Don’t Worry about Flashy

Often, when we start learning to do something new, we begin with visions of how amazed people will be to witness our new skills or accomplishments. That’s what gets us started in the first place.

It’s good to dream about being fluently conversational in a language. It’s good to dream about being able to do cool things like a ninety degree push-up. (Have you heard of those?? Check them out; they’re absolutely the coolest.)

But don’t rush to those goals. Build a strong foundation, and then build systematically upon that. Embrace plateaus when they arrive and don’t give up before progress resumes. It’s slow work. The impressive stuff will come with time. And when it does come, it’ll really mean something.

In the meantime, don’t be embarrassed to admit that in your months of practicing you haven’t gotten around to learning anything impressive yet, if anyone asks. Make whatever excuses you feel you need to make, but in the end don’t be ashamed to admit that you’re not there yet. And don’t let embarrassment be a reason to give up.

Many will not realize it, but if you’ve been working for months or years on slowly learning something, and you haven’t yet given up on it, that’s impressive all by itself.

And if people are underwhelmed in the short term, they might be all the more impressed when eventually the hard work of persistent years finally begins to pay off.

Then again, maybe those people won’t be impressed. “Took you long enough!” But you’ll impress yourself. And you’ll impress all those who weren’t impatiently watching from the sidelines, those who see only the end result and hear the inspiring story of how it came about.

Don’t hurry, and don’t give up.

The worst thing about school

The worst thing about school is how short it is.

That might sound insane. And for most people, probably the point I’m making is irrelevant and school is actually just long enough, or perhaps even too long.

For the person who wants to get out of school and get on with life, school is of course not too short.

For the person who wants to get a good practical degree, in engineering or business or something of that kind, I’m assuming that you receive everything you should need in a degree and will not wish for more, or more time, in school.

For the person who really wants to think about how the world works, to look at the history of ideas and their expression and their clashes with one another, school is not long enough, not nearly.

To attain a really powerful level of education, it’s necessary to think and act and plan in terms of five or ten years at a time, in my experience. Learning languages, getting to know fields of study, getting acquainted and skilled with different methodologies or writing styles — to be done well, these things really require very large investments of time.

In postsecondary education, everything needs to be planned in one- or two-year segments, and so it may be that what is learned is not so much the substance of a thing as how to make a convincing facade of having understood something. Not a completely useless skill, perhaps, but hardly the goal of a genuine education.

It is only at the level of a PhD that these time constraints finally begin to expand slightly, and yet based on the nearly universal reports of the stress and anguish of students in doctoral studies, it seems that even here the required leisure is not quite made available.

I do not doubt that there is much, much room for improvement in the way formal education is structured in the world today, though I don’t have any confidence to propose specific practical changes at an organizational level. The best I can recommend is a change in mindset for students.

It’s important to see the short time of a college education as a starting point, a time for gathering resources that will support us on our longer-term autodidactic educational projects, rather than as an education complete in itself. I think I’ve managed to make this leap for myself, but perhaps only because of luck, on account of the opportunity that Covid provided. I hope many others will have the chance to share in the same sort of approach I have found for myself.

A Dynamic Incompatibility

There are two ways to engage with a set of opposing viewpoints that present themselves to us for evaluation: through bringing them together into a contest, or through something closer to cooperation.

The first approach tries to choose one of the two as the winner, as the right option, and to show why it is good and the alternative is bad. It can be (and should be!) as nuanced and balanced and fair-handed as you like; that doesn’t change what it is. It’s the winner-loser, right-wrong, yes-no approach. And sometimes this is the only reasonable way to deal with a question.

But only rarely are we forced to choose the first approach; such necessity arises in a practical situation with limited time and resources at our disposal. Most often, though, we choose that first approach without being forced, entirely freely, automatically and thoughtlessly, even though there is a second approach available which offers considerable advantages over the first.

The second approach puts off the decision of a winner indefinitely. A winner may surface, but not on any sort of predetermined timeline.

This second approach says that until there is a clear way to decide which of the two viewpoints is correct (or more correct), the two will be held together as live options. In the meantime, if there is a practical way of living as an agnostic then we will do so (for instance, living in such a way that the worst of either hypothetical can be prevented or curtailed).

