Sunday, January 18, 2015

Public Education.....

Like a chocolate-enthusiast studying the genius of a Reese’s Peanut butter cup, or a junkie studying the sinister allure of the speedball[1], scholars have examined the relationship between education and politics throughout the centuries. Largely an issue of how to educate a citizenry that is respectful and conducive to society, those with political might and power deliberate on the desirable means of education. Such wasn’t always the case. Education (and its burden) was once concentrated within the family: parents shared the responsibility of educating their offspring. As civilizations developed, politics came into fruition, and individual liberties were greatly reduced in favor of a larger, cooperative society. It became evident that the traditional, family-oriented education system was not ideal for the development of society; more structured systems of education were necessary.
So what is to be done? How is the state supposed to foster and sustain education? Plato, the first to fully formalize an entire educational system driven by the sate, is arguably the most influential figure when discussing the politics of education. This essay discusses how Plato uses Socrates and The Republic to propose a systematic form of education controlled by an autocratic state. Regulated from pre-birth to death, the rigid model heavily relies on absolute planning, execution, and oversight from the state in order to effectively lead citizens towards virtuous and enlightened lives (that being the ultimate goal of education for Plato). A strict curriculum, exhaustive censorship, and the perpetuation of propaganda are integral features to Plato’s model and necessary for the sustainability of the ideal state.
To effectively grasp the context and reasoning surrounding Plato’s model for education, it is necessary to have a basic understanding of Plato’s emphasis on the importance of virtues. Plato outlines four virtues—wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice—whose influence dictates his educational model. The ultimate goal of education for Plato is to fashion citizens who encompass these four virtues seamlessly, in turn leading to a virtuous society and ideal state. But how does Plato arrive at this conclusion?  Why? Socrates initiates the discussion by asking “What is justice?”. If justice is attainable—at the individual level and more importantly, the societal level—then it becomes necessary to ask what it is that would support such a just republic. What virtues support a just republic and how do we teach them? These questions provide the foundation for Plato’s educational system, giving it legitimacy and purpose.
The four virtues are first—formally and comprehensively—discussed in Book Four of The Republic. Wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice are concluded to be the most crucial for securing a just republic; those who embody Plato’s four virtues lead to the ideal state. Wisdom—the ability to see clarity in all things and discern right from wrong—provides an intellectually sound relationship for citizens, in which rationale and understanding lead to a more fulfilled cooperation. Courage—the ability to put your life on the line fighting and defending your state and its ideals—fashions citizens who are loyal and determined to the longevity of the state. Moderation—having an understanding of your determined place[2] and adhering to such an understanding—ensures a citizenry that is disciplined and works together. Finally, justice—of which only the nature is understood—imposes a defined system of regulation within society, allowing for stability and civility. It is important to note that all four virtues largely revolve around the relationship between people and their society, i.e. they are political in nature. By ascribing attainment and fulfillment of these virtues to the ultimate goal of education, Plato renders education political: education only serves for political ends, ensuring cooperation within society. Understanding the virtues as the end-goals of education allows for a greater understanding and depth of the prominent features in Plato’s education model.
The state is the sole planner for the education model to be implemented in society. By wielding absolute power, the state formulates a strict curriculum revolved around both physical and musical[3] education. Such a curriculum ensures an ideal balance between the physical and mental state, in which students embody the four important virtues. It isn’t until Book Three of The Republic that a clear idea of Plato’s intended curriculum begins to take hold. Here, Socrates makes the claim that the only necessary types of education are “physical” and “musical”… striking the right balance between the two types is both ideal and necessary for producing virtuous citizens. Simply put, physical education nourishes the body, while musical education nourishes the mind. Through physical education, citizens are taught discipline and essential militaristic skill, ensuring the safety and protection of the state. This is where courage (along with moderation) as a virtue is most trained. From a young age, children engage in sports, gymnastics, and other forms of physical activity, harnessing their acrobatic skill and might. Physical education precedes musical education, largely a consequence of little development in the rational mind in young children. Once children reach an age that allows them to productively employ their faculties towards rational ends, musical education is introduced, ultimately allowing for training in the virtues of wisdom and justice. Through musical education, citizens are taught the nature of life. A combination of [manipulated] tales[4], mathematics, and philosophy guide the curriculum allowing for the concepts of justice, reason, and understanding to be tacit. Strict guidelines for in-depth musical education exist: at the age of 20, students who thus far have exhibited a strong physical and mental presence, are chosen as part of an ‘elite’ group to study mathematics. 10 years later, at the age of 30, the best mathematics students are chosen to study philosophy. From ages 35-50, the advanced group is required to perform public service, effectively employing their lifelong education towards productive ends. This requirement is exemplary of various throughout the curriculum, where students are required to prove their worth in order to advance in their (at this point, musical) education. Remember, Plato’s education model is geared towards a virtuous citizenry; tests are necessary and efficient at ensuring the ultimate goal’s realization. This fits nicely with his theory of specialization[5], emphasizing that people are to do according to their ability and requirement, in turn, reinforcing moderation as a virtue. Through and through, emphasis on physical and musical education, as well as strict adherence to the curriculum, produces virtuous citizens for a virtuous society.
