Sunday, 26 April 2015

A call for the democratization of knowledge

I think my notions of "education" are decidedly ancient. I'm very much a proponent of what is called "liberals arts education", an approach that was invented by the ancient Greeks who valued well-crafted ideas and the powers of articulation that demonstrate their acquisition as marks of being educated.

At its core a liberal arts education consisted of three broad subjects of study: grammar, rhetoric and logic—all of which, in some way or another, have to do with the development of linguistic/thinking skills. The additional feature of this linguistic-based approach is the learning of history as the backdrop for the development of the ideas pertaining to a given subject—for the ancient Greeks, even the mythical recasting of history is less entertainment, moralizing and fancy than a vehicle for propelling desirable characteristics and reasoning away undesirable ones in the student.

Louis Tarpardjuk, whom I esteem highly and respect much, mentions an IQ concept (or, at least a name of an elders' group) that I had never heard of: Itiakuyassuqtiit (sic)—from which we may reasonably derive the stem as itiakujassurniq—that seems pretty close to the notions of phronesis by way of counseling (Fighting for Our Rights: The Life Story of Louis Tapardjuk, CIERA, 2013, p. 69). Itiakujassurniq seems to be an approach that reasons to negative and/or positive consequences.

Talking about consequences of our actions and attitudes differs slightly from the Socratic approach in that Socrates' central idea in all of the Dialogues is the notion of "living well/rightly" though the results of the two approaches are indistinguishable in their results: phronetic insight.

I love Aesop's Fables (very short vignettes attributed to "a slave and storyteller believed to have lived in ancient Greece between 620 and 560 BCE" (Wikipedia)). The "true to nature" aspect of these fables would be familiar to Inuit culture, certainly. And Socrates, himself, seem to have had affinity with the short tales as demonstrated in Plato's Phaedo which documents Socrates incarceration before his execution.

I was a policy analyst, first for NTI then QIA, during the "negotiations" on the Nunavut Education Act. It was an intellectually draining and existentially dismaying experience right from day one, where the claws of bigotry, willful ignorance and "bad faith" predominated the whole process (all this from our own Nunavut Government). It was utterly shameful, and the blame can be rightfully placed on both sides because the main representative of the Inuit side was said to have suggested—after all the pain and grief—that he was willing to sign away the unfair document in trade for federal concessions on the infamous long-gun registry (in case it failed to pass).

I know for a fact that the government "negotiators" had this narrative that the Inuit language is a doomed language and that we shouldn't even waste (their) available time talking about Inuit language rights. There is one section on the whole of the education legislation that briefly speaks to Inuit language rights (section 8). All of these issues of Inuit rights, en masse, were put into "dispute resolution" one by one, then banned from memory never to be recalled again under implied threats of collapse in the talks.

It was shameful.

I think I know how and why the largely Anglo contingent came to the unfortunate conclusion that we should not waste time with the Inuit language. In the English language, science and mathematics are very hard subjects (unnecessarily). The reasons why these subjects are "hard to learn" (in English) are many, but the prevailing reason why the English-speaking world find them such hard subjects to learn and retain has to do with the Latin- and Greek-word derivation rules that are built-into the discourse.

People in the know say that this must be so for reasons of precision, concision and permanency. I beg to differ: the European experience has a long history of treating knowledge as a mark of socio-economic status and class. There is an unconscious fastidiousness to enforcing this "fiction" that very few are capable of challenging. Latin and Greek are impassive to scrutiny and questioning precisely because they are dead to most Anglophones. Only the right kinds of people should be privy to such dangerous ideas. It is less (and never was) about social justice and it really has everything to do with "status". Small and petty, much?

It is not the case in all European languages, especially those closer to the roots of the Indo-European language family writ large. The daughter languages of Latin and the more conservative Germanic languages tend to birth luminaries of science and mathematics more so and often than their English sibling because these languages need not stretch the credulity of the students as is unavoidable in English. By design, no less!

The adopted and adapted words of foreign sources in English alienate rather than capture the attention of the student, so circuitous and contrived they become even when "grammaticized" into the English language. Look at this example:

The sine function is commonly used to model periodic phenomena such as sound and light waves, the position and velocity of harmonic oscillators, sunlight intensity and day length, and average temperature variations throughout the year.

The function sine can be traced to the jyā and koṭi-jyā functions used in Gupta period Indian astronomy (Aryabhatiya, Surya Siddhanta), via translation from Sanskrit to Arabic and then from Arabic to Latin. The word "sine" comes from a Latin mistranslation of the Arabic jiba, which is a transliteration of the Sanskrit word for half the chord, jya-ardha. (Wikipedia, Sine).

The source language (Indian) describes the concept in real terms (geometrically—ie, as lines, points and ratios) whereas in English any linkage to the real experiences of humanity is completely severed by way of mistranslation and mindless transliteration, the resulting term having gone through multiple languages. -"half the chord" (the thing that is describing a rotation) is really talking about the radius of a circle, finally. Elegant and beautiful, dare I say.

