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.



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.