In It For The Money: E Pluribus Progress

Stop telling kids so many damn things. Start picking fights with them.

Editor’s note: Nelson’s “In it for the Money” column appears regularly in The Chronicle, roughly around the third Wednesday of the month. Readers will recognize the subtle thematic connection of this month’s column to Maker Faire Detroit, which takes place July 28-29 this year. That fair is about tinkering with stuff, and Nelson’s column is also about tinkering with stuff, but more importantly, ideas.

David Erik Nelson Column

David Erik Nelson

Last month I basically argued that it’s petty – and possibly tragically stupid – to demand schools “prepare our kids to participate in the 21st Century economy,” or whatever stump-speech claptrap rhetoric the blue-suit-red-tie men are using this cycle. [1]

That said, I know I’ll never get what I want, because plenty of good hearted folks – very rationally – want our schools to focus implicitly (if not explicitly) on prepping our brood to participate efficiently in economic exchange. Money, after all, makes the world go round. [2]

Fortunately, economic competence need not exclude compassionate mutual usefulness. But moving toward either goal, let alone both, demands that we change how we’re doing things. Simply put, the public education system we have is largely designed to create employees, folks who can obediently and accurately execute on another person’s directions in an orderly fashion for a predetermined block of time.

Unfortunately, we’re sorta shy on employers, so producing more employees just gluts the market and devalues that resource. In case it isn’t suitably obvious, being trained to follow directions doesn’t necessarily prepare you to be the person determining what should be done. What we need are folks capable of making up new things to do, and content to see those best-laid plans torn asunder in the productive chaos of Getting Things Done.

Play School

We get the word “school” from the Greek “scholē” – which means “leisure.” The word was later generalized to apply to those conversations you had in your spare time, and the things you sussed out in those talks.

This is telling. Nowhere in the roots of the word “school” are there standards or goals or benchmarks. There’s meandering exploration and bickering and compromise and progress, but no curriculum (which is Latin for a race track, from “currere,” meaning “to run” – inviting one to ask “To run where? Why?”) [3]

Maria Montessori – she of the Montessori Schools spread far and wide across this land – famously said that “play is the work of the child.” [4] In the strictest evolutionary sense, play is the mechanism for preserving brain function. During the first years of life the brain massively over-wires, connecting disparate neurons willy-nilly. A toddler’s brain has almost twice as many synapses, and shows twice as much activity, as an adult’s.

As they go on living in a set environment, where certain phonemes are or are not part of the predominant language, where specific sounds map to specific dangers and rewards, where this or that color or light-density or set of scents and flavors predominate, their brains abandon the “unprofitable” (that is, seldom used) connections and reinforce those that get fired over and over and over again (a process called, appropriately enough, “pruning”).

This is why every baby on earth can “naturally” trill a Spanish-style “rr” or growl a Hebrew “ch” without effort, but every American-born high-school student from an English-speaking household struggles to learn to do the same: we pruned those synapses decades ago, long before we appreciated the vast importance of having a foreign language credit and a few AP classes on our transcripts.

The nature of our brains is to lose superfluous connections. But the problem is that such connections are only “superfluous” in one specific daily environment. If nothing else can be said for our species, we can at least agree that most modern humans live and work in environments very different from those where they potty trained. In other words, while this natural process developed to streamline brains so that we’d be best at the fixed tasks we were born to, humans have risen to world-wide prominence specifically because we’ve developed tricks to retain as much neural flexibility as possible (a quality referred to as “neuroplasticity”).

Hence the evolution of play. Unlike most other animals, we don’t just use play is a way to safely test and develop stable survival strategies for our birth environments (as is the standard issue explanation for play in the wild). We play in order to preserve neural pathways that would otherwise atrophy. Humans are one of the very few animals that play into adolescence, let alone adulthood. We work hard and we pour resources into keeping our minds as open as possible, so that we can keep living on our cunning – throughout the world and into lifeless space. My point being, the thing we think of as leisurely messing around is, in terms of survival, likely some of the most important work we do.

