An assortment of things that should exist

Occasionally I wish I had time to write a book to explain these ideas in detail. (Some of these are actually book ideas. Some of them are project ideas.)

1. A tutorial system, independent of any university, managed via a neutral online database; and an expanded system of degrees by examination.

2. Textop! I love this idea whenever I think about it!

3. A medium-sized secular (but not anti-religious) chapter book explaining for elementary-aged children, in non-condescending but easy language, why various virtues are virtues and their corresponding vices are vices. It should also explain why moral relativism is silly, which of course it is. I’ve looked for such a book, hard. I’ve started to write such a book, but never find enough time to finish. I truly believe such a book would be an enormous best-seller.

4. A system of non-fiction e-books, roughly similar to what you can find here, but which have more intelligently-written scripts, like some of these videos and these powerpoints. I hope to start such a system using the ReadingBear.org software as a platform.

5. This is going to be very hard to explain briefly, and it will sound half-baked, but since when did that ever stop me? Actually, the rough idea (not my version, but something vaguely like it) comes from a Heinlein novel (I forget what Heinlein calls them and where–maybe someone will tell me) combined with my original idea for neutrality on Wikipedia (and before that, Nupedia). I think that civilization could use a society of people who are meticulously and publicly committed to neutrality. Somewhat like judges, but who operate in the public sphere, they do not make any public judgments on controversial issues of any sort. Their role in society would be, rather, to summarize “what is known”–or what various people take themselves to know–about this and that, according to some clear and deeply studied rules of scholarship and neutrality. If someone, or a group, required a neutral, expert analysis of a question, a field, or a situation, they would provide it. These people would have to be experts in ideology, logic, and the arts of communication, understanding when a statement is the slightest bit tendentious, and be able to quickly formulate a more neutral one. These people would be perfect candidates to write neutral Congressional reports as well as serve as expert witnesses in trials. There would have to be a fairly elaborate system of professional ethics for this group, and members would no doubt have to be regularly evaluated by their peers. Among other things, they would not be able to serve in politics, as attorneys or judges, or as corporate executives. They could serve as journalists and scholars, but under stringent rules that do not apply to most journalists and scholars. — Why such a profession? Because the world has gone insane, and it desperately needs people who are professionally committed to explaining obvious things to crazy people. Do you really think that people well-qualified and publicly committed in the way I’ve described would lack for work? They’d be extremely well employed as consultants, internal and external.

6. A website+app with spaced repetition questions that teach basic facts school students (preK and up).

I’ve had quite a few more. I’ll make another post later, perhaps, with more of the same.

Feel free to swipe any of these ideas and do a world of good by bringing them to fruition. You might or might not get rich, but if well-executed, you certainly could help a lot of people.

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About the author

Larry Sanger had written 163 articles for Larry Sanger Blog

I call myself an "Internet Knowledge Organizer." I started Wikipedia.org, Citizendium.org, WatchKnowLearn.org, ReadingBear.org, and Infobitt. I write about education and the Internet from a broadly philosophical point of view.

13 Responses to "An assortment of things that should exist"
  1. Reply jay oconnell May 11, 2012 11:58 am

    You’re thinking of Heinleins True Witnesses from Stranger in a Strange Land

    • Reply jay oconnell May 11, 2012 12:09 pm

      I think what we have learned about the active nature of memory itself argues against the possibility of the true witness; you presume that as humans we work from the same set of axioms, fundamental understandings… I’m reminded of the Christians Scientists, who when confronted with the reality of their lower life expectancy simply shrug and say they’d rather live a life free from the tyranny of ‘materia medica’. I think our brains are literally incapable of making sense of, storing, retrieving, realities which cause cognitive dissonance. Agnosticism is alien to human nature… but, yeah, I’ve had these thoughts too, some shared body of factual information that we could agree was factual.

      • Reply Larry Sanger May 11, 2012 13:51 pm

        Well, I’m not advocating for “true witnesses,” my idea of “neutral observers” is different, isn’t it?

        I think some people are a lot better at this than others. I also think that it can be trained. It is possible that at some level and to some degree, we cannot escape our bias. But a really good scholar, and this is true of lawyers as well, is capable of identifying all of the assumptions that he makes that other people are capable of calling into question.

        All too often I found, when managing Nupedia, Wikipedia, and Citizendium, that people would come up with what were essentially excuses for thinking they could not write more neutrally. I think they simply have not been exposed to a certain kind of scholarship enough.

    • Reply Larry Sanger May 11, 2012 13:51 pm

      Thank you!

  2. Reply jay oconnell May 11, 2012 11:59 am

    Larry, for better or worse, the word for your number 5 is ‘academia.’ The antithesis of what you are talking about is the right wing think tank.

    • Reply Larry Sanger May 11, 2012 13:28 pm

      Now that’s funny!

      Scholars have never been neutral, and they have never been committed to neutrality. They take sides, and there is nothing wrong with taking sides. The world would be awfully boring if everyone was a “neutral,” and academia would be, too.

      That said, one of the most striking facts about academia in the humanities and social sciences since about 1980 is how open its social and political bias is–so much so that it has become positively intolerant to anything else.

