Seeing and Knowing

Or, you might be thinking, “seeing is believing.”

Any survey of Politicolor quickly reveals a certain fascination with SEEING. But, here, seeing is not constrained by our…

but is something of another (grey) matter. Our posts have asked what we know from what we see and how seeing changes how we think about what we know. That sentence could make you dizzy but that’s the point. There is an inextricable bond between what we see and what we know.

Our previous investigations have involved reference to Cicero and Scipio’s Dream or Carl Sagan and astronauts. And sometimes both.

We have another name to add to the list.

In 1994, this guy had an asteroid named after him, 13123 Tyson, and, six years later, People Magazine named him the Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive. This makes Neil deGrasse Tyson is more of a modern thinker who suggests we “consider the category” before making too much of that last honorary. He has sparred with Colbert and is a regular favorite on WNYC’s RadioLab.

Neil deGrasse Tyson wants to inspire. He wants us (and the U.S.) to innovate.

In this 2013 commencement speech at Rice University, he works his way through our history of space exploration to focus on a familiar image, Earth rising over the moon’s horizon. Taken from space by the Apollo 8 Mission in 196, Tyson demonstrates how that image empowered us to take action. Seeing the Earth “as nature intended” gave us a reason to think about new and different questions.

In what Tyson describes as a “cultural response” to this image that Apollo 8 made possible for us all to see, a country at war was transformed into an “innovation nation.”

Tyson explains that we went to the moon to explore it but discovered the Earth instead.

*Tyson starts discussing the image at 11:00 if you don’t have time for the whole video



Detroit’s Hiedelberg Project: Questions of liveliness at the edges & organized complexity

It was like walking through a graveyard. We found ourselves talking in hushed tones or, mostly, not talking at all. Spookiest of all was the hope that still occupied the hollow spaces of the Hiedelberg Project. Horror and hope. Calling out from the empty houses, there was at once a community abandoned and a community committed to persevere.

A four minute intro to the space that includes community voice and the artist, Tyree Guyton, who grew up in the neighborhood:

Keith (Hobbes21), his family and mine walked through the Hiedelberg Project in Detroit enjoying the whimsy of giant polka dots and nonsensical clocks. The Hiedelberg Project (HP) describes itself as “an outdoor community art environment. The elements contain recycled materials and found objects, most of which were salvaged from the streets of Detroit.” We shared smiles over piles of stuffed animals but then realized they looked like refugees crowded into a boat, determined to get anywhere that wasn’t here. The uneasy quiet returned to wash away our smiles.

Stuff Underfoot (photo by Kelly Fox)

The community art project included colorful cartoonish drawings of shoes amid piles of discarded shoes. These piles were so high it was hard to fathom how many people the empty shoes represented. I started to wonder where all those people were now. And then quickly tried to think about something else.

On the web, HP tells you the whole project “is symbolic of how many communities in Detroit have been discarded. It asks questions and causes the viewer to think. When you observe the HP, What do you really see? Is it art?… That’s for you decide.” Keith and I were trying to decide about the shoes.

I had thought of empty slogans you see plastered all over recovery efforts. One step at a time. One foot in front of the other. But it was also easy to imagine they were there to nag you about something or someone trampled under foot. A people downtrodden. The same cognitive dissonance accompanied the armies of old vacuums, reinforced with brooms and empty gloves. These were the tools of a brigade prepared to make a clean sweep. To rebuild. To begin again. But the tools were abandoned, exposed and showing the wear of being exposed for years.

A Clean Sweep (photo by Kelly Fox)

A collection of nonsensical clocks asked you to consider either that the time had come to do something or to concede that even thinking that phrase made you part of a regime that never delivered on that promise. The time to act had come. And gone. And come and gone. Again and again. Each clock showed a different time, provoking you to wonder why. Think about it too long and each of the different times started to haunt you too. They want you to know that the time to act comes and goes each and every day while the Detroit neighborhoods this community represents continue to sit quietly. Forgotten and unchanged.

Haunting Dolls (photo by Kelly Fox)

We left the Hiedelberg Project but I couldn’t shake the cognitive dissonance. More than just art accessible in a public space, HP represents a powerful installment of civic art. It made you think about the people who once lived in those spaces and what they had heard from their city and fellow citizens. Not just what they heard but what they had believed. What they knew about themselves, that neighborhood and their city when they fled, begrudgingly left their family home or were dragged away. It made you think about how a people had been neglected or abandoned and how complicit you had been in it.

