Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Outside the System

Note to my son on his freshman year at CSU.

College is not an education. A diploma is not the guarantee that you possess all the answers.

Remember the classic movie and book, The Wizard of Oz. Dorthy and her companions go to the Emerald City looking for the answers to their problems. For the Scarecrow, it is his lack of a brain. The Wizard concocts a bran cereal mixture, places it in the Scarecrow's head, and declares that he has bran-new brains. The Scarecrow then shows his brain power by placing his finger to his head and incorrectly reciting the Pythagorean Theorem:
"The sum of the square roots of any two sides of an isoceles triangle is equal to the square root of the remaining side. [Is this answer correct?] Oh joy, rapture, I've got a brain. How can I ever thank you enough?"

The Wizard reminds the now brainy Scarecrow about the universality of brains and solemnly presents him with a rolled up diploma:
"Why, anybody can have a brain. That's a very mediocre commodity. Every pusillanimous creature that crawls on the Earth or slinks through slimy seas has a brain. Back where I come from, we have universities, seats of great learning, where men go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep thoughts and with no more brains than you have! But they have one thing you haven't got - a diploma. Therefore, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Universitatus Committeatum E Pluribus Unum, I hereby confer upon you the honorary degree of Th. D...that's Doctor of Thinkology"
Common sense is not so common, said Will Rogers, and brains are not so universal. Creative thought, the purpose of an education, requires thinking outside the box.

I am sitting on the back porch sipping a cup of coffee and reading Outside magazine. It contains stories of unconventional athletes, of extraordinary cities, and out-of-the-way places. It reminds me that one has to get outside the system to experience life.

Life is not about following a well worn path, it is about blazing a new trail. I think back to my own freshman experience and remember Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha, a spiritual journey of self-discovery. Siddhartha has it all - he is rich, lacks for no worldly wants, has the best teachers, and yet, he knows nothing of the real world and its problems.

Thinking back on it now, isn't all philosophy a journey of self-discovery?

You mentioned to me the other day how dry and dismal is the Economics class you are taking.

It is thirty-some years later and the method of teaching an Economics class hasn't changed.  They are still teaching the same supply and demand curves as an explanation for all economic activity. Sure it is easy to quantify economic activity as a relationship between supply and demand, but this merely identifies that there is a economic relationship and doesn't begin to touch upon the many factors that determine production and price in an economic relationship. One example, water is in unlimited supply, therefore it should have a price of zero. And yet, we know that Madison Avenue has created a market. This market extends not only to the "rare" spring waters, but also to natural tap water, that Coca Cola markets and sells as Dasani.

My second major objection to the teaching of Economics is that it assumes for the most part that all transactions involve two individuals. Someone is selling and someone buys. In law, the buyer and seller in an exchange are referred to as ready, willing and able. The problem of how markets work is not so simple as to say I have X widgets and Y buyers, and therefore, Z production or price. Production, prices, and demand are products of many things. And distortions can occur because of many factors. Think monopolies, governmental regulation, cultural taboos, popularity, etc. Thus, Economic theory is an alphabet soup and not simply X's and Y's. Economics theory also demands an understanding of group dynamics. Read the work of John Nash, a Nobel Laureate in Economics, and the protagonist of the movie and book A Beautiful Mind.

I think the Rolling Stones had John Nash in mind when they wrote and sang You Can't Always Get What You Want.
You can't always get what you want.
But if you try sometimes well you might find,
You get what you need.
Bargaining often involves compromise of needs. Nash can be summarized as saying that most human interchanges are a function of game theory. We sometimes get what we want, but usually we have to compromise with the world around us, and settle for what we need. This distinction underlies the difference between macro and microeconomics. And if they are not teaching game theory in your Economics class, shame on them.

Enough of boring Economics.

My real point is that you have to get away from the classroom to get a real education. Like Siddhartha, you need to take your own spiritual journey to learn both the questions and the answers to life. You will learn in life, that both the questions and the answers change from generation to generation. This means that the problems that your generations face are markedly different from those of your parents and teachers.

Get outside from time to time. Go kayaking or hiking! Watch a dorky video on conventional stuff to do in Fort Collins.

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