Random finds (2018, week 29) — On the ‘Two Cultures’ fallacy, liminal leadership and rites of passage, and curiosity and the liability it has become
I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.” — Michel de Montaigne
Random finds is a weekly curation of my tweets, and, as such, a reflection of my curiosity.
With this week: how the terms ‘techie’ and ‘fuzzy’ became cultural touchstones; the messiness of complexity and interdependency, and being ‘betwixt and between’ old and new structures; curiosity and the liability it has become; Charles Handy; Martha Nussbaum; Bertrand Russel; Anne Michaels’ Infinite Gradation; Tito’s concrete utopia; and moderation, the most challenging and rewarding virtue.
The ‘Two Cultures’ fallacy
“When we were teaching at Stanford in the late 2000s, the terms ‘techie’ and ‘fuzzy’ became cultural touchstones: The ‘techies’ majored in engineering and the sciences, the ‘fuzzies’ in arts and the humanities,” write Jennifer Summit and Blakey Vermeule in The ‘Two Cultures’ Fallacy. And although everybody, from faculty and administrators to the students themselves, seems to deplore this framing, the words have nevertheless become an unshakable stereotype.
“Polarization between the humanities and the sciences is by no means unique to Stanford.” Summit and Vermeule argue. In 1959, the British physicist and novelist C.P. Snow delivered his famously controversial lecture at Cambridge University, in which he lamented the great cultural divide that separates two great areas of human intellectual activity: science and the arts.
Snow’s thesis was that shifting attitudes had caused a polarization between intellectuals of these two great culture streams. The loss of a common culture and emergence of two distinct academic disciplines, he believed, could only drive a wedge between scientists and non-scientists, with a resulting negative effect on intellectual life. According to Snow, intellectuals on both sides, who remained willfully ignorant of each other, were to blame (but especially those in the humanities).
“Snow identified this as a newly emergent divide, across which each party was more than happy to sneer at the other: scientists proudly unable to quote a phrase of Shakespeare, and literary types untroubled by the second law of thermodynamics,” Richard Lachman writes in STEAM not STEM. Today, this division seems more deeply entrenched than ever before.
“The terms of the debate have become so familiar that speakers on both sides, however vehement or heartfelt their arguments, appear to be reading from a well-worn script,” Summit and Vermeule write. But “[s]eeing the conflict as a carry-over of the ancient debate between the active life and the contemplative life explains why the two sides have remained so intransigent: Each is defined in opposition to the other, each needs the other to play counterpoint. Both sides can articulate the values they hold in emotionally satisfying but utterly imprecise contrasts: useful versus useless, material versus idealistic, narrowly careerist versus broadly learned. As long as this opposition itself remains unquestioned, any ‘defense’ of the humanities will only reinforce and prolong the debate,” they argue.
“This would not pose a problem if the debate were merely a highbrow parlor game — as it has been at various stages of its long history — but the stakes now are too high to dismiss. The apparent opposition between STEM fields and the humanities distracts from the far more important and urgent question at the center of the university’s mission: What is the purpose of higher education: to prepare for a job, or to cultivate a lifelong curiosity, sense of wonder, humility toward what we don’t know, and deep civic-mindedness?
The conflict between what C.P. Snow famously called ‘the two cultures’ will remain with us as long as we remain collectively divided about what it means to be an educated person. Until we can get out from under the debate’s deeply ingrained and oppositional terms, we will remain at a standstill,” Summit and Vermeule write. “The question […] is not how to define and rank the relative prestige of the disciplines, but rather how best to bring the branches of learning together to inspire students to produce more integrated knowledge.”
“As researchers from the Institute for the Future suggested in their Future Work Skills 2020 report, ‘While throughout the 20th century, ever-greater specialization was encouraged, the new century will see transdisciplinary approaches take center stage.’ Projects that bring together scientists, engineers, artists, humanists, and social scientists in ways that bridge traditional disciplinary divides produce fresh approaches to complex questions. New knowledge requires new forms of education. Where 20th-century paradigms of teaching and learning emphasized disciplinary specialization, we now need ‘a new culture of learning’ — to quote the title of Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown’s 2011 book.