I think it was this idea of being a part of the problem that required us to quiet our voices. Being in that space required contemplating what it might mean to be lost or forgotten. Maybe even discarded. The problems we witnessed at Hiedelberg had an unrelenting gravity.

Liveliness at the Edges

The force of this community art project came into full view unexpectedly one night as I was reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. He was sharing his thoughts after a week on a grass farm, but I replayed the images of Hiedelberg as I read his ideas about an essential relationship between antagonists.

He suggested antagonists need one another:

For some reason the image that stuck with me from that day was that slender blade of grass in a too-big, wind-whipped pasture, burning all those calories just to stand up straight and keep its chloroplasts aimed at the sun. I’d always thought of the trees and grasses as antagonists—another zero-sum deal in which the gain of the one entails the loss of the other. To a point, this is true: More grass means less forest; more forest less grass. But either-or is a construction more deeply woven into our culture than into nature, where even antagonists depend on one another and the liveliest places are the edges, the in-betweens or both-ands. So it is with the blade of grass and the adjacent forest as, indeed, with all the species sharing the most complicated form. Relations are what matter most, and the health of the cultivated turns on the health of the wild. Before I came to Polyface [the grass farm] I’d read a sentence of Joel’s that in its diction had struck me as an awkward hybrid of the economic and the spiritual. I could see now how characteristic that mixing is, and that perhaps the sentence isn’t so awkward after all: ‘One of the greatest assets of a farm is the sheer ecstasy of life.’

Hiedelberg’s polka dots were that blade of grass fighting to stand up straight, testifying to a liveliness at the edges that once existed.

photo by Kelly Fox

Polka Dots (photo by Kelly Fox)

The trouble that demands your attention in that urban neighborhood is that we as a people have misunderstood something fundamental about our life together. Pollan asks his readers to consider that corporate agriculture has ignored biological fact in an effort to increase their productivity. The HP story connects here. It does not argue that disorder simply happened on those streets but that order had been neglected or even abandoned. Stories of gangs, violence and vengeance recur in our discussions of urban streets. They tell us order was turned upside down as bad elements invaded the streets and conquered everything that had been good. That version of the story suggests gangs turned things upside down making it more admirable to stall and thwart police efforts than to cooperate and assist them.

If order is lost rather than turned upside down, however, society has to ask how it allowed this to happen. The community and city leaders have to confront their role in abandoning a certain group of people or certain places, for certain reasons; They have to evaluate those reasons, including those that are allowed to go unsaid and unchallenged.

The unrealized possibilities of Hiedelberg are not confined to that community alone or even to those that resemble it. There is something more to be known about being a whole community or a whole people that is lost when we sacrifice the liveliness of the edges for the false comfort of zero-sum thinking. Consider the usual vow to put more police on the streets that increases perceived safety but has a minimal effect on crime rates and the actual decline that accompanied the “broken window theory” described by Kelling and Wilson. As they observed in 1982, the neighborhoods felt safer because the foot-patrol officers were able to “elevate… the level of public order in these neighborhoods.” A useful summary of the theory appears in James Wilson’s NY Times obituary, “his most influential theory holds that when the police emphasize the maintenance of order rather than the piecemeal pursuit of rapists, murderers and carjackers, concentrating on less threatening though often illegal disturbances in the fabric of urban life like street-corner drug-dealing, graffiti and subway turnstile-jumping, the rate of more serious crime goes down.”

Recognizing Organized Complexity

Organized Complexity (photo by Kelly Fox)

The question of urban neighborhoods is not answered simply by counting the number of police, instances of gang activity or even broken windows alone. In her influential book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs urged city planners to understand the question of cities as one of “organized complexity,” presenting “situations in which a half-dozen or even several dozen quantities are all varying simultaneously and in subtly interconnected ways.” [italics in original text] The Hiedelberg project does not stop at asking us to consider the demise of a single urban neighborhood but provokes us to look at the systemic failure of a political society.

