The “System” in the Educational System

It’s been a long while since I’ve posted here. Like….a couple of months. Was busy with college apps, then school work. But now, I have some time, so hopefully I’ll post more.

What I want to write about today is actually what’s been preventing me from blogging, from just sitting down quietly at my seat and just writing. I guess you could call it, school.

It’s annoying when I have to try to find a balance between school and art. I’m forced to squeeze in time to write what I want to write, to take photos at the most inconvenient times possible, or to listen and make lyrics to music. It’s as if school is trying to pull me away from my passion and forcing me to do a shit ton of grit work. It’s as if school is trying to say, yes we want you to be an enlightened individual, but you gotta follow our format. You gotta do what we say. And this system is annoying.

What I really wish for is the ability to squish this educational system with my passion into one. So that I can devote a good chuck of my time doing and sharpening what I like.

My English teacher one day noted how as kids, literature was everybody’s favorite subject. We all liked to listen to stories, to tell stories ourselves, to let our imaginations fly. But then came the educational system, which just butchered everything up and crammed into us grammar rules, analysis skills, and all that bullshit. And along the way, for many of us, literature became something boring. That magic was lost.

The educational system failed to capture the soul of the subject of literature. I could say the same goes with math, science, and so many other subjects. Most of us don’t see the beauty of it anymore; it’s just a bunch of facts and rote memorization.

Of course, however, it could have never captured it in the first place. It’s because the educational system is a system. 

But here’s the problem: there is no absolute way one can categorize the human learning experience. The fact we have first grades, second grades, and so on doesn’t make sense to me if it’s true that all of us learn at different paces. There’s no way either you could definitely pinpoint a person’s skill level to be either regular, AP, or honors level. We’re humans; you just can’t.

In fact, thinking that we can only hurts us more. A phenomenon called the Matthew Effect sums it up pretty nice, in which psychologist Roger Barnsley noticed that a huge majority of pro Canadian hockey players tended to be born in the earlier months of the year. Why? Because the recruiting system goes by year.

For instance, suppose the NHL recruits by year and takes all the little kids born in 1998. They’ll be put through some training or competition of sorts and from there, they’ll take the best few and put them in the “honors” camp — those likely to be pro. This seems fair, right? Not really so.

Psychologist Roger Barnsley

If you think about it, those born in December and later months are technically one year younger than those born in January and the earlier months. In other words, they’re less physically mature by one year, and therefore, easier to be beaten out. Do they suck? No, just that they’re younger. So what starts out as a small gap in age becomes a huge gap in skill once all those born in the earlier years are placed in the honors system and are bombarded with resources and whatnot. Those born later are likely to be put in the regular system and not given much attention.

Because of this systemic approach to athletics, society has just squandered the potential of nearly half the population– those born in later months of the year. So if you’re born in December, you should just give up playing pro hockey even if you have a talent in it– it’s almost impossible.

It’s unfair, and yes, it’s wrong. Because you cannot categorize how humans grow or develop as athletes. The same thing all applies to our education.

Fixing this is easier said than done, of course. But the utopian solution is if everything can be individual-based. It’s kind of like being home-schooled, or self-teaching yourself. In which you know what you want to do, in which you know how you learn, and you act on that. Instead of being forced into a system, you make your own system. You learn at your own pace, and you focus on what you know you want to do.

This does comes with problems of its own such as lack of motivation. So a good mix would be having a school system but trying to make it as individualized as possible. The only thing we should be wary of is not getting too much into the system itself.

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Monkeys, Ideas, And Social Status

Reblogged from http://www.davidyerle.com:

I’ve been recently analyzing my reaction to disagreements in my blog and I don’t like what I’ve seen. Now, my answers are usually quite measured and level-headed, even when I strongly disagree with the person. Does this mean I am a measured, level-headed man? Quite the opposite, in fact.

The Monkey Inside All of Us

Some (though not all) criticisms cause in me something that can only be described as aggression. It is not a conscious reaction, but an instinctive, animalistic one. Whenever my ideas are challenged, especially when I hold them dear (and especially when the commenter uses a confrontational style), my body reacts with adrenaline and a metaphorical thirst for blood. I can almost feel the monkey inside, seething, wanting to beat up the stranger who has come to challenge my right to the territory.

It is not a pleasant feeling; it is also not a feeling I’m proud of.

But I don’t want to get into a morality play in which I digress about how evil we are all inside. I want to analyze what it is about disagreements that makes me (anyone else?) react as if there was a physical challenge happening from a rival male.

Here’s my theory, which I just made up five minutes ago, so it’s likely to be wrong. It’s also likely to be wrong because it only applies to males, but I’ve seen similar urges in women, so it can’t be the whole story. Anyway, even if it’s only for your amusement, here it goes.