The challenge we face as educators is how to restore imagination and creativity to students who have come to associate education with the lack of those qualities. Rather than offering lip service and window dressing, we need to step far outside our dominant models of learning, thinking, and living. Schools discourage creative thinking, the educator Ken Robinson observes, in large part through their tendency to elevate ‘some disciplines over others.’ To counter this, he suggests, ‘we need to eliminate the existing hierarchy of subjects.’
Rather than reinforce boundaries between disciplines and the value-laden hierarchies that keep them in place, we need to accept that studies in ‘imagination’ and ‘humanity’ are no less vital to work and citizenship than those of ‘facts’ and ‘machines.’ This is the time for humanists and scientists, fuzzies and techies, to overcome the divisions of knowledge, culture, and value that separate them. Doing so will transform the disciplines themselves, and displace the oppositional framework that has for so long defined and divided them.”
“We live in a world in which distrust and greed and violence masquerade as common sense, and in which the pathways of distrust and greed and violence are rapidly becoming self-validating. By following those pathways, we create the social and international structures, the premises upon which we must live. By choosing the ‘common sense’ of distrust, we choose also the progressive truth of distrust. We cause horror to become the only pathway to wisdom.” — Gregory Bateson
“Whatever leadership used to be — it used to be. Now, it has to be something different. Now, we all have to be more than we were,” argues Nora Bateson in an article for Kosmos, titled Liminal Leadership.
Strategic leadership, leadership from behind, organizational, innovative, creative leadership, collective leadership, transformational leadership, cross-cultural leadership, team leadership — the list of leadership models is endless, Bateson writes. “But the kind of leadership that I want to explore may not be identifiable as leadership at all. I am interested in a kind of mutually alert care and attention to the wellbeing of all people and ecological systems. This kind of leadership cannot be found in individuals; rather, it is found between them. It cannot be found in organizations, nations, religions, or institutions; rather, it is found between them. I have called it ‘Liminal Leadership’ to highlight these relational characteristics.”
Like Bateson already wrote in her seminal book Small Arcs of Larger Circles, this kind of leadership is produced collectively. “The illusion of the prevailing way of thinking is that there is someone to blame — or to praise — as a leader, hero, villain, tyrant, saint or Satan. And that thinking — that is how we got where we are today.” But in the ecology of the interdependence of our world, this individualistic idea is wildly out of sync. It “distracts from our ability to perceive larger interactions in context. In a world in which individualism is a viable illusion, collaborative discovery is unseen” (page 87). The prevailing notion of individual leadership also pulls the focus away from the contextual conditions that made them. “Is the tree tall because it grew more cleverly than the other trees? Or is it because the soil, light, water, and biodiversity of that particular acorn was nourished to provide the conditions for thriving trees? It is precisely this contextual relational process that the future depends upon,” Bateson writes in her article for Kosmos.
“Complexity and interdependency are messy. The relational processes that are at work are in motion — always calibrating, changing, and compensating. In between the hours, in between the phases of evolution, in between being professionals and parents and lovers, friends and patients and citizens, activists and athletes — in the liminal land of being alive together in this incoherent moment, there is mutual learning. Between us is the genesis of ability to perceive and respond to the complexity of this time.
I will meet you there. In the liminal plaza of our shared future.
I know how misty that may sound.
The tone of skepticism that sterilizes the complexity of the way things are is toxic to the vulnerable of visionary seedlings. When new ideas appear, their inventors often get their heads chopped off, even though leadership is supposed to be about discovery. It is about doing new things, in new ways. If, and it is a big ‘if,’ humanity learns to live in a new way, I believe we will do so by learning together. This will not be because a hot-shot author has a new best-selling book on change-making, or a viral meme, or a super TED talk.
