Transcript of Episode 60 – Zak Stein on Educational Systems Collapse

The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or by Zak Stein. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.

Jim: Today’s guest is Zak Stein, writer, educator, and futurist working to bring a greater sense of sanity and justice to education.

Zak: It’s good to be here, Jim.

Jim: Hey, good to have you back. Zak was on the show just a couple of weeks ago, but as he and I discussed before we started the episode, there’s just so much content in his book that we’re going to be digging into that we, at that time decided it made a heck of a lot more sense to schedule a second interview. And this is where we are basically halfway through my notes from the first show, as we dig into his book, Education in a Time Between Worlds. As usual links to that book and other resources we discuss will be available on Zak’s episode page at

Jim: A little bit of review of Zak’s background. He studied philosophy and religion at Hampshire College. And as I pointed out last time, he’s the third Hampshire College grad we’ve had on our shows. Something interesting going on here. Then he studied educational neuroscience, human development, and the philosophy of education at Harvard University. He’s the co-founder of Lectica, a not-for-profit dedicated to research-based justice-oriented reform of large scale standardized testing in K to 12, higher education and business. And he’s consulted with, advised various not-for-profits and for-profits business.

Jim: So before we get in, like we did last time, we’re going to do a little bit of definition and a little bit of framing, and then we’ll hop into some of the details. So first, sort of a framing comment from your book early on. I don’t think we talked about it explicitly last time, but I think it’s a good place to start this time is your idea that, this is a quote, the idea that “oppressive and unjust educational systems can undermine the very possibility of humanity’s continued existence is urgent.” Could you expand on that?

Zak: Yeah, I mean, this is actually what brought me to the study of civilizational collapse, existential risk, catastrophic risk. And what was part of my friendship with Daniel Schmachtenberger and Jordan Hall was basically, I independently even really knowing there was a field of existential risk research, started to realize that… Well, back up. You remember I mentioned last time that intergenerational transmission, teaching and learning, teacherly authority are a species specific trait, which are arguably like via Michael Tomasello, the thing that is really what distinguishes a human from the animal and gets the human up into this domain of cultural evolution. And even into a position where it could destroy all life on the planet.

Zak: So that means that there’s something about the necessity of continuity of intergenerational transmission for civilization to keep going. And when a civilization has breakdown, meaning existential or catastrophic catastrophe, and what that means is just like massive loss of life, if not loss of all life, which is to say self-inflicted species level extinction of the human. And so, I had this insight that, oh, gees, education is actually very serious in the way that worrying about nuclear reactors is serious or worrying about existential risks of exponential technology, that it’s in that same class of concerns that if we really mess it up, we could end up initiating a cascade of downstream effects that are actually almost unimaginably bad. And I talked about the intergenerational warfare last time, but there are other things which are simpler to get, which are tied up in the capabilities crisis.

Zak: By creating nuclear reactors and creating nuclear waste, we’ve also created roles and responsibilities within our civilization that require a certain extremely high level of education to just simply do. And these are roles and responsibilities that actually humans are going to need to man for thousands of years, right? Because of the half life of nuclear waste and the difficulty of managing these massively complex scientific infrastructures. And so what that means is that if civilization gets so disrupted economically or through pandemic or et cetera, that we can actually execute at a very high level graduating PhD level. Basically beyond PhD level nuclear physicists, then we all of a sudden got ourself in a situation where when a couple of people die, no one knows how to man the nuclear reactor. And then you can just expand that way of thinking about the intergenerational transmission necessary to reproduce social roles and responsibilities just across the board.

Jim: I’m going to jump back in with a little bit of a slightly obnoxious question, which is you say that oppressive and unjust educational systems can undermine. Suppose it turned out that oppressive and unjust systems were the right way to maintain stability, and what makes you think that they’re not?

Zak: This gets into just theory of learning. How do people learn, how do… We talk about the limits of growth of an extractive civilization in the biosphere, right? That there’s only so much you can do to quote unquote nature before you’re a self-terminating process. This is also true of quote unquote human nature, that there are limits the human mind brain in terms of its ability to actually build capacity, motivation, earnest sense-making, a whole bunch of other factors which are actually necessary to do some of these jobs I’m describing. Which, although you could maybe simulate doing it for a little while with a totalitarian completely oppressive and unjust educational system in the long run, you would undermine at the level of individual motivation and identity formation the capacity for that kind of complex skill development.

Zak: And so you just have to look at the research on how learning works in kids who are growing up in traumatic environments to see that this is true. So, yeah, so this is basically what I talk about as the inefficiency of injustice in my book.

Jim: Great phrase.

Zak: Yeah. So it’s like in the pursuit of efficiency, we actually create injustices, which then make the whole thing in the long run, way less efficient than it would have been if we just had a little bit of mind on what’s fair and what’s not traumatizing at a very simple level for the human, which incapacitates them is what I’m arguing. And a few other things that’s also the case, that when you start to roll out efficiency infrastructures, and I’m looking at this specifically in terms of standardized testing infrastructures in the school and the efficiency-oriented testing. You also start to have to roll out surveillance apparatuses and a whole bunch of other things that become expensive and inefficient, and also then double down on the destruction of the morale and motivation.

Zak: So yeah, the general perception that the situation you’re in is fair and for learning in particular in childhood, this is very important. I studied John Rawls, as I mentioned last time. And I also studied Lawrence Kohlberg who were two of the great moral philosophers of postwar America. And it’s interesting that fairness, right, is of course the Rawlsian principle that governs a just society, but fairness is also a concept that’s discussed on the playground with little kids amongst themselves. And so it’s a concept that is basically all the way up and all the way down in the human culture, you find this notion. And for an educational system to work, the combination of meritocracy with democracy and egalitarianism needs to be accomplished.

Zak: And we’ve been in a situation for a while where there’s been a simulation of a meritocracy. And that, again, you can do that for a little while, but you can’t sustain that indefinitely because we need to man the nuclear reactors. So, that means physics department. So we actually do need to get something that looks like legitimate teacherly authority and accurate meritocratic award of capacity and effort.

Zak: And so it’s interesting, my first book was about justice and standardized testing. And I talk about testing a lot in my second book in similar terms. But Lectica was building standardized assessments. I’m not opposed to assessment. I actually think it’s one of the things that makes social systems work, is a sense that we can accurately tell the qualities of people’s capacities and be able to distribute rewards in a reasonable way, instead of in a at best unreasonable, at worst, literally contrived to inequitably distribute based on a variety of factors like who your parents are or what the color of your skin is or things of that nature.

Zak: So I’m glad you pulled that bit out because what you see is that if we continue down the line that we’ve been going with the forms of testing and the nature of the human capital-driven conceptions of education, we could end up, and I’m arguing, maybe we already have put ourselves in a situation that’s actually dangerous from the perspective of the capabilities crisis and the legitimacy crisis and the meaning crisis and et cetera.

Jim: The meta-crisis.

Zak: The meta-crisis.

Jim: Yes, we talked about just briefly, just for a reset for the audience. Certainly one of the ones I’m most interested in is that as our systems, as a society become more and more complex, the stack of dependencies, for instance, to get power to all these houses and to create computer chips that control the grid, et cetera, the level of complexity has risen considerably more rapidly than the capability of humans who are, let’s say voters, right? And so this gap between capability and emerging complexity is what to my mind is perhaps the biggest driver of the meta-crisis. I mean, every aspect of everything we’ve talked about can come back to this complexity versus capability curves. I just see them in my mind, right? One’s going up linearly, one’s going up exponentially. We’re fucked. And that’s why we need a new form of education.

Jim: Back to fairness. I’d point people to the works of Sam Bowles and Herb Gintis and others. But I happen to know those two guys and they’ve done a lot of work on the idea of fairness, using simple games all around the world, across many cultures. And while they find fairness to be absolutely foundational everywhere and ideas of at least formal tit-for-tat style reciprocity to be universal, it’s interesting that definitions of fairness vary quite a bit by culture. In some cultures, the idea of altruism seems to be utterly repugnant, particularly hunter-gatherers. It seems to be more of an accounting type fairness now. Reciprocal altruism for sure. But anyway, so it’s interesting to note.

Zak: Well, that’s true of Kohlberg.

Jim: Yes.

Zak: This is the whole point of Kohlberg’s work.

Jim: Yeah, I have to actually dig into that. I did read Rawls and I found it interesting. And I did actually put myself through the experiment of the veil of ignorance to see what world I would select, which was kind of a fun exercise.