Walking down the street we were poised at a sort of event horizon confronted with the possibility of a lost state. Something Cicero described in The Republic as a sort of black hole:

As for the punishments which even the stupidest can feel—destitution, exile, jail, flogging—individuals often escape them by choosing the option of a quick death; but in the case of states, death, which seems to rescue individuals from punishment, is itself a punishment. For a state should be organized in such a way as to last for ever. And so the death of a state is never natural, as it is with a person, for whom death is not only inevitable but also frequently desirable. Again, when a state is destroyed, eliminated, and blotted out, it is rather as if (to compare small with great) this whole world were to collapse and pass away. (Book Three, 33-35)

This idea makes sense of the silence we adopted as though we were witnessing catastrophic devastation. But we witnessed hope and perseverance too. Tocqueville contemplated the failure of democratic government in Democracy in America and shed light on what makes this idea of hope make sense:

Many people, on seeing democratic states fall into anarchy, have thought that government in these states was naturally weak and powerless. The truth is that when war among their parties has once been set aflame, government loses its action on society. But I do not think that the nature of democratic power is to lack force and resources; I believe, on the contrary, that almost always the abuse of its strength and the bad use of its resources bring it to perish. Anarchy is almost always born of its tyranny or its lack of skillfulness, but not of its powerlessness.

The citizens of Hiedelberg had a sense of the power that still remained despite the appearance that all had been lost. They experienced this lack of skill and misuse of force but they know Hiedelberg has the potential to teach us the skills we need. This too resonates with the work of Jane Jacobs and how she concludes her book on great American cities, “Dull, inert cities, it is true, do contain the seeds of their own destruction and little else. But lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration, with energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside themselves.” Hiedelberg begs its observers to shift their perspective and consider its questions anew, with a sense of hope instead of loss and a substantive concern for what happens next.

A Theory of American Identity: Or the Radical American Exceptionalism: Or Why Baseball is Better than Soccer?

An abstract submitted for you consideration. Your questions and assistance in refining the ideas presented here would be greatly appreciated.

(Submitted by Todd, National Academy alumni, 2001)

Over the last year I have been contemplating the notion of American identity, and what that means.  As I contemplated the bounds of this notion, I began formulating a rather extreme form of American exceptionalism.    I see no way to avoid getting there, so I ask that Politicolor readers will help dispel it or create a more construct for this idea.

I begin with a basic premise that the American founding experience is transformational; I would refer to it as a paradigm shift but I keep falling asleep through Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolution.  The state system resulting from the Treaty of Westphalia was the final blow to the medieval Augustinian notion of the “City of God,” or that all governmental forms existed for a heavenly purpose.  The Westphalian system provided two key elements to state systems

  1. linking the idea of property to national territory; and
  2. asserting the political expediency of “Cuius Regio, Eius Religio” that is, he who makes the rules, makes the religion.  So each state began to be identified through property ownership and religious identity.

The American colonial experience missed much of this through two reasons; being mostly English in heritage they had avoided some of the real outcome of the Westphalia settlement because they were fighting their own transformational civil war in England; and that the extreme isolation changed their very nature the moment they stepped of the boat.  They still brought the intellectual tradition of the mergence of classical and biblical thought with them; and settling post-Renaissance/Reformation helped them to have a solid grounding in both traditions at the time of settling.

But we need to add a third intellectual tradition that started with the Colonists, that is the “Natural” mode of thought.  The mere act of survival against hostile land, nature, and yes, indigenous persons (much of it admittedly the colonists’ doing), brought a new form of “metaphysical” understanding.  The character of Natty Bumbpo from the Deerslayer Chronicles is one I am envisioning here; but if you want to go with Daniel Day Lewis from the film, “Last of the Mohicans,” I can dig that. Locke wrote, “America is made both continuous and discontinuous with already extant nation-states by relegating the business of making new landed property, and the state-making system associated with that possession, to a place outside the system of nations.” Americans understood they both are and are not a part of the international state system.

They needed to find a way to merge this third intellectual mode of thought to their traditional modes.  Many of us have already been exposed to this notion; Cicero’s “Scipio’s Dream,” Job’s tour of heaven, and even “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy;” Think of Arthur Dent’s tour of Magrathea. These stories are allegorical of man trying to see a greater order in a chaotic universe.  The “Natural” Mode of thought, in many senses, shatters the collective ideas of the classical and biblical polity.  The battle for survival in nature and endless land led to individual subsistence requirements, and self-reliance on a scale never before seen in Western civilization.

