Steven Pinker explains what education should accomplish

The esteemed scientist and Harvard professor, Steven Pinker, on what higher education should accomplish (ht Farnam Street):

It seems to me that educated people should know something about the 13-billion-year prehistory of our species and the basic laws governing the physical and living world, including our bodies and brains. They should grasp the timeline of human history from the dawn of agriculture to the present. They should be exposed to the diversity of human cultures, and the major systems of belief and value with which they have made sense of their lives. They should know about the formative events in human history, including the blunders we can hope not to repeat. They should understand the principles behind democratic governance and the rule of law. They should know how to appreciate works of fiction and art as sources of aesthetic pleasure and as impetuses to reflect on the human condition. 

On top of this knowledge, a liberal education should make certain habits of rationality second nature. Educated people should be able to express complex ideas in clear writing and speech. They should appreciate that objective knowledge is a precious commodity, and know how to distinguish vetted fact from superstition, rumor, and unexamined conventional wisdom. They should know how to reason logically and statistically, avoiding the fallacies and biases to which the untutored human mind is vulnerable. They should think causally rather than magically, and know what it takes to distinguish causation from correlation and coincidence. They should be acutely aware of human fallibility, most notably their own, and appreciate that people who disagree with them are not stupid or evil. Accordingly, they should appreciate the value of trying to change minds by persuasion rather than intimidation or demagoguery.

I believe (and believe I can persuade you) that the more deeply a society cultivates this knowledge and mindset, the more it will flourish.

Well said.

Pinker wrote that a couple of years ago, but it’s a sentiment in need of repeating regularly now.

Make America think again.

A student, not a teacher

The great Greek philosopher Socrates is a character in the novel I’m reading, and in it he refers to himself as a student, not a teacher.

The best teachers and authors I’ve encountered have had that mindset. You are learning with them, not just from them.

The wiser you become, the more you realize how little you know.

We all should consider ourselves perpetual students, willing and eager to keep learning and pushing out the ever growing boundary of our ignorance.

We will find more opportunities to awaken possibility in ourselves and in others by humbly continuing to search and inquire and reexamine as a student of life than by trying to pose as a master.



The most valuable commodity

The pursuit of truth and understanding, the neverending stretching of our boundaries of knowledge is THE human pursuit.

School yourself, rule yourself


The table my wife had awaiting our girls today when they got off the school bus. She’s kind of amazing.
The last day of the school year and the first day of the school year are two of the happiest days. 

My daughters returned to school today, and there was much rejoicing. 

The kids are excited about new adventures, new teachers, and old friends. 

The parents are excited to have some structure back in their kids’ days. Last week my daughters were stretching the bonds of sisterhood as well as each others’ patience (and mine). School resumed just in time.

There’s a delight to a new beginning of any sort, especially as a school kid. Crisp, unfilled notebooks. Fresh pencils and new pens. New teachers and classmates. 

Possibilities dazzle. Anything could happen.

Even though I’m not in school, the rhythm of the season works for me, too. It’s a chance for me to start fresh as well. The daily routines that school days impose on my family can reinstill some discipline in my life.

I’m recommitting to daily habits that the leisurely pace of the summer months saw me neglect. 

School is back. So is my focus. Time to get busy being more awesome

Merlyn’s lesson: Keep learning

Merlyn’s lesson to young Arthur in T.H. White’s The Once And Future King:

“You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.”

“The tree of knowledge and the fountain of youth are one and the same.” –Lewis Lapham

Thoughts on job interviews and college students

It’s interview season at my work. Last week we interviewed almost 300 college students who applied to work as campus tour guides. We conducted group interviews with six applicants at a time being interviewed by a four-person committee. I was in every interview and wouldn’t have it any other way.

This week I’m interviewing the 39 finalists we selected from last week’s group interviews. These are individual, half-hour interviews.

It’s the two most important weeks of the year for my work. It takes a lot of time to go through these interviews, but there’s nothing more crucial to our culture and our mission. The students we select to serve on our staff almost completely determine our organization’s culture as well as the quality of the work we do. Our logistics and process and web site cannot make up for a mediocre interaction with our people. The experience is our product.

Hire for attitude, and train for skill. I would rather have a team member with no experience and a thin resume than one short on kindness and sincerity and charisma. And charisma is a thing. There’s an intangible likeability quality that jumps out with some interviews. It’s confidence, but not too much. It’s charm, but not forced. It’s interestingness, but not so much or so different that it’s distracting or seeming to be contrived.

