Some unpopular opinions

Here are some unpopular opinions, for your outrage or delight.

1. One of the biggest but least recognized reasons that American school system sucks—and it most certainly does—is that so many teachers and education professors are just as anti-intellectual as most parents. This is why we homeschool.

2. A large contingent of geekdom is actually anti-intellectual, too, as paradoxical as that might sound. Not all; certainly not my friends.

3. The most important purpose of education is not vocational education, but to train and liberate the mind, to create fully competent and responsible free citizens of a free republic. This, contrary to the much-celebrated Sir Ken Robinson, is not "boring stuff." We've got to adopt the right educational goals, lest we continue to suffer great opportunity costs of various inefficient educational methods. It's a goddamned shame that national treasures like Marva Collins have not been listened to and learned from.

4. Knowledge—which is a key element of the mission of education—involves no small amount of memory work. No, it doesn't matter that research is updating our knowledge base very regularly. If we could only jettison our distaste for memory work, we might learn the tremendous advantages of spaced repetition.

5. Television is mostly a friggin' waste of time. You're better off without access to broadcast and cable TV. You can watch the good stuff on your own time via Netflix, Amazon Prime, etc.

6. Latin and Greek are still good languages for kids to study.

7. Yes, babies can read. Robert Titzer (of Your Baby Can Read fame) was badly misunderstood and unjustly attacked. At least, babies can start to learn to read. By the time they're preschoolers, they can read well. This doesn't require pressure in any way. It's fun. Maybe you just didn't know this. Try to keep an open mind.

8. Joyful, disorganized early education can generally do great things for little kids. It's a completely avoidable national disgrace that so many kids exit first grade without knowing how to read.

9. All that just goes to show you that experts can be really friggin' dogmatic, or so I find, as much as I do respect them. They're highly susceptible to groupthink, and we must not confuse devotion to science and scholarship with uncritical acceptance of whatever trends happen to be in the ascendancy among the current generation. Follies are frequently collective, even among smart, well-educated people. Sad, but all too true.

10. Another example of dogmatic experts: yes, we do have free will, properly understood. Oh-so-clever science students stupidly assume that science alone can establish the contrary. They pretend not to be doing philosophy, when that is exactly what they are doing (albeit badly). They are annoying in their stubborn failure to understand the issues. Compatibilist free will is the only sort of freedom we need.

11. Our university system is broken, but it's a huge mistake to conclude that college is a waste of time. I propose that we pop the education bubble by creating a new, more independent and modular system of higher education, with degrees by examination among other things.

12. It makes no sense to use reason to call into question the use of reason. "He must either be a fool, or want to make a fool of me, that would reason me out of my reason and senses," said one of my heroes, Thomas Reid. It is per se rational to begin our reasonings from the principles of what philosophers like Reid and G. E. Moore called "common sense."

13. An objective morality does exist. Relativism is dangerous and wrong. It is not the case that, if God is dead, everything is permitted. As Aristotle knew, life itself is the basic good that underlies our moral judgments; so our basic duty is to live well.

14. While in some ways Western civilization has never been more powerful and enlightened, it has also become morally and intellectually arrogant, sclerotic, and stunted. This can't end well.

15. More specifically, I am appalled and saddened by how cynical and morally bankrupt so many people can be today when acting as part of governments, bureaucracies, parties, corporations, schools, social cliques, the dating scene, gangs, law enforcement, publishing, etc., etc.—and when our supposed intellectual leaders mostly avoid moral judgment of the contemptible behavior that takes place in these social contexts. Corruption and cynicism are not OK; it doesn't matter if "everybody's doing it." Someday I'll write an essay, or a book, about this.

16. We've lost our moral and intellectual bearings. Religion is no longer a unifying force, of course. Even the formerly unifying ideals of western civilization—knowledge, freedom, dignity, excellence, self-control, etc.—have come under attack by much of our intelligentsia. Ideology is no substitute; no, nothing substantial is in its place. As a society, we're sleepwalking. It's alarming. Again, it can't end well.

17. Goddamned Hollywood is a morally depraved hot mess. They have got to get their house in order. They generally don't deserve our attention beyond any worthwhile entertainment they happen to produce.

