Ignore Ambition, Just do Good

[This letter is part of the Little Letter Republic, a project whose purpose is to build community in St. Louis and beyond.]

Dear CeltAtom,

You are curious about how to solve two problems. 1) What types of careers people should be encouraged towards and 2) How “ambitious” one’s career goals should be?

In the interest of first offering a more wholesome approach to the discussion, I think a discussion about “ambition” should come first. There is a perception around here that I am a super “ambitious” person. And from a certain perspective that is fair to say, but that is not how I frame the experience of my activities to myself. We could argue about Christian humility versus ambition, but I think this is a category mistake. We have talents, skills, insights that, having been freely given to us, ought to be freely and fearlessly used. If we begin by saying, how can I best use my current abilities and build my current strengths, then we have the right intention. When we are alert to opportunities to use these strengths, it is not ambition. It is looking for ways to conform ourselves to the Animating Spirit. Providence opens doors to us, and we have to choose whether to walk through them.

My friend Joe passed through St. Louis from Philadelphia last month. He was moving to Phoenix. And he told me the story of how he came into this job. He went down to a Benedictine Monastery in New Mexico for a week to pray and discern and seek peace after the current job he took turned out to be a disaster. He thought he was great at organizing and would be able to run this department despite the management issues. Instead, his boss gaslighted him, refused to delegate, and couldn’t be negotiated with. At the monastery, he and a monk repaired some broken down vehicles, the monk told him he should go to Phoenix and look for a job there. After his monastic stay, he drove a couple hours to Phoenix and applied for a few jobs, found a perfect fit for what he needed to develop himself more, and took it. It wasn’t a question of ambition, but of teachableness i,e, docility, the humility to drink the water offered.

I asked him the same question. Does he worry about ambition getting in the way of discernment? He said absolutely not. “Preparing oneself to do greater things is not pride; it’s preparation. God orders your path. If you try to force things to happen on your own, it is disaster.”

So, when I think about career and intellectual life. I think about moving along my current trajectory and making sure I grow the skills I can, so that I can put them to good use. By “good use,” I don’t mean career use either. Some things I do out an impulse of delight or exploration or familial duty, and those things are good use too.

One the one hand, “Be not anxious for your life, what you shall eat, or what you shall drink…” On the other hand, “There were ten virgins, five foolish, five wise…”. So be prepared to do what you are called to do, and you are called to do the great good you can see yourself doing. Does it help to be caught up in the question of whether some activity is “elite” or “ambitious” or not? These are socialized ways of thinking which are cover for the twin vices of vainglory or sloth.

If we try to do a great good thing and fail, we have still done right and should be willing to try again. If we are successful, it is not us that were successful, but rather things outside our control came together.

I find it intriguing that you both liked the advice in the two 80k articles but were repulsed by the conclusions they drew for what careers are appropriate. “This is a recruiting front for the California rationalists.” It seems to me that you agree with the principles of the two articles but find the general 80k implementation biased. You characterize this bias as being towards 1) expanding civilizational capacity and 2) elite concerns, as opposed to maintaining society and caring about local issues.

I think you are right that there are some important biases to notice here. Ryan Miller at University of Geneva recently wrote an article called “80,000 Hours for the Common Good: A Thomistic Appraisal of Effective Altruism.” In that article he cautioned that EA while it wants to be open to non-utilitarian ethical systems is also committed to a state-of-affairs analysis of ethics. But one can’t have both at the same time, he argues. And thus a Thomistic version of Effective Altruism will have divergent priorities from 80k. While I think that is basically true, I think the difference can be overstated, and what matters to me is the practical version of the question. In other words, what does a Thomistic Effective Altruism look like? Because as of right now, it’s only EA that’s systematically taking data and consequences seriously when thinking about career advice.

If we largely agree with the principles laid out in those articles, then we should still implement them.

But what are the practical implications for what careers people should be encouraged towards? You want to divide careers into two camps maintainer-careers and extender-careers. Let me offer a different framework, one that is more dynamic.