Our liminal leadership will be as people together in a struggling biosphere — just you and me and the other 7 billion mothers and daughters and fathers and sons. We will not lead on behalf of a company or a nation, not on behalf of a religion or a belief system. We will hold each other through the storms of economic volatility, ecological turmoil, and political insanity. There will be trauma, pain, and loss through which our solace during this transformation will be nothing less than the creative expression of tenderness. Healing together is learning together is leading together. Together includes the human and non-human world.”
According to Bateson, there are three things to remember about responding to interdependency. First, wicked problems require inter-systemic change — not siloed solutions. Secondly, taking action before perception change produces repeated errors and short-circuits the necessary complexity. Ditch linear strategy. And finally, perception is intellectual, emotional, physical, cultural, and relational. Making sense is sensorial. Increasing sensitivity is necessary to find new ways through old patterns.
But are we ready?
“We better be, because increasing sensitivity is an opening to also feeling the pain of so much exploitation. That pain is asking a question: can I bear the tenderness that real systems change requires?,” she writes. “Years, decades, and more than a century have passed in which brilliant minds with breaking hearts have tried to create change in the institutions that frame our lives. They tried incrementally changing the system from within. They tried using the legal system to change the laws. They tried becoming politicians, teachers, doctors … but the institutions did not budge. The multifaceted crises the world faces today are proof enough that the establishment is not built to question itself. The pillars of civilization are pinned under the stone slab of the last several centuries of assumptions. Pillars of politics and money, of education and medicine, of psychology and religion. Structure is hard, and hard to change. The institutions have no water in their edges, no improvisation in their memory.”
Less poetically but also writing about liminality is Emma Aiken-Klar.
“During any organizational transformation there will be a liminal period in which the organization is no longer what it was, but not yet what it will be,” she writes in Learning from Liminality. It is like “a ‘rite of passage’ when we are no longer what we were, but not yet what we will be. Liminality is that point in a transformation when we are ‘betwixt and between’; the structures that maintain social order fall away, and new forms of organization emerge once the transformation is complete. During the liminal phase of a rite of passage, members of the social group experience a strong sense of social solidarity, known as communitas. This feeling of social connection is a key part of a successful transformation.
Ceremonial rites of passage are able to bring about effective transitions because they represent change that is underpinned by shared culture and beliefs. Everyone knows the outcome of the transformation before it happens, so liminality is largely performative in ceremonial contexts. The transformation is catalyzed through the strong leadership of a ceremonial master, and the ambiguity and chaos is temporary because people share a belief that the outcome is a necessary part of life. In other words, rites of passage turn out well because culture underpins the change with a sense of purpose.”
Curiosity and the liability it has become
Curiosity is a fundamental human trait. Everyone is curious, but the object and degree of that curiosity is different depending on the person and the situation. The author and astrophysicist Mario Livio was so curious about curiosity that he wrote a book about it, titled Why? What Makes Us Curious. In a conversation with Knowledge@Wharton, Livio explains what he learned in the course of writing.
“Curiosity has several kinds or flavors, and they are not driven by the same things. There is something that has been dubbed perceptual curiosity. That’s the curiosity we feel when something surprises us or when something doesn’t quite agree with what we know or think we know. That is felt as an unpleasant state, as an adversity state. It’s a bit like an itch that we need to scratch. That’s why we try to find out the information in order to relieve that type of curiosity,” Livio says.
“The other thing is that what the internet allows us to do is to satisfy what has been dubbed specific curiosity, namely you want to know a very particular detail. Who wrote this or that book? What was the name of the actor in that film? The digital age allows you to find the answer very quickly. That’s actually good because you don’t want to spend all your time trying to answer a question like that. I don’t know how you feel, but I sometimes can be really obsessed by not knowing the answer to something very, very simple like that.
In that sense, the digital age helps us because we can find that information, and that may drive us to look for something else about this. And that would drive perhaps epistemic curiosity, the love of knowledge and wanting to learn new things.”
Don Norman, the director of the Design Lab at the University of California, San Diego, is less positive about the possible influence of digital technology. In Why bad technology dominates our lives, he argues that our technology-centered view labels curiosity as a liability. It is renamed as distraction.
