Monday, 16 May 2011

First principles and Creativity

In talking about literature, more precisely "formulaic" writing, Frye wrote that a such thing is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, he likened it to the rules of a game, such as chess or tennis, where the rules themselves provide form and stability where great players may be judged and deemed great precisely because of those rules and standards.

This is the power of first principles. The notion of first principles is not just about literature per se but also that first principles form the basis of music, science, philosophy, politics, mathematics - in fact, the whole notion of the Great Conversation par excellence - because connoisseurship and genius at its best is not possible without it. In fact, human creativity and actualization of potential is not possible without it; education (reading, writing, excellence in critical thought, making and use of tools and skills) is not possible without the foundation of first principles, whether it be conscious or not.

I know of great many people who failed in or have no formal education who are still what I'd call "successful in life", as I know of many people who have credentials but who can't seem to make much of their education. Frank Pierce's letter to the editor ( generated a lot of feedback, much of it thoughtful, some of it not so thoughtful. But there is an spoken assumption that "education" is a product or a ticket to life given to a chosen few, not a way of being right now, right here.

This is natural given that our education system here in the Western world sells it as a product. But if we think back to ancestoral times, education as such is a very recent perspective. The cave man (or woman), our parents (especially those who were not part of a formal economic system until only very recently) who never went through an education system were still successful even without the blessing of a bureacratic recognition. So, "education" is not a piece of paper.

It is a rite of passage, an education in first principles whether it be hunting, gathering, farming, making tools or honing useful skills, maths, arts etc. This is because the notion of first principles is based on autonomous thinking and being capable of thriving using contraints that are infinitely creative like musical scales or grammars of language.

The greatest achievements, such as eco-friendly cultures and technologies, Galois' group theory, Einstein's theories of relativity, chemistry, did not just come out of the blue fully formed and complete, nor did they magically appear as manna from heaven. They came about because their inspiration is based on and built up from prior knowledge and wisdom which proved what works, what is possible. In order to "break" the rules one has to first know the rules.

Now, going back to Pierce's question why Nunavut students lack numeracy and literacy skills: because counting/calculation and reading/writing are just means to greater ends and not ends in and of themselves. Without knowledge of first principles education is just a form of propaganda and domestication based on "anxiety of continuity" as in Frye's analysis:

"The anxiety of continuity is really an anxiety of hoping never to meet a situation in which there is a dialectical conflict... [for] Dialectical conflict implies, among other things, a group of individuals who have grown out of a social body, not to the point of breaking with it, but to the point of seeing it in proportion. We belong to something first; we are something afterwards, and the individual grows out of the group and not the other way round".

Frye also says something about the revolutionary ideals of the West - liberty, equality and fraternity - as motives for humanistic education; that the first two have become mass movements in our day "but the third one, fraternity, the sense of personal relationships, is one that has been largely ignored".

In fact, formal "secular" education has become the art of active ignorance of "fraternity" where, here in Nunavut, it has always been more expedient for students to memorize the prescribed benchmarks of an Alberta curriculum than to learn how to think in and of their own culture and language to center a curiousity of the larger world outside. It doesn't have to be.

Inuit culture/language and the immense learning opportunities offered and provided by our indigenous environment need not be a bogeyman in the closet. The "anxiety of continuity" is a misplaced existential anxiety based on fear of irrelevancy. First principles, said Buckminster Fuller, should be able to be grasped by a six-year-old. From this, the rest of the career in schools can and should be based on cultivating personal creativity based on discipline.

Arithmetic need not be boring and mechanical; the use the basic skills therein opens up the world of mathematics where arithmetic becomes a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. Literacy is more than just a book report but a means to understanding and discoursing on what it is, and what is possible, to be human in the social realm. As Frye also said, the point is not indoctrinating morality but ensuring the morale of society.

To distinguish the vulgar mythology of individualism and appeasement of base wishes that is corporatist propaganda from the Great Conversation, "Beyond this layer of phony mythology, prejudice and cliché comes the serious mythology, or genuine social vision; the vision that makes us believe in things like democracy and liberty" and fraternity and human dignity that celebrates the creativity of humanity instead of the destructive selfish apathy that results from unbridled, uncritical consumerism.


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