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.”

Essay 25: Movies as a Kind of Second University

If you take movies and “turn them inside out” or “upside down” you can extract a deep education from them.

Think of the dimension of “economic botany” (i.e., plants and trees and shrubs and bushes and vines) which produce profitable or lucrative crops and think how one can look at many movies from an “economic botany” perspective when you decide to put the main plot or nominal story on the back-burner and bring forward the plant aspect.

Think of The Bounty, the 1984 version with Anthony Hopkins as “Bligh” and Mel Gibson as “Fletcher Christian.”

In the opening scenes of the movie, Bligh meets Fletcher Christian at some festive occasion, takes him aside and tries to recruit him for a voyage to Tahiti. He (Bligh) explains that the purpose of the voyage is to bring breadfruit seedlings from Tahiti to Jamaica because the cost of feeding the laborers or slaves is becoming prohibitive. They need to lower the subsistence costs in the Caribbean plantation system by the introduction of these seedlings (economic botany).

When the mutiny takes place, there’s a scene where some of the mutineers throw the breadfruit trees from Tahiti off their ship HMS Bounty, wangled off the King of Tahiti, into the ocean thus destroying the mission of that voyage.

In the movie The Hawaiians, the wealthy planter played by Charlton Heston, gets into a “mini-lecture” on pineapples and how they don’t originate in Hawaii, as people suppose, but were brought in by unknown sailor-settlers from distant South Sea islands.

King Cotton” is a major player in many American movies since cotton and tobacco are among the mainstays of the Southern economy (think of Henry Fonda in Jezebel, set in the immediate pre-Civil War era).

Think of the French movie Indochine from 1992 which is based on colonial rubber crops and plantations:

“In 1930, marked by growing anticolonial unrest, Éliane Devries (Catherine Deneuve), a single woman born to French parents in colonial Indochina, runs her and her widowed father’s (Henri Marteau) large rubber plantation with many indentured laborers, whom she casually refers to as her coolies, and divides her days between her homes at the plantation and outside Saigon. After her best friends from the Nguyễn Dynasty die in a plane crash, she adopts their five-year-old daughter Camille (Ba Hoang, as child). Guy Asselin (Jean Yanne), the head of the French security services in Indochina, courts Éliane, but she rejects him and raises Camille alone giving her the education of a privileged European through her teens.” [from Wikipedia]

Coffee-growing, coffee storage, coffee prices on the world market, coffee bush vulnerabilities might be seen as the larger context of the 1985 movie Out of Africa and might be though to subsume the romantic “musical chairs” of the romantic story. Like the rubber in Indochine, the European colonial hold on the less developed world is the political context.

The Letter is a 1940 classic movie based on the novel by Somerset Maugham. Rubber-growing is at the center of the romantic story:

“On a moonlit, tropical night, the native workers are asleep in their outdoor barracks. A shot is heard; the door of a house opens and a man stumbles out of it, followed by a woman who calmly shoots him several more times, the last few while standing over his body. The woman is Leslie Crosbie, the wife of a British rubber plantation manager in Malaya; the man whom she shot is recognized by her manservant as Geoff Hammond, a well-regarded member of the European community. Leslie tells the servant to send for her husband Robert, who is working at one of the plantations. Her husband returns, having summoned his attorney and a British police inspector. Leslie tells them that Geoff Hammond ‘tried to make love to me’ and that she killed him to save her honor.” [from Wikipedia]

Sugar growing in the Caribbean and the ins and outs of annuities are at the core of several miniseries on TV based on Jane Austen novels such as Mansfield Park.

In other words, humanity and its plants are a deep theme of human as well as film history.

This ability to make larger and deeper inferences as you sideline the romantic doings, is part of making movies into a kind of “second university.”

Essay 1: Unnoticed Dimensions of Knowledge

Let’s “get down to cases” right now:

  1. You learn decimals and fractions in school. You see that 1/2 can be written as 0.5 or 0.50 or with as many zeros as you like. That seems “clean.”

But 1/3 is equal to something more complex (i.e., 0.3 recurring or repeating, like 0.3333 and so on infinitely).  If you divide 1 by three you keep getting three.

Imagine you want to experiment a bit, and multiply the fraction 1/3 by three and the 0.3 recurring by three, thus not affecting things since you’re doing the same thing to both sides of the equation.

You get:  1 = 0.9 recurring or repeating.

You’re suddenly puzzled: How can 1 be obtained by adding “slices of 9 fractions” (i.e., 9/10 + 9/100 + 9/1000) to infinity. How do you get to the end? What end? 

It turns out that it’s not that simple to get a grip on all this.  A person who allowed themselves to become fascinated by this specific conundrum would enter a “beautiful ocean” of mathematics beginning with so elementary a phenomenon.

This shows you a deep connection between a part (e.g., the fraction and decimal 1/3 and 0.3 recurring) and the wider world or domain or universe of numbers.

How can it be that such a simple elementary “thing” becomes so intricate, deep and elusive?

  1. Let’s jump over to an entirely different kind of example. Think of Dinesen’s novel Out of Africa. Remember the movie with Meryl Streep and Robert Redford.

Suppose you turn the movie “inside out” and “upside down” and ask: is this movie about coffee and coffee bushes, coffee markets and coffee growing, in a colonial context?  The coffee plantation is near Nairobi (today’s Kenya) and involves plantation economics, colonial relations with Kikuyu peoples, German-British colonial tensions around World War I.

Suppose I take the “backstory” and make that the “frontstory”.

The story of “economic botany” (coffee growing is one case) and colonial tensions between and among Europeans as well as Europeans and Africans is the deeper and larger story while the “musical beds” of the Westerners is a colorful footnote.   

We have the perennial question of “parts and wholes” which is one theme of this book.       

  1. Why does science “orbit” some numbers such as π (pi) (i.e., 22/7)?

You learn in school that there’s a ratio called π (pi) which is 22/7. Think of π (pi) as some kind of essence of circularity. Remember πr2 and 2πr in grade school.

Why does it keep appearing in almost every equation of physics? Why would “circleness” “haunt” science and math? Probability and statistical theory are dependent on π (pi) as a variable. Why?

You could peruse:

A History of Pi is a 1970 non-fiction book by Petr Beckmann that presents a layman’s introduction to the concept of the mathematical constant π (pi)

Why does science “orbit” some numbers such as π (pi)?

This is an example of this quest for connectedness.