So what is that which makes us “American?”  We can look at Whitman and Thoreau in many ways as the philosophers of the Natural Thought School.  Thoreau’s experience at Walden Pond; his friendship with fish, plants, and animals; he could steer a canoe with one paddle; but also his disconnect to a populated, corrupted state system can be used to describe this Natural Thought notion.  Even as he disavows society; he stills clamors to reform it, shape it, even create a new polity.  Walt Whitman provides another example in Leaves of Grass when he writes:

“One’s self I sing, a simple separate person

Yet utter the word Democratic, the word for en-masse”

The trick is finding the schema to describe the American identity.  But it cannot be constructed to describe what Americans are at a current time and place.  How do we get it into a fixed point in time and space but also have the ability to “enlarge the Orbit?”

For this I have thought I will need seven “virtues” to properly border us as Americans along two-dimensionality (national borders), but extra-dimensionally (transcending contemporary thought, and also through-out time).  This means that this a common identity in 2010, and that it would be common in 1810, or even 2210.

So here’s the construct:

I am using a blend of Biblical and Classical notions here:  meaning the square and the triangle are important shapes.  These are important to builders; and I am thinking Masons here; not the creepy Dan Brown Masons, but the real notion of construction.  We have to use the triangle here, because the treble virtues of New Testament Christianity inform our civilizational experience; “Faith, Hope, and Charity,” in their ancient application and definition are what we are looking for.  I invite any helpful definitions; and references to any of this concepts here or hereafter mentioned.

The four “Earthly” virtues are much more difficult to define.  They are what bind us terrestrially in governmental order and polity.  Using a square bounded by four sides, but also thinking cardinal directions on a compass point, and using Aristotle’s notion of “four cardinal virtues,” as the point of departure here, I am thinking we are bounded by four notions.  (I also realize I may be stretching the boundaries of some of the traditional definitions here).

Side One:  Aristotle’s Four Classical Virtues:  Moderation; Justice; Courage; and Wisdom.  It is a little cute to add another square to as a border; but really when you think that this represents the Aristotelian notion of civic virtue in a citizen; there is some elegance to this that can be stretched and defined later.

Side Two:  Enterprise:  My love for Star Trek not withstanding  (although in the Original we see Three main characters combining to live by the standards of the Four Aristotelian virtues-so it fits quite nicely); the notion of risk-taking, adventure, exploration, wanderlust, entrepreneurship, experimentation, and tinkering are so much a part of who we are this seems self-evident.

Side Three:  Prudence:  Again; this is more of a collective concept.  Rational discourse; thoughtful application; or problem-solving through Ratiocination.  This is deeper than the short-term criticism of our “sound-bite” media; or many of the folks who attend minor-league baseball games.  This is still reliant on a rational-choice theory; and perhaps even collective action theory.  So all you economists, chime in.

Side Four:  Republicanism:  The notion of liberty, equality, and confraternity that is so important in our thinking and feeling.


I need to credit a work of remarkable erudition, and accessibility that came out this summer by American diplomat, Charles Hill, entitled, Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft, and World Order. Many of these ideas are given words and a base from his work; but many others have been crafted through two National Academies, and a week at Montpelier and conversations with Tim Moore, David Richmond, Justice Susan Leeson at Morro Bay, California last summer.  And lastly, I must credit a wonderful patio bar discussion with my dear friend Mike Williams, who gave grounding to undisciplined thought and forced me to articulate my ideas in a disciplined way.  Lastly thanks to Will Harris for reminding us to cultivate “Makers” Knowledge. Any logical leaps here are my fault, but I hope you can help me make the connections.

Seeing America

The second week at Montpelier concluded Friday with this question… What do you SEE when you say AMERICA?

As the American public celebrates independence through fireworks, BBQ and pool parties, the 80 teachers who studied constitutional citizenship at Madison’s Montpelier know we must keep the future as well as the past in our mind’s eye. There’s no reason to skip the fireworks but let’s consider what that particular moment in time reveals to us about our present and our future. If America is an idea rather than a place, it’s essential that we share our ideas about what America is or could be.

It’s that mission that led to our last assignment for our afternoon discussion. We focused on our work as teachers and the role of citizens and elected representatives as constitutional officers, and Jim LeCain shared a quote he thought defined our mission:

Teach the [Constitution’s] principles, teach them to your children, speak of them when sitting in your home, speak of them when walking by the way, when lying down and when rising up, write them upon the doorplate of your home and upon your gates.

