If I can make one person think once more about one issue, I've done all I can. Maybe I take things too seriously...or maybe you don't take things seriously enough.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

Do schools kill creativity?

Imperial Creed linked a video in his comment on my previous post. It's an excellent video, and I thought that, rather than let it languish on the sidelines, I should make it easier to see. Thus, here it is:

Friday, 11 April 2008


For quite a while now I've been wondering what exactly it is people mean when they say someone is gifted. I think the main reason I've wondered about this is because I've spent most of my life being put in that category.

I know this sounds conceited, but really, it's simply an observation. When I was in Melbourne, I was more or less the only white middle-class person in my year group, which was only 30 strong anyway. I knew more about computers than my teachers, and I was (depressingly) on excellent terms with the vast majority of the teaching staff. All in all, I was more or less a model student.

This theme was broadly repeated throughout my life. What is more weird is that I always suspect that people thought I did better than I actually did. I remember scoring good, but not amazing, GCSE results, and having everyone be really surprised. At the time, all I could think was: "I told you I wasn't that good."

I think the reason I find this strange is that I was always told I was good at something. People would say, "You're so good at Maths", or physics, or whatever. But from my perspective, I don't think that's quite true. What I was good at was learning.

I realised this in year 13. For some reason, anything that was put in front of my I would soak up. I'd write it down, do a couple of exercises, and then it'd be there. And I spent a long period of time confused by the fact that people didn't seem to catch on as quickly as I did. This also meant that I failed to develop a work ethic, and really, this is true amongst all gifted students. The question is: how gifted are you?

I ask this for one simple reason. When I got into highschool, I became friends with another of those 'gifted' types, who've had that label thrown at them all their life. And there's no denying, he was bright. And, like me, he had an awful work ethic. Chatty and easily distracted, we were horrible for most teachers, even though they barely had to teach us.

The difference is, come A-levels, I still did well. I walked into the exam having under-prepared, and came out of it having done far better than I had any right to do. He walked in, and came out with a D.

I was truly staggered. Here was someone who had performed amazingly well at every moment up until the actual test, and then he tanked. I was truly, truly shocked. And it put a lot in perspective for me. As it turns out, there eventually comes a time when raw talent won't carry you through any more. This differs from person to person, but eventually one has to realise that you simply aren't good enough to do this without help any more.

The problem, of course, lies in the treatment of 'gifted' children. It is incredibly difficult to integrate them into the standard strata of education, because if you do they will become bored and lazy due the fact that they will never be challenged. Conversely, remove them from the usual education system and they will lose their ability to reconcile their talents with those who lack them. The number of times I've seen 'gifted' students berate their colleagues for failing to recognise something ("It's so obvious, how can you not see that?") is almost uncountable, and it more or less boils down to a failure to understand that other people's minds may not work in the same fashion to yours.

Sadly, it's a tricky balance. What are your opinions of the 'gifted'? And, for that matter, of the 'entitled'? Let me know.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

On Morality

Yesterday was a strange, strange day. I can leave most of it out, but the relevant part of it is that I spent a decent proportion of time reading Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, which is all well and good, but I should have been reading An Enquiry Into Human Understanding. Anyway, long story short, a member of my philosophy class noticed, and we ended up having a pretty in depth discussion about both the text, and about morality in general. As I suspect you're sick of my ranting and raving by this point, rather than complain about something specific in the world, I'll simply have a one-sided discussion regarding morality and moral theory.

Before we begin, a few quick caveats. This is primarily a discussion about moral theory. I will not sit here and preach at you, if only because I'm hardly in a position to dispense wisdom. In addition, I will mostly talk about 'established' moral theories. Sadly, my philosophical education is not particularly deep, and so I know a little about quite a few theories. Thus, if there is any member of my readership who has more detailed knowledge about any of the matters I touch upon, please, speak up in the comments. Finally, let me point out that discussion of morality has been going on for thousands of years. Do not expect my post to add anything new to the discussion. All I hope to do is open it up for you guys to think about it, and hopefully comment constructively beneath the post.

Also, a final warning: this post could take a very, very long time to read. (Portal, anyone?)

Morality is, and has almost always been, a major point of contention in society. The reason for this is simple: very few people agree. As a result, a great number of the 'famous' philosophers have at least dipped into the area of morality. This tends to mean that the area is a convoluted mess of hundreds of different people each expounding a different view, or at least a variation on the same view, which tends to mean that people bicker a lot. This also explains the Daily Mail.

The problem most moral theories suffer from is that they are, by necessity, extreme. A moral theory which says 'um, well, it depends, actually' tends not to get very far (with the exclusion of Virtue Theory, more of which later). As a result most theories tend to be a little...radical. Consider Kant's deontology. This will quite literally proscribe that lying is wrong in absolutely all circumstances. I'm sure you can think of quite a few examples off the top of your head where this feels a little ridiculous.

Of course, on the other hand, Kant's categorical impreative is actually a rather sensible peice of guidance, albeit one that is difficult to apply 'on the fly'. The second formulation of the imperative is best, which more or less runs as follows: "Act in such a fashion that you never treat a human being simply as a means, but always also as an end." In this particular context, treating someone as an 'end' means respecting their freedom as a moral and logical agent; namely, respecting their right to make choices. Thus, it is ok to treat someone as a means (hell, you do this with shopkeepers all the time) so long as you are still allowing them freedom to make choices.

On the other side of the map, we have Utilitarian theory, originally proposed by Jeremy Bentham, but then later refined by J.S Mill. Utilitarian theory, in its barebones state, says that you should act in such a fashion as to ensure 'the greatest good for the greatest number'. In this particular case, good refers to 'pleasure' or 'enjoyment'. Thus, so long as everyone feels good about things, you are acting in a moral fashion. Once again, however, criticism is fairly easy: after all, this theory allows murder in quite a few cases.

Mill, in what I consider to be his greatest faux pas actually made this theory worse (once again, my opinion) by implementing a distinction between the 'higher' and 'lower' pleasures, with higher pleasures (such as studying philosophy) being worth more 'pleasure points' than lower ones, such as eating a tasty burger.

Rather than continue to elaborate on various different moral theories, I'll instead talk briefly about the one that appeals to me most: Aristotle's Virtue Theory. Broadly, Aristotle says that the moral thing to do depends on the situation, and the person involved. Virtue theory is so called because Aristotle suggests that only the virtuous person knows how to act morally in a situation, and the only way to be a virtuous person is to cultivate the virtues. So, what Aristotle has said is that the moral thing for any person is different, depending on the circumstances and the type of person they are. Furthermore, if someone is a virtuous person, they will instictively do the morally correct action, and what's more, they will enjoy doing it.

This feels like an unhelpful guide, but Aristotle has happily indicated how it is that one becomes virtuous: namely, through practice. From the base point, it will be difficult to be virtuous; but the longer you try, the easier it becomes, and the more enjoyment you get from it, to the point where you will naturally be courageous, and generous, and kind, and fair.

There is one very simple reason that Aristotle's theory appeals to me, and that's because it's relativistic. Namely, it doesn't say that the virtues need to be the same, and it downright says that different people have a different 'moral act' in the same circumstance. Now, not everyone is a moral relativist, but I've always thought that the only way to avoid being a relativist is to be religious. After all, an atheist is forced to conclude that morality is a purely human societal construct, and as human society is not the same everywhere, morality must therefore not be the same everywhere.

Anyway, what are your thoughts? Could you guide the world in morality? Let me know.