Optimism OR a collection of good things


Sometimes I’ll learn about something that turns what I thought I knew on it’s head. Below is an article I read that I couldn’t stop thinking about. Steven Pinker tweeted it out a few weeks ago: http://humanprogress.org/blog/things-are-looking-up-by-any-measure

I’ve also been reading his book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature”, on-and-off for a few weeks now (because it’s a thick book, with small print, and thin pages…and I’m a slow reader.), and both these have made me feel not only very lucky to be alive at this very moment in history, but even optimistic about the future.

It’s not all gloom and doom.


I’m a big fan of Hans Rosling on this train of thought:


This is going to be controversial. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it myself. But it’s an optimistic take on the nature of the new geological era (the anthropocene) we have created through the force of our humanity.

The anthropocene is real. We humans have changed the nature of life on earth. We can say that we are destroying the planet, as @laborcamp has asserted, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But that simply can’t be the end of the story. We are capable of, and therefore required to, grow in our awareness and responsibility for the way in which we are changing the planet we live and depend on.


Without introducing a downer here, I’m not sure about the measure of absolute poverty as a sole indicator. I’m clearly not dismissing it, but The Spirit Level suggests that the wealth gap is a significant measure of global happiness, and I believe that’s growing at a phenomenal rate.


I saw Pinker give a talk on this two years ago. He makes a solid case for it, with numbers and everything. I got one of those moments of " I always knew this to be the case, it just makes sense".


That’s right. Poverty is not the sole indicator. Life expectancy, caloric intake, infant mortality rates, and enrolment in education have all improved, it says. Most notably in the populations of Africa, though it is a global trend.

But regarding the idea of inequality, specifically (and please excuse me if I’m not addressing the idea of the wealth gap as the author outlines it in his book, because I haven’t read it), but wouldn’t it be more remarkable if a gap didn’t exist? The question is: is the presence of a discrepancy worse, or is it worse if everyone were around the same level, but quality of life worse with regard to the metrics listed above?

It reminds me of this experiment done with monkeys… where the second monkey only becomes upset when it sees the first monkey receives a better reward. You’ll get a good laugh out of this if you haven’t seen it already:


Notions of understanding of “fairness” are exhibited by many many species. It seems to be pretty intrinsic to any social order.


There’s an interesting intersection with media here. In The Medium is the Message Marshall McLuhan talks about how photography influenced the fashion of the upper classes. Because people could see them in photographs, their style of dress had to become more subdued or else people would get upset. And that’s what happened.
…Or something like that (all my books are in boxes so this is just from memory)


Maybe this is of interest:
A chapter titled “THE KEY DETERMINANTS OF HAPPINESS AND MISERY” from the 2017 World Happiness Report

I’m reading it now–inspired by this thread and your post


The central premise of the book is exactly that - that the size of the gap between rich and poor is more significant to quality of life than raising the average ‘standard of living’. I found it compelling enough.


This is really really cool. Its fascinating how something’s presentation effects how effective that information is. For instance, I’m much more likely to remember this performance than just a static graph, and so I might talk about it more in the future…and that’s what information is for! To be spread.


Just an aside… can’t resist.

There are tests you can do to determine your learning style (e.g. the Kolb learning inventory). Interestingly, most people don’t test as ‘well suited to learning in a classroom.’

Despite that, we continue to emphasize classroom-based education. Because professors DO tend to test well as ‘well suited to learning in a classroom.’ So… the cycle continues.

(I’m a prof, so I’m pointing this particular barb at myself :slight_smile: )


Cool, and thanks. I’ll check it out.


Some months back I remember reading about The Minimalist Program. What I read was really more like a pamphlet called The Architecture of Language, which was just a transcript of one of Chomsky’s introductory lectures on the subject. After reading it I found that something that I had thought to be true, or at least took for granted to be true, just wasn’t. I thought that the language you spoke framed/shaped your thoughts to the extent that if someone else spoke a language that was sufficiently different from your own, that these two people could have totally different experiences of reality…or very little in shared reality.

Maybe some of you are familiar with this. Seeing this for the first time really blew my mind. Language actually shaping perception

What the Minimalist Program posits is that there is something called universal language, and this is more of a physiological system–or set of systems–that allow the generation of language. It’s really fascinating. Thought/language formation is separate from interface, and it’s a goddamn miracle that we should be able to hear someone else’s sounds and process them the way they do. It is no less a mystery how these systems are hooked up within our own heads, or how they could evolve. It’s so complex!

So what I found so positive was that in this theory (and they’re working to work out more and more of it) is that with that universal language you start with a syntactic structure to your thoughts that places things like nouns and verbs redundantly to begin with, then at a separate step redundancies are omitted to fit the language you know.

If you’re multilingual you understand firsthand the changes in the rules of grammar that are possible from language to language.

So there’s that: that it begins with all the things.