A Great Man Did Something

In school we’re taught – either implicitly or explicitly – the “Great Man” theory of historical progress (I’m not being casually chauvinistic when I say that, either – because it’s almost invariably men, and primarily pale-skinned ones like myself, who are the subjects in History). In case you were lucky enough to receive a very enlightened – or critically sharp – education, the Great Man theory goes something like this:

  1. There is a Problem.
  2. A Great Man identifies this Problem, and after
  3. many long nights toiling in his barn/basement/cramped office, he comes up with
  4. the Solution. He then
  5. brings his Solution to Market,
  6. where Rational Consumers appreciate the value of this Solution, and
  7. Pay Money for It.
  8. The Great Man flourishes, society blossoms, and boom! he gets his picture in history books and name on buildings.

Albert Einstein, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison – all Great Men who marched history forward. Amen.

E Pluribus Progress

Of course, we smart kids already know that’s not how Progress works – not even according to the Great Men themselves. First off, no invention of note is really the result of a single person toiling in his lab or barn or whatever. Everyone from Ford to Jobs to Gates to Zuckerburg to Kwolek (she’s a Great Lady; discovered Kevlar) is more than happy to concede this point. Newton said it best: “If I’ve seen further than other folk, it’s ‘cause I was lucky enough to get a chance to stand on the shoulders of giants.” [5]

Beyond that, ideas don’t take traction without a large body of minds ready to pick them up and run with them. Again, Zuckerburg would not dispute this, nor would Ford:

I invented nothing new. I simply assembled the discoveries of other men behind whom were centuries of work. Had I worked 50 or 10 or even 5 years before, I would have failed. So it is with every new thing. Progress happens when all the factors that make for it are ready, and then it is inevitable. To teach that comparatively few men are responsible for the greatest forward steps of mankind is the worst sort of nonsense. [6]

Even Newton, standing on the shoulders of giants, came up with his crowning achievement – Calculus (which he called “fluxions”) – simultaneously with Leibniz. Such simultaneous inventions, in fact, end up being the rule more than the exception.

Anonymous Tinkerers

But, to be fair, we need to wind back one step further, because it isn’t just untrue that creations of note and impact are the result of a lone Great Man toiling in solitude to solve a Problem, because the very first step is itself a myth: No one starts by identifying the Problem.

Ford didn’t see that common folks needed a reliable, affordable automobile and set out to create it. Ford was a farm kid with a knack for mechanical devices who, while employed as an engineer with the Edison Illuminating Company, pursued his own crooked experiments with gasoline engines. He tinkered, and through several failed companies, he continued to tinker until he struck on the Model T, which caught on for its reliability and low cost – attributes arrived at because he’d been through so many failed iterations, and which he was able to leverage because he’d taken such an odd path (having worked as a machinist and trained as an accountant, but grown up on a farm hating all the chores that were his birthright).

Bear in mind, he didn’t call it the Model T because that sounded catchy: There were Models A and B and C as well; there were Model Ls. Few went into production, but he worked his way through the alphabet fair and square.

And meanwhile, others were tinkering, innovating, seeing each other’s innovations, swiping the good parts, building those into their next iteration, showing off those innovations. Swap. Rinse. Repeat.

This is the true path of Progress:

  1. A bunch of curious people Anonymously Tinker, independently and in small groups.
  2. They produce a lot of Interesting Failures, and show them off.
  3. Their knowledge and queer notions Accumulate throughout the population of Anonymous Tinkerers.
  4. They keep going back to the drawing board through many Iterations.
  5. Many folks Simultaneously come up with similar solutions which
  6. catch on in the Marketplace because there is a healthy population of Simultaneous Solutions which
  7. other humans then use to Solve Problems.

Consider The Cell Phone

Consider the cell phone – that is, the modern cell phone, the thing that, bizarrely, you can talk on, and also send quasi-telegraphic textual messages through, and for some reason use to take low-rez pictures.