Years ago I interviewed Craig to be a student orientation leader. Before his interview I reviewed his application, and the only activity on it was intramural basketball. This guy didn’t have the usual list of college accomplishments and organizations, so I wasn’t expecting much. But he shined in his interview. He was confident and kind and funny and showed that he had the kind of charisma that would make him a great fit. We hired him, and he was terrific in his job.

I admire all the students who have the courage to apply and give it a go and show up for an interview. For many it’s the first interview experience of their lives. We are doing a service by giving them the opportunity to have this experience, and I’m happy to spend two weeks listening.

Occasionally, an applicant will ask, “What are you looking for in a candidate?” And it’s not a particular resume item or demographic check box. We are looking for people who have genuine enthusiasm and a commitment to our calling and kindness and the eagerness to connect with prospective students and to possibly infect them with the same feelings they now have for higher education and its potential to transform their lives.

Charisma is caring deeply and having the courage to wholeheartedly express what it is you care about.

Charisma is caring deeply and having the courage to wholeheartedly express what it is you care about. I don’t think it’s a matter of having it or not having it. Everyone has it, somewhere within. And we let it out with varying degrees of frequency and intensity.

The best interviewees are the ones who walk in with the intent to connect without too much regard for the outcome, without being attached to the stakes. If you can go into an interview with the sole goal of having a great conversation with your fellow humans, where you listen and understand and express what’s most meaningful to you, you will be a success whether you’re hired or not. If you walk in too caught up in getting the thing, you will be less than your best self. The attachment will restrict and confine you.

You can’t control what other people do, whether they like you or want to hire you. Get those thoughts out of your head. Focus only on what you can control: your attitude, your body language, your enthusiasm for you what you care about.

Don’t be afraid to shine. Why not unleash your charisma?

As I am sitting through this final week of interviews, I am delighting in great conversations with young people who are interesting and passionate and kind. I get to watch as some of them come alive as they may never have before. I get to learn from watching 19- and 20-year-olds in the spotlight. It’s a good gig.

Kyle Maynard reminds us what awesome looks like

I met Kyle Maynard briefly when he came to his freshman orientation at my university ten years ago. I was running the program at the time and have met thousands of students over my twenty-plus years working in higher education. But Kyle remains one of the most memorable and remarkable students I have encountered. He wouldn’t remember me, but he is unforgettable.

I knew of him even before he arrived on campus. I had read his admissions application and knew he had lived a remarkable life already at such a young age. Kyle was born without full arms and legs. Yet he had an extraordinary record of accomplishment throughout high school, including success as a member of his school’s wrestling team.

College orientation is filled with self-conscious freshmen nervously finding their way. Awkward moments abound. However, I watched Kyle light up every room he entered that day. He was gregarious and confident and eager to put others at ease. He moved in and out of his wheelchair and was the center of attention at the orientation dinner party. This young man, born without arms and legs, seemed more able and mature than his peers.

I sat next to Kyle at one of the orientation lectures. The speaker was the head of food services, and he was explaining the biometric scanners that controlled access to the dining halls. He launched into his usual joke that with the hand scanners, students would always have access to enter the dining halls even without their ID card, and he’d never heard a student complain that he had “forgotten his hand”.

Kyle leaned over to me and said, “Well, I guess he’s never met me.” And then he smiled and laughed.

Kyle has gone on to become an author and speaker and life adventurer. I was reminded of him recently when Tim Ferriss shared this amazing video about Kyle’s attempt to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.

Most of us cannot imagine living Kyle’s life. Watch this video and let the petty complaints we have and lame excuses we make get crushed by the remarkable life Kyle is living. Thanks for being awesome, Kyle!

Ken Robinson: Creating a climate of possibility

Sir Ken Robinson has the most viewed TED Talk ever, and his latest talk on education is a must-watch as well:

Notice his presentation style. He uses no slides, no video. He stands in one place and holds the audience’s attention with his wry humor and short stories and wise insight. His humor charms the audience throughout. The man has terrific stage presence without seeming to try hard. He’s just chatting, in a rather low-key manner, as though he’s talking to a small group of friends. He seems authentic and approachable, and, therefore, very persuasive.

His message, though, is dynamic and powerful. We must do better at educating children. We must free teachers to connect with kids where they are. We must honor and nurture creativity. We must create an expectation and an environment where these young humans can come alive, each in their own way.

Robinson’s final story about Death Valley provides a terrific metaphor and a strong finish for his talk. Flowers blooming in Death Valley proves that it’s not dead, just dormant. So, too, our failing students, or rather students being failed by our education system, have life in them and need only a change in climate and conditions to blossom as well.