With time, holding the two in tension can turn out to be not just the intellectually honest thing to do (withholding judgement in the absence of clear grounds for judgement), but also the most wise and advantageous thing to do. It can turn out that both are partly true, in ways that would never have become clear to us if we had rejected one of them outright.

So then, choose the path of lively, dynamic incompatibilities. Let paradoxes and apparent contradictions characterize our thinking, and see what unexpected syntheses might arise.

The Catholic Encompasses Western History

One reason why I’m grateful to be a Catholic is for the comprehensive way that Catholic identity encompasses the history of what we might call the Western world.

The first Christians lived in a context that was governed by systems of Roman administration, in which the universal language and the literary exemplars were Greek. Their heritage and their Scripture was Jewish, a Semitic people whose stories and traditions and thinking had been profoundly affected by the empires of the ancient world, such as the Persians, Assyrians, Babylonians. Deep in our roots, these things are familiar, and we are at home with them.

In the Church’s first centuries, Greek philosophy and literature grew to be more and more influenced by and intertwined with the growing Christian faith, until eventually they became one. Likewise, Roman society and government developed ever more points of contact with the Christian faith, until they became almost a single system that included both religious and temporal rulers.

We can think of the intellectual and cultural developments of the Middle Ages, of the West’s benefitting from and clashing against Islamic civilization, and similarly benefitting from and clashing against Eastern Christian traditions. We can call to mind the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, even the Protestant Reformation. These were all Catholic things, and while subsequent intra-Protestant developments are alien to the Catholic mind, the Reformation itself cannot be well understood, even by Protestants, without a knowledge of the Catholic backdrop of the story and indeed, of the Catholic currents of thought that informed and propelled the Reformers themselves.

Even the contemporary moment is a Catholic moment, although it can be more difficult to recognize it as such. The political institutions we possess, and the moral intuitions that we often invoke to justify them, have largely grown out of Medieval and Renaissance Europe; likewise the tradition of natural science, our artistic and philosophical context, our views of family and work and leisure. “Secularism” takes its name from a Catholic distinction between the rulers who have power in the present age as opposed to those whose first concern is for the eternal destiny of souls. Atheism in its many forms cannot help being derived from a reaction against Catholicism (or one of the offshoots of Catholicism), a reaction which itself speaks with the language of ancient Catholic mystical teachings about the darkness and absence of God.

To build on an oft-quoted remark of St Newman, we could perhaps say that the opposite is also nearly true — that to look at the history of the West (even in all its disfigurements and imperfection) with love, appreciation, sympathy, understanding, solidarity, admiration, rather than with hostility and contempt and alienation, is to be drawn inexorably toward thinking and living like a Catholic.

The person who loves Western history (not necessarily with a blind love, remember) does explicitly and externally what the Catholic does implicitly and internally. The external observer who can’t understand why either does so, may well be justified in such incomprehension. It is often unclear to us, even as its call is impossible to ignore.

Duolingo isn’t foolproof, but it’s amazing

When I see someone getting excited about Duolingo online, the immediate and universal response seems to be a collective pumping of the brakes. “Whoa, calm down. Sure, Duolingo’s not bad and all, but you know it doesn’t teach anyone any languages, right? You need to use other resources alongside Duolingo. Maybe instead of Duolingo. Maybe just give up now.”

The nay-sayers are half right. Duolingo doesn’t necessarily teach anyone a language. It’s not foolproof. But, it can.

It seems to me that there’s an implicit promise in the gamification that characterizes Duolingo: play the game, succeed in the game, and you will be learning languages.

This is an understandable assumption. But it is false, and to believe that misleading implication will only lead to disappointment and disillusionment.

Indeed, the more you focus on winning the game, racking up points and ascending the leaderboards in different leagues, the less likely you are to be progressing in the language. That will remain true as long as Duolingo is set up how it currently is. Buckling down and slowly learning a new language is not a good way to accumulate points in Duolingo.

To take an extreme example of how you could be doing “well” on Duolingo without learning anything, you could read the same “story” every day for ten years and do nothing else. Some of your statistics would be really impressive after that time, but your learning would be absolutely negligible.