In addition to being the sole planner for Plato’s educational model, the state is the sole executor. Through comprehensive censorship—one of the largest necessary factors for effective execution of the model[6]—the state ensures manifestation of the educational model, allowing for proper execution of the planned curriculum. For Plato, anything that is taught outside of the explicit curriculum put forth by the state (aka his own) is detrimental to his vision of a virtuous society. Book Ten offers readers the clearest view of this notion, with Plato using Socrates to deride poetry, tales, and epics—particularly that in the Homeric tradition. Socrates outlines how these tales are misleading to young children with little-to-no rationale: “A young thing can’t judge what is hidden sense and what is not; but what he takes into his opinions at that age has a tendency to become hard to eradicate and unchangeable”. According to Socrates, education based on traditional poetry[7], is flawed for three reasons: poets are imposters who pretend to know all sorts of things when they know nothing (the images and stories they paint are so far removed from reality that they can’t possibly be taken seriously); second, poets only emphasize the negative qualities of humans, which while could be argued to act as a cautionary tale, only serves to provide justification for the wrongdoings of people in that they point to examples of revered characters exhibiting the same negative qualities/wrongdoings; finally, poetry corrupts the reader’s soul, making even the most educated sympathetic for people that are generally not virtuous… examples of which are given throughout Book Ten. What ultimately results is a showdown between education that is founded on philosophy versus that of poetry. Poetry evidently fails to produce virtuous citizens, and so education derived through philosophy and a curriculum imposed by the state and only the state is necessary. Censorship is vital.   
The heavy censorship implemented during the necessary step between planning and execution of Plato’s educational model only allows for the state to introduce and impose its model; it is not sufficient enough to ensure the model’s sustainability over time. The state, therefore, turns to proliferating its set of ideals, effectively creating propaganda. The continued perpetuation of propaganda throughout society is essential to the state’s oversight of the educational model. It should already be evident that the state has absolute control over every aspect of education. They leave nothing to chance, in that every possible thing that could inspire alternative thought is eliminated. Largely, this is in the form of censoring poetry. However, Plato isn’t ignorant to the importance of imagination, nor the power of poetry, tales, and epics in and of themselves. He recognizes its merits and understands that a diversity of opinion only strengthens the [rational] mind. To compensate for the state’s mass censorship, Plato suggests the creation of new poems, tales, and epics… ones that would manipulate student’s minds and imaginations in the state’s interests. Plato ultimately invents propaganda. The goal is to create tales that are direct in nature; they don’t make it hard for children to discern right from wrong, and the importance of Plato’s four virtues are vigorously emphasized. In Book Three, Socrates outlines an example of how this can be achieved. Say, the state wants to ensure that people understand that solely the philosopher-kings are forever to remain the rulers of society. It would then be in the interest of the state to create a tale, a myth, that would manipulate citizens into thinking so. Socrates offers a potential myth, often coined as “The Myth of the Metals”. In it, the original peoples were born from the natural earth, in turn ensuring dedication and servitude to that place on Earth, just as they would to parents. Additionally, different citizens have different metals within them according to their ability: rulers have gold, auxiliaries have silver, and producers have bronze.  An oracle states that only those with gold within them may rule, or else their society will be devastated. While unlikely, it is possible for people to produce offspring with different metals than theirs, therefore justifying the state’s monitoring of the children throughout their development. The state would hate to miss on a potential philosopher-king simply because their parents weren’t fit. Ultimately, the myth proves how the state will never fail to ensure that only those fit to rule will remain rulers. Seeing the powerful effect that such a myth would have on society and Plato’s ultimate end-goal for education is crucial to understanding the importance of propaganda and its sustaining of the state’s ideals.
The amount of time and space invested on Plato’s educational model in The Republic may be surprising to most. The parameters of this essay unfortunately restrict the freedom to truly dive deeply into the text to uncover all things related to his model, however it is highly encouraged to read The Republic itself, along with other sources. Outside of a deeper understanding of the features discussed above, reading the text will provide for a greater appreciation of the influence that Plato and his model exert over the relationship between politics and education. Recurring themes from The Republic have been and remain evident in different respects throughout the world. Plato heavily influenced contemporary philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau in his own influential educational treatise, titled Emile. In the literary world, George Orwell—in his tour-de-force novel, 1984—essentially created a world where Plato’s educational model is heavily borrowed from, if not mimicked. And even today, the effects are all around us…at the very least prominent in constitutional democracies/forms of government. These governments have adapted to the notions of free, compulsory, state regulated systems of education, also known as the “public school”. These are but a few examples of the weighted importance of The Republic and its deliberations on education.