No one invented the modern cell phone. There are dozens of relevant patents going back over 60 years that are necessary to make a modern cell phone. And this modern phone – with its voice and text and image transfer capabilities – was independently invented several times before it caught hold with Humanity.

What Problem does it solve?

Eighty percent of the world’s cell phones are in the hands of average folks in developing nations, where those phones give them access to economic mobility, social services, and educational resources. Cell phones are bringing democracy and justice to the 99%. There would have been no OWS without modern cell phones, no Arab Spring.

Do you honestly think that any of those dozens of patents started out with some lone Great Man saying “How can I bring peace to the Middle East and prosperity to Africa? Perhaps if I shoehorn a crappy camera into this crappy radiotelephone . . .”

Keep in mind, back in the 1990s “Great Men” did set out to solve the Problem of autocracy in the Middle East. They tried to do it with guns and bombs, and were not successful. Then we tried to solve that problem again in the 2000s, and once again just produced thousands upon thousands of corpses.

And then camera phones – and the mass of humans holding them and using them – took a big bite out of that Problem over the course of a few crazy weeks with a remarkably low body count.

Cell phones rely on spread-spectrum transmission co-invented by Hedy Lamarr (yes, the famously naked 1930s film diva). She invented it as a way to guide torpedoes securely; it didn’t end up baked into the cell phone cake until the 1990s, well after her patent had expired.

With all apologies to Woody Guthrie, his guitar didn’t turn out to be the machine that killed fascists. Neither did Hedy’s spread-spectrum torpedo guidance system – as it wasn’t implemented until the 1960s. Guns and jets and drones and bombs aren’t even that successful as fascist-killing machines. The cell phone, with its crappy keyboard and crappy camera and crappy reception, that’s the machine that kills fascists.

The cell phone, which is the platform for the most promising sector of the American economy.

The goddamn cell phone, that we all curse, that we all love, that we all carry and revere and despise, the amulet of our age.

The cell phone.

And no, there’s no Great Man to put in the textbook alongside the “Cell Phone Revolution” sidebar, because no one invented it. We all invented it.

Solutions And Problems

As it turns out, no human, regardless of what he or she says, really solves Problems by rationally working down the orderly “Great Man” checklist. In reality, humans love spending their spare time – that precious leisure that the old Greeks called “scholē” – exploring novel Solutions for problems that don’t exist.

When we solve a Problem, we don’t custom-craft a Solution on the spot. In reality, we sort through all of the Solutions we already imagined during our daily scholē and pick the one that fits at that moment. Chasing down and exploring solutions in need of problems is the Fundamental Human Craft Project. [7]

The New School

So how does this get us to the schools we want, the kind that will magically help humans find a way to both survive, as economic beasts, and be mutually helpful as social beasts?

Probably, the first step is to stop telling so many Great Men stories. Certainly we need to stop telling them in the simple terms we currently insist on, with our bulleted lists and timelines, with the notion that some folks are Born to Greatness and the rest of us born to toil in those men’s factories, with our greatest goal being to increase their share price by three cents on the dollar.

Was Ford a Great Man? Sure. Was he also a vicious anti-Semite and unscrupulous business man? Almost certainly so. Was Jefferson a Great Man? Sure, why not. Did he also own slaves? Was he also a plagiarist? Sure – that’s part of what makes these Great Men great to talk about, because there’s an argument to be had.

In my humble opinion, the argument is what our school day should focus on. Not telling anyone anything, but fostering the productive arguments, the most fundamental tinkering: tinkering with ideas.

So, that’s my education plan: Stop telling kids so many damn things. Start picking fights with them. Or, better put, start creating a situation where they pick fights with you.

Fundamentally, the problem with how we talk about education is that, although we’re “doing it for the children!”, we’re always talking about ourselves, about what the adults in the room should or shouldn’t be doing, about what will make us feel more secure about their future.

I feel stupid saying this – it should be so obvious – but why does it matter how I feel about my son’s future? If I’m scared or worried or confident, those are my feelings, my problem, based on what I see now, and have no bearing on what his actual life will contain – which, God willing, will continue long after my death. Education policy shouldn’t be about quelling my churning guts – that’s a job for Tumms. Education policy should be about helping our kids so that they are suited to help humanity.