Jim: But anyway, so let’s move on to the next definition. You frame your work to a degree, at least as social justice. Now that’s a word that can mean a whole lot of things. [Ann Randian 00:12:12] might say, social justice is where the makers get the rewards and the takers don’t. Right? I kind of doubt that’s what you have in mind when you say social justice. So when you think of your work in education as being based in social justice, what does that mean to you?

Zak: It’s funny because when I wrote the dissertation, the term social justice hadn’t quite yet become a pejorative. So if I were to reframe it, I would just say justice, because what I’m talking about is actually a very philosophically robust tradition of thinking about moral problems as having cognitive dimensions, which is to say that there are rights and wrongs and reasoning about social problems that are comparable to the rights and wrongs and thinking about a science problem or a problem in physics or a problem with the material or causal world.

Zak: And so I’m thinking a cognitivist view of social justice like Habermas does, like Rawls does. Rewind a little bit, you get someone like Emmanuel Kant. And incidentally utilitarianism is a cognitivist view also, which is to say that, yeah, we can figure out what’s right and wrong in the social world. It’s not a matter of, as some philosophical positions would maintain, emotional or synthetic preference that the ethical and moral is irrational and it’s only the scientific and material that is rational or cognitive. Since the first bit, when I talk about social justice, I’m actually talking about justice and I’m actually talking about a very strict form of conversation about what’s, for example, the framing of a constitution of a civilization or a society.

Zak: That’s a task that is not about protest. It is also not about identity politics, and it’s not about a whole bunch of things that get tied up in the social justice pejorative, social justice warrior kind of way of dismissing this. And it’s interesting to me. A whole social analysis of why it is the case that the social justice term became basically used as a pejorative by a variety of groups. Many groups, mostly, I often agree with what’s being said sometimes in the critique of the kind of alt left, let’s call it. But what I’m coming from is actually something quite different.

Zak: And so, Rawls is where I would route it. And the original position is probably the best way in, which is when you’re thinking about, let’s say the framing of a constitution of a society or the building of an organization, let’s say like a school system. And you’re thinking about the standardized testing infrastructure within the school system, whether that infrastructure is just or injust, is a manner of making a kind of thought experiment or decision procedure, where you say, basically, if I didn’t know who I would be or what capacities I would have, how I would navigate the system, which is to say, I wouldn’t know which position in that school system with that standardized testing infrastructure.

Zak: I don’t know if I’d be a learning disabled kid. If I be a poor kid growing up without parents to help them. I don’t know if I’d be a rich kid. I don’t know if I’d be smart, right? You don’t know who you’re going to be. Could you agree to that infrastructure, right? This is what Culper called playing moral musical chairs. This is a very complex form of cognitive perspective taking. And so your notion about fairness showing up in different cultures definitely is true. It also shows up in one’s life span and one’s cognitive developmental level differently. The kids on the playground talk about fairness. Basically math, like how many M&Ms and the perfectly equal split of M&Ms is maybe fair. It’s very much in a counting procedure and often with a kind of structural egocentrism.

Zak: But the moral musical chairs I’m describing is actually a radically de-centered view. To use a Piagetian term, the center of the decision-making is not one’s own identity. You’re actually trying to take the perspective of everyone within the system and imagine all the possible routes through the system. And then think, “Okay, would I really want to…” Like, for example, if you’re framing the constitution of a society and you have a position where people are slaves, could you really sign off on that constitution not knowing whether or not you’d be a slave. Right? So the decision procedure constrains the cognitive operation of thinking about the basic structure of a society. And if something within the society can pass that kind of thought experiment, then there’s a good reason to think that it’s pretty fair, right?

Zak: So for example, the SAT correlates with socioeconomic status period. And very clearly shows that if you have the money to take a test prep course, you will do better on the SAT. So I couldn’t set up a standardized testing infrastructure where if I was poor, I would be systematically disadvantaged in getting access to the meritocratic doors that open from the high standardized test. That’s another issue of outright cheating. That’s also facilitated by money as we’ve seen with this college admissions scandal. But the point is that you couldn’t in good conscience, agree to such an infrastructure from behind the veil of ignorance. You could say you would make up some stuff to try to kind of back out of the fact that it is actually unjust. But as Rawls would argue, if we take just the tools of analytical philosophy, logic, game theory, you run game theory from behind the original position and then you have to think. Actually, it is irrational to agree to that because I don’t know where I’ll be.

Jim: Yes and no. I actually did a little analysis of Rawls’ theory of justice and what he doesn’t quite grapple with is that people’s risk reward preferences can vary, right? So for instance, if one had a higher utility for being a slave driver than disutility for being a slave, then oddly enough, utilitarian analytical logic could say, yeah, you ought to be in favor of slavery. And he missed that. At least in theory of justice, he didn’t describe it in any depth, at least that I could find.

Zak: Yeah, we could argue that because that’s not entirely true. Then you’re not doing the veil of ignorance experiment correctly.

Jim: Well, you could be. You just have a different perspective on your own preferences, right? That you say, “All right, I-

Zak: you’re not supposed to bring your individual preferences behind the veil of ignorance nor believe that you will have those preferences when the ignorance is lifted. Which is to say, it’s not Zak with all Zak’s proclivities and capabilities that gets put somewhere like in a slave position. I don’t know what my proclivities will be. I don’t know if I’ll be a tough guy.

Jim: Yeah. Yeah True enough. True enough.

Zak: To do the reasoning properly, even behind the veil, one needs to relieve oneself of one’s personal biases and preferences as much as possible and take the position of basically the generalized epistemic subject. And so that’s a very important part of the procedure. So if you model the procedure differently then, yeah, it can be rendered nonsensical, but it’s actually quite rigorous.

Jim: That’s a good… I may have to go back and reread that because I’ve spent days reading it and writing a series of notes. And unfortunately I lost my notes, but I have this very nice rebuttal. But anyway, we’ll leave that for another day. Your response is actually good.

Jim: Now again, early on in your book, I read something that caused a very strong negative knee jerk. I realized that later on you aren’t actually saying it in the way I initially thought, but I’ll read the quote anyway and explain where my knee jerk was. And then we’ll pivot to, I think, a very interesting topic. And here’s your language. “It was very clear that the creation of a new kind of society would require the creation of a new kind of human.” Buzzer! I have long postulated what I call the no new man rule. After 1994, I probably started calling it the no new person rule. And you look at history, some of the worst heinous crimes of the human race have been couched in terms of we’re going to create a new man, right? From the excesses of the French Revolution, which was kind of a mixed bag to darker things like Marxism–Leninism, Nazi-ism and perhaps the most extreme form I’m aware of, the Khmer Rouge who believe we’re going to create a new man by brute force and if we have to kill a third of them, so be it.

Jim: And yet of course, as one reads much more deeply in your book, it’s vastly more nuanced than that. The way I tend to frame this is kind of thinking about personal change called the new man, a new person, whatever that means and in the signals that institutions emanate and interact with the persons have to essentially co-evolve together. And at least I took away the sense that you would not disagree with that framing.

Zak: No, I mean, that’s right. And yeah, it’s not… It’s interesting that phrase. Now I prefer to say a new kind of person, rather than a new kind of human. It was John Revicki who kind of suggested that. And so yeah, to create a new kind of civilization, we do need to create a new kind of person or to rethink the nature of personhood. And in a sense where we would just be taking responsibility for something that’s happening anytime anyway, whenever we build something fundamentally new, like a new infrastructure, like the electrical grid has made us into new kinds of people as had people who don’t know how to start a fire or harvest wild edibles from the woods.

Zak: And so there’s this sense of, well, yeah, if we’re really thinking seriously about something like a game B or something like a non-rivalrous kind of civilization, one that’s ecologically sustainable, and let’s say economically equitable and fair, to do that we’d have to remake the basic assumptions of personhood just as they were remained when we exited the pre-modern world and entered the modern world. It’s that kind of transformation of the whole notion of what it means to be a person or a human. Right?

Zak: And this is again, back to the species specific traits that characterize the human. Cultural transmission and actually cultural niche creation is tied up in that dynamic of intergenerational transmission. So in fact, the human has always been that self-transforming species. And so we’re in a big moment of self-transformation again, which is to the notion of time between worlds. The French Revolution is an example of the kind of climax of a prior time between worlds. Basically this route from the Renaissance to the enlightenment is one of these periods I’ve just studied a lot. In part because of the great educational philosopher, John Amos Comenius, but also because it has these structural similarities to our own time when there’s just a radical world system transformation underway. And along with it, a radical transformation of the basic frameworks and stories and cultural kind of deep code.