[1] A combination of cocaine and heroin injected directly into the bloodstream.
[2] Plato notes earlier in The Republic, that an ideal society has its citizens divided into 3 classes: the producers (farmers, artisans, etc), the auxiliaries (warriors, defenders), and the guardians (rulers, those in charge)
[3] “Music” being used loosely to encompass all forms of education that are essential to the mind.

[4] These tales are to be taught at a young age. They are manipulated in that they are censored and fashioned as propaganda for the state (to be discussed later in the essay). The goal of these tales is to highlight the four virtues, teaching the students the positives of human characteristics.
[5] Outlined earlier in The Republic and exemplified in the 3 ideal class systems
[6] Comprehensive censorship provides the education model with a homogenous, untainted foundation for knowledge, in which anything that is even remotely outside of that foundation is completely eliminated. This allows the state to start with a clean slate, adding anything that they deem necessary to the curriculum. This paragraph will focus on the censorship of arts and poetry.
[7] Which, keep in mind, was the education for the Greeks at the time.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

On Computational Models

Alright, I'm going off the cuff here, so this post may not be at Max-level quality, but I'm not entirely sure where I stand on this issue so I'd just like to share my thoughts as they come to me.

To start, I would like to comment on the seemingly fundamental order of the universe as we perceive it. Throughout history, we have found countless examples of this order: from the simple fact that particles and macroscopic objects are discrete (self-contained, distinct), to Newton's observations of gravity's consistency, to more current scientific breakthroughs that I won't pretend I know about. Our observations about the order and constancy of the universe led us to attribute a deterministic model to it. That is, from our perspective, it seems like the universe had some initial conditions and rules governing its operation, and all action within the universe since its beginning has been causally determined by these rules and conditions. To make a little more clear what I mean, initial conditions include how much energy is in the universe, initial velocities of particles, etc, and rules include gravity, magnetism, etc. So, simply put, it seems like the universe started with a certain amount of particles with rules about how they interact, and our universe today is the result of those causally determined interactions.

For the sake of this post, I'd like to assume that the universe is deterministic. The general human experience points toward this being the case -- but after reading Hume and Descartes I can't say that we actually know that the universe is deterministic. For all we know the rules have changed, and will continue to change -- or maybe an evil demon is making me imagine everything! This gets away from the point, though, so bear with me on this assumption of the order and determinism of the universe.

This sort of deterministic behavior is exactly what computers are good at modeling, and it's no coincidence that the advent of computational modeling has been crucial in modern day science (especially physics). Computers take inputs, follow rules with what to do with those inputs, and send a certain output to a certain place depending on what the input was and what the rules said to do. All that you do as a programmer is tell the computer what inputs to expect, and give it a set of rules for what to do with those inputs. The universe works in a very similar fashion -- particles and objects receive inputs from other particles and objects and react accordingly -- and so computational models go hand in hand with the physical world.

As a simple example of how this would work so that you can wrap your head around what I mean, consider a universe with nothing in it but two bodies of mass, and no rules but gravity. If these objects are close enough, and initially moving, then when you "hit play" on the universe, the objects should begin to orbit. This is deterministic behavior -- their behavior is entirely determined based on their masses and proximities, as well as the rule of gravity. This simple universe would lend itself to an equally simple model, but I'll need to explain a bit about Object-Oriented Programming (OOP) first.