“Worse, many businesses have learned to exploit our curiosity. The continual bombardment of tantalizing tidbits of information deliberately designed to grab our attention away from other, potentially more valuable activities are distractions that can lead to accidents, injury, and interpersonal problems. What kind of business exploits curiosity for its own ends? Almost any business that discovers there are profits to be made by continually engaging people’s curiosity, hopes, and interests. For example gambling, computer games, social networks, and even television series that can go on and on, week after week, year after year, trapping their viewers into addiction.”
Norman believes we need to switch from this technology-centric view of the world to a people-centric one. “We should start with people’s abilities and create technology that enhances people’s capabilities: Why are we doing it backwards? We have turned the positive trait of curiosity into two negative ones. One is that of distraction, leading to accidents; the other is that of following the trails on enticement leading to addiction. We have our priorities completely wrong,” he writes.
In order to change, we first need to recognize the subtle biases that have led to this technologically dominated state. We subsequently need to reverse our priorities.
“We must change our mind-set from being technology-centric to become people-centric. Instead of starting with the technology and attempting to make it easy to understand and use, let us take human capabilities, and use the technology to expand our abilities. We need to return to one of the core properties of human-centered design: solve the fundamental issues in people’s lives.”
And also this …
“The things that hold society together are going to fragment and dissolve. It may not look like it from outside because they will still say ‘We are Unilever’ or whatever, but inside they will be a fluctuating group of smaller networks which will come and go and not be wholly owned by anybody. There’ll be no kind of safety in an institution. Companies can no longer afford to buy all of an individual’s time and then have the terrible bore of telling them what to do with it. They will buy an employee’s product or output instead, and work will be reshaped around that,” he says.
“The old thinking assumes everything can be given a monetary value, which is basically untrue. Air, water, smog can’t be given a monetary value. It also assumes everyone is a rational, calculating individual who believes that what matters most is money. But as Brexit shows, people make choices not just about what’s in their economic interests, but also what accords with their ideology or even what’s more fun. None of this is taken into account by traditional economics,” Handy told Stephen Moss.
According to Moss, Handy is fond of reframing problems in this way and likes to ask open rather than closed questions. “Stock answers hold no interest for him, which is why he dislikes being called a ‘management guru.’ Gurus claim to have all the answers and are seeking to attract followers. He has only questions, he says, and the ones that galvanise him these days concern who we are, what we are for and where we are going. He never quite escaped the moral imperatives of the vicarage in which he grew up, and, though he doesn’t believe in God, he is still seeking the god he believes is in all of us if we can unlock it.”
More timeless wisdom from Charles Handy in Humanity at a Crossroads, an article he wrote for the Global Peter Drucker Forum 2017, and The Paradox of Growth, a still extremely relevant article written in 1996 for Resurgence.
““I suspect that, in large sections of modern society, desiring (or consuming) and reasoning (or efficiency) have dwarfed the element of self-worth, which comes in large part from a sense of making a difference, from a feeling of responsibility for others and from the satisfaction of living a life that is not a lie, that is true to one’s real values,” Handy wrote in 1996. Alas, not much has changed in twenty years.
Martha Nussbaum, “Bold and unapologetic, the marathon-running, opera-loving public intellectual has weighed in on everything from aging to the nature of evil. Her goal? To make philosophy useful in our day-to-day lives,” Marilyn Cooper writes in Martha Nussbaum: The Philosopher Queen.
When asked how philosophers can influence the world today, Nussbaum says, “I don’t like telling other people what to do. But I think it’s good if at least some philosophers try to engage the general public. The problem is that there are fewer and fewer places where a philosopher can write for the general public. Newspapers don’t often publish opinion pieces by philosophers. So those of us who are lucky enough to get published in this adverse climate had better do so!”
