Spotted this on John Thackara’s consistently enjoyable and thought-provoking Doors Of Perception newsletter: sounds like a very interesting cross-disciplinary project.

AALTO UNIVERSITY: FOR LIFE, OR UNDECIDED? (TEXT OF TALK) A major new university is to be named after the Finnish architect and designer Alvar Aalto. Aalto University, which opens in 2010, is the result of a merger between the Helsinki School of Economics (Finland’s top business school, with 4,000 students); the University of Art and Design (one of Europe’s top design and art schools, with 2,000 students); and Helsinki University of Technology (the main technical university, including the country’s principal architecture school, with 15,000 students). Four hundred people are already busy preparing the new university, but I was asked to speak at symposium in Helsinki called “Beyond Tomorrow” about what the new university should do, and be. The University has stated that it will will “make a positive contribution to Finnish society, technology, economy, art, art and design, and support the welfare of both humans and the environment”. I proposed that Aalto University should stand for something more precise than this: an unconditional respect for life, and for the conditions that support life. Read more at: http://www.doorsofperception.com/archives/2009/05/post_43.ph

Another interesting educational institution that I hadn’t heard of until this week: the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Italy. I met Cinzia Scaffidi, of Slow Food, at a meeting on plant science and crop diversity in Tunis this week, and she told me about this unique school which was founded in 2003. “Food is the meeting point of many disciplines,” she said. The objective is to create an international research and training center, working to renew farming methods, protect biodiversity and maintain an organic relationship between gastronomy and agricultural science.

I like the link-in this provides to the current debate in the U.S. about how to re-think liberal arts programmes, where there is a strong focus on bringing in areas like mapping urban food systems.

Dmitry’s Orlov’s entertaining and insightful “Reinventing Collapse” has a good riff on the ongoing theme of “the post-secondary education model in the U.S. is broken”.

“…American colleges and universities often fail to achieve in four years what Soviet secondary schools achieved in two (9th and 10th) grades. That is they fail to produce graduates who have adequate general knowledge, good command of their native language and the ability to acquire specialized knowledge without any further institutionalized assistance.”

“The American higher education system succeeds brilliantly at one thing: producing a subservient graduate who has no choice but join the labor force on the terms dictated by her future corporate masters.”

He argues that higher education in the U.S. is “most commonly about training: the imparting of temporary, quickly obsolescent skills, not universal knowledge…. But it is mainly about securing unquestioning obedience within a complex rule-following system.”

As the governing literati argue amongst themselves about how to revamp and fund the now-defunct model of the $200,000 liberal arts education, it’s worth taking a look at Orlov’s point about the merit of imparting good general knowledge to students when they are in the 9th and 10th grades, rather than waiting until they are 18 + and making them pay through the nose for it.

Le Monde’s education supplement looks at the theme of general culture this week, citing sociologist Edgar Morin’s definition as a base line: “It is what, based on writings, the arts, thinking, helps us to orient ourselves in life and confront problems we face in life. Reading Montaigne, La Bruyere, Pascal, Diderot or Rousseau nourishes our mind and helps us to resolve our problems in life.”

Statue of Michel de Montaigne in Paris

Statue of Michel de Montaigne in Paris

But even in France this staple of the secondary education has been withered away thanks to a perception that it is too elitist. Some critics have suggested that France needs to emulate the U.S. model, where the fundamentals of general culture are imparted during the undergraduate years. Increasing numbers of French students are fleeing the traditional universities like the Sorbonne because these places are viewed as disconnected from the workplace and hostage to far-left unions, preferring to enroll in more expensive, vocation-oriented private schools.

As Montaigne said: “Since I would rather make of him an able man than a learned man, I would also urge that care be taken to choose a guide with a well-made rather than a well-filled head.”

The debate rages on. Mark Taylor’s op-ed piece in the NYT last month: “End the University as we know it.”

Top 10 Tools for an Online Education via Lifehacker. Everything from teaching yourself programming to learning an instrument.

Something that all children know and that new research now confirms: doodling is useful. It provides just enough cognitive stimulation during an otherwise boring task to prevent the mind from totally tuning out. Read more from the BBC and NPR.

John Michael Greer, author of the “The Long Descent”, has come up with a tidy credo for the post-industrial future: “Learn one thing, give up one thing, save one thing.”


“Learn one thing” means learn any skill or craft to a sufficiently professional level so that you can subsequently barter it off for other essential goods when times get tough. This could be baking, soap-making, organic gardening etc.

Bruce Sterling’s list of synonyms for the current economic situation. My favourites include “The Great Re-Skilling” “Collapsonomics” “World Wide WTF” and ‘The Long Doom”.

39 ways to use your Flip in the classroom. via Howard Rheingold.

New research on different learning styles: visual, auditory and kinaesthetic. via Donald Clark Plan B.



So much of what’s happening today is all about the pain and collateral damage resulting from the passage of the “me” generation to the “we” generation. People who understand this, like Tina Seelig (see video below of her work at Stanford preparing students to hit the ground running with world-class collaborative skills), are already in the “action” phase of this transition. Those who don’t – including the vast majority of administrators at educational establishments preparing to push another generation of “me”-prepped teenagers into tertiary education – will eventually get the message when sky-rocketing unemployment figures confirm the bankruptcy of their business as usual mindsets and banks start balking at giving easy credit to students for degrees which society deems useless.

