June 8, 2009

New enlightenment? Why wait?

Here is a TED presentation by Pete Alcorn. By combining an extrapolation of demographic trends which predict a population decline with historic trends he predicts that a new period of Enlightenment will emerge within 150 years or so. He says" Most of our cultural heritage has tended to look backwards romanticizing the past [...] Human history is viewed as this downhill slide from the good old days. But I think we're in for another change about two generations after the top of that curve once the effects of a declining population start to settle in. At that point we'll start romanticizing the future again instead of the nasty, brutish past." Alcorn says the coming period will be a transformation time which will bring risks. He says our challenge is to try to accelerate the turn and avoid rash decisions out of fear for the future."

I find this argument intriguing. I agree with the plea for looking forward and I am all for a new Enlightenment. My question is: can't we start right away? It seems a bit unsatisfactory to accept a perspective which implies that none of us will live to see the next enlightenment. Alcorn says how we deal with the coming 150 years will be important. Maybe we could accelerate the turn? Ok, how?


  1. OK, what works?

    Improving quality of living reduces birth rate. So, we should improve the quality of living globally.

    Education plays a key role in change. This needs to be rethought! I think that a more aggressive push should be made to change education from the push model to the pull model.

    Also, I think that beauty heals! There should be more programs to aggressively beautify things. Something like interventions squads to eliminate ugliness. I think that every area that has problems is ugly. I also remember reading about a study that demonstrated a statistical reduction in criminality correlated to cleaning a problem area from a big US city... maybe a part of Boston... or was it NYC (Bronx)...

  2. I am in a cranky mood today, so maybe that is an explanation... however, I did not like this TED talk.
    I do not think you can make a connection between the plague and all the rest: the birth of a middle class was due to commerce and expansion, seeking new markets and new lands for an expanding population; enlightment and I think of the French Revolution, and France back then was in a malthusian crunch...

    I agree with you. Why wait 150 years.
    I mean, we found ways to sustain economic growth and improving conditions of life despite a staggering growth in population! Is that nor reason enough to celebrate the present and the past?
    Who is romanticizing the past??
    Not me!!

    I agree with what Peter say.
    Improving quality of life is the smartest way to reducing unsustainable birth rates (personally I think we need an increased birth rate here in Europe).
    Can't help but notice the paradox in "a more aggressive push... to change education from the push model to the pull model" :)
    BTW, Peter, I think you are referring to the "broken Window" theory, successfully tested in NYC, and brought to a wider audience by Malcolm Gladwell in his book "the tipping point",
    Sorry, this is my "know-it-all" knee-jerk reaction...

  3. Hi Peter, Improving education globally, I think there are few things more important. Can you elaborate a bit on your vision of the necessity to shift to a pull model?

    With respect to beauty: there indeed seems to be some kind of relation between beauty and health and healthy functioning.

    I remember a bok by a mathematician who even equated beauty with truth (he, of course, was talking about math, but still..)

    Then again, who is to say what beauty is? And how would we deal with differences of opinion?

  4. Hi Paolo, cranky or not, your comment is thought provoking as ever. We don't have to view this in dualistic terms (there is either Enlightenment of there isn't). Instead we could see the degree of enlightened thinking as something that continuously fluctuates. We are already doing it today to some extent. Why not apply the growth mindset idea to this? If we don't believe we can accomplish this in our time, we won't even try. If we do believe it, we'll start doing our best.

    Superficially, the presentation looks optimistic but there seems to be a deterministic and pessimistic twist to it by pointing at all the dangers of the coming century and by locating the thing we long for out or our reach.

    So, as always, thank you Paolo

  5. Hi Coert,

    basically the way school is structured now is to have a bunch of stuff "pushed" into the student's mind. Contrasting to this is the pull method where the student is helped to learn whatever they want to learn. Starting curiosity in a child and then helping the child get all the appropriate information, offering support for his/her interest, this is what I understand by "pull" model. The best example that I know of is the Summerhill school in England. Something like that but maybe using some of the new technologies (internet).

    Regarding beauty, I think a consensus can be achieved. I mean, when you speak about either painting a wall blue or yellow and you can argue for each color, you can get a lot of difference of opinion BUT when you contrast having litter on your streets to not having litter on your streets or having trees and lots of green looking at you from every direction and having hot concrete as far as the eye can see, you will not get as big of a disagreement.

  6. One more question... what would you consider more important than education? How is that thing not solved by improving the education?

  7. Hi Peter, thanks. With respect to the pull model of education i am slightly hesitant. It sounds good and I think it would have many advantages. Then again, at a basic level (with young kids) don;t we need some degree of push?

