This piece is a slightly expanded version of a talk I recently delivered. The audience enjoyed it, so I’ve included it here for those interested in Education reform, technology, and how we can build a bright future for humanity. I’d love to hear what you think!
Do you know how they say you’re always supposed to start your talk with a joke?
Well, whenever I’m giving a talk, I get a joke ready, and I run it by my wife. Her response is usually either thumbs up or thumbs down.
So last night, we’re just getting back from a trip, we didn’t sleep on the plane, we’re jet-lagged, and I’m running potential jokes by my wife.
I was and still am… a bit out of it. So I’m running potential jokes by my wife and this time I didn’t get a thumbs up… or even a thumbs down. This time I just got a look of terror, and she said:
“Oh my God. Those are horrible. Promise me you won’t tell those.”
SO! I think I might of made a meta joke. Maybe that counts for my opening joke.
But seriously, the whole joke thing at the start of a talk about Education reform is important. Education is a touchy subject, and besides, it’s not safe to talk about touchy subjects publicly unless you can make people laugh. It’s one of the things that killed Socrates… he was philosophizing (often about Education!) without making people laugh. That’s a baaad idea. Also, he didn’t bathe regularly. When you combine philosophizing publicly, with not bathing, AND not making people laugh… You’re going to get yourself killed!
Okay, seriously, seriously. I’m excited to be here at this reformation event because I’m a fan of reformation, not revolutions. Revolutions are typically childish, whereas reformations can respect all the sacrifices that came before. Through reform, we respect the institutions or technologies that we’re seeking to improve. Reform means we don’t take the sacrifices our ancestors made to get us here for granted.
I’m also excited to be here because you all are some of the smartest people in Silicon Valley and the rest of the world. You’re taking personal risks for the sake of the collective, and many of you have your own skin in the game. Because of that, this is both a simple and complex talk. One of the downsides of Education is it trains us to use simple, bland, and ineffective words. Many people can never drop that idea from Education. You see it now in the entrepreneurial communities and in Silicon Valley. Plenty of people in those communities say,
“Only use simple words. And don’t you DARE say anything that might make people think!”
“Never write anything longer than a four line email!”
That’s useful some of the time, but not all of the time. Sometimes simple language is best, but sometimes you have to put the peddle to the metal of etymological expansion and try to speak the unspeakable. It’s my intention that this talk does both.
We’re creating the world with our language
If there is something that we can’t say or articulate, then we can’t do it in the real world. If we can’t create the stories of a future we want to work towards and inhabit, then we are lost. And language is the key to opening up these new frontiers.
Wittgenstein said, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.”
And Agent Smith said, “Tell me, Mr. Anderson, what good is a phone call when you are unable to speak?”
The world is made of language, information, and our imagination. If you know the right words to use, you can literally alter reality (albeit in a small way). When your articulations can be better seen in the minds of others, then people can choose to band together to collaborate and build that new thing. Language isn’t a simple technology. In the fifteen thousand years or so that it’s been around in its developed form, it has taken us from living on the grasslands to conceiving of the starships we’ll one day build.
And meanwhile, Education and science want to treat humans as if we’re no big deal. They tell us we’re a plague on the earth, and in some ways we are, and in some ways we are the earth’s greatest creation!
It’s not my intention to tear down Education in this talk. I respect what it has given us and all the things about it that are worth saving. In fact, I respect Education and some of its ideals so much that I’m comfortable in critiquing it, in hope of sparking a reformation.
What is “truth”, and what is the greatest critique of “Education”?
This might be risky to say here, but there are still MANY things about the entire Education system that are useful. There are many things about it that are worth preserving. But there are a growing number of things and contradictions that have become too much to bear. Those have to go. The things that are true about it can handle themselves.
So how do we define truth?
Nietzsche said that truth is that which serves life. And Alfred North Whitehead said truth is the recognition of pattern as such.
I say that truth is the recognition of patterns that best serve individual interests, while also serving the virtuous members of the larger species. How we define “virtue” is a matter for another day, but I think we recognize it when we’re in the presence of it.
So what is more or most “true” isn’t afraid of a well-reasoned critique or argument. So the institution of Education, if it still contains enough truth, will be able to handle itself.
But at the moment, the entire system of Education has no central purpose. That’s a problem. So what purpose should Education have? And where should we look to find that central purpose?
Evolutionary biology shows us the way and the odds
One of the parts of education worth saving has some of the answers. And that part is evolutionary biology. So how does evolutionary biology hold the answers?
Well, it shows us that over the history of biological life on earth, there have been roughly fifty billion species.
Today on the earth there are around fifty million species. So 99.9% of all species that have ever lived have gone extinct. Out of all those species that have gone the way of the dodo, only five percent have succumbed to mass extinctions from catastrophes like asteroids, volcanoes, or rapidly shifting climates.
That means that 95% of all the species that have gone gently into that good night stopped adapting, or formed behaviors that were non adaptive. Luckily, humans have the ability to create stories that can fill our lives with meaning or catalyze new behaviors that are evolutionarily viable. We possess the powers of mind (imagination) and speech (language) which are incredibly powerful technologies.
What should the single purpose of Education be?
I’d like to propose a central purpose for all of Education and self-directed learning.
The central goal and purpose of education, learning, and collaboration should be to learn how to educate yourself (first) and afterward, to learn how to mediate voluntary evolution.
In its current state, most of Education is a simple amusement on the road to extinction. So what are the examples of this that show us where Education is leading?
What are those who are “best” at Education spending their time trying to build?
