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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Maintaining Traditions of Practical Wisdom: Not Becoming a "Fool."

Practical wisdom is not musing about how someone else in a hypothetical situation ought to act. It's about "What am I do?" -- right here and right now, with this person. A practically wise person doesn't merely speculate about what's proper; she does it.
-- Schwartz, B & Sharpe, K Practical Wisdom. The Right Way to Do the Right Thing. (2010) New York: (Penguin) Riverhead. p.7.
Ever noticed how many of the things we purchase come with assurances of "foolproof" usage? Why is that? Probably because, in order to save money, we purchase things that need assembly, or finishing of one kind or another, yet we are unlikely to have the familiarity with the objects involved to know how to avoid technical problems with them.

Those of us with a lot of schooling like to believe that having read abstruse texts and done difficult mathematics has somehow made us clever and handy when dealing with physical objects in the real world. Why waste money on completed items, or hire presumed "experts" -- likely a person with a few days instruction -- to assemble them for us, when we can do the job ourselves?

But just try, for the first time, to do any of the following:
a. digging a round hole one foot deep;
b. baking a soufflé ;
c. hammering a nail into a board;
d. assembling a small multicomputer network with peripherals.

We would do well to start off with some ancient wisdom: nothing is as easy as it looks. The few days' instruction that the kid at the hardware or electronics store gets is a few days more than we have. But, rather than take a few days to consider and prepare for what has to be done, we -- not wishing to "waste time" -- rush ahead and, if we are lucky, do a barely passable job.

If we break something, we put it back into the box and take it back to the store, telling them that "it came that way." The merchant, without objection, takes it back -- he has insurance (or warranty sales) covering such losses; and, a sale is a sale, the profit being substantial enough to cover several replacements -- for which they get credit from the manufacturer anyway. "Practical wisdom" often trumps even "honesty."

Social obligation can suppress personal virtue. Ruth Benedict in The Sword and the Chrysanthemum. (1946) Boston: Houghton, gives an example in the Japanese complaint, "I lost my virtue by fulfilling my obligations." This is offered as explaining why, in a "normal" movie plot shown to Japanese subjects of Benedict's research, a teacher shields his wealthy yet thieving mother from opprobrium, accepting the blame for the theft of school funds. This, in turn drives the teacher's wife, taking their young child with her, to commit suicide (and murder) rather than live with the familial shame. Filial piety, in some cultures, trumps many a personal consideration. (Consider the fatal feuding between the Hatfields and the McCoys.)

"Modern" cycles of short-term use and replacement, "planned obsolescence," keep much of the economy going. But if fashion, alone, can't make you "upgrade," foolishness, e.g. mechanical ignorance, or deliberate planning, even, will. (Just think of mobile phones, "finished" and sold encased in slippery glass.)

But planned obsolescence or planned fragility works not only for mobile phones, DVD players, IKEA furniture, or automobiles or houses -- "fixer-uppers" -- , but also, increasingly, for medical care, law, scientific research and education. (See Schwartz & Sharpe, cited above, throughout.) Political and market, rather than disciplinary, considerations are at work to "fool-proof" the professions.

In education, unlike in other public service professions who know better than to wash their dirty laundry in public, there are always crusading "reformers" who are quite willing to point out who the fools are: thus we have recurrent attempts at "teacher-proofing" the curriculum. (See see On The Viability Of A Curriculum Leadership Role )

The success of this approach can be judged, for example, by the fact that, despite great hoopla and hype, Teach for America has yet to take over even small minority of public schools. It is the rare dilettante who has the patience, the dedication, to pursue expertise.

Even more painful for the greater majority of Americans to contemplate is, in these early days of the 21st Century, how dilettantism, not to mention rank incompetence has undermined vital functions of our national government.

But public service professionals, themselves, tend to shy away from rigorous resistance to the inroads made by those who would dilute professional norms and judgment for the sake of easy political and economic gain.

For references and to examine these issues further, see Minimizing Politicization in Public Service Decision-Making


Cordially
--- EGR

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Describing vs Defining. Does it make much practical difference?


Why don't we teach children definitions for everyday objects? Wouldn't it help them to have a definition of their mother, or their toy train so that they could recognize them?

It seems not likely. Most kids wouldn't need such definitions. Barring disruptions to family life, children usually recognize their parents or toys. Besides, if they "needed" such definitions, would they need to know, in advance, how to use them? Learning to use definitions is usually what happens during schooling and many schooled people don't learn to do it well, anyway.

But in order to learn to use specific definitions of their parents and toys, would children need to learn how first how to use even prior definitions to recognize the specific ones of their parents and toys? But, then, etc. etc.

How do we avoid this logical regress?

Suppose Harry is someone we all know. It is an everyday kind of question to ask, "Can you describe Harry?" It is somehow odd to ask, "Can you define Harry?" This contrast between what it is not unusual to ask with what it is strange to ask points out an important difference between the activities of describing and defining.

Consider, again, the difference between the following answers to the question "Who is the town coroner?"
1. She's the elderly woman who lives in the green house on Logan Street.
2. He or she is the doctor who is elected to conduct official medical inquiries for the town.

We intuit that describing and defining are, in some ways, similar activities but normally differ in, at least, three dimensions: focus, criteria used, and range. The chart sketched below lays out some differences.

  FOCUS CRITERIA RANGE
DESCRIBE A unique(?) individual Easily recognizable,

Often accidental

Specific, ...
DEFINE (A "typical" individual)

A class (or set)

(...) Essential

Sometimes difficult to ...

Strives for ...,
free from ...

Scanning the chart, as incomplete as it is, you can see some items which would be problematic for an intelligence, natural or artificial, that relied on only memory and abstraction for categorization, e.g. uniqueness, typicality, context, for a few. (For more on this see Concept as Abstraction)

For a completed chart and an expansion on this essay with practice exercises to explore the relationship between between describing and defining, see https://goo.gl/atrf21 .


Cordially,

--EGR