    With respect to beauty. This sounds good. I am colorblind so I think I would not always be able to appreciate the beauty (or recognize the uglyness) other people would see. But litter, broken windows etc? yes, I think you're right.

    As Paolo mentioned, the study Malcolm Gladwell cited, shows it can even enhance safety in an environment!

  8. @Paolo
    you are right, it might have been Gladwell.

  9. Nice question.. I hesitated when I wrote it down (that is how important I think education is).

    I am not quite sure if there are actually more important things but maybe fighting poverty, fighting malaria, AIDS, tuberculosis, and sitmulation economic development in extremely poor countries are equally or perhaps more important.

    Some might argue fighting global warming also is. I am not sure...

  10. Hi Coert,

    Regarding the younglings... you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Children will imitate anyone they like without having to push them. It is a matter of attitude and approach.

  11. I am largely sympathetic with that view

  12. "fighting poverty, fighting malaria, AIDS, tuberculosis" this is done by educating the people, there is no other way. You can throw money at the problem and maybe ameliorate the situation a little bit but, as soon as you stop the money the situation might return to even worse levels.

    Like the old proverb is saying: "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."

  13. Good point... without education as a part of the approach probably none these will work. Hence my hesitation, I guess

  14. Hi Coert, hi Peter!!
    Thanks for your interesting chat, and your thoughtful points of view!

    Here is something else that I read, that I forgot I read, but evidently played a role in my skepticism today: last summer I read the book "the logic of life", by Tim Hartford - an OK book, not awesome, not bad, with some interesting ideas. I remember the last chapter talked of a direct correlation between population growth and innovation. Now, i do not have the book with me; it stayed in California, so you would need to wait for a few more weeks for specific references :)

    I am all about more education, and thanks Peter for claryfing further the idea of a "pull model" of education, very interesting. I also know, as Coert mentions, that some "push" is needed, especially for basic skills (reading, math), The results of a more "student-driven" model of learning in California, unfortunately, have been a disaster.

    Re the priorities you are talking about, I like this video: http://www.ted.com/talks/bjorn_lomborg_sets_global_priorities.html

  15. thanks Peter and Paolo for all the comments! time for bed now here.
    cu, cv

  16. Paolo, "student driven" experiments might have been "disasters" BUT you have to take into account a lot of things. First, the standards: if you draw "classic" standards of measurement of course you will get failures across the board because not all of the students are meant to learn the same things. As Ken Robinson points in "The Element", intelligence is very diverse.

    Also, this kind of an approach is in its infancy, there is little research into how to make this work, how to improve it. Even if is "student driven" it will always be "adult controlled". The key is not to let the students loose to do whatever they want but to mold them using their inner drive. If you don't take action to start that inner drive it is no different than abandoning their education.

    Everything "cool" that I've learned I learned on my own. No teacher supervision, only me with some books/magazines in a library or back at home. I've tried learning electronics by building audio amplifiers back in high school, I've tried learning Japanese on my own in the first year of college and I've learn my main competency (programming) from tutorials and articles on the web.

    Creating strong on-line communities supported by first grade documentation is in my view the way to go. The main ingredient is "experience packaging", adults have to research and develop optimal packaging for the experiences of successful individuals/groups. You may call these packages "tutorials". Kinda like in "this educator managed to faster teach 6 year olds the alphabet by using X, Y and Z approaches" or "the visualizations that better drives home the effect of the exponential function are A, B and C" or "the story of so and so is more effective in embedding the concept of this or that moral stance"

  17. Peter, I agree 100% with what you say,
    I love the idea of "experience packaging", re what worked best.
    I am all for the pull approach; all I was pointing out was that some things are not fun to learn for kids, they require some effort, so for some skills a certain degree of adult-driven education is necessary.
    Thanks for your ideas,

  18. This was so fascinating- thank you. I wonder when encouragement becomes "push". I am inclined more towards the value of pull based upon an evaluation of the pros and cons of change and no change. I guess the respectful way forward is to help provide information to inform these four domains. Thereby avoiding the reality of Newton's third law! I am drawn to gardening metaphors when thinking about learning. Creating the environment in which change will inevitably occur so that it follows a healthy course and finds some light.

  19. Hi Steve, thank you for your comment. Soon I will write something about how you can approach education in way that i think is very solution-focused (and evidence based at the same time). Strangely, it seems somewhere between push and pull.

    I welcome you to join in future discussions!

  20. Just read today:
    High population density triggers cultural explosions


  21. Hi Paolo, and won't the internet do the same by bringing people much closer to one another?

  22. Yes, absolutely.
    That is what makes networks bloom or wither.


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