Education and the Skill of Focusing

There are various names and places that float around our minds because of their mention in movies, comic books, cartoons, skits, and innumerable other mass media “contacts” with these “famous” persons and locales out there in ill-defined “media land” and hence our imaginations. Let’s use Cardinal Richelieu (died 1642) as an example and see what it would mean to go from inchoate and amorphous to “under control” somehow.

There are innumerable movies featuring Richelieu, including made-up movie titles such as The Loves of Cardinal Richelieu mentioned in the British classic movie from 1945, Brief Encounter by David Lean and Noël Coward.

The romantic pair, Laura and Alec discuss two movies to choose between, The Loves of Cardinal Richelieu and Love in the Mist, both fictional. The movie is set in 1938 and the former fictional title is based on the real movie Cardinal Richelieu from 1935.

One can of course read up on Richelieu in reference books, encyclopedia, Wikipedia and so on. The problem there is that the entry is a welter of facts and dates and kings and places so that you can’t really get a “handle” or achieve focus and come away with an intricate set of fragmentary facts which then “evaporate” from the mind as the days and weeks go by.

Here’s an alternative characterization of Richelieu that gives you a real “flashlight” of comprehension:

“The three principal ministers (Richelieu was one of them) divided among themselves the presentation of the reform program to the assembly, Richelieu significantly reserved for himself the theme of financial reform.

As he observed in his Testament Politique, finance was like the fulcrum of Archimedes, which, once established, could move the world.”

(Richelieu and Olivares, J.H. Elliott, Cambridge University Press, 1991, page 80)

Richelieu was a statesman who, like others of his time, was instrumental in the centralization of national power and saw modernized public and royal finances (taxes, spending, budgets) as the key to stable nation-building. We now call this way of management, “the fiscal stance.”

Thus Richelieu was a significant force in fusing fiscal reforms to centralized national French power looking both inward and outward. Thus, all the colorful real and imagined movie depictions are covering up his basic impetus: money and the French state.

Every student should be on the lookout for ways to bring names and places into focus and not “swim forever” in movie images.

Go back to the movie Brief Encounter for a moment. On her first trip to Milford after meeting Dr. Harvey, Laura (the female protagonist) walks past a bookstore window. On display are a range of books published in 1944 and 1945, including Something in My Heart by Walter Greenwood, A Showman Goes East by Carroll Levis, The End of the Mildew Gang by S. Fowler Wright, Capri Moon by Kelman Dalgety Frost, Winter’s Tales by Karen Blixen, Triple Mirror by Kathleen Wallace, Once a Jolly Swagman by Montagu Slater, and Grand Barrage by Gun Buster (a.k.a. John Charles Austin). The only one of these works that survives today is Winter’s Tales by Karen Blixen (born Karen Dinesen; pen name Isak Dinesen) whose works are still very current such as the famous movies Out of Africa and Babette’s Feast.

Again, the educational point is to develop the “focusing skill” and the ability to extract some “signals from all the noise.”

Sustainable Development Goals: Their Impacts on Forests and People (New Book)

(from the Forest Policy Info Mailing List and IUFRO WFSE)

By Dr. Pia Katila

Forests provide vital ecosystem services crucial to human well-being and sustainable development, and have an important role to play in achieving the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations 2030 Agenda. Little attention, however, has yet focused on how efforts to achieve the SDGs will impact forests and forest-related livelihoods, and how these impacts may, in turn, enhance or undermine the contributions of forests to climate and development. Understanding the potential impacts of SDGs on forests and forest-related livelihoods and development as well as the related trade-offs and synergies is crucial for the efforts undertaken to reach these goals. It is especially important for reducing potential negative impacts and to leverage opportunities to create synergies that will ultimately determine whether comprehensive progress towards the SDGs will be made.

This book discusses the conditions that influence how SDGs are implemented and prioritized, and provides a systematic, multidisciplinary global assessment of interlinkages among the SDGs and their targets, increasing understanding of potential synergies and unavoidable trade-offs between goals from the point of view of forests and people. Ideal for academic researchers, students and decision-makers interested in sustainable development in the context of forests, this book will provide invaluable knowledge for efforts to reach the SDGs

The assessment was undertaken by the International Union of Forest Research Organization’s Special Project World Forests, Society and Environment (IUFRO WFSE). It involved 120 scientists and experts from 60 different universities and research and development institutions as well as 38 scientists who acted as peer reviewers of the different SDG chapters. The development and publication of the book and policy brief were made possible by the financial contributions of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland and the Natural Resources Institute Finland.

The book is published by Cambridge University Press and available as open access via Cambridge Core.

Read the book [Archived PDF].

Read the related Policy Brief Harnessing forests for the Sustainable Development Goals: Building synergies and mitigating trade-offs [Archived PDF].

Essay 34: Arguments Without End: Are They Good or Bad?

The Dutch historian Pieter Geyl (died in 1966) coined the phrase “argument without end” to get at the constant reappearance of old arguments or viewpoints. One gets the impression that arguments are either persistent or perhaps permanent. One simplistic example could be argument about socialism: Sweden is “good,” but Venezuela (or Cuba) is bad. This book takes the view that “arguments without end” are not the end of knowledge but rather a potential beginning: it could be that some issues cannot be captured by one school of thought: the awarding of the 1974 Nobel Prize to both Hayek (“the right”) and Myrdal (“the left”) is an example of this need for hybridity. Both Hayek and Myrdal are each seeing something valid and it’s a “fool’s errand” to decide who is “eternally” correct.