Skills get plugged into roles. Roles get plugged into industries. A person can move into the same role at a different industry, or a different role in the same industry. You do this throughout your career looking for the best good you can do. This process both maintains and extends civilization, and even if we get a few more people willing to switch jobs and think in this way, then will have a society where more people are flourishing. Different industries provide different value as do different roles, but it’s up to individuals to try and figure out where the value is and where their talents lie.

But, of course, people need guidance and culture to help inform them about what is valuable. The BLS tells you that words ending in “engineering” are valuable to society in the sense that they are well financially remunerated. However, the truth about most jobs that pay well is that everything is management. Technical skills get you hired, managerial skills get you promoted (or allow you to start something new). By intentionally trying to do good with one’s career, one is taking responsibility for his own life. Ben Franklin’s Junto or Leather Apron Club fulfilled this purpose in his Philadelphia. I think education (broadly conceived) must prepare people for freedom – and that means responsibility.

As a side note: this is also how an ideal polity works, people need to be able to both direct affairs and be directed for a democratic republic to function. Essential to freedom is responsibility.

There are more ideas to explore in this space. I’m out of steam for today.

Looking forward to more,

A Liberal Arts Approach to Economics

[This letter is part of the Little Letter Republic, a project whose purpose is to build community in St. Louis and beyond.]

Dear Nate,

Our conversation the other night provoked me to want to explain more how I teach economics. I have done two things this semester which make my economics class different from the run-of-the-mill class (not that the run-of-the-mill economics class is bad; even normie econ is pretty grand!).

Having a different approach, means more than having a different philosophy while following the old motions. It means truly different tactics. My overarching goal in teaching economics is not to teach students about financial flows, but to teach students about human choice. In this way, my outlook is broader, more humanistic, and less focused on the mathematics and more on the decision algorithms from which the mathematics is abstracted and given meaning. The math is important, but I care first and foremost about introducing the economic patterns which motivate the invention of mathematical insights.

Our standard curriculum consists of economics by McConnell, Brue, and Flynn and Marginal Revolution University videos and questions. But since we have academic freedom, we are not forcing ourselves in a speed run cram semester-long cram session to complete the entire AP curriculum. Instead, we have taken two high consequence detours. Likely a few more will follow.

The first is in expected value theory. What’s the value of this? Firstly, to think about just the simple application of algebra to normal life choices and situations. Secondly, to see that one can incorporate risk into one’s thinking about choices, and thirdly to pass on a surprisingly simple yet powerful and important mode for thinking through decisions. We calculated how many people you would want on a road trip to Juneau for cost sharing to be worth it, how to calculate the expected value of a military strike, and what the expected value of different driving habits are.

In morality, such a method is useful too. When deploying the principal of double-effect in moral decision-making after all the major hurdles have been crossed the governing issue of moral action remains prudence, to take proportional measures to achieve our goals in the face of uncertainty.  Expected value along with marginal thinking and causal diagrams (discussion for another day), I think should become standard equipment in the category of prudential thinking, which means I am also happily committed to a theory of virtue which requires using tools like these.

The second difference is the way I allow international trade to alter the course. From international trade we quickly run into issues of globalization and automation. MRU has a little curriculum on the topic called Globalization, Robots, and You, an essentially depressing look at how difficult it is to compete in a globalized and automated world. I noticed as the students worked through the ideas, they both made insights and at the same time felt somewhat powerless. As much as I like the lessons, they leave something to be desired: an idea of what civilization is for and how to offer a unique contribution. On uniqueness, we talked about the combinatorics. If there are 500 skills and you possess three without being the best at any one, you can still quite easily become the best person who has that set of three skills. (500*499*498).

I then offered the students another way of thinking: two articles from 80,000 Hours on high-impact careers and career stages. And then we close with a self-assessment “flower exercise” from What Color is Your Parachute which I think forces the students to engage with their own individual preferences in the context of trying to both do good (vis-à-vis culture) and do well (vis-à-vis civilization).

Then as we dive into discussions on labor economics, the students engage the questions from a place of curiosity and personal interest.