But let’s take a couple more common mistakes. You could work through an entire language tree on the first level. You’ll reach the end after months of diligent work and have a pretty good overview of how the language fits together, but no depth of understanding.

Or you could do even better than that, take every unit of the entire language to level five or legendary or whatever, celebrate the completion of the language, and then move on to spend a couple years doing the same thing with the next language on your list. Why is this a mistake? If you abandon the language for a couple years, you’re likely to come back to with with much of it forgotten.

Duolingo is designed to be flexible enough to allow us to fail in these ways, because that same flexibility can be a great advantage in other cases. But none of these things mean that Duolingo can’t teach a language.

You can learn a language through university classes or private lessons, even though the same mistakes are possible there.

You can learn a language from studying independently with a textbook, if you have enough gumption, even though you can certainly make all the same mistakes there as well.

The real key, I think, is in allowing the gamification to support the use of some amazing language learning resources, rather than missing the language by getting too caught up in the game.

A Best Life in the Cracks

Demand your best life today, even if it has to be fitted into the cracks. Choose the best life.

What cracks? The cracks in a schedule. We all have obligations. None of us are as free as we wish we could be. The university student has classes and homework. The working parent has a job and a household. The obligations can consume our waking hours.

But we all have opportunities for leisure too, even if for now it’s just a few minutes at a time, scattered here and there throughout the day. The moments when we would normally scroll through social media, check the news, watch a video.

We can live any life in those cracks. We alone rule ourselves in those moments, unlike the rest of the time when we serve other masters.

We can live like royalty if we want, in those moments, or like soldiers, like scholars, like farmers, chefs, authors, artists, musicians, tyrants, philosophers, activists, mystics, anything at all.

What’s the life you would love to have, if your time were your own and finances were taken care of? Start training now, in case the opportunity ever arises.

Even if the opportunity never comes, that life will still infuse your existence, seeping through the cracks. What could be more worthwhile?

Education resists enthymemes

Enthymemes are the sort of partial and fragmentary reasoning that we find all around us. Often they arise as a short, single sentence that immediately exerts a persuasive force. Often they arrive wrapped in a story or a description.

The purpose of an enthymeme is to let us off the hook, to allow us to circumvent the need for thinking. If a syllogism makes a point in the course of three statements, the enthymeme will make that same point with only two statements, or only one, and leave the remainder of the syllogism implicit.

Let’s take an example. “Wow. The new budget focuses a lot on climate change.” Depending on whose mouth this statement is found, and before what audience, the statement will imply a second statement immediately behind it, either “and therefore the new budget is bogus” or “and therefore the new budget is encouraging to see.” But to reach either conclusion, a third statement, an intermediate one bridging from the first to the second, will also be necessary. “Whatever focuses a lot on climate change as a problem is encouraging to see / is bogus.”

The explicit statement might be unquestionable, might be objective and provable, and since nothing else is said the reasoning itself may seem equally ironclad. “They just said it focused on climate change, which is obviously true. Where’s the problem?” Even if the conclusion is made explicit, the enthymeme might appear very strong, at least to someone who wants to agree with it, since the conclusion seems to be based entirely and directly upon a statement that is firmly rooted in demonstrable reality. It’s only once the third statement is brought to light, the one most deeply concealed, that we can see more clearly how flimsy the argumentation is in itself and how much supplemental argumentation would be necessary to make the argument convincing.

In real life, syllogisms very rarely show up in their mature, elaborated, three-step formulation. Enthymemes are the medium of choice (or more frequently, are the medium of thoughtless resignation). But behind every enthymeme, the syllogism lurks, usually not difficult to find once we know how, and often revealing problems in an argument that are easily skated past when the syllogism is left partly implicit.

The fact that an argument appears in the form of an enthymeme is no disproof of it. Arguments that are perfectly true and perfectly reasonable can be communicated by way of enthymeme.

For a person properly educated, though, an enthymeme is a signal to pause and think, a reminder to resist (at least momentarily) the impulse to give assent to an argument. Enthymemes can conceal major problems in a line of reasoning. When listening to a weighty argument, it is prudent to agree to a point only after having searched out the hidden premises and weighed their value. To do otherwise just makes us the willing tools of others, the obedient dupes of whoever talks first or loudest.