Back in the day, primates fought for territory. More territory meant more females, which in turn meant more offspring. Thus, males who were obsessed about protecting their territory and could use aggression to do so were more likely to have offspring, which would in turn be similarly inclined to protect and expand their land.

This drive for territory soon became more complex and turned into what we would now call “the drive for social status.”  Higher social status usually means attracting more females and the rest follows as before. That having social status attracts more females has been researched for a while (see here and here). And yes, I am perfectly aware that this is just a statistical result that does not imply that all women are attracted to social status. In fact, I’d never date one that was.

social status

Social status is a hard thing to measure. Nowadays we can probably do it with money: the more money, the more status. However, that is not completely accurate. There are a lot of intangibles: influence, reputation. Bono may not have as much money as Bill Gates, but he’s probably more successful with the opposite sex. One could say that social status is related to image and that this image is tied to a number of intangibles, thus making status quite hard to define.

This influence is of course measured, partly, by how much sway our opinions have over the rest of the world. As such, then, opinions are part of our “virtual territory”: just like our net worth (by the way, am I the only person who’s appalled by calling how much money a person has their “worth”?). And, just like it, we feel a need to protect it from intruders: opinions are our domains and, when a stranger comes and tries to take them down, we react just as if someone was trying to enter our house and burn it.

That is why changing your mind is so hard: in a way, it’s like letting the other person violate you. It’s admitting they have won; like giving them part of your territory. It’s not a question of ideas but a battle with winners or losers. Just like a war fought over a piece of land, each argument is a confrontation over a piece of mental landscape, over a piece of influence.

It takes a lot of self-control to override this instinct. In fact, most people are not capable of such feats and thus seem unable to change their minds, no matter how much evidence piles up against their views. It is remarkable, then, that a whole branch of human knowledge – science – has been built precisely on the willingness to be proven wrong. This speaks volumes of scientists, who must overcome these urges every day in the service of a greater goal, which is knowledge. It is also not surprising that some of them will succumb to their instincts and try to cover up results, disregard evidence or purposely misunderstand their colleagues’ research in order to keep their ideas intact.

Summarizing, behind the civilized appearance of my replies, there is a beast that just want to tear the commenters apart and let out a cry of victory. Thankfully for all of us, I (and most, if not all of the people who interact with me) am able to look at my instincts from above and see them for what they are: a vestige from a more animalistic past.

That said, I do think it would be fun if the next philosophical debate was settled with the philosophers just fighting for it.

Compassion, Intelligence, and Evolution

Reblogged from http://www.davidyerle.com:

Today I want to speak about compassion. By compassion I mean the ability to feel some other being’s pain. I say being, and not human being, because I want to venture a hypothesis that correlates compassion and intelligence. To do that, I have to look at compassion in animals.

There are different degrees of compassion. Most human beings feel compassion towards their children. A smaller subset feels compassion towards their parents. In decreasing order of frequency, human beings feel compassion towards their family, friends, reduced social group, extended social group, nation, continent and humanity as a whole.

Compassion is a fairly recent invention. For example, bacteria don’t feel compassion. They don’t feel much, in fact. Worms, fish and cephalopods also don’t seem to have much compassion either, not even towards their children. Reptiles in general don’t take care of their young: they lay their eggs and leave their offspring to fend for themselves. One may say they couldn’t care less.

Only mammals and birds seem to feel some sort of compassion, though it is mostly confined to the family unit. Mammals and birds also have the biggest brain sizes in the animal kingdom. It is probably not a coincidence: feeling compassion requires the capacity to make simulations of another living thing. But let me elaborate, because I believe the simulation point to be important.

Most living beings are capable of making some type of simulation of their environment. That’s how we make decisions: we simulate possible outcomes based on our different courses of action and we choose the one that leads to the most pleasure and the least pain. At least, that’s the basic framework. Bacteria don’t have to simulate much: when their food detectors fire, they move towards the food. That’s pretty much it. But, as the complexity in situations increases, so does the need for more accurate simulations.

Any software engineer will tell you that simulating something inorganic is millions of times easier than simulating something organic. A rock’s trajectory is easy to calculate; a sparrow’s, not so much. The capability for simulating other living things, then, requires significant processing power. Since this capability is needed for compassion, it is not surprising that only animals with highly developed brains have developed it. In fact, one may even see compassion as a by-product: as animals learned to simulate others (in order to eat them, for example) they also learned to simulate their peers, which lead to some kind of understanding that these peers also feel pain. Mirror neurons may also have evolved in this context.

Monkey surprise

A sociable animal

Monkeys are capable of compassion. Unlike other mammals, theirs extends a little further from their family and into their social group. If a chimpanzee is beat up in a fight, it is common to see another one trying to comfort it by putting its arm around it, something which may look spookily familiar. However, chimpanzees are only capable of compassion within their social group. They couldn’t care less about what happens to individuals outside it.

