Saturday 26 March 2016

M.I. Man

Having slagged off The Edge at the beginning of the year, I was then grateful when they gave time to hear what going down in Stephen Wolfram's mind. I'm not changing my stance on The Edge which has a tendency to be exclusive and self-regarding but they do attract some remarkably clever people and when clever people get round a table to talk interesting ideas are likely to be generated.  It's part of the creative process, half an idea is better than no idea: it's a hook or a foundation for developing a whole [new] idea. In the same recent week that the Wolfram interview was published John "Edge" Brockman talked to Howard "Multiple Intelligence" Gardner.  In both cases, Brockman has modestly edited out all his questions and contributions to leave a soap-box for his invited guest. As with Wolfram, you have the choice of a video [no noddies, no car-chases, no fluff, no commercials] or a transcript for those who can read beyond 140 characters without getting fractious or falling asleep.

One of the noticeable things about listening to Stephen Wolfram was the frequency with which he claimed to have worked for a long time and with focussed attention on such-a-project; and how after a few years mollocking ideas about and bringing in collaborators and gophers, he moved on to the next best thing. I'm similar in that I have a lot of interests and the attention-span of a gnat; different in never having brought much to a conclusion. I've only, after all, had three good ideas during a life-time in science, and one of those was probably wrong.  It's similar with Howard Gardner whose idea and book about Multiple Intelligences MI was written more than 30 years ago and is still hanging round his neck as the only idea of his which has reached popular culture. Ken Robinson in his inspirational deconstruction of the Western educational system, noted that there should be more to education than reading, riting and rithmetic; music and dance, and getting on with folks, for starters. This was the core of Gardner's MI idea.  He enumerated eight 'intelligences' which could have been better described as skill-sets or talents. Others identified more, or less, of these incommensurate faculties/facilities.  The spectra/range of these attributes are not completely independent are they? Everyone knows, for example, super-talented musicians who are also ace mathematicians.

ANNyway, for Gardner MI is soooo yesterday and he'd rather talk about his latest project LAS21 - Liberal Arts and Science in the 21stC.  This talks to stake-holders in 10 Liberal Arts colleges across the US - from coast to coast including the Midwest; big and small; famous and obscure; expensive and [comparatively] cheap. The stake-holders include students: prospective, actual & graduated; parents; faculty; administrators; trustees, alumni, benefactors; recruiters, employers.  Each college yielding 200+ interviews = a big dataset of news and opinion. Turns out that there are (embarrassing?) 'misalignments' among the stake-holders: all the Presidents affirm that they turn out 'good, well-rounded,  citizens' but such a concept isn't even on the radar of students or parents: they think it's about getting a nice job or a seat on the board from their four years of fees. Other evidence indicates that, although students get through a lot of late-night life-the-universe-and-everything talks; a lot of sex (and fewer condoms); case after case of beer; they don't really finish up smarter or more knowledgeable [they are different attributes!].  I was a lot smarter when I was 12 than I was for the next 10+ years - those hormones take their toll. And my friend Speedo ablated millions of neurons by drinking a bottle a day in college. We really don't encourage original enquiry in students even college-going students - we're too busy giving them bouquets of dead men's flowers: Kepler's Newton's Boyle's Hooke's Laws; π, φ, e, Planck's constant and Avogadro's number; specific gravity, specific heat, speciation both chemical and biological. All this information makes kids feel like dwarves rather than giants. Wolfram makes the point that with big data, so easily accessible over the WWW, anyone can have an idea, a question, that can be answered with a few [dozen] lines of code . . . that has never been addressed before by anyone.  You see this stuff all the time nowadays: showing the fascinating trends by cross-referencing tweets with GPS or Google queries with gender.

You really should tune in to Howard Gardner, he's been in Harvard and thinking for more than 50 years, so he's been able to bat his ideas off smart and engaged people;  he's got a lot to share and projects in the pipeline.  As he admits, he wants to use his brain but he also wants to make a difference: make the planet a better place for his having walked its shorelines. He's savvy enough to realise that making a difference through learned tomes and peer-review papers is slow going: you've gorra get down with the social media.  I'll be checking out his and his Professional Ethicist blog.

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