–John Quincy Adams on the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution

–Quoted by Chief Justice Warren Burger at the 200th anniversary celebration

The quote resonates with the power of the words in Deuteronomy beginning with 6:5:

Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. 6 These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. 7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 8 Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 9 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

And Will couldn’t stop there. If you didn’t hear the cadence of the words in Deuteronomy when you read the quote, you might have remembered a folk anthem instead. Remember these lyrics from Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Teach Your Children”…

You, who are on the road
Must have a code
That you can live by.
And so, become yourself
Because the past
Is just a goodbye.

Teach, your children well
Their father’s hell
Did slowly go by
And feed them on your dreams
The one they pick’s
The one you’ll know by.
Don’t you ever ask them why
If they told you, you would die
So just look at them and sigh
And know they love you.

With such an important task at hand, what do you SEE when you say AMERICA?

Cicero’s View from 100,000 Miles

How is the first picture of Earth from space the most powerful political picture ever published? Marking the 40th anniversary of the famous picture, a British newspaper, The Independent, remarked that the three astronauts of the Apollo 8 mission “went to the moon, but ended up discovering the Earth.”

The British cosmologist, Sir Fred Hoyle, had predicted the first image of Earth from space would forever change how we view the planet. Reviewing a photo of the Earth brought back from the Apollo 11 mission, Carl Sagan explained just how our perspective had changed, “Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.” Concerned with their own orbit, the necessary calculations to safely land on the moon, and all the instruments readings that would guide them, the Apollo 8 astronauts almost let this spectacular image slip by them unnoticed. Imagining that moment you can almost hear Africanus’s words to Cicero reminding him to keep his mind on these higher regions.

Truly great acts might require a universal understanding of life, the events of its past and the promises of its future. Michael Collins, an Apollo 11 astronaut who landed on the moon in 1969, shares this Ciceronian perspective in his book Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journey, published in 1974. As you read his words and imagine this view of the planet from 100,000 miles, you hear Cicero’s Dream of Scipio resonate with the potential of this modern accomplishment.

(Michael Collins’s words in bold; Cicero’s words from the Dream of Scipio in block quotes)

“I really believe that if the political leaders of the world could see their planet from a distance of, let’s say,100,000 miles, their outlook would be fundamentally changed. That all-important border would be invisible, that noisy argument suddenly silenced. The tiny globe would continue to turn, serenely ignoring its subdivisions, presenting a unified facade that would cry out for unified understanding, for homogeneous treatment”

First picture of Earth from space

First picture of Earth from space

‘Instead, Scipio, be like your grandfather here, and me, your father. Respect justice and do your duty. That is important in the case of parents and relatives and paramount in the case of one’s country. That is the way of life which leads to heaven and to the company, here, of those who have already completed their lives. Released from their bodies, they dwell in that place which you see–a place which you have learnt from the Greeks to call the Milky Way. (And in fact there was this circle shining with dazzling radiance among the fiery bodies.)’

When I beheld the whole universe from that point, everything seemed glorious and wonderful. There were stars which we have never seen from this earth of ours, each of a size which we have never imagined to exist. The smallest star, which was furthest from heaven and nearest to earth, was shining with a light not its own. The spheres of the stars easily exceeded the earth in size. Now the earth itself seemed so small to me that I felt ashamed of our empire, whose extent was no more than a dot on its surface.

As I gazed more intently upon it, Africanus said ‘Well now, how long will your thoughts remain fixed on the earth? Do you not notice what lofty regions you have entered?’

“The earth must become as it appears: blue and white, not capitalist or Communist; blue and white, not rich or poor; blue and white, not envious or envied. I am not a naïve man. I don’t believe that a glance from 100,000 miles out would cause a Prime Minister to scurry back to his parliament with a disarmament plan, but I do think it would plant a seed that ultimately could grow into such concrete action. Just because borders are invisible from space doesn’t mean that they’re not real—they are, and I like them. . . . What I am saying, however, is that all countries must begin thinking of solutions to their problems which benefit the entire globe, not simply their own national interests.”

I gazed at all these things in amazement. Then, pulling myself together, I said ‘What is that sound, so loud and yet so sweet, that fills my ears?’

