A Love Letter to the Mad Ones

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The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles.

Jack Kerouac, On the Road

A Love Letter to the Mad Ones A Life of Virtue: Philosophy as a Way of Life

An audio rendition of my poem, "A Love Letter to the Mad Ones" 
I turn my heart towards the mad ones, 
those who reject the temptations of conformity and the allure of sameness. 
 
They venture into the wild and carve their own path. 
They walk into and embrace the darkness, without any direction home. 
They follow the burning light inside of them, their torch ablaze, 
illuminating the cave to new ways of being. 

'Zombies, zombies everywhere!' they whisper in my ear with caution.
Nothing terrifies them more than the 'cult of normal', they tell me.  
These humans, they say, are pre-programmed with a similar code, 
with identical thoughts, goals and aspirations. 
They are stamped, dated, and come off the assembly line in a timely manner. 
One after the other after the other.   
 
Mass production.
Cookie-cutter hearts, 
Cookie-cutter minds, 
Cookie-cutter souls. 

Let us not forget that the trailblazers throughout history, from Socrates, Jesus, the Buddha and Gandhi, were all initially dismissed by the conformists, the dogmatic masses. 
We laughed, scolded and persecuted them with our childish arrogance.  
It is only in retrospect in which we fully appreciate their greatness. 

Blessed are the weird ones!
Let us turn our hearts to those who have no shame in living out their authentic selves.

So I tell you, dear reader,  
throw away the script, 
corrupt the code, 
follow Truth, Beauty and Goodness wherever it may lead you.  

Embody courage, 
Live as a free-spirit, 
But more importantly, be human - all too human.  


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Education for the Soul: An Exploration of the Concept of Bildung

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I received a lot of great and constructive criticism on my article about the value of a liberal arts education. Upon further reflection, I wanted to write a follow up piece to clarify my argument.

My position is not that one should pursue a formal postsecondary degree in the humanities or liberal arts to gain the wisdom and self-cultivation that I believe that these subjects inspire. Rather this type of knowledge can be diffused through a myriad of different ways. For instance, it can be disseminated through social norms or through dialoging and learning from different cultures or from different periods in history.

On a broader level, learning about the subjects of the arts and humanities, gives us a deeper understanding of our place in the world. It provides insights and opportunities for personal development by offering new ways of living – new ways of being. Perhaps this can enable us to break free from the chains of our cultural conditioning and become authentic individuals. Individuals who have a degree of internal freedom, who are independent thinkers and are not merely persuaded by the trends of the time or opinions of the masses.

One of my readers introduced me to the German concept of Bildung. The notion of Bildung can be broadly defined by the type of education offered to an individual which focuses on holistic growth, self-realization and a social responsibility. Its aim is to cultivate and educate the person as a whole. The concept of Bildung seeks to promote freedom and autonomy whilst encouraging our sense of responsibility towards others as citizens existing in interdependant communities.

Of course, I am not diminishing the significance of acquiring technical skills. These are needed in the modern economy. However, I believe that they must be supplemented with a degree of emotional intelligence and maturity.

My concern with equating education to merely skills training is that it is reductionist. That is, it reduces the creativity and freedom of individuals to mere cogs in economic systems.

We are not machines, nor are we commodities. Moreover, contrary to the beliefs of many economists, we are not mere ‘utility maximizers.’

 As I’ve argued elsewhere, there are negative consequences that stem from defining success exclusively in terms of our jobs or ranking on the economic ladder.  

This idea of Bildung allows us to expand our ideas about what education is and should be about. It is not confined to school but is a lifelong process of learning. It is about nurturing one’s character, capacities and living lives of meaning and purpose.  

To quote the German philosopher and inspiration behind the educational ideal of Bildung, William Von Humbolt,

There are undeniably certain kinds of knowledge that must be of a general nature and, more importantly, a certain cultivation of the mind and character that nobody can afford to be without



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Education for Humans: The Lasting Value of the Liberal Arts

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I can still remember the mix of fear and excitement on the day I graduated from university. I completed my studies in philosophy, and unlike other graduates, I had no clear path forward. My friends who completed degrees in business or engineering had jobs lined up in their respective fields. For them, their career paths were well defined. The programs they completed had clear ties to the job market.

But for someone with a philosophy degree, how exactly is one supposed to make themselves marketable to potential employers?

Well, after stumbling for a while in search of direction, pursuing a graduate degree in public policy, I finally found my bearings.