18. I'm sorry if this offends, and I'm not saying this about my many liberal friends, who are generally very original and brilliant, but I'm going to say it anyway: conventional, dull, social-climbing, ambitious people are now mostly liberal or progressive Democrats. Being a lefty is no evidence that you are a smart nonconformist, not that it ever was. There are still plenty of dull, conventional conservatives too, of course. But at some point we've got to start talking about big-government left-wingers in this country as "conservatives," just as unreconstructed communists in the old Soviet Union were called "conservatives." Then I'll ask for the good old word "liberal" back.

19. I am particularly appalled by the illiberal hostility that certain left-leaning students, and some older people as well, are showing toward the fundamental American ideals of free speech and intellectual tolerance. In the Facebook alumni group for my alma mater, the uber-liberal Reed College, a lot of older liberals share my consternation at these trends; no, they aren't conservative or even libertarian.

20. Jonathan Chait is correct that there is a new political correctness. We have become too sensitive and rely far too much on dismissive arguments regarding how people have allegedly broken new social norms that not everyone shares. We ought instead to engage on issues of substance. That we don't is really screwing up our civic culture.

21. Speaking of political incorrectness, I have some guilty pleasures on YouTube that aren't quite politically correct for me to admit to liking. I admire their outspokenness, their intellectual courage in an increasingly censorious age, and their thoughtfulness. Let me introduce you to them:

Pat Condell. In-your-face atheist, old-fashioned liberal, vociferous defender of free speech. I might not always agree with him—actually, I often do—but in any case, I admire his spirit.

Karen Straughan. I'm really going to catch it for endorsing her, so let me just say first that I'm not convinced that her general take on feminism is right—it's a lot to process and I need to think her views through more (a book would help). Still, I love that she's a bisexual single mother and yet has the courage to comes down, hard, against the bigger stupidities of radical feminism. She comes across as remarkably articulate, intelligent, and frequently shows she's done a lot of research; it's hard to believe she doesn't even have a college degree. She's going to be famous in 10 years if not sooner.

I also like the brand of feminism of my fellow philosopher Christina Hoff Sommers; I have ever since reading her Who Stole Feminism? back in the 1990s.

"Rockin' Mr. E." He's sort of a long-haired Greek-Welsh cross between Pat Condell and Karen Straughan. Again, I don't always agree, often because his arguments would require research and thought to evaluate properly—but I often do find myself inclined to agree, anyway. I appreciate his nonconformist, independent spirit, anyway. And his chops on the electric guitar.

Let the sneering begin!

I'm sure I've managed to piss off everybody to some extent. I swear this isn't my intention. I'm not a troll because I actually believe what I say and think it actually important to say. I do own up to being a gadfly and possibly a pretentious, annoying git. But a troll, no.


Reasons We Do Not Have for Homeschooling, and a Reason We Do

Here are several reasons we do not have for homeschooling:

•  We are religious "nuts" who want to shield our children from the theory of evolution, etc.? Nope. I'm a nonbelieving rationalist.

•  We are social climbers? Nope. I don't especially care if my boys go to the best colleges. I am not preparing them for Harvard (or even Reed, where I went). I want them to succeed, of course, but by their own lights, not according to society's common notions of success,  or even mine.

•  We are just generally competitive and want to be ahead of other kids? Nope. Already, there are plenty of kids who are ahead of H. But I'm not going to push him. He'll find his level and I'm sure I'll be proud of him regardless. I just want him to learn all he can, while still having a happy, reasonably relaxed childhood.

•  We want to shelter our boys from the bad influences at public schools? Nope. H. actually attends "specials" twice a week (art, music, P.E., and computers).

•  We can't afford private school? Nope. We probably could, if we sacrificed. But no, there isn't any private school in the area that would help our boys achieve the goals we have for them.