‘That,’ he said, ‘is the sound produced by the impetus and momentum of the spheres themselves. It is made up of intervals which, though unequal, are determined systematically by fixed proportions. The blend of high and low notes produces an even flow of various harmonies. Such vast motions cannot sweep on in silence, and nature ordains that low notes should be emitted by one of the boundaries and high notes by the  other. From the uppermost of the heavenly orbits (that which carries the stars) comes a high note with frequent vibrations, in that its cycle is more rapid. The deepest note emanates from the lowest orbit, that of the moon. The earth, which is the ninth sphere, remains fixed and immobile in one place, filling the central position of the universe. Those eight rotating spheres (of which two [being an octave apart] produce the same effect) give out seven distinctive sounds according to their intervals. That number is more or less the linchpin of everything. By imitating this system with strings and voices experts have succeeded in opening up a way back to this place, as have others who, in their life on earth, have applied their outstanding intellect to heavenly subjects.’

“The smoke from the Saar Valley may pollute half a dozen other countries, depending on the direction of the wind. We all know that, but it must be seen to make an indelible impression, to produce an emotional impact that makes one argue for long-term virtues at the expense of short-term gains. I think the view from 100,000 miles could be invaluable in getting people together to work out joint solutions, by causing them to realize that the planet we share unites us in a way far more basic and far more important than differences in skin color or religion or economic system.”

Image from Apollo 11 mission


Though listening with astonishment, I kept turning my eyes repeatedly back to earth. Thereupon Africanus said ‘I notice you are still gazing at the home and habitation of men. If it seems small to you (as indeed it is) make sure to keep your mind on these higher regions and to think little of the human scene down there. For what fame can you achieve, what glory worth pursuing, that consists merely of people’s talk? Look. The earth is inhabited in just a few confined areas. In between those inhabited places, which resemble blots, there are huge expanses of empty territory. Those who live on earth are separated in such a way that nothing can readily pass between them from one populated region to another. More than that, in relation to your position, some people stand at a different angle, some at right angles, and some directly opposite. You certainly cannot expect any praise from them.’

‘…That entire land mass which you occupy has been made narrow from north to south and broader from east to west. It is like a small island surrounded by the sea which you call the Atlantic, the Great Sea, or the Ocean. Yet observe how small it is in spite of its imposing name. Has your fame, or that of any of us, been able to find its way from these civilized familiar lands to the far side of the Caucasus, which you see here, or to swim across the Ganges, there? In the remaining areas of the east or west, or in those far to the north and south, who will ever hear your name? When all those regions have been cut out, you can surely see how small is the area over which your glory is so eager to extend. And even those who talk about us now–how long will they continue to do so?’

“The pity of it is that so far the view from 100,000 miles has been the exclusive property of a handful of test pilots, rather than the world leaders who need this new perspective, or the poets who might communicate it to them.”

‘Since, then, it is clear that what moves by itself is eternal, who could deny that this property is possessed by minds? Everything that is propelled by an external force is inanimate; but an animate being is moved by its own internal power, for that is the peculiar property and function of the mind. If the mind is the one and only entity that moves itself, surely it has never been born and will never die.’

‘Be sure to employ it in the best kinds of activity. Now the best concerns are for the safety of one’s country. When the mind has been engaged in and exercised by those concerns it will fly more quickly to this, its dwelling-place and home. And it will do so the more readily if, when still enclosed in the body, it already ventures abroad and, by contemplating what lies beyond, detaches itself as much as possible from the body.’

Collins, Michael. Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux,

Cicero, Marcus Tullius. The Republic and The Laws. Translated by Niall Rudd. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

***Thanks to National Academy alumni Stacy Miller for finding the Michael Collins excerpt and sharing it on Facebook

The Wave, Human Nature, and Our Radical Evolution

Published in 2005, Joel Garreau’s Radical Evolution offers multiple perspectives on the future of human kind.  Interviewing world-class thinkers, engineers, and philosophers, the author examines not only our decisions, but our decision making process—for the heart of Garreau’s thesis maintains that human nature changes.

We’ve all wondered whether we’re still part of that process.  Over the years, our species has gradually removed ourselves from the brutality of natural selection.  Americans, especially, have enjoyed long periods without significant culling; so do we yet evolve?  Garreau thinks so.  Physically, we create medicine that can alter our appearances and heal our wounds, while other intellectual constructions seem to grow exponentially.  Can humans maintain control over these creations?  His book’s subtitle alludes to the wisdom it will take to guide this giant: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies—and What It Means to Be Human.  What follows is an argument over what course that path looks like: heaven, hell, or prevail.