Those who have succeeded the most at Education weren’t necessarily the best or most virtuous among us. Unfortunately, the education system seems uninterested in measuring virtue, courage, or imagination. Portions of its grading system reflect this by rewarding those who are good a route memorization, competition, and their ability to be coerced.
So what are many who were the best at Education actively working to build now?
On the technology side, we have technologists who are trying to connect every human in the world. Meanwhile even a casual look at evolutionary biology would show that species that get connected stop evolving. Only species in small groups, or those that are isolated, are prone to speciation. We have to stop mindlessly connecting the world and spreading the nihilism and sameness of education. Humans are mimicking masters, and when we’re all connected together, we’ll mimic the same things. If we’re all doing the same things, speciation is guaranteed to stop.
So let’s stop doing that!
Meanwhile, on the academic side, we have researchers who are looking for extraterrestrial life by pinging our location our to the entire universe. It’s like we’re literally sending out cold emails asking to pick the brains of random aliens. That’s a bad idea in the business world and it’s an even worse idea in the intergalactic world!
It’s not going to work well. Do these researchers know about the dark forest problem, and if not, how can they not understand the untold risk they are exposing us to on the chance that there is hostile life in the universe!?
And in Silicon Valley, we have plenty of people who are already busy worshipping the AI singularity. I find it sad that most of these people are the ones who are isolated, with limited friends, or that they’ve suffered bullying in school. It’s no coincidence that they are now so enraged with humanity that they want to end all of it. And on sidetone — I’m sorry you got bullied in school, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is your 8th-grade bully and you don’t have to hate humanity or work to create a machine or robots that will kill everyone! Let’s just talk about your eighth grade bully so you don’t unconsciously or consciously build something that kills us all!
So I’m sorry, I’m not sorry, but these are just three examples of what those who were the best at the Education game are doing! They are unconsciously, or maybe consciously, taking risks that are putting all of humanity at risk.
So to all those top performers inside Education who are now working hard to standardize and connect everything.
To those who are so lonely they’re broadcasting our location out to the entire universe.
And to those who are hurting so badly that they want to create an AI machine God to replace humanity.
An AI singularity won’t save us.
It fails to recognize the beauty, complexity, or power of the miracle that is humanity.
The singularity is here. Each of us is a complete mystery and if we are brave enough to explore our inner space, we’ll see it’s just as vast and powerful as the entire outside universe. The singularity is already embedded in you, and you have the power to cultivate and explore it. There are 100 billion neurons in your brain, it’s the most complicated thing in the entire universe, and you are no accident.
We must reform the Education system
We need education reform immediately, but as we’ve seen, changing the Education system is notoriously slow and is typically very coercive for the students involved. So what is the most voluntary way to stop this?
It’s through creating new stories. We need meaning and new myths. And we need them more badly than ever before.
My story and how we can reverse this
So what do we need in conjunction with new myths? Is there any strategy we can combine with stories that can reform the Education system and lift up humanity?
I think there is. Let me tell you a bit about my own story. I started out winning the education games, but along the way, I became troubled.
It all felt fake and artificial. At a certain point, I stopped participating in school and did only enough to get by. I was craving real-world adversity where the stakes were as high as possible. I found it in the last socially acceptable proving ritual, or sacrificial altar (depending on your perspective) called the military.
After two deployments and experiences where the stakes and incentives were high, something strange happened. I could think more clearly. My imagination and drive for life spiked. And after my time in the military, I took the time to recover adequately.
Nassim Taleb was one of the first to point out that in nature, everything we see that has survived has become good at post-traumatic growth. The type of learning that will mediate evolution is adversity followed by adequate recovery.
From education, to learning, to voluntary evolution
So how do we introduce that adversity in the most voluntary way possible? We don’t want to force people into it, but we do want to present an accurate picture of the pros and cons of it. The best way that we can do this is through a new type of stories and myths.
We need stories that appropriately present calls to adversity, meaning, and evolutionary context, followed by adequate recovery.
What do I mean by that?
Imagine if you could see, feel, and experience ALL the sacrifices of your family and ancestors that have allowed you to be here today. Imagine if you could feel all the struggle that went into creating the technologies around us that we take for granted.
Or imagine if you could feel what our ancestors went through over the nine ice ages that have happened in the last million years. Imagine those hellish migrations and ice ages.
Imagine if you could endure the horror of war in a way that didn’t force you to participate in it?
If we had more stories like that, we would have no desire or taste for inter-species war. The only war we might deem as virtuous might be the one that these SETI scientists are going to inadvertently get us into from broadcasting these, “Can I pick your brain for a coffee” type BS.
We need stories that help catalyze symbiosis and large-scale problem-solving. Stories are high technology. They run on human neural networks, and they can last for thousands and tens of thousands of years. They can convey exoteric information as well as esoteric information. Up until this point, we’ve had relatively simple stories and myths. There has only been one series of stories in human history that has made a serious attempt to help humanity escape extinction. If we had more stories like that, we’d never waste another moment, we’d find our personal missions, we’d find meaning, we’d reform education, and we’d fight like hell to escape extinction.
Better stories will help us team up with twelve friends, or maybe a hundred fifty (or more!), and work to build a better future or technologies that actually lift people up without preventing speciation.
Voluntary evolution is within our grasp if we’re willing to admit that learning and evolution are the result of small shocks and traumas, periodically going outside our comfort zones, and then recovering. Adversity and stories are the way to reform Education and mediate a more voluntary evolution.
I’m the founder of The Mission, and we’re building those new myths. The mission of The Mission is to create new stories that help mediate evolution in the most voluntary way possible.
Thank you for listening.