Here is the main reason, far and away the single most important reason, we do have for homeschooling:

•  We want our children to get a solid liberal arts education, which means:

In literature, I want them to know, appreciate, and understand the classics, and to be morally improved for having wrestled with them. I want them to be able to write persuasively, creatively, and thoughtfully, with flawless grammar and spelling, so that they could enter any writing-oriented profession. They should also be able to speak well. In math, I want them not only to study math through calculus and statistics, but to understand it; they will also study logic and, probably, mathematical logic. I want them thoroughly familiar with history, both U.S. and the rest of the world; I want them to know about the world itself, so geography and foreign languages are a must; so in general, I want their understanding of human society to be filled with facts and nuance. I want them to be able not only to do scientific calculations with facility, but actually to understand scientific concepts—well enough to succeed as science majors, or at engineering, if they so desire. I want them to be able to become excellent scholars, and to be able to understand their own language and the roots and nature of western civilization, so we'll probably study Latin and Greek for several years at least. They'll learn philosophy with me, reading and digesting a half-dozen of the main classics, such as the Plato's Republic, Descartes' Meditations, Locke's second treatise, and a few others. I want them familiar with music and other fine arts.

Of course, they'll have plenty of opportunity to pursue interests of their own choosing. H. is really into programming and I'll continue to support that.

Public schools can't provide this sort of education, because:

I've looked for private and charter schools in the area that I thought might be able to support these goals; I couldn't find any, except maybe St. Charles Prep for high school, and that's Catholic...


What should I do next?

Well, what do you think?

My enjoyable time with the group behind WatchKnowLearn.org and ReadingBear.org is winding down, and soon it will be over. My benefactor of the last four years has kindly given me some time to finish up my remaining work and find something else to do. As much as I enjoyed developing WatchKnowLearn and Reading Bear, and as much good as I think those websites will do for kids, it is always nice to start something new. I'm a serial starter; it's a process I enjoy.

Making my situation even more interesting is that this will be the first time since 2002 that I don't have something lined up. Back in 2002, I was another unemployed Ph.D. philosopher. Now, I can put on my resume that I am a founder of Wikipedia, Citizendium, WatchKnowLearn, and Reading Bear. So, naturally, I'm very curious what's available to me. I thought I would put the question out to you, readers of this blog. What should I do next? And, of course, please spread the word that I'm available and looking!

I have far more ideas about things I'd like to do than I have time to pursue them. I just don't know which one I would love the most, or which is most likely to work out. I'll put these roughly in order of my excitement level, although all of these are exciting to me. I'm sure I'm leaving out 3-4 ideas that I'm just not thinking of right now.

1. Textop! I've been dreaming about this since 2006. Imagine taking the Great Books of philosophy, history, law, and so forth, cutting them into paragraph-sized chunks, describing the chunks, and then organizing them in an outline of ever-increasing detail and depth. That is the core idea. It sounds very wonkish and scholarly, and I suppose it is, but I believe this idea will prove to be deeply revolutionary; I think few people understand just how much so. It has the potential to change the nature of scholarship, research, education, and ultimately everything forever. It would be more revolutionary than Wikipedia. It would be a brand new kind of reference work. It's a project I really want to work on, more than any other. I've thought of approaching various reference publishers, universities, tech companies, etc., but I suspect it will be a hard sell.

2. Policy Analyst or Writer for education or ed tech thinktank/nonprofit. I've long wanted to try this. I almost got into it in the 1990s. Education is a long-standing interest of mine, and I do enjoy writing about it, as any reader of this blog knows very well. I'd love to write a book titled Why Knowledge Is Important, defend homeschooling against hare-brained attacks, and go to the mat for back-to-basics curriculum married to the liberal arts as well as for vouchers and school choice. Basically, I think education is easily one of the most important institutions in society, and I want to enter the marketplace of ideas and improve it.

3. Crowdsourcing spaced repetition. Having used SuperMemo for the last five months with my 6-year-old, I've got some ideas about how to bring spaced repetition into individual classrooms and schools and thus into the big time. One thing that needs to happen is that we need to start working together on making the best sets of questions for common texts. Memorizing random, contextless information in the form of stacks of flashcards is tiresome. Memorizing information that you have already properly learned, by reading well-written books, is where it's at, I think. I haven't thought so much about this one, but it is certainly a problem I'd be interested in working on.

4. A filtered version of Wikipedia. No, not Citizendium redux. It would be involve me, a filtering company, and possibly another party or other parties. The main feature would be that Wikipedia's pages are displayed in up-to-the-minute versions, with images cleverly removed within the page rather than blocking whole pages. One company demonstrated to me how this might be done. I was quite impressed. In addition, we can use a "filtered Wikipedia" website to gather professional feedback on Wikipedia articles and, perhaps, fork selected articles once there is enough interest in doing so. Such a website would be a version of Wikipedia that would be recommendable to school districts and so would constitute a natural source of traffic and revenue. The Wikipedia community and the WMF have really fallen down on the job in developing Wikipedia to its potential. Providing to the world an up-to-the-minute version of Wikipedia with features that that community refuses to add, on principle, is personally my best hope of making Wikipedia into something that I really can get behind and be proud of.