The heaven scenario involves advances so great that nanotechnology works invisibly around us, and our bodies regenerate into perpetuity.  Societies, thriving on our highest human emotions, live far from the reptilian R-complex.  Art and music elevate, while education becomes the most important career in the world.  Machines shrink to miniscule, while their capabilities unfold endlessly.

Hell offers the negative: class warfare between the haves and have-nots, pretties versus uglies; technology so advanced that it achieves sentience—then replicates itself.  It’s nothing we haven’t imagined between The Matrix and Blade Runner back to its source at Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

What is different is that these diametric views are examined and upheld by visionaries who are helping to create it.  While most scientists, computer geniuses, and government-sponsored gurus see their work as seeds planted toward Eden, there are many others who fear dragon teeth being sown.  Bill Joy, the founder of networking giant Sun Microsystems and known in geekdom as the Edison of the Internet, emerges as one interesting story.  Clearly no Luddite, Joy’s vision once anticipated a Star Trekian future, but now glares sidelong at the mechanism of the Empire.  The complexity of this man cannot be summarized here, nor can any of the fascinating characters Garreau profiles.  Suffice it to say that each offers a perspective utterly human in its depth.

More federalist than anti-federalist thought is expanded upon in the next two sections of the book: prevail and transcendence.  Another personality, Martin E. P. Seligman suggests three levels of happiness: the pleasant life, the good life, and the meaningful life.  The pleasant one is all downhill racing: base pleasures and Sushi feelings.  This may be where many Americans find themselves—whether that be through computer porn or Viagra, Cartoon Network or crack.  The good life rises above this.  Referencing Aristotle and Jefferson, Seligman sees something more than existence; he sees a life that is fully lived.  Even better than a life in tune, though, is a life in chorus.  The meaningful life is one in which the instrument of one joins the symphony of all with great elegance and complexity.  The latter view rings as Madisonian; it’s the citizen harmonizing with the Constitution.  Or, through National Academy metaphor, it is Will’s brown box growing up through the center of the spectrum and bearing beautiful rainbow-colored fruit.

If the author leans toward an advancement of humanity, the reader should not be surprised.  After all, the title of the work suggests a continuation, rather than The End.  Garreau makes no hypothesis about the length this evolution will take.  Experts who don’t forecast a technological maelstrom, range from those who think perfection will rise as a tsunami of advancement called The Singularity to those who predict a more gradual tide.

Most importantly, the author goes beyond a catalog of neat inventions to the thought needed to manage such a wave.  How can we control this evolution without the ultimate wipe-out?  As a teacher, I can’t help but imagine the role of a well-rounded education in all of this.  Clearly, literature, history, and communication help us to perceive such changes, while a well-constituted government provides balance to the Constitution’s board.  Can we produce thinkers able to ride the rising swell?  Will we realize that the technical instruction manual of standardized tests can never replace the feel of paddling out, popping up, and surfing?

Garreau’s work suggests that we had better learn quickly.  In a world economy, to remain stoically anti-federalist may just leave Americans as hydrophobic doomsayers gawking at the wall of a world-cleansing flood.  While a ride upon The Wave—one dwarfing both the dawn of industry and the hope of Renaissance—Duuuude, that would be the totality of all that is rad.

Project Citizen

Having been briefly introduced to Project Citizen at the National Academy, I decided to try it out this year.  It’s an ideal, outcome-based activity as much about the journey as the finish.  And the great thing about the finish is that it’s really just the beginning, for students receive the tools to research and formulate public policy.  In the end, it is incredibly empowering for the kids to discover the pathways through which they can enact change.

A few words from my fourth-graders (non-speakers) when asked today by the panel what they had learned from the experience: “I learned what private domain is.”  “Compromise.”  “Better research skills.”  “How a bill becomes a law.”  “How long it takes to pass a bill.”  “A lot about pollution and landfills.”

In our first few sessions, my 4th-6th grade students narrowed their choices for the project to these rough ideas: Save Bears, Clean-Up Michigan’s Rivers, Fix the Litter in Detroit.  The more we delved into the text, students discovered that those topics really weren’t clear proposals for public policy.  They also gained a ton of knowledge regarding sovereignty, as well as private sphere/civil society/ government.  The more they learned, the more focused their idea became, and their eventual choice–EXPAND MICHIGAN’S BOTTLE LAW–ended up as a wonderful combination of the early favorites.