Let’s apply this thinking to a deep “argument without end” within and about history.

Michel Foucault (died in 1984) following Nietzsche, argues that history seems “linear” but is more random and non-linear than the “linear” historians see or admit.

There’s an aphorism in Nietzsche, (from his The Dawn) which Foucault uses…history is made by the “iron-hand of necessity shaking the dice-box of chance.”

In other words the world we know, traveling somehow from the assassination of Kennedy (November 2, 1963) to the impeachment hearings of Trump in October 2019, must be thought of as a kind of “random walk” behind which are trends, cycles, so that one gets a fusion of structure and surprise. If you emphasize surprise you’re closer to Foucault than to those narrative historians who think they can show you the exact threads which connect “then and now.”

Here’s an example of such a historian, the celebrated G.R. Elton of England, whose classic The Tudor Revolution in Government is a masterpiece of orthodox analysis. The book centers on the administrative revolution in the 1530s in England which implied, says Elton, “As regards political and social structure, the sixteenth century produced something quite new in England—the self-contained sovereign state in which no power on earth could challenge the supremacy of statute made by the crown in parliament.”

“In this revolution, in this making of a new kind of state productive of a new kind of society, administrative reforms played their part. It is against this background of controlled upheaval that they must be seen and understood.”

(Elton, The Tudor Revolution in Government, Cambridge University press, 1966, page 426/427)

Orthodox historians see history as a “nail-down-able” system of storylines and the controlled upheavals have a direction (teleology) which allows you to use—in this case the 1530s in England—as a beginning, an origin, a “datum line,” and once you have this clear starting point you can follow the story to now and include comparative developments in France or Germany or China.

The orthodox “explain strategy” starts with an origin, a “starting gate” like a horse-race.

The FoucaultNietzsche view is that these starting points are not entirely useless but in the end don’t help you because history is in the end governed by “the dice-box of chance” even if it is held by “the iron-hand of necessity.” History is more “upheaval” than “control” more surprise than structure. “Determinism” such as perhaps based by pinning down a starting point from which one can “build out,” is a wish-dream since history is nonlinear and nondeterministic. Even Elton’s phrase “controlled upheaval” is full of questions and problems.

Modern “complexity theory” in mathematics tries to get at these differences analytically. A “meta-intelligent” student would go from this historians’ “argument without end” to the analysis of complexity in math as a way of rounding out the exploration.

An “argument without end” can thus be useful if the student does not insist on some final “apodictic” or certain-forever answer.

Essay 15: Simplistic Critiques of Specialization Are Inadequate

There have been many critiques of specialization and the deepest ones involve the rise of the nihilistic techno-virtuosos of evil such as the Nazis who could make the transition from throughput of steel to throughput of corpses in death factories without a moment’s hesitation. One senses that “rationality” has here gone off the rails.

Husserl (died in 1938) observes that reason has become overspecialized, unilateral and instrumentalized, resulting in “a one-sided rationality that can become an evil. The sickness of Europe in 1935 thus cannot be isolated geographically or politically, the philosopher suggests.

At stake is a sickness of reason itself.” (quoted in The Enlightenment Past, Daniel Brewer, Cambridge University Press, 2011, page 202)

Adorno and Horkheimer in their classic social critique, Dialectic of Enlightenment published in 1944 argue that the whole Enlightenment project of rationality contains the seeds of 20th century irrationality epitomized by Nazi “experts” who became “technicians of evil.”

We have to tread carefully in this minefield because of a warning by Herman Melville when he says: “I like thinkers who can dive deeply before they soar.”  But how would one “dive deeply” without specializing. A field is also called a “discipline” or a “concentration” and those words tell you there’s something defensible about specializing since being a “featherdusting” dilettante cannot be the only alternative for that would be a “Hobson’s Choice” where both choices are bad or incomplete or unattractive.

The message of this educational remediation book you are reading is not that specialization is ipso facto bad but rather that the additional “skill” of also circumnavigating what life is and what knowledge is gives the student an evolving sense of overview, where all dimensions have been included, including his own existence.

Without this, one falls into the trapdoor expressed in the famous essay of William James “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings” due to background and specialization “blinders.” Diplomas and careers aside, education’s purpose must be to come to grips with this Willliam James warning (i.e., you could “stumble” through your entire life without seeing anything larger than your training). You could become what they describe in German a bit harshly as a “Fachidiot” (a “specialist fool”).

Specialization, by itself, is not the problem even with the Husserl, Adorno and Horkheimer strictures. It’s rather the Jamesian “blindness in human beings” that’s the problem. 

Simplistic attacks on educational specialization as such don’t get at the profounder problem. The same William James talks about the Ph. D. “educational marathon” as “the Ph. D. octopus.” We do get an intuitive sense of what James is getting at while we do want to balance this with the Herman Melville admonition about “diving deeply before you soar.”

There are educational paradoxes here and we propose to handle them by “completeness excursions and exercises” which are the theme of this book.