5. Children's philosophy books. I don't think it would take me very long to write a general introduction to philosophy for children, and another general explanation of ethics for children. In fact, I have worked on the beginnings of these books, off and on, for a while. I don't think I'll ever finish them properly without lots of free time (which I don't have), and I think the world needs them. Adolescents, especially, need a clear explanation of what is right and wrong, and why we should be moral. I think I can explain it to them. This is important work, and it makes me sad that I don't have an opportunity to do it (while, of course, supporting my own family).

6. A news wiki/a crowdsourced news summary/opinion project. One of the things that, early on, we discovered that Wikipedia does very well is to aggregate news reports into a massive summary of a sort that ordinary news outfits are not capable of developing. This is why Google links to Wikipedia's articles about events in the news: they just lay everything out. I've been approached by one veteran journalist and, separately, the journalism department of a major southern university to develop a crowdsourced journalism site. Since I was otherwise occupied at the time, I had to pass in both cases. But I wouldn't rule that one out. I think the world needs a more even-handed news source, one in which biases are explicitly acknowledged. I've got ideas about how to do it (of course)... Another, related idea is an opinion wiki, in which people collaborate on, not factual articles, but arguments, position statements, etc., about everything. This has been attempted, but not in a way that attracts a lot of eyeballs. I've got ideas about how to do this sort of thing right, too.

7. Facebook for traditional tunes (a little like this site). Each has its own page. Users can submit versions in ABC format, which are displayed in sheet music form and voted on by other users, and the top vote-getter is displayed at the top of the page; they can also submit recordings and videos (of themselves or their bands). They can also "teach" the tune via a different set of videos. There are other features. I was approached by one of Ireland's top fiddlers about starting an Irish trad website, but I to my ever-lasting regret had to turn him down because I was heavily into Citizendium and WatchKnowLearn at the time. Of course, now, there should be a big app component of the site, I imagine. TheSession.org does a good job of this, by the way...but lacks a lot of the features I'd like to see. It is easy to imagine that, with the right level of funding and partnerships with, say, the Irish Traditional Music Archive and the Traditional Tune Archive, this could become an essential resource for traditional music. Anyway, something like this should exist and I'm kind of surprised that it doesn't yet. There's no reason it would have to be limited to Irish traditional music, too. You can imagine similar sites for similar styles, and instruments (think bluegrass, solo piano, and cover bands).

8. Joining an existing company or recent startup. I wouldn't be too proud to write or develop ideas for others, or to work on somebody else's ideas. Of course, my preference is to work on stuff that I really believe in and can get behind. Various things have come to mind:

  • Editor/Project Manager for reference or education publisher.
  • Director of Innovation for any of a number of different kinds of company, but I guess reference, ed tech, and social media would be most in line with my background.
  • Project Manager for the same.
  • Professor, probably in a Communications or Computer Science department--maybe a Philosophy department--focusing on theory of technology.
  • Public Speaking on topics I'm knowledgeable about.
  • You tell me!

So, what do you think? Where should I put in most of my effort? I would really love to develop and get funding for an idea of my own, but a lot of these are long shots; I want to make sure I can pay the bills


Looong interview with me by Dan Schneider in Cosmoetica

Off and on, for the last 2.5 years, I have been answering questions from poet and critic Dan Schneider, who has conducted a series of long, interesting interviews.  My interview, posted a few hours ago, is #27 in the series; Schneider himself gives the interview four stars (out of five).  That should tell you something about the Schneider: he's the kind of guy who asks questions that take hours and hours to answer, and then has the audacity to rate the answers.  The questions cover my life, Wikipedia, Citizendium, philosophy, and my reactions to various idiosyncratic puzzles that Schneider has come up with.  If you were to ask why I agreed to do an interview that ended up being 40,000 words long, without any compensation or anything, I'd say that I didn't know it was going to be that long, and Dan Schneider was very persistent.  And maybe this reveals just how vain I really am.