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The four areas of the portfolio–PROBLEM, ALTERNATIVE POLICIES, OUR SOLUTION, and ACTION PLAN–serve as a fantastic outline for anyone of any age attempting to bring about change.

The panel presentation in a committee room at the state capitol was the pinnacle of the experience.  Having misjudged time, our project came down to the wire (lesson learned: start early!); as a result, the kids didn’t first benefit and learn from a local session.  However, they could not have done any better than what I witnessed today.  Thorough preparation pays dividends, and I was so proud of my students for presenting without reading from a page.  (It does make a difference, I can tell you, as we were able to observe a high school group who did just that.)


We will be participating in Project Citizen next year, and in the years after!  Sincerely, the entire process has been one of the most valuable of my entire teaching career.

If you have any questions about Project Citizen, right down to the tooth ‘n’ nails, feel free to contact me at [email protected], or pose your questions here.

Wall-E: Perfectly Constituted Disorder

I saw the most frightening childrens’ movie this weekend, Pixar’s “Wall-E.” The child in the row behind me squealed with delight over every adorable character. She punctuated each screen debut with the character’s name. She faithfully announced Wall-E and Eve each time, convinced we were as excited as she was.

She had no idea I was simply horrified. The shrill screams seemed appropriate. The giddy enthusiasm did not.

Humans have left the Earth behind in an their never-ending trail of trash. While one solitary robot, Wall-E, continues the clean up effort on Earth, Eve comes to scan the planet for any sign of life. She just needs something green and alive. Scan after scan, it seems less and less likely.

The brilliant blue and green Earth as we know it has been left behind as a brown shabby dustbin. The human oasis in space, a huge ship called Axiom, provides “natural” cycles of night and day. When the ship’s captain oversleeps and misses the morning announcements, he simply dials the whole system back a few hours.

It appears there’s a recognized need for the concept of nature without requiring the actual thing itself. Of course, there’s also a statement about human nature and the state of mankind that is alarmingly plausible.

This space cruise was planned for a five-year trip while robots cleaned up the mess the humans left behind. They, however, have been cruising for 700 years in hi-tech La-Z-Boy recliners. All meals are delivered in a cup with a bendy straw and the humans pass the time talking to others via a visual display only inches from their noses. Even conversations with the person sitting next to them are conducted this way. Apparently, everyone is so incredibly comfortable they haven’t asked what happened to that five-year plan.

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Federalist Thinking: Karl Iagnemma

As I returned to my too real world, I clicked through my Tivo playlist over breakfast this morning and found Karl Iagnemma on an episode of NOVA Science Now. One of the country’s top scientific inventors and an award winning author, Karl is presented as a man at work in two very different worlds.

Picture a fiction writer and you’re likely to imagine a creative and erratic spirit. Picture a scientist and you see a methodical and analytical thinker. What does it look like when these two worlds work together in the life of Karl Iagnemma and what does this have to do with federalist thinking?

It’s all about the similarities of these not so separate worlds. That imagination fuels the writing process is no surprise. We don’t often think of science, however, as a creative endeavor.

In the 10-minute clip, Karl reveals he approaches each exercise in writing and/or inventing as structured creativity. While leading the team creating robots to explore the surface of Mars, he fills his blank page with proven algorithms and laws of physics. The team’s job is to combine what they know to provide for a reality on the surface of Mars they can only imagine. With so many answers at their fingertips, Karl’s team can never be sure they know what happens next.

In responding to a question about his interest in scientific failures, Karl weaves together creativity, science, conflict and crisis:

I think the heart of all fiction, or almost all fiction, is conflict. As fiction writers, we look for things that aren’t going quite right. It’s Tolstoy’s line about happy families, you know? You can apply that to research. Failed research is what’s interesting.

When you fail at something it often forces you to question your own beliefs, what you thought to be true, and in extreme cases, to question who you think you are. And that makes for interesting fiction. An idea about a scientist in crisis is often the spark for me, and that spark tends to illuminate the story or the novel.

Add this analysis of conflict in fiction to Thoma’s Kuhn’s understanding of crisis in science and you’ll see a Federalist perspective at work. Through structured creativity, Karl Iagnemma is filling the blank pages of his next story and inventing the tools we’ll use to see further into the universe…without ever knowing how the story ends.