Tina Seelig on CNBC – Collaboration Now Video

Posted using ShareThis

Lewis Lapham, in last month’s Harpers, refers to the products of our best universities as achievetrons whose principal distinguishing characteristic is a deep aversion to challenging the rules of the status quo.

“For the past sixty years the deputies assigned to engineer the domestic and foreign policies of governments newly arriving in Washington have come outfitted with similar qualifications – first-class schools, state-of-the-art networking, apprenticeship in a legislative body or a think-tank – and for sixty years they have manged to weaken rather than strengthen the American democracy, ending their terms of office as objects of ridicule if not under threat of criminal arrest.” Universities, he says, have “accepted their mission as way stations on the pilgrim road to enlightened selfishness.”

The backlash against this system is already underway. As Sandra Tsing-Loh puts it so neatly in The Atlantic: “the high-water days of the $50,000-a-year liberal-arts education are drawing to a close”.

So what will take its place and how do we – as the transition generation – bridge the gap between these two worlds?

Aside from working harder on our “we” skills – collaborating, facilitating, organizing – I can’t help going back to a piece of advice overheard at a high school career forum: “Do what you love and the rest will work itself out.”

I love the simplicity of that statement – which contains in its kernel the key elements which 2.0 wisdom has brought back to the table, notably the importance of passion-driven learning and improvisation.

Oh, and I can’t wait to read Tina’s new book “What I Wish I Knew When I was 20 – A Crash Course on Making Your Way in the World,” due out in April.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the pro’s and con’s of learning Chinese in middle school recently and I cannot make up my mind about whether it is actually worthwhile. I know all the arguments: economic, cross-cultural, neuro-science etc, and I am sure you do as well. But, just to play devil’s advocate, here are the con’s. Dr Jane Orton, who published a report last year at the University of Melbourne on the teaching of Mandarin in Australian schools, sums it up quite neatly: “The American Foreign Service Institute estimates it takes about 3.5 times longer to become proficient than say for us to become proficient in Spanish or Italian or German, and so it is quite a slog. And, at the same time, it’s not been terribly well researched and so to date it’s still not been terribly well taught.”

I grew up speaking Cantonese, a dialect of southern China which has been of no use to me as an economic citizen of a globalized world. None. In fact, I hated classroom learning of Chinese because I was alongside native speaking peers with two-parent Chinese households (I only had one Chinese parent in mine, and Chinese was a secondary language at home) and I felt constantly discouraged at my inability to get close to their level of written and spoken fluency. I follow a couple of Chinese people on Twitter just for the visceral pleasure of seeing some characters (half of which I can’t even read) on my Twitter feed. This is pure linguistic vanity and nothing more.

So, if our children are going to be shepherded into half-baked, inadequate Chinese learning programs which will fail to ignite a spark of passion for Chinese culture, then what is the point? Is even that marginal edge of extra information about an ancient culture populated by a highly competitive and educated workforce really worthwhile? Aren’t the Chinese going to speaking better English than most of us in 20 years time?

I think there needs to be a wider understanding of the fact that Chinese is not just a language, it is actually a whole other identity. In my experience, the Europeans who have been successful at learning the language have put incredible effort and energy into developing their Chinese persona. They have usually devoted the best part of a lifetime to their language skills, sometimes at the expense of other things such as the arts or sport or general culture. They then tend to devote their career to the pursuit of something which is more or less single-mindedly Sinophiliac.

Great for them, but is this really appropriate for everyone? Do our children really need to be press-ganged into yet another subject which has a good chance of making them feel like they are failing?

Thanks to Geoff Brown over at Yes and Space for recommending this unusual book about improvisation: “Everything’s An Offer: How to Do More With Less” by Robert Poynton. The first thing that struck me about it was the way it is written: you don’t notice it first, and then it creeps up on you. There’s a distinct lack of the usual “how-to” admonitions that you find in all business/life coaching books of today. It flows, but it doesn’t seem (at least in the first half) to be going anywhere. I kept asking myself: “This is interesting, but what’s the point?” Then, somewhere in the second half of the book, as you start “getting” it, you suddenly realize: that’s what is different about the book: it is written in an improvisational style, in order to make clear what the improvisational practice actually looks and feels like. For me, this was a big, loud wake-up moment. Yes, I have been pre-programmed by the publishing industry and its henchmen (agents and editors) to expect the “how-to” punch at the end of every book, the direct translation of theory into ten easy steps.

The book is a meandering, improvisational journey in which the author shares lessons learned during his work with companies on improvisation. It’s difficult to sum up, there’s no neat send off at the end encouraging you to distill his lessons into your chaotic everyday life. But it is fascinating, profound and thought-provoking. It challenges you to look at your own addiction to control in every aspect of life. And invites you to take a fresh look: problems should be seen as ‘offers’; every ‘offer’ deserves a ‘yes’, try to watch where acceptance of an offer can take you, instead of trying to control the outcome. Ultimately it is an offer to become mindful and to listen. But I really should read it again.