Zak: So yes, that’s kind of what I mean by new person. And it’s interesting that the attempts to use modern biomedical technology to create a new kind of person is actually a way to encode the modern personhood forever. You see, so there’s a strange paradox here where what I’m talking about is an educational revolution, not a biomedical trans-humanist revolution, because that would actually get you what you just said, which is no new human. We’d have the modern human forever. And probably again, there’d be massive disruption of intergenerational transmission as a result of deep level biomedical intervention into the conditions of capability and personality development. I think we touched on this last time.

Zak: So yeah, although there’s… If you took that quote out of context and were trying to really stick it to me, yeah, there’s these eugenics overtones and the Stalinist overtones and all of that stuff. But in fact, my position is anathema to precisely that way of thinking about the problem. So yeah, I’m glad that you kept reading, even though you had a knee jerk reaction.

Jim: Goddamn Stalinist! Fuck that guy, right? No. I had enough pre good signal about your work to say, “Oh yeah, I’m sure he must not exactly mean that interpretation.” I will push back a little bit about the… Not pushback, but frame the French Revolution because the French Revolution, as you say, was in some sense, the capstone of enlightenment, but unfortunately, while it had some good effects, it also ended up rebounding and reinforcing authoritarianism. I like to look at the two prior revolutions that ended up pretty much solidly to the good, which was first, the glorious revolution in Britain. Was it 1688 or thereabouts, that ended absolute monarchy. Right? Well, that was a pretty damn big punctuation mark. And then of course our own American Revolution, which formally and in law, and people don’t realize this, formally in law, it’s in the constitution-

Jim: … and in law, people don’t realize this, formally in law, it’s in the Constitution, ended feudalism. Feudalism had been a system in operation for a thousand years, more or less; in high form for 500. We formally ended it. We no longer doffed our hats when the toffs came down the street, etc. We did that by institutional change actually, even before the people changed. I’m sure the same was true in England. It was kind of an abrupt disconnect that for elitist reasons actually the Glorious Revolution occurred and absolute monarchy was abolished, and that no doubt had to have had some downstream effects on humans.

Jim: But of course in the American Revolution case, the humans had been reforming themselves on the frontier, a long way away from manor and Lord in most cases. And so the two kind of work together, the human change on the frontier, as freeholders and yeoman and small craftsman independent of anybody, but then it was kind of punctuated and tied together in formal institutions in the form of the US Constitution. So I like those two as better examples perhaps than the French Revolution of the kind of thing we should be thinking about here going forward.

Zak: I agree. Of course. Yeah. You mentioned it. But yeah, there’s a whole string of them and they’re tied to, of course, the founding of the Royal Academy of Sciences. I think that was like 1660 or something in England. And you start to get the independence of sense-making from the church apparatus as well, which is a huge kind of part of the revolutions of modernity. And then also the standardization of international weights and measures. You know, the French Revolution also brought us the metric system, which is interesting to think about, because this is about the movement out of a medieval feudalistic measurement regime into a modern basically capitalistic measurement scheme, capitalistic and scientific measurement scheme. And that’s again, part of what we’re in now. You know, there’s a chapter in the book on measurement, which I think it’s my favorite chapter. And it’s pointed at this too, that we’re, as Benjamin Bratton speaks of, we are at the beginnings of a massively distributed planetary computational stack, which includes a measurement infrastructure that’s completely unprecedented in its scope and kind of regulatory capacity.

Zak: So it’s similar to that. Like, the funeral system was a rag-tag system of weights and measures completely corrupted by the feudal Lords where you’d go to one market and the measures would be this way, and another market would be another way. But in modernity you get the metric system and you can get the lack of divine right, fiat, to set new measures and the building of international scientific consensus around measurement. And with the move out of modernity, into what’s next, let’s say something like a meta-modern, you end up getting this planetary measurement infrastructure of incredible scope and also incredible invasiveness and regulatory capacity when you look at the biomedical metrics. And so all of that is just to say that, yeah, there’s something afoot which puts us in a similar position to the Americans before the American Revolution. But it’s even strange to say that because it’s not the founding of nations that we’re talking about here. It’s something else.

Jim: It’s what comes next as I like to say, right? We don’t quite yet know what comes next, but it’s not a recapitulation of the 18th century nation state. I think we’re pretty sure about that.

Zak: Right. I mean, I think it’s educational revolution and this is why my interest in Comenius. Many people have never heard of Comenius, but he was a massively important figure in exactly those days leading up to the American and French Revolutions, seeing us through that treacherous 30 Years War, this time between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Comenius was one of the key nodes of intellectual influence. And I can speak a lot about that, but he inspired so much of what came and he argued that it was essentially the transformation of personhood through the transformation of educational systems.

Zak: So along with French Revolution and the American revolution, you get changes in mass public schooling very quickly. And that was also one of the things that would have just made the feudal order Lords have their brains come out of their ears. Like it was unthinkable to want to educate so many people of so many walks of life in so many diverse topics in a systematic way, like funded by the state. Like come on, before then, as Comenius was like at pains to point out, it was a small number of people who are educated almost entirely in authoritarian religious contexts with brutal physical punishments, and learning obscure Latin.

Zak: Like that was what school was. Everything else happened in the guild system and around the home and in the community, what was necessary. So this move into this distinct institution of the school, let alone the large state public school, that was also part of what those revolutions brought us. Which means that we’re also looking on the other side of this at a fundamentally different kind of educational configuration at the core of what’s driving the intergenerational transmission of the civilization. And so that kind of what I’m trying to point to, which is what Comenius was pointing to.

Jim: Now, this Comenius I’ve never heard of them, so you’ll have to send me a pointer to him so we can include on the episode page, and I’ll go read it myself.

Zak: Totally. And to give you a sense like Descartes, Rene Descartes, wrote his meditations at Comenius’ suggestion, and Rene Descartes has a large manuscript about Comenius’ pansophic vision, pansophic… Meaning universal wisdom. So Descartes, the Descartes, he’s inspired by Comenius’ vision, writing this whole book on it, which remains I think on published but available in the archives somewhere. You know, Comenius was a direct inspiration for the founding of the Royal Academy of Sciences, which I’d already mentioned, which is the kind of institution that we most associate with like, boom, the Enlightenment happened when that first scientific organization is founded. You know, they were inspired by Comenius’ vision of a core, kind of like center of knowledge creation and knowledge dissemination, which would feed out into a system of public schools basically. And so there’s of course, a lot more to say there about Comenius and his involvement with the Rosicrucian order, his work with the Bohemian brethren as a religious figure, very complex character.

Zak: And again, to signal another change, like many people working in that time were trying to associate with noble Lords, feudal Lords to get support. Like Descartes, for example. But Comenius actually ended up in Amsterdam and he dedicates his most famous book, The Great Didactic, to the Dutch East India Company. Right? And now the Dutch East India Company was one of those first kind of like seeds of the true capitalist world order that was emerging. And in a way the education system Comenius was recommending like this public schooling, this pansophic university, this thing that we eventually turned into something like a modern nation state school system. That is as different from the feudal education system as the Dutch East India Company’s modus operandi was from the feudalistic economic markets and commodity kind of like trade routes and stuff. So he was well aware where the shifting of the power was going in terms of new worldview, new economic order, new measurement meta-structure, new educational configurations. Quite a visionary character. He was from the region we now call Czechoslovakia.

Zak: So that’s a kind of a rabbit hole there. I’ve got some work going on with a think tank, Perspectiva, although it’s not truly a think tank. It’s something much more complex and kind of beautiful. My work with Jonathan Rowson in the UK has me working on the Comenius historical research.

Jim: Sounds very interesting, and as you say at least similar at the turning point to where we are today, so well worth digging into. Let’s move along a little bit. One of the things that we didn’t talk a tremendous amount about last time, other than my little discursive talk about how I found the educational department at an elite research university rejecting modern cognitive science. Let’s turn to your thinking about modern cognitive science, modern cognitive neuroscience, and what relevance or what lessons does it have for us as we’re thinking about the new education.

