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January 1, 2006

<< The American EPIC | Demand for Education >>

Happy New Year '06

Here’s hoping 2006 turns out less tragic than 2005.

And to that end, the 2006 question of the year is What is your dangerous idea? New respondents this year include Helen Fisher and Douglas Rushkoff. Step to it, Snarketeers. What is your dangerous idea?

Posted January 1, 2006 at 7:09 | Comments (17) | Permasnark
File under: Briefly Noted, Gleeful Miscellany


There should be rules against posting this kind of link at the beginning of a workday. I just skimmed over the first dozen or so answers and now my brain is simultaneously exploding and imploding.

Dangerous idea TK...

P.S. I might be reading way too much into it, but I suspect Pinker's phrasing of the question is a shout-out to Dan Dennett's (another EDGE-ite) book Darwin's Dangerous Idea, in which he posits the theory of evolution as a kind of 'universal acid' that eats through all manner of long-held beliefs and assumptions about the world.

One beef I had with Edge's "Dangerous Ideas" is that too many of them aren't dangerous ideas themselves but just forecasts of danger: e.g., "Democracy is on the way out," (Haim Harari) or "We might all destroy ourselves" (Howard Gardner). I think Helen Fisher's "Drugs might hurt our ability to love each other" falls into this category, despite her remark about the pharmeceutical industry.

Others are just sort of blah, especially most of the tired arguments for or against 1) religion or 2) relativism. "A spoon is like a headache? Every object has a mind? Well, you just blew mine!"

I also don't think it's entirely to the point to call an already existing/prevailing idea "dangerous," as Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi does with the free market, or various writers do with atheism. In other words, the spirit of the question demands dangerous and "insurgent" ideas.

Darwin had a dangerous and insurgent idea -- so did Marx. The idea itself, and not just what it postulates, has to be something that meets fierce intellectual AND political resistance (although these are sometimes hard to tell apart) and produces genuine historical change.

Furthermore, a truly dangerous idea can't be irrelevant: one has to be compelled to take a critical stance towards the idea, whether for it, against it, embracing it with reservations, etc. And your stance on this idea must in turn compel you to revise your position on many other propositions, and so on. I hope someone figures out how pigeons and swallows home and migrate, but I don't seem to be unduly troubled by the fact that we don't know now, nor do I really need to think about it myself other than as a curiosity.

It's hard to evaluate the dangerousness of these ideas, as they're being described in a fairly safe space. It would be funny if they asked politicians this question. Speaking of which, here's a very early draft of one of my dangerous ideas for politics:

Mandatory school for legislators: After a person is elected to Congress for the first time, they have to spend two years getting trained on how to make law. One year of the training comes in the form of two six-month practicum periods, at the beginning and end of the two years, during which the future Congressperson has to work a median-wage job in her district. The other year of training includes coursework and testing on writing effective legislation. During this time, the Congressperson will also have to craft a major piece of draft legislation, and undergo a dissertation-like defense of it.

PS: There are several very gaping logistical holes in this draft of the plan. But it's still better than a lot of the crap-ass crap that passes for law these days, which is why you should vote for it.

PS2: You should also vote for "-ass" to be made an official suffix in the English lexicon. This could totally spice up our national discourse. "The soft-ass bigotry of low-ass expectations..." Hee!

Tim goes a long way toward pointing out some of the problems in the answers given to this question. But I would also fault the question. In its prelude it suggests that the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions were *in essence* dangerous to their societies. This is an assertion that could stand proving. If it is true, then the tone of the question makes sense. But what if one were to argue that Darwin was primarily dangerous only to certain groups in his society, and that in fact his ideas were welcomed by others? Then the question gets a bit muddier, and we're forced to ask: to whom will this idea be dangerous, and to whom would it mean a bright new world. Here's the thing though. If we answered those questions, we'd end up knowing something truly useful. I think the best answers that I've seen are at least implicitly addressing these queries.

Posted by: Dan on January 2, 2006 at 08:56 PM

Having said that, here's a dangerous idea:
Save America's Schools By Abolishing Teacher Tenure and Tieing Teacher Pay to Peer Evaluation: there are many teachers who might consider this a very dangerous idea. For one thing, since many industries have already accepted a similar-sounding dangerous idea (that a corporation hires an individual for a while, but not for life), it is dangerous to be give up job security when you're lucky enough to be in a profession that still has it. Similarly, there is a general danger to those of us who like teachers with integrity that getting rid of tenure will hurt the ability of teachers to teach the unpopular and will make them more susceptible to political bullying. Finally, there is a danger to our society that this educational system might give us ill-informed, morally bankrupt, depressed students. But, then it is a long shot to argue that this reform could churn out students matching that criteria in greater numbers than we currently experience.

Those who benefit are those whose world view tells them that market competitiveness and constant evaluation make life better. Similarly, those who win are those in government who would to have schools more open to political interference or who hope to weaken unions. At the same time, this idea could also seem truly wonderful to teachers who would be rewarded by it and by would-be teachers who would be allowed to experience the the joys and challenges of teaching while being well- compensated at the same time. Finally, we might all benefit, if this idea led to schools that were filled with more teachers who were deeply competent. There are many good teachers out there, but it is a very tough job, and we could stand to have many more.

Honoring the letter of the question, I pose this as a dangerous idea not because it is false, but because it might be true.