What I’ve outlined in brief is my liberal arts approach to economics education so far: an emphasis on passing on those habits of thought and intellectual tools which make for personally free and moral characters. Some people shy away from discussion of the moral import of education. I embrace it. Intelligence must meet action, and voluntary action must be directed towards good ends.

Inspiration from Alcuin

We live at the crossroads: a time of great pains and anxiety, a time of great hope and possibility. It is a time of international tension and international commerce, a time of technological tyrannies and informational delights. It is a time of national distrust, imperial loneliness, and meaning crises; and it is a time of artistic creation, community formation, and personal renewal. In short, it is a great time, like all times are, to invest ourselves in firming the bulwark, countervailing the ills, and extending the capabilities of civilization and rejuvenating the heart of culture.

In 793, the Vikings first made landfall in Northumbria, Britain. It was the first of 250 years of Viking raids. In that same year, Baghdad became the chief financial center of the world, connecting the Arabic speaking world to China, using paper promissory notes. While the civilized worlds of Baghdad and China connected themselves to each other, the small glimmers of high literacy in Ireland, Britain, and Italy were threatened by a black dawn of incessant raids in both the Mediterranean and northern seas. The legacy of the Roman Empire was scattered about in error-ridden, half-readable, near-rotting texts. A ‘big’ library boasted 100 books. The copying practices were so bad that the next generation of books would be nearly useless.

In France, one warlord, Charlemagne, was creating a vast Frankish empire out of military might, but although his political accomplishment was short-lived, he left behind an important cultural legacy: the preservation of knowledge and an end to the heedless destruction and abandonment of texts which characterized the previous 400 years (Mulhall). There is no text that we know was around in 793 in Western Europe, that cannot still be read today. Literate civilization did not backslide any further. To what can we attribute this ancient accomplishment, this new foothold on solid ground from which European civilization would one day leap? It was the monk of York, Alcuin. Alcuin, and the monks of Charlemagne’s court, who reformed the clergy, refined texts, created textbooks, and both taught and inspired a new generation, a generation who in turn taught another generation, passing on the skills of administration, counsel, and moral formation to the next cohort, until a more civilized world could be born.

 This process is not over. This process has only just begun, and it is ours to treasure. In Alcuin’s day a most important task was preserving and transmitting information so that individuals and society would not lose sight of their purpose and potential. In today’s world, another most important task is to sort, structure, manage, and marshal information, so that individuals and society will not lose sight of their purpose and potential. But our task is deeper than that. It is not a matter of mere ‘information’ storage and retrieval mechanisms. It is a matter of maintaining a sacred contract to see to it that the next generations do not fall into tyranny, viciousness, destruction, and obliteration and that they equip themselves with those values, skills, and relationships that identify and promote what is good and make life a wonderful adventure. This sacred interpersonal contract, written in the stones of what we choose to build, determines the future.

Letter on Culture and Context

[This letter is part of the Little Letter Republic, a project whose purpose is to build community in St. Louis and beyond.]

Dear Nilay,

You asked about “Context is that which is scarce.”

In our last conversation you expressed mild shock when I said that none of my students and almost none of their parents know what a private equity market is. So, consider this example: I want to explain to a high school student what an equity market is. The student’s parents and family neither run businesses nor engage in any active investing, nor do their parents’ friends. From the student’s perspective there are jobs which pay money and there are places to which one goes to spend that money, and that little model, for them, is the economy. Notions like a funding round, shares, ownership, ROI, and public versus private markets are foreign concepts. But more importantly, even if they are explained, they are quickly forgotten because the concepts do not map onto the student’s experience of reality. To bring a student from ignorance to starting see how this works would require knowing one or several people whose picture of reality is formed by this other context. Such a personal network would then be adjacent to their own, and they could quickly add any new information I provided to their map of reality.

If I want to convince a student that starting their own business is something to seriously consider, their soul must grasp how this could work, but the soul can only with difficulty grasp what the senses haven’t experienced.