Zak: Yeah. I mean, this brings me back to my graduate work in the field of mind-brain education. I mean, there’s a few things I have that I can say. Basically Kurt Fischer, who was my advisor, found a way to integrate a lot of the emerging cognitive science into a broader developmental framework. So when I look at cognitive science and cognitive neuroscience, mostly my concern is with its inadequacy to inform pedagogy because of its lacking of developmental perspective. Now this isn’t universally true, but generally you’re getting cognitive science that’s done, in especially neuroscience, using scanners where the majority of that work is done on sophomores who are in college because they’re available as experimental subjects. You know, when you’re looking for informing learning theory, you need to be noting very carefully that the brain of a two-year-old is different from the brain of a five-year-old, is different from the brain of a 10-year-old, different from the brain of an 18 year old, different from brain of 25-year-old. Like big, important, qualitatively distinct neurological, identity and cognitive structures.

Zak: But most cognitive science talks about how the mind works, period. You can’t get a theory of learning off the ground with that. Now you can talk about learning of a specific skill, or at specific age of a specific complexity, but that is learning at the kind of microscopic level. If you’re looking at learning over the span of weeks and months and years, then you have a broader way of thinking about human development. And so Fischer’s skill theory, which incidentally has as a backbone, the levels that have been codified by Michael Commons as the Model of Hierarchical Complexity. And then I think in a sense more importantly, Dawson’s work with the Lectical assessment system. She was my mentor for a long time. And there you actually have a sophisticated theory of learning that goes across the lifespan that can actually be turned into an assessment system and used in educational contexts.

Zak: So yeah, that’s my first reflection, is that the work I’m attracted to to inform educational systems is work that’s reflectively developmental and looking across the lifespan, lifespan development work. And there’s important stuff you can get at the level of like principles from neuroscience. So for example, we know that, a la Antonio Damasio and one of my colleagues, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, that emotion is inseparable from what we think of as rationality, which is to say that the classic, and back to Descartes, the classic modern split. But you can find it in ancient philosophy too, with certain forms of stoicism. You know, that you need to get the emotion out of the way in order to think clearly.

Zak: Not the case. Learning, for example, without emotion is not nearly as powerful and sticky as learning in an emotionally rich context. Which is to say, if you really care about something, you will learn it, it will stick. If you are trying to learn to cram for tests for extrinsic motivation, maybe some of it will stick, but most of it won’t. And so this is an important to understand, that that’s a very high level principle I’m taking from neuroscience. It’s not about like where that happens in the brain. Right? It’s not like neophrenology induced by access to fancy FMRI scanners, which is also what a lot of neuroscience looks like.

Jim: Yeah. I criticize that a lot. Right? So, all right. Yeah. Just say-

Zak: Yeah, it’s like where it is, man. Like show me-

Jim: What it’s doing, right.

Zak: What it’s doing. And then they also use functional differentiations in the brain to drive theorizing about cognitive process. But that’s ass backwards. So anyway, there’s a whole bunch of complex things there, but that question was about learning. So yeah, the emotional component is what I take away from the neuroscience primarily. But also that learning takes awhile, which is to say that because of the emotional processing necessary to actually do, for example, moral reasoning… This is more of Mary Helen Immordino-Yang’s work… That if you’re forced to reason about a moral problem in a very short amount of time, you don’t actually have a chance to do the kind of emotional processing necessary to actually move through kind of the data of the different kind of considerations, which in part are emotional.

Zak: And so that’s another thing to take, I think also from the neuroscience, but again, at the level of principle, not even at the level of like finding. That the trend of the findings is showing us that learning is emotionally laden and the emotion can not be ignored in learning. So that’s one tip there. But in general, I orient to the cognitive developmental work to orient my learning theory. And you spoke with [inaudible 00:40:59] and I assume you spoke about the levels of hierarchical complexity that he works with.

Jim: We did.

Zak: But yeah, part of organizing a coherent future for education is basing it on the kind of science that’s appropriate for understanding how teaching and learning works. So, yeah. I appreciate the question.

Jim: Yeah. Let me point to a book I just finished reading. Actually, I started reading it before I read your book and I finished reading it after. It’s called How We Learn by Stanislas Dehaene, I think you pronounce. It’s a French, very eminent cognitive neuroscientist, and he does all the things that you say that the neuroscientists don’t do. Right? He focuses tremendously all the way back to prenatal. Between he and his wife, they worked with lots of babies and scanners and things of that ilk. And in addition to emotion, which again, I agree is very important and Damasio is one of my central thinkers about the science of consciousness. I’ve always point to his book, The Feeling of What Happens, well worth reading for anyone who really wants to understand who and what we are.

Jim: But Dehaene really comes down strongly. I found it very convincing, that we’re not paying anywhere near enough attention in education to attention. We’re not paying attention to attention. I think he actually says that. And particularly he goes in quite depth on one of the things that makes humans different than other animals. I believe you may have mentioned this on our call, his so-called shared attention.

Zak: Exactly.

Jim: Something that even apes aren’t so good at. And he then generalizes that to something quite similar to what I would call your teacherly authority. He called it the pedagogical stance, which is a kind of relationship. Most of his focusing is on very young children, two years old or under, and how the young homosapiens seems to have built in the ability to go into a pedagogical relationship with someone who is in the pedagogical stance, usually a parent or caregiver, and imitate them in certain ways, follow their gaze, make some surprisingly powerful, scientific style [inaudible 00:00:43:03] and inferences about what’s real by analyzing how the pedagogical person is responding, et cetera. And so I found that very interesting.

Jim: And of course he had some practical things. Ones that just strike me as common sense, get those fucking cell phones out of the classroom. What the hell is anybody thinking, allowing someone to bring a cell phone into the classroom? And he talked quite a bit about why great teachers are able to capture and hold the students’ attention. Right? So anyway, I would point to that book as doing many of the things that you rightfully critiqued some neuroscience for skipping.

Zak: Totally. Yeah. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. I mean Dehaene was involved with the founding of the Mind Brain Education Society, as was I, at Harvard when I was there, with Kurt Fischer, Howard Gardner and other folks. And so, yeah, there’s an emphasis in those initial conversations about the field of educational neuroscience, specifically Kurt Fischer’s kind of guidance to that emerging field having to do with not making the mistakes I just kind of rattled off. Which is do lifespan work, get kids at different ages, and consider intersubjectivity, which they are calling joint attention or shared attention. Consider that.

Zak: So there’s a lot of focus on the student brain, the learning brain. But there’s also something happening in teachers. Antonio [inaudible 00:00:44:27] studied the teaching brain. And so the joint attentional situation, it’s two distinct roles. They are neurologically distinct, but then the two brains are actually in a kind of resonance essentially. That’s kind of like work that has been emerging for maybe the past five to eight years in terms of like people thinking in a more complex pan-developmental way about both the developing brain and cognitive capacities, and the fact that that developing brain and cognitive capacities, those are held in a social context.

Zak: And so I’m glad to see Dehaene also focusing on what [inaudible 00:45:13] noted, which is what I noted that yeah, this joint attentional situation is truly unique in the animal world. And that’s the core. It’s like the primordial core of the possibility of teacherly authority resides in that. It’s there in the child and in the parent is so long as the parent hasn’t been confused by social media and self-help books about how to be present with children. There is an instinctual awareness. Incidentally, there’s an instinctual awareness of the levels of development that I was discussing.

Zak: You know, attentive adults speak differently to teenagers than they do to ten-year-olds, than they do to two-year-olds. You just moderate the complexity of your language. So there is insight already preexisting in the life world as to the kinds of social relationships that make for good educational relationships. Yet Stanislas Dehaene’s work on numeracy in the brain is actually really deep and fascinating. I think his book is called The Number Sense. And you see there that basically mathematics does not reside in the world or in your brain. Mathematics resides in the relationship between your brain and the world. And your brain basically has been evolved to distill extremely abstract principles of mathematics from the regularities of the physical world. But there’s also something internal to the state of the nervous system that’s involved. It’s not just a world imprinting mathematics on the brain. It’s the brain constructing and distilling mathematics from the world, the laws of mathematics.

Zak: And so I asked Dehaene once basically, “Is there something similar in the moral?” Right? Because remember I said moral questions are cognitive questions, there’s a right or wrong. Is that the case that the invariance of the moral world, the invariance of the life world that’s relevant to fairness, justice, authenticity, self-actualization, a whole bunch of factors. Just like we extract the invariance of the physical world through our number sense, is it the case that we actually can extract the invariant universal features of the moral world, the social world, in a similar way? And Dehaene said he didn’t know, but he thought probably it was true. And I’m pretty sure he’s done work. I haven’t explored his work in a long time and I’m excited to be talking about it, actually. I’m going to look into it. But I think he did do some experiments as did Mary Ellen Immordino-Yang on the affective or emotional neuroscience of moral judgment and complex kind of ethical and identity considerations.