This is the way it works in humans, most of the time. Every time there’s a plane accident, the first we ask is “were there any people from my country?” We don’t care what happened to all of those foreigners. We want to know that our people are safe. The same thing happened recently with the Boston bombings: even though much more horrid acts take place daily in Iraq or Syria, we shrug them off without much thought, while being struck with grief with the ones that hit close to home.

However, that’s only part of the story. Some humans do feel empathy towards other people that are not in their social group. According to primatologist Frans de Waal, this kind of compassion is “a fragile experiment” being conducted by our species. That is, we are the first species to feel universal empathy. And I think this is significant, because it signals a trend from less compassion to more: from not caring about any other individual to caring about your children to caring about your family, to your social group, to every single member of your species.

Can this trend continue? As we get smarter, be it with technology or evolution, will we become even more compassionate? Is caring for the welfare of animals the next step, which is already taking place? As we get smarter, will we be able to simulate other living beings better? Will that increase our compassion? Where does this lead?

People usually see evolution (rightly) as this really cruel, blind process where the strong step on the weak. However, I find it encouraging that, even so, it seems to have led to the emergence of increasingly compassionate species. This outcome was far from obvious, given the way natural selection works. I like the idea of evolution being a blind, cruel, horrid process that somehow gives birth to a species that stops being blind and cruel. Evolution as a process that can put a stop to itself and become something better, gentler, more nurturing, more creative.

Who knows, maybe there’s still hope for us all.

The Weirdest Psychological Disorder Ever

If a man in America ever came near you and started telling people around you that you had caused his penis to disappear, he would be called the epitome of crazy. But if a man in West Africa did that same thing, people would actually take him seriously, and so would you, because soon enough you’ll be lynched. Apparently, this is all caused by a psychological disorder called koro. Read on to this Yahoo article to find out more.

In a recent issue of “Pacific Standard” magazine, Louisa Lombard, an anthropologist at the University of California at Berkeley, described visiting a small town in the Central African Republic where she encountered two men who claimed that their penises had been stolen.

It seems that the day before, a traveler visiting the town had shaken hands with a tea vendor who immediately claimed he felt a shock and sensed that his penis had shrunk. He cried out in alarm, gathering a crowd, and a second man then said it also happened to him.

This is not the setup to a joke; it is a real psychological disorder called koro in which victims (mostly men, but sometimes women) come to believe that their genitals are shrinking or retracting into the body. The concern is not only for their sexuality, but also for their lives, since they believe that the condition may be life threatening if not reversed. In order to prevent further shrinkage, victims have been known to securely tie their penises with string or metal clamps — even sometimes having family members hold it in relays until treatment can be sought, usually from shamen or traditional healers.

The condition has most often been found in Africa in recent decades, though it has also been widely reported in Asia. 

“In recent years, news media in several West African countries have reported periodic episodes of ‘panic’ in which men and women are beaten, sometimes to death, after being accused of causing penises, breasts, and vaginas to shrink or disappear,” wrote Vivian Dzokoto and Glenn Adams in a study published in 2005 in the journal Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry. “At least 56 separate cases of genital shrinking, disappearance, and snatching have been reported in the last seven years [1998-2005] by news media of seven West African countries.”

Victims of koro usually believe that a touch or “accidental” brush with a stranger caused the theft, in the same way that a pickpocket might steal a wallet. Dzokotoand Adams give one example of a 17-year-old man in Ghana who “claimed that he had gone to fetch water for his father and was returning when [the perpetrator] came behind him, touched him and immediately he felt his penis shrink until it was no longer visible.”

Koro can be understood in a variety of ways; from a psychological perspective it can be seen as an example of mass hysteria or delusion, in which a collective cultural belief can be manifested in one person’s experience — whether objectively “real” or not.

“Victims of genitalia-shrinking panics recover within hours or days after being convinced that the ‘illness’ is over or never existed, and most clearly lack any psychosexual problems,” write sociologist Robert Bartholomew and myself, in the book “Hoaxes, Myths, and Mania: Why We Need Critical Thinking” (Prometheus Books, 2003).

“Penis-shrinking panics are a timely reminder that no one is immune from mass delusions and that the influence of culture and society on individual behavior is far greater than most of us would like to admit. Yet the main reason for the absence of penis-shrinking epidemics in Western societies is their incredible nature … but any delusion is possible if the false belief underlying it is plausible.” 

In this case the delusion is made possible by the underlying belief in witchcraft, or black magic. A 2010 Gallup poll found that belief in magic is widespread throughout sub-Saharan Africa, with over half of respondents saying they personally believe in witchcraft. Studies in 18 countries in sub-Saharan Africa show belief varies widely, but on average 55 percent of people polled believe in witchcraft.Because most Westerners do not believe in magic — or at least not in the variety that has the potential to shrink or steal someone’s genitals — there is no underlying belief system that would make koro plausible and thus no one reports it.