Consider another example found in “communities of practice.” What is the best way to become good at creating software back-end architecture? Reading a book? Certainly not, for a book cannot span all eventualities and quirks. For the most part, it seems, the best way to become good at something is to work on a problem and find people who have run into the same issues as you and talk with them or read their chats. Then, when you engage in conversation, they understand the context, or the context is shared enough that they grok the problem you describe.

A community engaged in similar practices encounters similar problems, but one cannot understand the problems or their possible solutions if one lacks the context to understand the problem in the first place.

When I dip into a work of philosophy, I can become gripped and absorbed into the text when the author is exploring a series of questions that I myself have contemplated. My “philosophical literacy” helps me see the point quickly about why a particular argument or line of inquiry matters. When I know what matters I am able to gain understanding. One needs cultural literacy to grasp the significance of any fact.

The point here is that knowledge is not a set of statements outside the mind but understanding within our intelligence about what matters and why.

We live in the information age, but it’s context that is scarce.

Here’s a trivial example. Let’s say I have had a fever for a few days, I text you, “I feel like Raskolnikov.” The information contained in that statement can only be unlocked if one has the cultural passkey, knowledge of Crime and Punishment. The most difficult part of this idea that the scarcity of context is so ubiquitous that we hardly notice the phenomenon, except by example or the experience of total confusion.

If I had to explain to my mom what I have been thinking about recently, it would take many hours of discussion before we were on the same page. The implication is that it is very hard to induct people into one’s own thought and problems unless they already share significant amounts of context with you. Nonetheless, my mother and I share other things, and so can connect on those.

There is a tragic loneliness in the scarcity of context. If I have something great to offer others, but they can’t understand it, then I will languish in obscurity. Sometimes I think about the people, the websites, the communities that I would love, that I know exist out there, but that I cannot find. I could wait for someone to link me there. But the human person is not a passive receptacle of experience, but rather a creator of context, a crafter of relationships and worlds. And so whenever we interact and build something together, we are creating context.

I hope some of that makes sense.

Yours sincerely,

A Curriculum Story

When I enrolled at Wabash College, the faculty had just voted on retiring the Cultures and Traditions course, a two semester sophomore seminar on the great texts of ancient and modern history. Such a course was meant, I presume, to serve as an introduction to at least some of the foundational texts of civilization. Arranged mostly chronologically the texts would be an introduction to some of the big ideas of humanity. But intellectual balkanization took the day, and the course was replaced with a freshman second semester course called Enduring Questions.

With all due apologies to the chief architect behind the course, Dean of the College Gary Philips, who, despite being an excellent professor for my section, fathered this disaster. EQ was a smorgasbord, The product of many kooky cooks in one claustrophobic kitchen. Some of the items on the menu were not even food. It was as though a gaggle of drunk undergrads were appointed to the curriculum committee on a Saturday night and immediately proclaimed, “For dinner we will be having strawberry gravy over Hot Wheels cars with a side of Papa John’s Red Pepper Flakes. As an aperitif, gentlemen, indulge yourself with this fine wine from an origami sippy-cup.” The course consisted of all the greats, that is, one sexist page from Aristotle, a bit of a book on freedom by an educational philosopher, In Defense of Dolphins arguing for the personhood of these ocean tricksters, a good Black experience novel, several movies (Bladerunner, Orlando, City of God), some holocaust literature, and The Power and the Glory. Despite, Gary’s heroic attempts to create a single thread holding this course together, the entire college suffered severe intellectual indigestion.