Nussbaum also explains why we need a society of citizens who admit they are needy and vulnerable. Fear is intensely narcissistic, she tells Cooper. “When you feel your life threatened, your attention shrinks to your own body. You are once again a baby crying for what you can’t get. Babies are not good democratic citizens: In their fear, they operate by making other people their slaves. They are also utterly dependent on others, incapable of agency or reciprocity,” Nussbaum says. “As that baby develops, it becomes able to do more for itself and does not get its way by making slaves of others. At that point, it can recognize that the other people in its world also have needs and feelings, and begin to form relationships based on interdependence and mutual aid rather than just commanding and obeying. That’s what democracy needs: people who admit that they are all equally human, needy and vulnerable, and who then form a coalition of reciprocity and mutual aid.”
At the end of The best answer to fanaticism: Liberalism (The New York Times Magazin, December 16, 1951), Bertrand Russel offers us a remarkable micro-manifesto: A Liberal Decalogue. According to Russel, “Perhaps the essence of the Liberal outlook could be summed up in a new decalogue, not intended to replace the old one but only to supplement it.”
“The Ten Commandments [of Critical Thinking and Democratic Decency] that, as a teacher, I should wish to promulgate, might be set forth as follows:
- Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
- Do not think it worthwhile to produce belief by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
- Never try to discourage thinking, for you are sure to succeed.
- When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
- Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
- Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
- Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
- Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
- Be scrupulously truthful, even when truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
- Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.”
“To collect facts in one thing, to discover the meaning of facts, quite another. To ask questions that inherently have no answers. To have an instinct that a cluster of events somehow are related, though the relationship is not clear. Again, not comparison, but connection.” (page 45)
“Failure teaches us precisely what we need to know; it is intimate knowledge, custom made, which cannot be gained any other way. Failure is always forward motion. We falter and stumble over our ideals. Mistakes are not separate from who we are and what we’re meant to be. And those other names for failure — regret, shame, grief — these are not the end of the story; they are the middle of the story.” (page 48)
“In postwar Yugoslavia, […] apartment buildings were needed, urgently and in vast quantity, especially as rural populations were drawn to cities by the lure of modern living. Architects were at the foundation of the nation’s social transformation. And unlike Eastern Bloc countries in the grip of Stalinism, Yugoslavia granted the architects considerable power over their architecture,” Jonathon Keats writes.
But few of these facts are widely known today, and the architecture itself is downright obscure. The Museum of Modern Art in New York aims to correct this historical oversight with a comprehensive new exhibition. With hundreds of photographs, drawings and models, Toward a Concrete Utopia shows that post-war Yugoslavia, under Tito’s rule, was architecturally inventive at every level: structural, formal and functional.
“So what should we make of this architectural third way from the vantage of several decades’ distance?,” Keats wonders.
“In political terms, Yugoslavia was a failed experiment, succumbing to civil war and genocide when the oppressive leadership faltered. At a large scale, the lessons of post-War Yugoslavia are essentially negative. And at the scale of individual buildings, there may not be much to learn, since those buildings were successful within the very specific context of the communities in which they were built.
But in between these extremes, Yugoslavian architecture supports the idea of decentalized decision-making for infrastructure funded by the central state, and shows the supple imagination of architects who live in the communities they build, especially when they have the benefit of cross-cultural exposure and open communication with one another. The architecture of Yugoslavia deserves the recognition accorded to it by MoMA. And at least in architectural terms, the third way deserves our consideration as a path between starchitecture and the cookie cutter.”
“An able politician, I believe, resembles a good funambulist: he or she needs balance in all respects, must be prudent, alert and quick to react, and should have good intuition and a sense of direction. He or she must also have the courage to swim against the current when needed, and should always demand that the other side can also be heard on any controversial topic. The opposite is the person who knows the answers even before any questions are asked, someone who is not interested in listening, and divides the world between the forces of the good and those of evil, between friends and enemies. We have too many examples of these self-righteous spirits in our age of growing immoderation. To successfully fight against them, it is high time that we rediscover a virtue — moderation — in which, as David Hume put it so well in the 1750s, ‘we are most likely to meet with truth and certainty’. Moderation can be a successful fighting creed that keeps the dialogue open with all those who are committed to preserving the basic values of our democratic society.” — Aurelian Craiutu, a professor of political science and adjunct professor of American studies at Indiana University in Bloomington, in Moderation may be the most challenging and rewarding virtue