      If anything, reflection on the viability of being a “neutral” in academe gives me some reason to think the very idea is, while perhaps not incoherent, then practically impossible. Three (but only three) main ways that academics propagate their biases include (1) topic selection, (2) adoption of whole elaborate systems of loaded terms, i.e., concepts that imply a whole complex set of controversial opinions, and (3) failure to recognize that the assumptions behind their fields are ultimately ideological and philosophical, and not so clearly amenable to empirical research. In the face of such habits, can we really expect many people to have the independence of mind to challenge or analyze the topics, vocabulary, and assumptions of the field?

      No, sadly, mere neutrality about such things would be so difficult and requires such courage in the face of peer disapproval (and everything that it entails) that very few people would be able to pull it off.

  3. Reply jay oconnell May 11, 2012 12:04 pm

    Your tutorial system reminds me of my dreams of disintermediation as a way of providing increased resources for creative people, writers, artists, musicians; instead we saw the widespread cultural embrace of intellectual property piracy, and the new middlemen of internet search and social media. In a dominantly right wing anarcho capitalist dominated zeitgeist, we may dismantle the university system and replace it with some even worse; less transparent, less accessible, less effective. Privatized on-line universities fleecing veterans out of their education stipends, saddling them with debt and disgorging them without skills or degree, is the first wave of something worse. I dread the second wave.

    • Reply Larry Sanger May 11, 2012 13:44 pm

      Interesting. There is one really big difference that I can see between my tutorial system and your dreams of disintermediation between artists and the public: it’s possible to get access to a lot of artist-created media without paying for it online; it is not possible to get access to instruction without paying for it. You can get access to content and course materials, yes; but you can’t get personalized feedback on your work, nor can you get a credible degree. In fact this difference is so enormous that I wonder what is left your your analogy.

      Jay, if you think our zeitgeist is anything but abjectly statist, you haven’t got the first clue about what an anarcho-capitalist zeitgeist would look like. What is allegedly the most right-wing government in the world, that of the U.S., spends about 40% of the GDP–trillions of dollars. Forty percent. That is huge! And it is not by accident. Some part of the government is expected by most people, even many Republicans, either to have its heavy hand in, or absolutely control, almost every area of human life. And you call our zeitgeist “anarcho-capitalist”?

  4. Reply Seth Finkelstein May 11, 2012 12:59 pm

    Regarding – “They’d be extremely well employed as consultants, internal and external.”. This is sadly false. Professionally, I am a consultant. The first thing a consultant learns is that the client is primarily interested in being told what they want to hear, and often actively hostile to anything else. There is a whole genre of humor based on this unfortunate fact.

    In fact, there are plenty of studies that show being accurate counts *against* one professionally, versus being on the bandwagon for an ill-considered cause.

    • Reply Larry Sanger May 11, 2012 13:15 pm

      You might have a point. I’d like to see how it goes, though.

  5. Reply Brian May 30, 2012 17:42 pm

    nice ideas. It’s fun to discuss the neutral thing. I love how you mentioned “a whole elaborate system of loaded terms” and then Jay went on to use almost all of them. I can’t figure out if he’s just pulling our leg or not.

    Either way, neutral is very hard. I thought I could dissect something neutrally 15 years ago. 10 years ago. 5 years ago. Now I think I was biased and naive back then. I’m sure 5 years from now I’ll grow some more.

    But, I think it is somewhat possible. Familiar with logic and logical fallacies would be extremely important. I find listening to politicians with a logical fallacies filter turned on extremely painful. and yet, it works to persuade the american public. scary.

    Something the neutrals would need is utmost honesty. even with themselves. I’m religious. But, it would mean examining every one of my opinions/conclusions for any hint of bias towards religious beliefs, but still maintaining virtues that all not just religious would accept. Challenging but fun to try sometimes.

    Love you idea for the children’s book. I might steal that if I ever found time. 🙂

    • Reply Larry Sanger May 30, 2012 22:04 pm

      Thanks for the reply, Brian! Feel free to steal any of these ideas!

  6. Reply JoAnne July 5, 2012 18:27 pm

    Larry, have you read the penultimate chapter of Mortimer Adler’s “How to Read a Book,” on “syntopical” reading? He argues for a form of reading/understanding of books which essentially takes books from many authors/eras that deal with the same subject matter, and seeks to understand what has been said and by whom. He even mentions that the true syntopical reader wouldn’t take a stand on their own for one position or another, because then they would merely “become simply one more voice in the discussion, thereby losing its detached an objective character.”

    That being said, I always thought Wikipedia, at its best, could be precisely this.

    And when you are done working on ReadingBear, I say we should get together and create a true online tutorial university! I have longed for just such a thing for so long. With two small boys at home, I lack the time and discretionary income to attend a “true” university for a graduate degree, and those online-only institutions that would have me are far below my standards, academically speaking. For now, I’m keeping my mind alive and active via Open Yale Courses (my undergraduate alma mater), Coursera, Great Courses DVDs and CDs, etc. … but I would love to be studying “legitimately,” and inexpensively, with a tutor and an institution capable of conferring degrees. I see so many trying to set up opportunities for free or inexpensive online learning, including Harvard/MIT’s edX, but from what I can tell thus far, none are degree-granting AND free/cheap. It must be possible, somehow.

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