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January 3, 2009

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Why We All Need More School

The Edge Annual Question — “WHAT WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING? / What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?” — is here. The usual suspects give their often-too-usual answers, and I (as usual) am taking about a week to read and process it all.

However, I’m already charmed by “Never-Ending Childhood,” the entry from UC-Berkeley psychologist Allison Gopnik:

Humans already have a longer period of protected immaturity a longer childhood than any other species. Across species, a long childhood is correlated with an evolutionary strategy that depends on flexibility, intelligence and learning… We start out as brilliantly flexible but helpless and dependent babies, great at learning everything but terrible at doing just about anything. We end up as much less flexible but much more efficient and effective adults, not so good at learning but terrific at planning and acting…

Recent developments in neuroscience show that this early plasticity can be maintained and even reopened in adulthood. And, we’ve already invented the most unheralded but most powerful brain-altering technology in history school… School lets us all continue to be brilliant but helpless babies. It lets us learn a wide variety of information flexibly, and for its own sake, without any immediate payoff. School assumes that learning is more important than doing, and that learning how to learn is most important of all. But school is also an extension of the period of infant dependence since we don’t actually do anything useful in school, other people need to take care of us all the way up to a Ph.D. School doesn’t include the gradual control and mastery of specific adult skills that we once experienced in apprenticeship. Universal and extended schooling means that the period of flexible learning and dependence can continue until we are in our thirties, while independent active mastery is increasingly delayed.

So, in the information age, the longer our immaturity, the more time we have to learn, the more things we can learn, and the better we will be able to handle the new stuff the universe is throwing at us. So far, all good.

Child-like brains are great for learning, but not so good for effective decision-making or productive action. There is some evidence that adolescents even now have increasing difficulty making decisions and acting independently, and pathologies of adolescent action like impulsivity and anxiety are at all-time historical highs. Fundamental grown-up human skills we once mastered through apprenticeship, like cooking and caregiving itself, just can’t be acquired through schooling. (Think of all those neurotic new parents who have never taken care of a child and try to make up for it with parenting books). When we are all babies for ever, who will be the parents? When we’re all children who will be the grown-ups?

These are troubling questions — and they all point to a single, albeit uncomfortable answer:


  • 2001: A Space Odyssey.
  • Dr. Strangelove.
  • Wall-E.
  • Hamlet.

All of these suggest that human indecision, innocence, immaturity, and ambivalence can be maintained and preserved with the aid of one or more robots with the executive capacity and strength of will to do what needs to be done.

We build the maturity and all of its benefits in — it’s part of the robot’s program. The perfect adult, unchanging, unyielding, using only its most essential neural circuitry.

And us meatbags — we can all live like Buster Bluth.

Wouldn’t it be nice to think so?

Posted January 3, 2009 at 8:12 | Comments (9) | Permasnark
File under: Braiiins, Learnin'


I like your inclusion of Hamlet on that list as a point of discussion. Sometime I want to talk about indecision and ambivalence in relation to that Hamlet's character.

After all, despite the accepted caricature of Hamlet's waffling, he actually is in many ways a Take Action kinda guy. It's just that the actions he knows and feels comfortable with are scholarly research and the search for proofs. For him violent action requires the justification of accurate intelligence.

If I weren't exhausted right now I would have more to say that is closer to being on topic.

I was thinking more of the denouement in the so-called "bad quarto" where the android Hamlet built in Wittenberg (encoded with the memories of Yorick) comes through and kills everybody. (The android's name is Fortinbras.)

I'm curious as to how you square "violent action requires the justification of accurate intelligence" with Hamlet's stab-first, look-later arras policy. (Poor Polonius!)

I'm more inclined to think that Hamlet at the beginning of the play takes regicide very, very seriously, and the killing of everybody else, not so much. That's why the "fine revolution" speech, and the encounter with Yorick's grave, is a genuinely transformative moment in the play.

I would stage that bad quarto. It's better than some cuts of the text I've seen.

At the point of the arras mishap, Hamlet has put his plan into action and, with the staging of the play, thinks he's acquired proof of the King's guilt. The king has blenched and he knows his course.

He's also all hyped up on the adrenaline of the play, his exposure of former friends R&G and the confrontation with his mother. Plus he was about to kill Claudius but used the king being at prayer as an excuse not to. "Up, sword; and know thou a more horrid hent."