And what helps them – and by extension, all of us – is learning how to search and tinker and pick apart arguments, how to negotiate the inherent human contradictions in Great Men like MLK or Jefferson or Ford, how to see what’s neat, and make it a little neater, and swipe, and swap, and rinse, and repeat.


FYI, much of the foregoing started out as the abortive content of The Worst Speech I Ever Gave, at the 2011 Maker Faire Detroit. I was supposed to be talking about homemade water rockets. See you at Maker Faire Detroit this year!

[1] In case you don’t have the energy to go back and RTFA – which is a tl;dr – let it suffice to say that I trotted out my same, tired, hippy bullshit and suggested that good schools are those that foster compassion and a general interest in being useful to each other.

[2] Some of you might think it’s actually Love that makes the world go round. David Mamet reminds us that those folks are right, too: It’s Love of Money. Zing!

[3] Depressingly, most race tracks are pointless, endless circles, which likely feels all too apt for many students.

[4] If this sounds like more facile hippy BS, then please Google “play is the work of the child” and start digging in; Montessori’s thinking and methods are quite evolved. If you doubt my gloss and want a meticulously documented, very dark look at the history of modern education, check out anything by John Taylor Gatto. You might as well check out John Holt while you’re at it, too.

[5] Yes, a paraphrase, but fair, since Newton likely got it from Robert Burton, who pinched it from Didacus Stella who got it from the Talmud or John of Salisbury, the latter of which tells us it was actually Bernard of Chartres who coined the phrase, although the notion itself probably arises from a variant of the Greek myth of Orion – all of which I got from the many anonymous contributors to Wikipedia, God bless ‘em!

[6] For an exploration of the ramifications of what Ford is talking about, in terms of how you and I live here and now in the Information Age, check out Kirby Ferguson’s absolutely fantastic, very concise and eminently watchable four-part documentary Everything is a Remix (available many, many places online, including here, where I’ve posted it in one easy-to-watch clump).

[7] This notion – and this phrase – is something that occurred to me during an interview with a craft blog; you can check out the whole thing here.

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  1. By Steve Bean
    July 18, 2012 at 10:01 am | permalink

    Well crafted. Leibnitz would be impressed. (Just thrown in to correct the spelling.) [Editor's note: Thanks. Spelling corrected above from Liebnitz, which should have been caught.]

    Relevant to your penultimate paragraph, as Byron Katie says: Question Your Thinking, Change the World. [link]

    If we were “economic beasts” we’d be born with a change purse on our hip. We are social beasts. Money is just The Big Solution that we have yet to see as The Big Problem.

  2. By Rod Johnson
    July 18, 2012 at 11:46 am | permalink

    (Leibniz actually, no t.)

  3. By Steve Bean
    July 18, 2012 at 12:30 pm | permalink

    No wonder Newton got in the history books.

  4. By Robert LaJeunesse
    July 19, 2012 at 9:38 pm | permalink

    Good article, but a point of clarification: Spread spectrum is used in CDMA cellphones, but not in the GSM cellphones more common worldwide. The latter rely on precise time division for frequency sharing. It might be of note that spread spectrum is how the GPS service works, with GPS being the method used for synchronizing cell sites such that they can work as a system.

  5. By liberalNIMBY
    July 20, 2012 at 5:01 pm | permalink

    (Tums actually, one m.)

  6. By AP60
    July 22, 2012 at 9:39 pm | permalink

    Tailoring the education process for all, to facilitate future Mr. Ford or Mr. Gates sounds attractive, but to me it has the same appeal as the poorest of the poor voting with the 1%, hoping that when THEY hit the jackpot, the excessive taxes will not take away the money.

    In my mind raising the basic knowledge of the average is far more important, so the US universities can do the research without any help from Asia (where learning while playing seems to be still a fresh idea), or the best Ann Arbor restaurants can hire waiters capable of figuring out who ordered what at the six-person table.