No one has ever died from koro, at least not directly. Belief in koro can have deadly consequences: hundreds of people have been accused of stealing (or shrinking) other people’s genitals, and dozens have been killed for the accusations. In many cases koro “victims” have shouted and asked bystanders to help apprehend the penis thief, whereupon the accused people — often as surprised as everyone else and protesting their innocence — have been lynched on the spot by street mobs, much the way an accused mugger or rapist might be set upon by “street justice.”

It’s hard to believe that Africa can be so different from America, even to this extent. I don’t know; perhaps I’m being too ignorant of the world outside of the United States. Either way, I’m just glad that I’m not living in West Africa right now.

What Is Happiness?

In yesterday’s post, I showed you a cartoon. For today, for now, I will attempt to figure out this cartoon’s message. First of all, we can take this literally. In the cartoon (see yesterday’s post), there is a man saying “I want happiness!” If we think it literal, what the man wants is the word “happiness.” Therefore, the Buddha guy rubs off the words “I want” to get that single word “happiness.”

But of course, there is more to that. Perhaps the cartoonist is trying to define happiness for us. As the Buddha guy says, “I” stands for ego and “want” stands for desire. By having those words removed, the message could be that happiness has to exist without any ego or any desire. If without those, than with what?

Basically, all of this goes back to the main philosophical question of what is happiness. Many of us think that happiness is being Bill Gates, getting fame, or getting whatever we want. But as this cartoon shows, that is all ego and desire. Yes, it is happiness in a sense, but just temporary happiness. True happiness does not occur with these worldly things. So again, with what?

Before we approach this question in a philosophical view, let us approach it in a scientific view, and in terms of psychology. Some psychologists argue that happiness results from encountering unexpected positive events. Others say it is from basking in praise from others. Yet still others say that is is just experiencing emotions such as love, family, etc. Psychologist Martin Seligman provides the acronym PERMA to summarize Positive Psychology’s correlational findings: humans seem happiest when they have Pleasure (tasty foods, warm baths, etc.), Engagement (or flow, the absorption of an enjoyed yet challenging activity),Relationships (social ties have turned out to be extremely reliable indicator of happiness), Meaning (a perceived quest or belonging to something bigger), and Accomplishments (having realized tangible goals).

However, I believe science cannot truly express happiness in accurate terms in the same way I believe science cannot truly represent God. Therefore it is time to turn to philosophy. Like I said before, I believe there are two types of happiness: one temporary and one true. The temporary happiness are usually getting money, riches, fame, power, and so on. True happiness, I believe, is involved with God, religion, love, family, and so on. Essentially, happiness is love. Happiness is what one feels when she helps a poor person or what one feels when she is reunited with her family. Happiness- true happiness- is just loving others and being loved yourself.

Now I am wondering: what kind of happiness is the happiness I get when I ace a test or get accepted by a famous college? At first, I was beginning to think that this was temporary happiness, but now I am thinking maybe not. Maybe happiness should also include the satisfaction we get when we found out that all our hard work has paid off. So essentially, happiness is love and satisfaction.

Ancient philosophers have suggested that happiness is the best guide to moral behavior. Think about it: let’s say you cheated on a test. More than often would one feel guilty about it. They won’t feel “satisfied.” In other words, they won’t feel happy. But if you didn’t cheat the test and you studied hard, more than often does one feel “satisfied” aka happy. However, this doesn’t work all the time, such as in cases where a person’s moral compass goes totally out of wack.

Well, I don’t know if that’s the definition of happiness. I do know, however, that happiness is undefinable

Controlling Your Emotions

Hello readers. Yesterday, I talked about whether manners were important in today’s society. However, I want to ask: what causes bad manners?

Bad manners can come out of the lack of knowledge. For instance, in Nepal, burping is good and even expected after eating a meal. To Nepalese people, it shows that you truly enjoyed the meal. However, we all know that in the US and in many European countries, burping is rude, disgusting, and unimaginably horrid. So if a Nepalese person came to the US and burped after a meal, he’s technically having bad manners, due to his lack of knowledge of US etiquette.

But perhaps the main reason why bad manners occur is because of our emotions. Below is a psychologist telling why we need to control our emotions.

Thinking about it, most of the bad manners I have done as a little kid was usually resulting from my emotions. One time, I didn’t like what a teacher told me to do, so I stuck my tongue out at her. (Geez, why did I do that?) Another time, I felt really really lonely, so during a spelling test I cracked jokes at everybody so everybody would pay attention to me. Other times, I had feelings of resentment inside me so I simply yelled at my parents. Even if the reason why I was feeling angry was not their fault.

So I guess we all need to control our emotions. Sometimes, it is emotions that can cloud our judgment, thus resulting in poor acting and behavior and thus bad manners.