Posted by: Dan on January 2, 2006 at 09:25 PM

Re-reading Dan's first comment (to whom is x dangerous?) and my notes, I got to wondering: were there people who were as indifferent to the Copernican revolution as I am to homing pigeons? After all, whether the earth revolves around the sun or vice versa might piss off the Inquisitor, but wouldn't effect the average peasant much. Are there people still to whom this doesn't matter?

As for Dan's second comment, I noticed that one of the contributors proposed getting rid of public education altogether. Could something be said for that?

I appreciate Dan's probing of the 'dangerous to whom?' question but I actually think it's a little too narrow. A truly dangerous idea will not just make life unpleasant for one group of people (e.g. teachers, powerful but stupid Congressmen); it will unhinge widely-held assumptions about the world. (You know the line... "All that is solid melts into air.")

I think we call those ideas 'dangerous' because they promote chaos & uncertainty instead of stability & security... not because they specifically undermine positions of power. (Though they usually do that too.)

Anyway, that's why I like the ideas about public education and government. They are totally counter to the reigning assumptions, but if they somehow took hold, you can imagine all SORTS of crazy stuff blossoming out from them.

Still not sure what my dangerous idea is, but I think it might have to do with how we choose our leaders...

I think my ass-suffix idea totally meets all of the above criteria, no matter how you dice it. I'm dreaming up more dangerous ideas. I want a media-related one. (Some would argue that pretty much every media-related idea I espouse on this site is dangerous, no?)

It would be cool(-ass) if Snarkmarket became so flush with mind-blowing links that it could legitimately claim the tagline: 'Dangerous ideas daily.'

All that is solid can only melt into the air if it was really solid to begin with.

Even Marx, whose ideas were totally dangerous and had really far-reaching consequences, had to make some societal structures seem more solid than they really were and had to attack the solidifications of others. An idea that will 'unhinge widely-held assumptions' is dangerous only because those widely-held assumptions are viewed as quite valuable by significant groups. Someone had to first establish theories of value that supported industrial capitalism and ideas regarding the usefulness of mechanization, before Marx could powerfully attack these ideas and make them at once both more solid and thus capable of being shattered.

So thinking about who has projected value onto ideas that are about to be overturned can be useful for a problem of any scope, and need not be limited to something so small as teacher compensation.

Posted by: Dan on January 3, 2006 at 11:27 AM

It also may be worth noting that when Marx says "All that is solid melts into air" in The Communist Manifesto (?), he's referring to the consequences of capitalism, not communism. In particular, capitalism's dissolution of the "substantial" basis of feudalism (and with it the aristocracy, the church, God, etc).

Marx's dangerous idea, at least as I understand it, is the reframing of human history in economic terms on the one hand and a critique of present-day capitalism on the other, both of which he believed implied (as a dangerous consequence) the necessity and desirability of socialism.

One question also might be whether a new kind of practice, especially one that's taken up by a huge number of people, counts as an "idea." For example, are "capitalism" or "the free market" really ideas? I don't think so, at least in the same way as Adam Smith's or Marx's ideas about capitalism and the free market are ideas.

On the other hand, something like "representative democracy" -- even though it's a practice, and is articulated over a very long time by lots of different people, does seem to be an idea, in the sense that it's something that can be argued about and deliberately and methodically practiced.

Dangerous ideas upon dangerous ideas... yes, Marx's definitely pushed his D.I. by framing capitalism as the true D.I. (And I will argue that it does qualify as an idea just as representative democracy does.)

Might that help us identify potential D.I.'s? They tend to travel in packs? They come in symbiotic pairs?

I love that instead of actually coming up with dangerous ideas, we've started discussing criteria for what dangerous ideas might look like. Anyone who hates this thread should probably blame me. (Dan probably wants to talk about teacher tenure and I know Matt wants to talk up his lame-ass ideas about hyphenated suffixes.)

Robin, I'll go with you on the "pairs/packs" thesis, in these two respects:

1) As I mentioned earlier, dangerous ideas have consequences -- that is, they trigger other dangerous ideas.
2) Dangerous ideas displace the prevailing wisdom -- both expert knowledge and what laypeople think.

Good examples for 2) would be Marx (again) and Copernicus. Marx's theory of history had to displace both the idea that capitalism was the final culmination of human progress (Hegel) and/or that it was the natural state of human beings all along (most other liberal theorists). Copernicus had to take on both Ptolemaic astronomy and the intuitive knowledge of most human beings.

I'll interrupt this fine critique of the dangerous idea question for a little-ass silliness. Okay, here goes one more dangerous-ass idea:
There is no such thing as a dangerous idea.

Its danger lies not in its truth, but in the inevitable recursion paradox. Minds will really reel. (And every time 'really' appears, replace it with 'really, really' - Aw!)

Posted by: Dan on January 3, 2006 at 07:48 PM


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Please restart the system to resume this conversation.

One of the more intriguing "dangerous ideas" on the Edge list was the one proposed by John Allen Paulos: The self is a conceptual chimera. Advances in cognitive science, as they become more widely known, may start to corrode the cult of the individual by replacing an uncomplicated "I" with a shifting and contingent "we". Imagine the national storm if, instead of arguing over origins, we were arguing about the nature of self. And what are the consequences of believing yourself to be a society of mind, a stream of identity that can never be twice the same?

Posted by: Matt on January 4, 2006 at 12:25 AM
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