Zak: So I would look into that as well because it kind of backs up this idea that the Rawlsian conception of fairness, let’s say we tweak it out and we fix it up and make an even more solid thought experiment to address your concerns. But something like that is a structure that is as real as the things we know about mathematical structures. And so that means that, just like if we get the math wrong, shit’s going to break. If we get those dimensions of the social world wrong in our design, it’s also going to break. And this is back to could we build a totalitarian education system and actually reproduce the civilization in perpetuity? No we couldn’t, because we basically cooked in the wrong moral mathematics, moral universals, to the basic design of the thing. So it will break just like if we make a nuclear reactor and don’t do the right computer code.

Zak: So that’s a little bit more on Dehaene. His work is fascinating. And I also mentioned Mary Ellen Immordino-Yang. She works closely with Damasio kind of bringing his work down into the educational spaces, real interesting stuff. And one more thing to pull out, which is this notion of imitation, which you mentioned, which is a ubiquitous part of the joint attentional situation that we’re kind of discussing here. It’s very interesting to note that the mechanism of imitation, also arguably at the level we do as species specific trait, was identified very early as the kind of core of psychological development and learning by James Mark Baldwin. Before him, there were others who had toyed with it, but he brought it forward in the 1870s or ’80s.

Zak: But what I want to note here is that that Baldwinian notion… James Mark Baldwin is most well known for the Baldwin effect in biology, but he was actually a brilliant psychologist and inspiration to Jean Piaget and others. But the Baldwinian notion of imitation was taken up both by Lacan and by Girard, Rene Girard. Right? So there’s actually this way to bring these notions of joint attention and imitation up into very deep conversations in the psychoanalytical, and the mythological and cultural as with Girard. Mimetic desire and a few other things that he works with in his kind of beautiful system are actually rooted in this Baldwinian notion of imitation. Pierre Janet, I think also, the famous French psychologist who was an inspiration to Baldwin.

Zak: So there’s something, again, deep about the nature of personhood that we’re talking about here, where we are the teaching and learning species. And we are that species, which kind of makes its living in the space between the elder and the youth. Right?

Jim: Absolutely.

Zak: That the joint attentional situation, with the kind of like accoutrements of imitation, wedded to these levels of development, give us the potential to be extremely, kind of organically malleable and interrelated with one another in our cultures. So there’s something kind of, I almost wanted to say like tender at the core of the human. Even though, as Girard points out, it kind of ricochets up into violence, that takes a while to get going. Like it begins actually with you and your mom, and you and your siblings and-

Zak: … you and your mom, and you and your siblings, and other places where you actually learn what it means to be a person.

Zak: And so one of the concerns I have, again, back to the educational meta-crisis, is that screen culture runs interference on a lot of those processes, and the breakdown in teacherly authority, we discussed some last time, also is contributing to the desertification of our cultural resources. Which is to say that that kind of a joint attention, that [de Hayne 00:00:39] is describing, is becoming a scarce resource. Just like we’re going to run out of oil or something, or we’re going to run out of water in some places, we’re also running out of teacherly authority, and we’re running out of the kinds of containers in which we can actually safely imitate and safely teach. So yeah, I keep circling back to that notion of the [inaudible 00:53:10].

Jim: That’s huge. Hugely important. Let me tell you an aha I had, and I think it was stimulated by both you and de Hayne, and it was all about shared attention or joint attention, and that was educational technology. Maybe we’re going down absolutely the wrong path with screens, and maybe we should be thinking about robots, right? Because a robot, you look at the work on Kismet at the MIT Media Labs, is there’s no doubt that we can build robots that actually are more extreme in their ability to do gesturing and eye tracking and raised eyebrows and use of the hands, et cetera, to capture human attention, and probably require a lot better software than Kismet had, but could perhaps at some point, get in this joint attentional stance, and use all these probably deep cognitive neural hooks to help, particularly for early childhood education, establishing that pedagogical stance, or that teacherly authority, between the technology and the subject, in a way that is much more rooted in our human nature.

Jim: I’m actually going to pass that idea along to some friends of mine who have a robotics and AI company and see what they might do with it.

Zak: Please don’t. I mean, because it’s like why the hell would you want a robot teaching little kids when you could have people do it?

Jim: Well, because you can scale it. That would be the argument.

Zak: But why would you want to simulate joint attentional experience instead of actually having joint attentional experience?

Jim: Now, we could go into a long philosophy about AI there. And if one believes in strong AI-

Zak: Doesn’t need to be long. I don’t think it needs to be long, it’s just as long as the kid knows it’s a robot, then it’s not a joint attention attentional situation.

Jim: The kids quickly stop thinking it’s a robot and think it’s alive, right, if it’s got any good reactions at all. Look at the work on Kismet. It’s amazing how closely the people became emotionally engaged with this robot that was specifically designed for emotional engagement. So, I don’t know.

Zak: I’m not saying that you couldn’t make a very powerful, attention capture education replacement. You could, but why do that? People are becoming obsolete in manufacturing jobs because of robots. Those are exactly the people who should be teaching our kids. So it’s just one of these things where it’s like just because we could do that, doesn’t mean we should do that. And plus, if the robot’s doing a job of teaching the kid, it would eventually teach the kid that it’s a robot. So it would be leading the kid up into the most reasonable objective view of his situation, and that situation is that you’re being taught by a robot and the robot was programmed by someone, and it’s not making choices or sharing in the moral universe that you’re in. If you destroy the robot, you probably owe somebody some money, but you probably wouldn’t go to jail for murder. So I just think these kinds of ways of thinking about educational technology are mostly not good.

Zak: The way I propose that educational technology be used, is to clarify time and skill sharing networks, and facilitate pop-up classrooms in which humans are actually together doing things. The machines can house massive inventories of resources that can be rapidly searched and brought to bear in a popup classroom. You can use things like Zoom to have synchronous conversations across the world, but then you can also use things like Zoom to have groups of people meeting, where five people are in a room and the Zoom call hooks another five people.

Zak: So my goal with educational technologies is actually to use them to scaffold better in person examples of teacherly authority, not to use educational technology to run interference and complicate our ability to actually be together in space and time, exercising true teacherly authority, and then replacing actual teacherly authority of person. so human teacherly authority, replacing that with a simulation of teacherly authority, so that we understand education is basically sitting in front of a screen all day. Which is what’s happening now basically, and that’s the notion of what it should be.

Zak: Whereas I’m suggesting something quite different, that the screen itself is not the main event. That the main event in education remains other people. That the screen needs to be the thing that facilitates the coming together of people and the orchestrating of the informational resources and all kinds of amazing things that can be done, where we share joint attention around something. Like for example, the screen, as opposed to me being alone, sharing joint attention with a computer, which actually doesn’t have attention. So that’s me alone with a computer. So that’s that notion of it’s not the me and the machine, it’s me and the teacher with something. Possibly a screen, but most likely something that the screen put us in touch with. Like a particular part of our city, or a particular researcher at a university, or a master carpenter or something.

Zak: That the complex time and skill sharing networks, along with developmentally curated inventories of curricula and a whole bunch of other dynamics, which requires a digital, which couldn’t have happened before the digital, this is what the technology should be for. But I think for a variety of reasons, market forces, cultural confusions, and other things, we’re thinking about educational technology mostly as fancier things we can do when people are alone in front of their computers. And whole charter schools are set up where kids work in cubicles at computers all day.

Jim: I hate that.

Zak: Yeah. So maybe I’m a Luddite. Maybe I’m a Luddite, but I think it’s based in the psychological research. As I said, this is something about the way the nervous system and biology and identity of the human as we’ve known it has worked. This is how teaching and learning has taken place. So the idea that we could figure out how that works and then build a robot that can simulate it really well, why do that? Except to get attention from the scientific community or to make money. If you really care about children, you would be trying to find ways to get children to be with really responsible, intelligence, careful adults.

Jim: Maybe there’s not enough of them. That would be the … I mean, again, it’s funny, a lot of the arguments I buy about screens don’t necessarily apply about a high-end robot with serious, pushing the edge of human capability AI. Like for instance, attention. I’ve actually created a robotic deer that runs around in a virtual world and actually has attention, and has sort of a rudimentary consciousness. It turned out it wasn’t even hard.

Jim: So one could take what we know about how the brain works, how consciousness actually works as a [Sorelian 01:00:46] mechanism, and actually develop something like that. And to your point, yes, probably not as good as the best teachers in the world, but I mean let’s be realistic. Skill is on some sort of statistical distribution, and perhaps in terms of the actual quality of the joint attentional experience, for many kids it would be better with the best possible robot available in the year 2030 or something like that.