Do I have any regrets you may ask? Well, it’s complicated.

In this article, I want to argue that subjects in the liberal arts still have lasting value. However, their importance should not be confined to academic institutions or be framed in a way to make someone more employable. Rather, I will argue that the liberal arts provide the tools for ordinary citizens to identify patterns and to make sense of the world around them. These subjects help us identify the stories that shape our societies, and give us the creativity and freedom to create new ones.

The liberal arts are concerned with at least two goals:

  • How one could live a ‘good life’; and
  • How to establish and participate in well functioning societies

Useless?

I’ve read many articles on the worth and value of liberal arts degrees and there are generally two opposing views on the subject.

The first is that pursuing higher education in these subjects is foolish. Proponents of this view argue that these degrees have no tangible linkages to the job market. In difficult economic times, they claim that students should focus on subjects that will guarantee a return on investment. They point towards subjects in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) as in-demand subjects which are closely tied to the modern economy.

The opposing view is that the liberal arts teach foundational skills which can be applied to a variety of different fields. For instance, every company needs clear writers and thinkers who are able to get their ideas across in a succinct way. These subjects may not be related to a particular industry, but they teach skills that are both transferable and flexible. The knowledge of technical experts needs to be translated in a manner that is digestible to the general public.

What this debate misses however is the broader question of what education is for. In our modern society which prizes materialistic notions of success, and which views those the ‘top of the corporate ladder’ as the ultimate prize, it is difficult to look at education beyond this reductive utilitarian calculus.

To explore education through a different lens we need to first look at the ideals of the past.

The Ideals of Education: Lessons from the Past  

The mission of the educational institutions of the past was to focus on developing and cultivating one’s character and disposition. Society’s political and cultural elites were trained in the humanities with subjects ranging from philosophy, languages and literature. The goal was not to train society’s future leaders not with merely practical skills, but with a focus on cultivating wisdom and virtue.

The type of education focused on nurturing one’s character has its roots in the work of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle.

Aristotle argued that in order to achieve a life of contentment and human flourishing (what he called eudaimonia), one must cultivate virtue through practice and habit. One becomes courageous through performing acts of courage just as one becomes disciplined through exercising self-restraint.

When exercising judgement and determining how to act in unique situations, Aristotle argues that we should aim towards the mean between excess and deficiency. For instance, when looking at the virtue of courage, it would be foolish to be fearful of trivial concerns. On the contrary, one would put themselves in danger if they were overly confident in dangerous situations. To be courageous then would be to exercise discretion and right action through a proper assessment of the danger or risk a situation poses.

Good character then is developed when one has the capacity and wisdom to determine what virtues and ethical principles to apply in different circumstances. A person who has learned and practiced a moral education will be free from their immediate passions and desires. They will be able to use reason and right judgement to navigate through the intricacies of life.  

Navigating an Uncertain and Complex World

It is no secret that we live in a world with many complex, messy and daunting problems. These need no further description of these issue as we are reminded of the political, economic and environmental issues every time we turn on the news.

Of course, we need individuals with the technical skills to be able to innovate and devise new technologies to solve these crises. We need those who are specialized in the STEM fields to meet the demands of the modern economy.

However, we can’t ignore the necessity for high level thinkers who are able to see the big picture and patterns shaping the world we live in. Perhaps one doesn’t need to study the liberal arts in a formal institution, but nonetheless the studying these subjects in some capacity provide an individual with phycological and spiritual autonomy. Through reading the classics and getting acquainted to the wisdom of the past, we develop the ability to think more freely.  Moreover, we can refrain from the pressure and temptations from mindlessly following the opinions of the masses.

Our opinions would be original and authentic rather than reactionary.

In a world that is in constant change, merely training students for the job market, runs the risk of producing homogenous thinkers who will sustain society’s declining institutions instead of trying to change them to adapt to our present circumstances. We need new ideas of success which align with the pressing demands of our current situation. Instead of chasing after the sports car and large salary, perhaps education should aim to allow us to be better more informed citizens or to contribute to the well being of others.  As Richard Louv notes in his book Last Child in the Woods, educators should ask,

Does four years here make your graduates better planetary citizens or does it make them, in Wendell Berry’s words, “itinerant professional vandals”?

Our ancestors have dealt with many of the same challenges and social upheaval that we are currently facing. The liberal arts provide us with their insights and wisdom. It can help us cultivate wisdom and build more beautiful and sustainable futures.

Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another

Gilbert K. Chesterton

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