My soured relationship with Gary (would it weren’t so! He and I really should have been friends, but I spent half my college career trying to overthrow the administration, i.e. Gary and the President) met its ultimate end at an EQ course section reunion dinner three years later during senior year. As we circled around each other in conversation, looking to slide the rhetorical stiletto into each other, another student committed a terrible and crass faux pas. He ended our soft barbs with a cannon blast, a direct insult on the Dean. How could he not know to whom he was speaking? Could a senior have really been so ignorant that he did not know that Gary designed the EQ course? Did he not realize we were at that moment eating delicious vegetarian cuisine in our host’s vegetarian Victorian home? Maybe it was the light sparring that Gary and I engaged in that egged this student on? Or yet perhaps a desire to be noticed for having formed a wise and considered opinion after years of liberal arts reflection? Whatever the cause, heavenly compulsion or earthen desire, he managed to cruelly insult our host. Silence would have been golden, but instead: “Do you all remember In Defense of Dolphins?” he asked. Then continued, “Yeah, that was a really stupid book. I didn’t get it. Why did we have to read that?” So shocked was I, that I had to look at Gary and give him the reassuring I-swear-I-didn’t-put-him-up-to-saying-that.-He’s-obviously-just-really-sincere-and-heedless-of-the-fights-that-have-been-going-on-the-last-three-years look.

In any case, a course which lacks coherence will neither be absorbed nor respected by the student years hence. And that is the lesson of EQ: courses are better when are topical, coherent, and lead somewhere.

It is possible to error in the other direction, but I hesitate to even bring it up, since our schools are so far away from making this error. Nonetheless, for the sake of symmetry problem do arise when one only reads the great seminal texts. My mentor in bibliophilia Mike Martel, a Thomas Aquinas College graduate, and the most nurturing text lover I have ever met, always advocates for reading the texts themselves before the scholarship. But in our back and forth for seven years, we have moved closer to one another in the proportion of scholarship to primary texts on should read.

Insight in Context

I have been meditating a lot recently on “Context is what is scarce.” The amazing and ironic thing about this statement is that it is extremely low context and yet offers a gateway into a whole view of reality. Consider this passage from Bernard Lonergan’s Insight:

A single book may be written from a moving viewpoint, and then it will contain, not a single set of coherent statements, but a sequence of related sets of coherent statements. Moreover, as is clear, a book designed to aid a development must be written from a moving viewpoint. It cannot begin by presupposing that a reader can assimilate at a stroke what can be attained only at the term of a prolonged and arduous effort. On the contrary, it must begin from a minimal viewpoint and a minimal context; it will exploit that minimum to raise a further question that enlarges the viewpoint and the context; it will proceed with the enlarged viewpoint and context only as long as is necessary to raise still deeper issues that again transform the basis and the terms of reference of the inquiry; and clearly, this device can be repeated not merely once or twice but as often as may be required to reach the universal viewpoint and the completely concrete context that embraces every aspect of reality.

Introduction

He gets the context issue. Of course, this doesn’t only apply to books, but to networks of people. Networks create context. Movement along the network to subcategories or adjacent networks creates new insights out of new context, and importantly the person retains an ability to engage with the old context, while inculturating himself to a broader view.

Build your adjacent context and they will come.

What Life is Like in the Hybrid Model

If you want to guarantee different outcomes, create a model which can’t reproduce the same errors. The hybrid model transforms education – three days at school, two at home. This one drastic change creates many unique consequences.

Class time is not wasted by long videos that can be watched at home, or by loading up dozens of computers on to the same app, teachers burning time, or other administrative interruptions. Teachers guide the student and her classmates through a lesson, teach new skills, and prepare students to accomplish a new task at home the next day. Everyone – teachers and students- work together to understand their mission for their upcoming home-day assignments. Working with classmates throughout the day, a shared sense of purpose and joy builds lasting friendships. When the day ends, students depart with their assignments in their planner and their books and notes.

On the home day, they budget their time to read, write, reflect, practice, and create. They have a job to do, and all tools they need to complete it. Parents oversee that they are being responsible, and teachers are available by email and phone. Over time students become the master of their studies and have skills in college that other freshmen have yet to even begin learning – namely the ability to be independent and learn on their own.

Is the Hybrid Model Good in itself?

What if the hybrid model forms on average more independent and dependable students?

What if the hybrid model provides the right balance of family and peer socialization?

What if the hybrid model wastes the least of amount of students’ time?

What if the hybrid model offers the same educational value as the best traditional schools at 60% the cost?

What if the hybrid model is best model of education for 50% of the school age population?

What if the hybrid model offers the optimum amount of flexibility and accountability for the average student?