Elegant and beautiful that has been manipulated and perverted for purely political reasons.

I can understand, even forgive, the ignoramuses (ignorami?) who sat on the other side of the table those years ago for the fact that they acted so genuinely, and so earnestly in their (perhaps unintended) bigotry. Paragons of the "civilized" and "sophisticated" English-speaking world, really they were.

They looked down on the Inuit for ideological reasons. They did not see the possibilities of advancing our language rights because they themselves had all been inculcated into that unsustainable worldview that all knowledge is privileged, nay, mystical.

I know for a fact that the polysynthetic structure of the Inuit language grammar is highly flexible and adaptive and could more than accommodate these "new" concepts in ways that the English language cannot (by design!) because what can be described in Inuktitut can be lexicalized into new "words". Lexicalization is a process where descriptor phrases become actual words in their own right.

Knowledge is not something to be doled out by priests and charlatans; it should be a democratic phenomenon. Imagine a global renaissance hitherto never seen. It is a question of ideology, and must be fought in ideological terms.


Thursday, 23 April 2015

Mr Data Soong

I don't think I'd personally like Brent Spiner very much if I ever met him, but I love his Mr Data character in STNG, and especially his fascination with being human. It isn't so much Data's inability to truly relate that gets my attention (he somehow connects at a deep level) but the natural grace and compassion that is built-into his sapiency (see, he is not just a sentient, self-aware automaton but able to act on his learning and gotten insights).

There is an episode where he truly shines. I don't recall the title of the episode but it's the one where a boy is a lone survivor of a ship wreck in a "dark cluster". The boy turns himself into a miniature Data to avoid facing up to what he thinks is his own fault, but throughout the course of the episode Data is able to draw him back into being human. It is not only Data who does that but Data working with Troy who encourages him to talk to the boy about his own fascination with being human.

There is something Christ- or Buddha-like about the Data character. I don't think it's the "outsider" perspective but the facilitator-function of the "man" that makes me think thus. Mr Data does not judge outside the parameters of a given situation; he is only interested in the person's ability to transcend person challenges and issues given a proper perspective. There is no cynicism nor moral judgement and what is left but a desire, an inspiration for self-improvement in those who get to know Mr Data: let him who has no sin cast the first stone. That is genuine compassion.

I, myself, am not good with strong emotions. I think I'm a compassionate person and integrity is held in high esteem in my mind. Mr Data is an ideal for me, really. It isn't the emotionless part, not the outsider part, but a genuine appreciation of the good. However that good is defined, it is a society of civilized persons.

And don't forget the exquisitely delicious irony that is Mr Data.


Sunday, 19 April 2015

Hello from Baker Lake

I'm a man on a mission. My mission is to demystify knowledge, technical and practical knowledge. This is deliberately a quiet mission for me.

This is something of a paradoxical thing for me as I am someone who is easily swept up by passion and enthusiasm for all things intellectual and abstract. However, having been caught up in minutiae as much as the over-arching themes many times in my life, I feel that I have an excellent vantage point—perpetually-optimistic sunshine of a "beginner's mind" encased in an "old soul".

I'm on a two-month assignment here in Baker Lake to teach introductory courses in Interpreting/Translating. I don't know how the rest of the stay here will pan out but the first part of assignment is done (syllabics typing) and we now await the results of the upcoming final exam. I have no doubt that the students will do well; they all have the drive and enthusiasm of self-learners.

They came in having some idea of where they wanted to go with the course material. They did the work, they learned something. And I was there to watch them struggle with assimilating a new keyboard layout, saw in their eyes the magical a-ha moments as the muscle memory of their fingers began to take hold, and the new self-confidence they acquired as they learned (all in the course of two weeks).

At no time did we physically impose anything on the keyboard. One student was dismayed at first that we wouldn't be putting on those syllabics stickies on the keys. But we persevered in building a mental map of the syllabics keyboard without bothering much with contrived (formalized) techniques and artificial benchmarks of "learning" (distractions to actual learning, I say). And it worked!

I tried to make it a point not to answer questions they hadn't asked yet. There was no such "program". Technical and practical questions arose naturally by themselves as they learned and advanced in the subject. I believe knowledge only takes hold when the learner is allowed to explore and navigate their way through the landscape themselves.

Yet nothing in this approach is without structure or purpose. The ideology is vocational in nature. We present a model; the learner is challenged to try their hand in replicating that model. Technical and practical issues crop up and the learner is forced by the process to address them in practical terms. After a solution(s) is found, the moments of reflection then become productive. The process itself is generative and calls upon the individual's creativity as its engine.

For anyone who's thought about and learned a song or created art or built something with their own hands, this process is familiar. I would liken the process to constructing a scaffold, a Rube Goldberg machine in the head: whatever the complexity and convolution and indirectness of the triggers happened in Newton's head, the process itself was to pare down to the essence of things. A switch turned on and he saw that a reflecting telescope would do away with all the issues of refraction and magnification. This is knowledge acquisition and advancement. It is an interior process.