Next was this: That at peak language acquisition, a toddler can learn up to 50 new words a day (or something like that). That’s astounding. Think about what it would take you to learn 50 new words today as an adult. What this implies is that they/we already have a context for the word. Or rather, that the reality is there, and understood (it’s not amorphous just because there isn’t a word to it yet. It’s not like the object perceived is “floor and chair” and it needed the word chair to make those two things distinct), and it’s waiting for a word to be matched up to it. So you know the object chair already, and then finally you can call it something when you find out what that word is. They know it’s something like this because toddlers might only need to hear a word once in order to learn it…That is also astounding!

So these systems are hardwired. Biologically. And it doesn’t matter if you’ve grown up in China or in Texas, the systems are the same. You just throw a different “skin” over the underlying architecture.

That’s a beautiful concept, because it’s our thoughts that makes us, us. And HUMAN thought is formed in the same way for every human everywhere (unless there is something that goes wrong during development, which unfortunately does happen).

A few things Chomsky said…
That language isn’t primarily for communication. It’s primarily for thought. Most language you generate is “heard” by you only because you never articulate it. It is just your thinking mode.
He also said that there are no languages. :wink:


Absolutely fascinating


I think saying classroom education doesn’t suit most people is an oversimplification (although I infer you are talking about university?).

Multi disciplinary approach to learning can, and does, take place in a classroom especially when dealing with younger children. In my view the whole examination system is flawed. Creativity and personalisation of learning is set a side as pressures on teaching staff mount to get higher up results based league tables. It’s easier to teach to an exam as its an easy metric of student ‘aptitude’. But the kids are losing out as materials are spoon fed. (Hope that’s not too ranty!!!)

See Reggio Emilia, Te Whariki approaches. Even CfE here in Scotland has embraced a personalised (to the child) philosophy of teaching with the emphasis on ‘how’ to learn not ‘what’ to learn.

Full disclosure: I am a primary school KG-11yrs old science teacher.




Not too ranty at all. I’m actually surprised that standardized testing spread so quickly in the years after I graduated college. I remember being a high school student when these ideas were first being trialled in Florida (with the FCAT, specifically). Seemed innocuous enough at first, but then they based the amount of funds a school would receive off of the scores. Woah. That seems counter-intuitive: give the schools who do worse LESS money…? That can’t possibly be the strategy. Well, yes it was. Of couuuuurrrrrse everyone’s teaching to the test now. Never mind if it helps actual development. Many teachers did care and were pissed. It was forced on everyone. I later learned that when these measures were first implemented, it was done in Texas and Florida simultaneously, and that was because these were Bush states. Jeb and W were the Senators. Then W became president and it spread nationwide. In college I went into art education and took a course on standardized testing. I actually found it really, really fascinating, and unfortunately often done incorrectly. It’s a science and without the proper research into a test (the testing, re-testing, comparing the results over populations and time spans of each individual question) it’s a pile of dog shit that’s only camouflaged as a tool of measurement.
Anyway, I looked into it and the cottage industry surrounding it. I have no doubt that the primary purpose of the initiative was just to help these private businesses. Education was secondary…or tertiary…or…


Yes, I’m talking about old-school university lectures.

We are told to innovate / try personalizing things / etc. but we are also facing double-sized (at least) class sizes in the last 20 years. At least in Canada university funding has grown slower than inflation for many many years. Universities increasingly sell innovation messages while doing worse than the same old thing.

I agree that at least some of the issue arises from teaching to the exam, or designing the course around teaching to the exam, or re-imagining the process as being easier if you use multiple choice exams, or… worse.

We do innovate at times, there are great examples in every institution. But it is swimming uphill a lot of the time. A big part of the problem is that universities don’t want to talk about the methods-of-teaching issue because they regard it as a prof’s decision (after backing them into a situation where there is no decision possible) and because they have to see how wonderful they are constantly (fact of life).

One interesting development has been the increased focus on student wellness (newspeak for mental health) and the realization that much of the current system is impersonal, ‘institutional’ in the worst sense, and highly stressful to young students confused about who they are in an increasingly confusing world. At least part of the wellness discussion is about how we engage with students. I was recently sent a request around a student that would have more or less multiplied work by 10 (for one student… ) and told I had to do this with existing resources. Very mixed messages despite the honest desire to work to help students. We’ll see how this all plays out.

Thanks very much for the links, I’ll look into them.


This is a quite interesting movie as well:

At some point of I remember right they are talking a bout a community in Burma that
the notion of wealth does not exist, and the members of community are happy with their lives.
Also in a kind of philosophical way why maximising life expectancy should be an indicator/target?


The funding to education does seem a little odd/weighted unfairly. We’re trying to tackle it at Primary and Secondary level in Scotland by having underperforming/socially deprived schools access extra funding. However it comes on the back of pretty substantial cuts across the board in education.

To get back on track “Optimism”. I really am optimistic about the future as our Government is funding higher qualifications for early years (birth-5) practitioners. I would never have been able to afford to study a master’s degree otherwise. And the course is totally impacting on my own practice for the better. Today I had my 3 and 4 year olds investigating Newton’s first law of motion!! Properly child led procedure, and playing to their own interests. (I was a little chuffed tbh :slight_smile:).