Jim: So I’d like to ask you to open your mind up at least a little bit about the robot as a possible way to achieve what you’re talking about. But it would require deep work and both pedagogy and neuroscience, and of course probably advances in software, which we don’t yet have.

Zak: Yeah. I mean, it probably will happen. But yeah, it’s odd. It strikes me as odd.

Jim: So next, we’re going to talk about something you go into, I just found it very interesting, was a view you ended up presenting as a Four Quadrant Model, but you started off by looking at Habermas’ world view of the subjective world, the intersubjective world, and the objective world, that led you, I believe you repurposed this from other thinkers, into a four-part space. And your point, which I thought was very interesting, was that when considering an educational system in particular, but perhaps more broadly, into cultural challenges as well, you needed to process through the four quadrants in parallel.

Jim: Could you unpack that quite a bit?

Zak: Totally. Yeah. The Four Quadrant Model comes directly from Ken Wilber’s work, and he was synthesizing thinkers like Habermas, and others on the edges of the complexity sciences actually, who were grappling with basically the multidimensionality of complex human systems. So we had already been touching on this when I was talking about the brain science work. The essential inside of the four quadrants, is that when you’re looking at any social phenomenon, you need to look at it not from one, let’s say, disciplinary perspective or one basic perspective, such as neuroscience.

Zak: So if a kid has problems paying attention in school, I could simply look at it from what’s called the upper-right quadrant, which would just be his brain. It’s called the Exterior of the Individual. The lower-right quadrant is the Exterior of the Collective. So I could say, “Well, okay, it’s his brain and it’s the infrastructures that surround the school, the exteriors of the collective, or the buildings, the food systems, the air pollution, the bus routes,” things of that nature. So now I’m saying, “Oh, the brain is being poisoned or something by the air pollution and the air quality in the school.” And so now I’ve got a scientific third-person view of a causal system that’s causing this kid not have attention.

Zak: But that’s just the right hand quadrants. You also have the Interior of the Individual and the Interior of the Collective, which is to say the personality and consciousness of the child, and the culture norms of the school. So you can also say, “Okay, in combination with some neurological thing that’s complicated by the infrastructure, you also have an identity which has a self-understanding.” What’s the kid’s academic self-concept? Do they think they’re a learner? Have they been traumatized? Are there good reasons they’re not paying attention? Are they actually interested in something else? You’ll never know, unless you talk to them. You can’t talk to their brain, you have to talk to them.

Zak: And then of course, there’s the culture of the school. Maybe it’s the case that, in fact, the teachers are systematically more or less checked out and don’t care about the kids, and the kids themselves are so busy with their phones and other things, due to lack of cultural norms at the school around phone use, that no one’s paying attention, and it’s not this kid’s problem. It’s the culture of the school.

Zak: But actually, all four of those are the case. They’re all interrelated. They’re all actually interincluded, which is to say that the identity formation is not separate from the infrastructure, which compromises the capacity of the nervous system to act right. And if all the kids are in that same milieu, then of course you’re going to have problems putting the norms in place at the school to get the culture. And then as the culture degrades, then the identity degrades, and then so you get this very complex system. But it’s more than a causal system. It’s not merely a causal system. It is also a system of intentionality, choice and intersubjectivity.

Zak: So that’s the key thing to get, is that a lot complexity science work focuses on the right hand quadrants. It looks at complex dynamical systems as complex causal systems. And that’s huge advance over looking at the external world as a complicated causal system. So using that distinction with the complicated and complex, that we do want to move from modeling things in a complicated way to a complex way, but then we also need to move in modeling them in terms of the left hand quadrants, as the integralists say, which is to say not just the causal systems, but also the systems of intentionality, choice, and again, intersubjectivity or joint attention.

Zak: This is part of the issue with the robot. That the robot’s a causal system, doesn’t make choices, doesn’t have intentionality, can’t share joint attention. It’s a causal system. Now, it can simulate a choice-based system, but it’s not. It’s a causal system. If it’s working correctly, it’s almost perfectly determined causal system. And so that’s important to note, that one of the misunderstandings with the notion of artificial intelligence itself is missing this distinction between causality and choice.

Zak: I know you talked to Forrest Landry, and so I’ll defer to his authority here, that the distinction between causality and choice is actually a primordial one. And in education, it’s extremely important, back to the designing versus raising children, which was raised last time. You can actually approach education itself as if it’s a causal problem. You can medicalize academic under-performance, and you can so strictly routinized curriculum delivery that you get a school running like a complicated machine. Rigorous, objective, standardized testing.

Jim: Yeah. What I call the sausage factory. In fact, that’s become the term of [inaudible 01:07:46] GameB, is we say, “We are not going to send our kids to the sausage factory.”

Zak: Right. And now you throw in biomedical infrastructure, so you get this massively complex way of modeling a very complicated causal system. And I’m saying that’s exactly half of what’s actually there. There’s also the choice-making and identity structures of the children, and all of the conditions and qualities of the shared attention and intersubjectivity that arises between them. That’s a whole space all its own.

Zak: Now, there are fields that look at that stuff. We mentioned Kohlberg, developmental psychology, anthropology gets stuff at the lower left, cultural sciences, hermeneutics, things of that nature.

Jim: And that, we talked about last time. I’m going to toss this back because I don’t really know much about the Wilburian analysis, but when you talk about intersubjectivity, that brings to mind my comment from last time, that I frankly think I learned more at recess than I did in the classroom. Right? Because there, I was learning how to deal with other people, how to lead, how to follow, how to execute strategies, all kinds of things that are meaningless except in conjunction with other people.

Zak: Totally. And this is to … You remember with de Hayne I said, “Is there a way that the brain has actually evolved to extract invariance from the social world, and eventually bring that all the way up into a complex understanding of how basically ethics work?” And that’s what the playground provides the rudiments for. It’s an unstructured social environment, in which the interactions of the children allow for, over time, the generalization of, “Oh, here’s how people work. Here’s what feels fair. Here’s what emotion looks like. Here’s what conflict looks like. Here’s what is the generator function of conflict. Here’s what love looks like. Here’s the generator functions of love.” You start to see, and the brain, we can trust the nervous system in a healthy, cultural context, to begin move towards those generalizations that are net beneficial to everyone involved.

Zak: This is the trajectory, or telos, of cognitive and ethical development as mapped by Piaget and Kohlberg. Just like you can trust a kid to walk. You don’t have to send your kid to a state-trained specialist with education department approved curricula to walk. Walking, it just happens because of the joint attentional space and the processes of imitation and the affordances of the nervous system. A lot of learning has that quality, where you just need to put the nervous system and identity structure in the right environment, such as trying to organize a kickball game at recess, and it will learn. It’s built to learn. It evolved to learn.

Zak: So again, this is a part of what some have called the interior sciences, the ones that study the left-hand quadrants, subjectivity, intersubjectivity. That is some of the most important stuff that needs to be considered in education. Whereas the sharp end of the stick, in education reform, tends to be the right-hand quadrants, the standardized tests, and now the medicalization procedures, which reduce the culture and the subjectivity to the brain and the learning outcomes, which are objective measure of systemic efficiency.

Zak: So yeah, the four quadrants are extremely useful heuristic, and I was applying them there to education, which I do in the book. But they can be used to analyze many number of social phenomenon. Climate change has all those dimensions, pandemics have all these dimensions. So it’s a general heuristic to basically counteract the tendencies towards reducing all questions to the right-hand quadrants, which is to say reducing all the questions to questions about material causal systems.

Zak: It’s not that there aren’t material causal systems, there absolutely fucking are, and we need to figure out exactly how they work, but then we also need to figure out how people work, how identity formations work, how the structure of choice, the integrity of choice. And then also in culture, we need to figure out what are the mimetic and symbolic and mythical agreements that actually are the water we’re swimming in, which “supervene” on all of these infrastructures and computational matrices and nervous systems.

Zak: So it’s really taking the complexity science view and trying to deepen it to include a much more articulate hearing from the sciences of consciousness and psychology, and anthropology, cultural studies, things of that nature, for an omni-considerate or integral or comprehensive view, as opposed to just a basically complexity science, reductive view, subtle reductionism. It’s not reduction to the Newtonian billiard ball, complicated universe. It’s an actual increase above that. So it’s not reductionism in that simple sense, but it’s still a subtle reductionism because it’s not grappling with the reality of the interiors.