What if the hybrid model is the model of education most fit for what the future will bring?

If even two of these are true, then the Hybrid Model is a great good.

Over 100 families have already chosen the hybrid model. It serves them well.

Judging By Courses Taught

If I were placed in history entirely by what courses I taught each year I would be a different person. Consider the courses that this teacher marshaled on the field of battle last year: Latin, Geometry, Church History, Medieval History, Writing, Logic, Rhetoric. Why wasn’t I wearing one of these?

Sounds like a Late Medieval University Professor. I should have worn a robe and cap like so…

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The different hats represent current grades – hair-net wearing ones being the ‘A students.’

This next year I am either moving into further into the future or deeper into the past. With Ancient History, Latin, Geometry, Morality, and Economics, I would think one of two things must be true. Either this person is a juggler fit for the circus, or he is literally from the school of Stoics.

Now the stoics had a great porch-game.

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If I had a porch like this, darn right, I would have a lot of philosophical followers. We would play table tennis, offer libations, discuss the intricacies of corn-hole, and then test our theories with libations in one hand and a bag of potential life-giving seeds in the other. All in accord with the Logos.

But perhaps I am actually reenacting the life of someone at the other end of history, an Adam Smith who wrote on morality and economics and certainly knew his ancient history, or a statesman like John Stuart Mill, whose father forced him to learn Greek by age 12 and carved out from ancient philosophy and personal experience modern theories of liberty, economy, and ethics.

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The Greek language was contained in that bump on his head. Greek is like that.

To follow in the footsteps of these greats is good, but to pass on the best that I have discovered in my own life to others is an honor. Perhaps laboring in the human flourishing mines is the best one can do.

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“I loaded 16 tons of enriched Geometry, and what did I get?”

I get a lot out of it.

Why Economics and Probability Should be Part of Classical Education

Discussing prudence, St. Thomas Aquinas quotes St. Isidore of Seville, “A prudent man is one who sees as it were from afar, for his sight is keen, and he foresees the event of uncertainties.” Economics is the modern term for this ancient prudence, for the principles of economics allow us to foretell the likely consequences of an action, event, or law and then decide whether the prior action is desirable. Prudence, then, is our goal in such a class. This intellectual virtue empowers moral virtue to fulfill its ends.

When I was a kid, I had no interest in economics or money (except that one could use it to get things). I thought econ was for people obsessed with superficial stuff. By the time I was in high school, I had renounced superficial stuff and was trying to attain whatever high school me thought was wisdom, which turned out to be an exclusive focus on literature, poetry, and religion.

I was converted into an interest in economics when I learned about how incentives influence people’s behavior, and that people’s seemingly bad actions are more often unfortunate economic effects rather than deliberate maliciousness. People do what they think is good for themselves and those they care about by following incentives. In short, I learned not to jump to blaming individuals for the way things are and instead to think through what dynamics made things become the way they are. This study, just as the literature I love, reveals much about the tragedy of the human condition.

An economist as an economist studies how these games of exchange and choice work and how changes in the rules or environment will change behaviors of the players in the game. The ideal economist can foretell the effects of different actions, events, or laws with a high probability of being right.

The Armenian economist Alchian wrote, “What the economist can do with economic analysis is to deduce some of the consequences of a proposed act, presumably more accurately than a noneconomist. But to assess and appraise whether the consequences of the action are good or bad is, to the economist, forbidden fruit. Yet, like Adam, many economists eat of it.”

I have greatly enjoyed Alchian’s beautiful book Universal Economics from which I took this quotation, but no one is only an economist, and as sons and daughters of Adam, we need to learn how to appraise the likely consequences of an action AND judge whether the consequences are good or bad, for distinguishing good from evil is the most important thing for living a good life. I don’t know to what extent prudence can be taught, but I do know that the study of probability and economics lays the groundwork for wise decision making in personal, business, and political life.

If a classical education wishes to carry the torch of those liberal arts, which liberate people to know what is true and do what is good, then, strange as it may sound, the principles of economics and probability is not optional.