The real role of leadership is climate control, creating a climate of possibility. -Sir Ken Robinson

Any great organization, whether a school or business or family, is great primarily because of its culture, its climate. If you’re in charge of something, if you’re a leader or want to be, the most important task is to create and nurture a culture that informs and empowers the people you serve.

And culture revolves around the “why” questions. Ask “why” before worrying about the “how’s”. “Why are we here?” “What’s our purpose?” “Why do we what we do?” Compelling answers to these questions can build and sustain a culture and create possibilities previously unimagined.


Hackschooling: 13-year-old explains how he’s remixing his education

This kid is so impressive as he tells his story about hacking his education:

What great poise and stage presence from someone so young. And I admire what he and his family are doing by choosing an unconventional approach to education. I know so little about alternatives to conventional schools, but seeing stories like this one makes me want to explore how best to educate my own kids rather than just defaulting to what almost everyone else does.

via Unschoolery

Stand and deliver then sit and rest

I spoke to a group of college students tonight. My message: “Be a college superhero”

It’s a version of a talk I’ve done several times to various student groups, sharing wisdom I’ve learned from the many amazing students I’ve known over my twenty-one years working in higher education.

Tonight’s audience was a delight, very attentive, engaged, and encouraging. They did their part to make the experience more of a dialogue than a monologue. And I was tired at the end of my 30 minutes.

If I’m not exhausted at the end of a presentation, I know I have not given enough energy to the audience. I read that Tom Peters, the prolific business speaker, said that if you don’t need to take a seat after a speech you have let the audience down.

An effective speech is the transfer of emotion from the speaker to the audience. When you stand before fellow human beings, raise your energy level and give them all you have. Otherwise, why even show up?


Ben Dunlap: Keep learning

This is a favorite TED Talk, Wofford College president Ben Dunlap telling stories about a remarkable individual and the joys of lifelong learning:

What a great storyteller. His accents of the various characters are delightful.

And he ends with a fitting summary and call to action:

“Live like you’re going to die tomorrow. Learn like you’re going to live forever.” -Gandhi

Leo Buscaglia: Learn every day

The late, great Leo Buscaglia was a dynamic whirlwind of positive energy. He was a professor at USC and became famous on campus for teaching a non-credit class about love that would overflow the lecture hall with standing room only for the crowd of interested students. He wrote several books and took his wisdom and hugs on the road spreading the good news of love.

I had a few of his lectures on tape (cassette tapes, kids) and would listen on road trips. When he was a child, Leo and his family ate dinner together every night, and his dad would begin the nightly family dinner by asking everyone at the table what they had learned that day. And he expected everyone to have learned something. Leo said there were many days that, just before dinner time, he would rush to find an encyclopedia (that’s a tiny internet in a big stack of books, kids) and look up something new to learn just to make sure he wouldn’t come up empty when his dad asked that question at dinner.

I like that daily expectation, pressure even, to learn at least one thing each day. That’s what this blog is doing for me. I’m committed to writing daily, and there have been days when, just before bed time, I scramble to find something worth sharing. A quotation. A video. A book recommendation. A minor epiphany.

By committing to sharing regularly, I’m committing to learning regularly. Learn something every day. And share what you learn.

“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.” -Leo Buscaglia

Here’s a brief bit of video from one of Buscaglia’s lectures, just to give you a sense of this guy’s energy:

Education is not training


Education is not training. A puppy can be trained, but not educated. True education grabs hold of you and sparks a powerful, consuming desire for lifelong learning stoked by curiosity and wonder.

“He who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.” -Albert Einstein

The ultimate mission for each generation


The more we know, the more we realize we don’t know.

What an awesome, overwhelmingly mysterious universe we live in.

“He who thinks he knows, doesn’t know. He who knows he doesn’t know, knows.”

You want a calling, a noble mission that can consume your life? Make it your work to help push humanity’s understanding of the universe and our place in it even a little further into the vastness of the unknown.

Seth Godin: What is school for?

This is Seth Godin’s take on what’s wrong with our education system:

Our 20th century model for how to educate kids needs a 21st century update. Godin offers some excellent suggestions for what to do next, like inverting the lecture and homework. Students can watch a world-class lecture online on their own at home and then do the work while they’re together at school and can discuss and ask questions. And no more memorizing when the world’s information is in everyone’s pocket. Open book all the time. Teachers become “coaches” who can help bring out the best in each student rather than spend too much time serving as compliance officers.

Godin has written at length about this in his manifesto Stop Stealing Dreams, which is free online and is well worth the time to read, especially if you’re an educator, a student, a parent, or a human who has ever been to school.