Jim: Although, let me be fair here to complexity science, push back from my team, that one of the main tools that’s used in complex systems research called agent-based modeling. I happened to go to a scientific meeting on the topic, some of the very best people in the world, in January, right before the virus hit, and the cutting edge is to put more and more emulation, at least, of things like state of mind, perception, emotions, communications even. Sometimes the agents can have languages or they can even evolve languages.

Jim: So I would say that complexity science is well aware that the simplistic late 80s, early 90s, complexity that arose from deterministic chaos, which was essentially the bridge from the Newtonian world to the complex world, is by no means the last word on the topic. And that many, probably most, modern complexity thinkers who are thinking about social systems at least, are thinking about your left side and they’re looking for tools to probe on that.

Zak: Yeah, no. Of course I’m aware of this work and it is true. It’s a massive improvement. It’s a massive improvement. But then one must ask what the, basically I would call, what are the meta-psychologies that orient the assumptions behind the agent-based modeling? So then you get into how much are we, in a sophisticated way, modeling the psyche? Or have we actually reduced it to something that looks a lot more like a complex causal system? So this is about grappling with the true indeterminacy of choice.

Zak: And again, back to the developmental view, there’s actually not one psyche. This is the big concern with, for example, using game theory, is to think about the way the human mind works, is that kids don’t run game theory. You have to be a form operational thinker to do the machinations of game theory, which doesn’t come until basically you’re an adolescent, if you’re lucky. So there’s also this polyvocality of the human psyche, which adds to the anthro-complexity of the modeling efforts in the agent-based modeling.

Zak: So I know people are moving towards solving those problems, but I’m kind of like … Yeah, there’s a tendency towards making problems that shouldn’t be solved using mathematical models, to want to use mathematical models to solve them.

Jim: Yeah, that certainly is a bad attractor. I think the people in the field are aware of it. And what’s quite interesting, is now in the most recent agent-based modeling work, there’s a lot of heterogeneity of models. It used to be all the agents are the same. Well, we know that all the kids aren’t the same, or all people aren’t the same, or even all sociopaths aren’t the same. So let there be differences, and maybe even evolutionary differences.

Jim: But let’s move on to another important topic. I think this was a very good probe. And that is, you say, I’ll read the actual words, “Education is also, and primarily, an ethical and cultural challenge concerning the meaning-making of individuals and groups.” I would not disagree with that, but I would then ask the question, who decides and how?

Jim: I will throw a little personal history in here, as I did a little bit more in the first episode, but I’ll do a little bit here. When I was a kid in primary education in the first half of the 1960s, we still were required to say the Lord’s Prayer every day, and us allegedly good Catholics knew not to say the goddamn Protestant final verse of it. It was quite a little thing. We also had to say the Pledge of Allegiance. And I would say that our civics was very conventional, status quo, anti-communist.

Jim: This was a whole series of decisions somebody made. Who decided? Somebody decided to make us say the Lord’s Prayer, Pledge of Allegiance, and to worship militant anti-communism. I was at least lucky I didn’t have Bible study. You go another 50 miles south and Bible study would have been a part … I mean, I like the Bible, actually. A militant atheist I may be, but I find both the Old Testament and the New Testament wonderful literature. But they didn’t teach it as literature, unfortunately.

Jim: So, let’s take as a given, ethical and cultural nature of meaning-making in individuals in groups is something education has to be, but who decides on the content?

Zak: I mean, this is probably one of the deepest questions in-

Zak: This is probably one of the deepest questions in educational philosophy, right? So there’s so many questions about how to equitably distribute educational resources, how to make large school systems function well, how to deal with the gap between who has access to technology and who doesn’t have technology, debates about standardized testing, debates about standards. There’s all these things, but that’s all basically content delivery system. The question of what is the content and the quality of the content? That’s this problem at the heart of curriculum studies. So people like Michael Apple who does great work in the critical sociology of curriculum studies and at the end of the day, at least now it boils down to a set of large interests around textbooks publishing. That’s one of the places where this has been hashed out because at the end of the day, you’re looking at education being about, at least as we’ve known it, modern nationalistic, large scale education.

Zak: It’s been about the creation of official knowledge, right? And this is the root of the issue around teacherly authority, is who gets to decide what the official knowledge is? And so one way to get at this question you’re asking is that what we need to change, not the nature of the content that we provide, but change the way we make decisions about which content we provide. So I wouldn’t say that there’s one group of people that decides, but I would say that we need to formulate new processes to even think about what counts as, it’s like the core of an educational system. It’s worth noting that the American school system has always actually been more differentiated almost to the point of fragmentation in terms of what’s taught. So if you go to France and of course, places like China, the State curriculum is extremely clear and issued from the Capitol.

Zak: In the United States, we’ve always had a States rights thing with regard to education and even at the level of a township, you’re getting variation in what’s taught. And so, most of my thinking around this has to do with maintaining the virtue of having local decisions made about the quality and content of what’s taught. But having these local decisions be conducted in such a way that the process assures a certain kind of number of let’s say, baseline requirements. And so it’s another way of handling the problem of standards, but talking about standards as a discursively redeemed community practice, as opposed to a centralized authoritarian mandate. But of course this requires things like my social miracles and other aspects that would allow communities to actually have the time and teachers in particular and other folks that there would be much more professional and collaborative community orientation around just what are we teaching our kids about the world?

Zak: What do we do? It’s a deep question, because as I’ve been saying repeatedly, the educational function of the society is like the auto poetic function of the society. So if a society is self-terminating, which is to say, if the society knows that it’s not working well, then it should actually really question exactly what you’re saying, right? What do we teach the next generation? Obviously what we’ve been doing hasn’t worked. It’s hard for us to imagine that we know what the kids need to know to fix this mess that we’ve created. So it becomes this complicated negotiation about what of the existing culture is actually worthy of being preserved, right? I do a thought experiment on a book that I call, the Nous Ark, to talk about the Old Testament, right? Not Noah’s Ark, but the Nous Ark, N-0-U-S. And this is a educational thought experiment where you’re basically trying to distill down just how deep this question is in curricular studies and something like this.

Zak: If we were facing catastrophic civilizational collapse and we were tasked with basically creating a seed bank of ideas, right? So not a seed bank, well, we’ll need that too, we’ll need a seed bank to actually plant crops on the other side of this thing. But what if we needed to create a seed bank that would allow us to reboot civilization on the other side of this? Right. So that’s actually the question you’re asking when you’re asking about curricular studies, you’re actually asking what is the knowledge that is requisite to recreate the person, right. To recreate the civilization? How do we think about it at that deeper level? And it’s interesting because it constrained your thinking a lot, because you obviously, if, as I mentioned, we’re in a failing civilization, then we precisely can’t hand on a lot of the things that we take for granted. That we would need to boil down to the most essential, those things, which could be like put at the center of intergenerational transmission. So back from the fall experiment to the concrete situations today.

Zak: So my sense is that as the digital continues to reform education, and I don’t mean reform in like policy sense, I mean, literally the new forms, like in a McLuhanist sense. We’re getting a new way of information exchange and scaffolding of educational experience and teacher, student interaction, as a digital continues to do that there must emerge some innovation at the level of educational content curation. And so this gets back to how could you have community level decisions about what gets taught that’s meaningful and like world making sense, making identity, making stuff at the heart of the schooling? How can we have that be a local decision, but also be carried out via a process that is universal and that assures a certain quality? And so this is what I mean by, in the context of the kind of digital explosion of education and the re localization that’s already occurring as a result of the pandemic, shutting of the schools and booting up a classroom in every living room.

Zak: There’s this question about yeah, deep innovations in the curation of educational content and getting that to be part of collective sense-making, as opposed to part of an authoritarian apparatus. And the authoritarian State-based, centralized curriculum, that’s exactly the stuff that ended up backfiring and undermining all teacherly authority. It’s exactly your experience with who the hell decided I have to say this shit every morning? It’s exactly that experience and maybe that your generation had, which led to a profound questioning of all sources of teacherly authority. So this question of who decides what gets taught, that’s exactly the question that catalyzes the renegotiation of educational authority and the innovation in the curation of educational content.

