels like leftovers from an essay collection.

There’s a blurb on the cover that describes Bellow’s writing as ‘energetic’. That’s a very good descriptor. The novella has a brisk pace to it. It reads like an epic story condensed. Compared to other novellas I’ve read, it doesn’t have the contemplative atmosphere. It’s hard for me to describe how Bellow achieves this (Tamkin’s dialogues are the best examples. He rants endlessly like a salesman) but it fits. Everything is urgent on this novel.

He also avoids the main problem of any realist authors. His characters feel real because of the traits he gives them. He achieves his realism by giving him distinct descriptions, worldviews and dialogue. Even Rubin, who appears briefly in the beginning feels more developed than those in Hemingway’s novels. He always wears pretty clothes although he’s behind the counter and no one sees him. Bellow could’ve skipped telling us what this means, because it’s a unique enough detail that can tell us all kinds of things about who this person is.

It’s a tight, foucsed novella with a purpose that I think I haven’t found yet. I came up with some things but I’m sure it’s not enough. Bellow is a man of big ideas and strong writing, and here his ideas are more apparent. It’s not buried under essays, unlike Herzog. Its short length will also make it friendly for re-reading. The occasional rambling style is a problem, and this can’t escape the “this is very literary, so pay attention” trap. This trap can confuse the reader more than help transmit the ideas. Still, I hope to return to this someday and find more.

3.5 stock market crashes out of 5

George Orwell – Why I Write

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George Orwell is a towering figure in writing. He defined how we think of totalitarianism, and created a language that’s a tool to demonize any regime or opponent. That’s ironic, because this demonization is one thing Orwell avoided. He’s an unavoidable author whose status is almost mythic. He’s a symbol.

Authors rarely become symbols. The activity is too solitary and unexciting. Orwell is one of the few famous writers who clearly wrote with hopes to improve the world. A lot of fiction is personal, even the satirical. Catch-22 reads more like a person trying to find humor in his military experience, rather than hoping the generals will read it and change their modus operandi.

The importance of the first essay relies more on the fact Orwell wrote it. It shows the human beneath the writing and the terms he invented. His four main motives are interesting, and I have a hard time thinking of another one. It’s more interesting to read how Orwell was a lonely nobody in the beginning. The writing is a little jerky, feeling as if Orwell is afraid to let everything out. He’s uncomfortable writing such a personal thing. There’s also an air of self-criticism, which is important for any serious intellectuals.

The second essay about the English culture/people is a problem. Too much of what Orwell writes is personal observation. It’s interesting and well-written, but nothing really verifiable. You have to take Orwell’s word for it. Since it’s a political piece, it’s harder to take that leap.

At least Orwell never demonizes anyone. He recognizes Hitler was the enemy back then, but there’s no joy or bravado in that idea. We need to defeat the enemy because he sadly exists, but that’s nothing to celebrate.

I’ll refrain from commenting on Orwell’s economic ideas, since I’m completely ignorant in that subject. You have to start somewhere, and Orwell is a decent beginning. He’s blunt that he’s in favour of Socialism. Again, his critique of Capitalism never descends into demonization. The essay doesn’t elaborate too much on the difference between Socialism and Capitalism, but Orwell gives the impression that he has sound reasons for his opinions.

One problem that happens over and over in that essay is Orwell’s calling some facts obvious. Phrases such as “anyone who understands” or “anyone who had eyes” and so on appear frequently. They’re not next to obvious facts. Maybe they were obvious back in the day, but in modern times you’ll have to look in history books to make sure Orwell is making sense.

The third essay is just a description of hanging. The prose is fantastic. There’s no point to it other than make the scene come alive, and Orwell does it. The prose is simple, with no stylistic quirks. It also has no bullshit. This prose was wooden in 1984, yet here it captures the sense of ‘this really happened’ that all realist authors aim for.

The last essay is not only the best, but should be spread around. Orwell’s criticism apply to every language. Complex language is overrated, especially when you’re dealing with ideas. If the purpose is to make readers understand you clearly, your words shouldn’t be a dense forest.

Complex sentences may work in fiction. Tone and describing sensory information is something authors do all the time. Fictional prose always borders on poetry. When you’re writing essays or talking about ideas/politics you need to be clear. You want to send a specific message, not something vague that can mean different things depending on the person.

There’s no reason for an intellectual person who understands his ideas to bury them. Words can be used to transmit ideas, or to blur them. The examples Orwell gives are a headache, and the way he transforms a Biblical passage into ‘intellectual language’ is hilarious.

He’s wrong about jargon, though. Jargon exists so the writing will be cleaner. Jargon takes a complex idea and sums it up in one word. These words are often obscure because people who use them often are passionate about their field and discuss these ideas constantly. Some even have subject-dependent meaning, like how ‘texture’ has its own meaning in music.

Of course, some people can use it to cover up not saying anything. You can feel your music review with ‘harmony’, ‘texture’, ‘idea’, ‘time signature’, ‘octaves’ and you still won’t be able to explain why The Beatles are so good. The way to test these people is to ask them what a certain jargon word means. An intelligent person will be able to explain it.

I’m glad Penguin Great Ideas put all these essays in one accessible book. Why I Write is an attention-grabbing title, and all of these essays help understand who Orwell is. Two of them are too personal and would only matter for writers or fans of Orwell. The last essay is a must-read no matter who you are. We all use language, after all.

3.5 politicians out of 5