When he stabs the arras, not only does he think he has the necessary information, but he's sufficiently wound up to act more rashly than he might otherwise against a poor fool he took for his better.

I think that your distinction between regicide and standard killing is an interesting reading.

In my mind, once Hamlet is barreling along the path towards his goal, the side murders are of little import to him. I agree that the encounter with Yorick's grave is a transformative moment, in part because he's starting to see where he himself is headed.

But it's not that this moment totally awakens his regret with regard to his other murders. After all, in the scene immediately following, Hamlet says that the deaths of R&G are not near his conscience.

I like this post a lot. More to say on this idea -- the extension of childhood deeper and deeper into life -- but might be too tired to compose thoughts right now.

Well, okay, there's this: More and more I find myself, even as a freshly-minted 29-year-old, a little wary of finding myself a beginner at things. To, like, be truly terrible -- a novice w/ training wheels -- a first-year violin student squawking away in the attic.

I am still at the point where I can brush that hesitation aside and plunge in, but I can see how it might toughen up for time -- harden, calcify.

Which is a big problem, b/c it seems like exactly the wrong hang-up to carry into the 21st century. We all need to get better at being bad at things -- because we are going to be spending a lot more of our time learning.

This is actually sorta orthogonal to Gopnik's argument, which I don't really disagree with.

Less about formless learning vs. directed mastery and more about wow, it sucks to be bad at new things, but get ready, 'cause it's all new things these days.

Re: Hamlet -- No, it's not about regret at all -- the conclusion seems to be that a body is a body, whether it's a friend or a King's (or my own) -- Hamlet's ethical consciousness seems pretty terminal at that point. We're just bone and meat. Or in Stephen Greenblatt's reading, there's nothing sacred about the eucharist at all.

The actual "bad quarto" is really a blast to read.

Re: Robin -- interesting cross-thread with that recent Clay Shirky interview, about how the advantage young people have is that they don't have to unlearn old ways of doing things, especially finding information.

Add to that brain plasticity, and add to that this sense of frustration -- I should be good at this, I shouldn't have to keep re-learning these things -- and you've got a recipe for recalcitrance.

I was thinking just the other day about my memories of learning things as a child -- small things, like new words, or how you shouldn't drink milk and orange juice out of the same glass. A thousand scientific experiments, the results of which were carefully noted, and stored away, and always present for instant recall a quarter-century later -- rinse out the glass first, Tim, or it won't taste good.

The overall sensation I remember was so much less tinged of frustration as when I make similar mistakes now -- that stinging self-laceration that says, I should know better, I shouldn't keep making these mistakes -- and it's almost as though you can see these brain processes in action. Or, at the very least, our after-the-fact commentary on them in our consciousness.

Re: Hamlet -- I'm sorry, all I can think about is Fortinbras-as-clone now. I love that. Ethan Hawke would obvs star in that movie -- sort of Gattaca meets his neo-Hamlet.

Little bit of X-Men thrown in, too.

Re: Hamlet, Tim.

I'm with you on the "a body is a body" revelation.

I think the difference that you bring up between regicide and standard killing is a view that was likely prevalent in audiences of the time. Life was especially fleeting, but somewhat less so for kings.

Gratuitous Harold Bloom Quote from Hamlet: Poem Unlimited, "The Grave-digger is the reality principle, mortality, while Hamlet is death's scholar."


The original intent of my first comment was to emphasize that when staged, Hamlet needs to be a play about action, not indecision. Each thing that Hamlet witnesses and discovers, must spur him on to his next action.

As David Ball points out in Backwards & Forwards, Hamlet doesn't kill Claudius because of what the ghost said back in Act I... he kills him because of what Laertes says dying.

Re: Hamlet, Robin.

Have you ever read the Lee Blessing sequel to Hamlet, Fortinbras? No clones, but the ghost of Hamlet is trapped in a TV set for the first half of the show.

There's so much in Shakespeare about trying to unravel the sense of mystery around the body or personage of a king or queen; I think about Hal's soliloquy in Henry V about the only difference between a king and his subjects being ceremony -- plus a certain moral responsibility for the men who die in his service that manifests itself in sleeplessness.

Shakes had such an astonishing ability to see into people, their fears, motivations, anxieties, their sense of their commonality with and difference from the people around them.

That dude was good.

The name "Fortinbras" is derived from "strong arm." I learned this from my professor Peter Stallybrass, whose name means something like "steel arm." Combine the two, and Fortinbras-as-Terminator is simply inevitable.

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