I want to have it all

Sometimes two apparently incompatible conclusions both speak to us, and we find ourselves torn.

I remember how I once, as a teenager, spoke to a college-aged friend about his introduction to philosophy class. He made me laugh. “In class I hear all the arguments about why free will must exist, and I’m utterly convinced,” he said, “and then the next day I go to class and learn all the reasons why free will is impossible, and I find them just as convincing! What am I supposed to do?”

If you’ve studied any Christian theology, and not even just at the most introductory level, you’ll probably have seen Christian or biblical thought opposed to Greek philosophy, most often to the detriment of the Greek. Those Platonists hated the body, don’t you know, and couldn’t wait to be released from it, because they didn’t realize that the body is such a vital part of human existence and a good gift from God! Even those theologians who are determined not to make a strawman of Greek philosophy still find themselves subtly drawing comparisons and oppositions, since it is so natural, even unavoidable.

But then what happens to those who love the biblical things and also love what the Greeks thought?

There are two ways to resolve these oppositions within us. One is by the will, and one is by intellect.

It is a mistake to decide these intellectual matters simply by force of will, but it is hard to resist. We know that two things cannot both be entirely true, and we know that we have no intellectual way of deciding competently between them. So then we must pick one or the other, familiarize ourselves with the best arguments for it, and then commit, and become the enemies of whoever has chosen otherwise.

The other possibility , besides arbitrary decision, is to seek understanding of both sides, to grasp them both perfectly enough that eventually one of them clearly and justly is seen to get the better of the other. This must be our choice. This is the only responsible way to settle the conflict.

But in the meantime, we have to hold both sides as possible, as reasonable options.

I’m not in favour of a lazy subjectivism where nothing is ever wrong. I really think we should actually roll up our sleeves and get to work seeing how strong each side of the debate really is. But until we’ve accomplished that, we have to be okay with living in uncertainty.

This may mean a lot of uncomfortable uncertainty. Take the biblical vs Greek question, for instance; in order to adjudicate between these two responsibly, at least several years worth of reading and study would be required. And focusing on that question will mean delaying our investigation of other questions that people love to be opinionated about, of politics and economics and ethics and certain practical scientific debates, among other things. It all takes time! So we need to use our time well, and in the meanwhile, admit that we don’t know the answers and can’t rule out even incompatible options. It’s a lot more fun than it might initially appear.

Families as islands of illiberalism

Families are much closer to autocracies than to liberal democracies. Parents have incredible control over the lives and activities of their children.

Some families may aspire to a more liberal constitution, but even there the reality will only allow for so much freedom, especially when children are in their younger years. Allowing a judicious dose of freedom whenever possible can certainly be a good and commendable thing, but such freedom must always have limits, imposed by the parents, and even valid uses of freedom may sometimes necessitate attempts at persuading the children to use their freedom more wisely or beneficially.

To whatever extent a family will be a dictatorship, it can be either a benevolent dictatorship or a tyranny. The former will seek the good of the governed, and the good of the whole family. The latter will use its power selfishly, trying to maximize benefits (or more likely, minimize inconveniences) to the rulers.

Even the most liberal of states will in this way be absolutely filled with illiberal activity, of a (generally) positive sort. An honest defender of liberalism will admit this fact without concern, though someone too consumed by ideology could try to downplay this obvious truth.

The family is the most natural and appropriate place for such illiberal government. The level of government that is furthest removed from the family or the individual is the place where it is least suitable.

And yet, this does not mean that any level of government should shirk its duty, should try to pass the buck to lower levels. It is inappropriate for a higher level of government to try to micromanage the activities of individual citizens, as a parent might have to micromanage the activities of an infant. However, where the higher levels can make changes that benefit all citizens, it is appropriate for them to do so, rather than hoping that lower levels will pick up their slack.

In some ways, modern politics is the worst of both worlds. The politicians are as self-interested as any tyrant, and the state is permissive of immoral and destructive behaviours in the name of freedom. I think it would be possible to keep many of the strengths of liberal democracy without needing to hold onto these worst qualities.