There are 4 main components of OOP: classes, methods, and fields, and objects. For our purposes, an object is just what it sounds like -- a thing/object. Objects have methods that describe what the object can do, and fields that describe the object's properties. A class, finally, is how you describe the general form of an object, and you create objects by making a new instance of the class.

So how does this apply to our simple universe model? Well, first we need a class that can generally describe a body of mass -- a BodyOfMass class. It would have fields for mass, location, and velocity. It would have one method (called move, or gravitate, something like that) that describes how it should follow the rule of gravity when other BodyOfMass's are around. Now that we have made the general class, we create our 2 objects -- called body1 and body2 -- and set their fields (meaning we can give them masses, velocities, and locations). Finally, we call their methods (gravitate/move), and those methods look at the different masses and locations associated with the different bodies of mass, and then move the objects accordingly.

For fun, here's (roughly) how that would look in Java (code in bold, my comments in light):

BodyOfMass body1 = new BodyOfMass(mass=3000, location=(25,25), velocity=6);
(**body1 is a BodyOfMass with mass 3000, location (25,25), and velocity 6)**)
BodyOfMass body2 = new BodyOfMass(mass=2000, location=(35,70), velocity=0);
(**body2 is a BodyOfMass with mass 2000, location (35,70), and velocity 0**)
(**"start up" our universe and tell the bodies to start following the rule of gravity**)

I really hope I explained that well, because understanding this is very important if I'm going to go on to describe a model of our more complex universe, and eventually the brain. The key points to get here are that (1) the universe is deterministic, (2) computers are good at modeling deterministic behavior, (3) they are good at this because OOP is all about initial conditions and rules governing action, just like determinism is. It will probably help to understand what I mean by method/class/object/field, but at this point I've already spent way too long on the subject.

Okay so, briefly, let me relate this alllll the way back to our deterministic perception of the universe. Fundamentally, our universe is no different than the simple one I described above, we just started with a lot more mass and a lot more rules. But you can (I hope) see the pattern -- as long as the universe is nothing but initial conditions (objects/classes/fields) and rules (methods), we can model it computationally just as we modeled our simple universe with few conditions and one rule.

Our universe wouldn't be as simple, though, and for the sake of making the brain less of a leap I'd like to describe how we would have to model our universe. It would have to be a bottom-up approach in order to work properly, meaning the model would attempt to model the behavior of the smallest subatomic particles, and have the operations of more macroscopic objects be a result of the amalgamation of these particles. So we have a Proton, Neutron, and Electron class, each with their different conditions and rules, and next level up we have an Atom class that can be composed of different amounts and combinations of Protons, Neutrons, and Electrons, and after that we have Molecules as being made up of Atoms, etc etc. Theoretically, we should be able to model all of the action in our universe just by describing the rules governing the interaction of these subatomic particles because everything is made up, at its core, of these particles.

Finally, I'd like to end with an attempt to relate this all to the brain. I am a materialist, and believe that I am nothing but a body with a brain (no soul, no mind, no nothing that isn't explicitly made of matter). What seems to follow is that the actions of the brain are, therefore, deterministic just like the actions of the universe. After all, our brains are made of matter, and the action of all matter is causally determined. Certainly, the operation of an individual neuron is determined -- they have a set "action potential" needed in order to "fire," and once that potential is reached, they ions flood down into the next neuron (google the phrase "action potential" if you need more convincing here). Even a system of 2 neurons is completely determined. The first either has enough energy to fire, or it doesn't, and if it does it excites the next neuron enough to make it fire, or it doesn't. Based on how much energy was initially given to the first neuron, and how much energy it releases when it fires, we can determine the behavior of the second neuron. This works the same way for a system of 3 neurons, and I can keep adding them one at a time until I have a conscious brain. The point is that the brain is nothing but neurons, whose behavior is deterministic, and so the behavior of the brain is deterministic...

...which (remember) is exactly what computers are good at modeling. I make a Neuron class, make a bunch of Neuron objects from that class, and hit play. If I knew exactly the rules governing the operations of a neuron, and the exact configuration of neurons in a given brain at given time (including how excited they are, where they are, how they are connected), I could model that brain using my Neuron objects, hit play, and have a brain in my computer.