Zak: And it’s, I think a deeper, more imminent, more pressing problem than most people realize because they hold schools as somehow sacrosanct. As if the signal sent by the school could overwhelm in the mind of the adolescent, the signal being sent by their screens in the palm of their hand. Right? So like when you’re looking at the conversations about, let’s say pandemic conspiracies, and then you’re looking at kids who are supposed to be in biology class learning about biology, right? You’re looking at QAnon and kids in history class, right? Like 15, 16, 17 year old boys. And so there ends up being this question of, Hmm, geez, the situation of teacherly authority is quite acute. And until we get some reasonable discourse taking place within public view, and especially within view of the children about why they’re learning such and such and why such and such is actually valid knowledge and what valid knowledge actually means. It’s like there’s no way out, I think of the downward spiral that seems to be unfolding in the current historical moment. There is no way out without renegotiating teacherly authority.

Zak: And the concern is that, and this is why many on the left and the right fear across the aisle, that either side would lock down into some new authoritarianism. And that fear comes because of the discomfort of the experience of the absence of teacherly authority. And in that absence, you will basically, as soon as one appears that could potentially close that loop and step into the vacuum of teacherly authority. That you’ll take the first thing that’s even seemingly viable just to stop the discomfort and chaos of not having someone who knows what to do. And so that’s the risk of not resolving the teacherly authority crisis in a reasonable way, is that we will resolve the crisis of teacherly authority in an unreasonable way. And it could go left or right. Like the blue church loves preemptively resolving teacherly authority crises, around a lot of things in the biomedical space. And of course the right revels and undermining teacherly authority systematically, and in some times replacing education with a kind of a spectacle or entertainment.

Zak: So yeah, so that’s some, again, the potency of this question of the absence of teacherly authority is in part because it’s uncomfortable, which means that we’re looking for a way to resolve it. And whether that means that Google all of a sudden fact-checker becomes the official new way to run inquisitions or whether it becomes the continual locking of commitments to a view based on aesthetic and emotional preferences, which is the right fascist model where it’s actually the emotional and aesthetic attraction to the idea that is why you hold it as opposed to the appeal to some mission centralized blue church authority like Google. So it’s complicated and it’s this question of who decides, is exactly right. And my answer is everybody has to decide. But that’s-

Jim: That’s a God damn problem. Right. Because as we know, if we said today, who decides, and absolutely no sense of attempting to constrain that, in West Texas, they would definitely say climate change is a hoax, in Wellesley, Massachusetts, they’d say, there’s no such thing as gender, right. Nonsense would proliferate, at least in our current environment. And we’re going to get to this on the next episode, we’re going to not do it this episode. We’re going to talk about the 13 miracles that maybe get us to a point where we can make sense of the world. But today we don’t seem to have anything like good sense-making at the local level.

Zak: Absolutely correct. And that’s why in a sense, my ideas seem utopian and they’re concrete utopians what I call them, because they’re reasonable things to think about what could be possible in the future. But yeah, right now, if we were to radically distribute teacherly, or we are basically we’re looking at what happens when you radically distribute teacherly authority without some sense of a hidden universal. And that’s really the key, which is to say that, it is possible in educational relationships, in educational contexts to build structures of interaction and reflection that wouldn’t get us stuck in these cul-de-sacs of reactive basically belief formation. And so the idea that people in West Texas would reject evolution is absolutely true. And the root of that is of course the meta crisis, the educational crisis that we don’t know how to consider scientific research. That’s an incapacity, right? That’s a socially induced incapacity on the part of those people. And similarly with the folks in Wellesley. Right.

Zak: And so it’s not so much about changing education to change what people think, the goal here is to change how people think. And that means basically how people speak and interact in serious contexts. So the hope would be that, yeah, collective sense-making would need to be spread through educationally intensive process. I don’t know exactly what it looks like, but I do know that it’s not asynchronous textbooks exchanges in a place like Facebook that it needs to be as I’ve been emphasizing, actually embodied joint attentional experience. And so, yeah, there’s a need to disentangle in a sense, the dysfunctions that have arisen in the past 10 years as a result of the digital interference and capture of communication channels, from those things that are actually deep ideological centers rooted in personality and articulate preference. Right.

Zak: And that would go a long way to thinking about what is the actual situation, if we turned off Facebook tomorrow and we shut down Twitter for six months and we organize the whole bunch of town hall, facilitated small group conversations and just force people to speak, to be reasonable with one another. And again, here I’m being utopian that this could even happen. But I think you’d find that there’s a lot of contrived polarization and that there’s a lot of attention capture that is actually distracting people from what they already know. Which is that, in fact, we’re stuck in this together and we’re either going to scapegoat one another or we’re going to have to cooperate. Right now we obviously prefers scapegoating. And I think until we start to get changes in the way that digital is used, as far as communication and things of that nature, we may stay there. Facebook was built on Giradian principles, right. Built to propagate mimetic, desire mimetic violence and the outcome of those are scapegoating processes.

Zak: So there’s something that needs to be rethought at the level of the basic structures of our society with regards to communication and collective choice making. So, yeah, so now I’m kind of rambling in this direction of just what the kind of basic practices and rituals of a future civilization that could actually exist in perpetuity would be.

Jim: Let’s hold that one off for our next episode. I’ll point out, Ezra Klein has written a very interesting book called, Why We’re Polarized, which basically takes a complex systems perspective on how this polarization that’s tearing us apart is really emergent. And while there has certainly been people who have intentionally thrown gasoline on the fire, a lot of it is structural. For example, here we did a blind experiment starting in 2010 of giving everybody a super computer in their pocket with a high rate screen, connected to the internet and gave them many to many communication tools to talk to anybody on the planet at any time they want. And guess what? One of the emergent phenomena that is to accelerate polarization. So there’s no doubt about it, that there are many serious systems issues that are probably not even consciously designed, but are driven by the attractors of our current systems, such as my old favorite short term money on money return. Right?

Jim: You can look through the magnifying glass of, what is motivating short term money on money return in the behavior of Facebook? And that is to sell more advertising, which means hijacking more attention for longer periods of time. And that then says, well, select more extreme content to put in front of people because they pay more attention to extreme content and we’re just fucked, right? And so we have to go quite far down the rabbit hole to fix things. So unfortunately, listening to you talk about how to decide who decides, I came away saying, Hmm, classic chicken and egg problem. We need better education to figure out how to decide who decides about what goes into education. So this is not going to be easy.

Zak: No, not at all. And the chicken and the egg problem with educational reform has always existed. Because in a democracy, in a place where the collective needs to have some input on what happens, then you need to actually change the educational system enough to get people to be sophisticated voters, to change the education system even more. So there’s this, you care how you bootstrap the reform of an educational system, if it’s truly failed, then the very people trying to bootstrap it would be already incapacitated by the failure of that educational system. And so that’s why there’s this death spiral that you get into when the education system starts to decompose and is subject to institutional decay, you get into a death spiral. And so this is one of the things we’re stuck in. When you damage teacherly authority, then it gets harder to re-establish it, then you become basically incapacitated by the absence of it, so it’s self-propelling.

Zak: And this is one of the reasons frankly why the United States public education system has been the hobby horse of wealthy industrial philanthropists since its inception more or less. Because there’s been a sense of like, Whoa, well then the smart ones need to take responsibility for the educational system. So yeah, we are in a difficult situation. Now, what you said about the computer in everyone’s pocket and that breeding polarization. Yeah. Again, it’s the digital came fast and furious with very specific and I think limited near term motivations, as you were saying, money on money making profit. So I don’t think we actually know what the true affordances of the digital are. I think this is one of the key learning processes we’re in during this historical epoch. For a variety of reasons, we’ve gone the way we’ve gone with the potentiality of the digital. But as I was trying to note with the digital backend of the educational hub network that I talk about in my book, the digital could actually be used to completely up level the nature of our social life without capturing our attention.

Zak: It could actually focus our attention in collaboration with others better. Right. So, yeah, in a sense, I think one of the solutions here is actually really seriously rethinking the way digital technology is integrated into a civilizational design and basically making an argument that we’ve taken the wrong path with a lot of the ways we’ve been bringing the digital into our culture. I’ve mentioned the screens in particular, but there’s also the emphasis as you mentioned on over saturation of advertisement and asymmetric capacity to influence choice-making, which is to say, like, I’m just Zak, I don’t have a whole team of AI programmers working for me, but Facebook does. That’s why I sit alone in front of my screen without really thinking that on the backend, there is millions maybe billions of dollars going into basically manipulating me. And so that’s not what the digital is, that’s what we’ve done with the digital.

Zak: So yeah, so part of this problem of who figures out what to teach and how do we do collective choice making and these things, it really, the onus is on us to start thinking about this technology in a different way. And it may be that we’ve made systematic mistakes, right? If you think about Tesla and Edison, it’s like we could have done electricity very differently than we did it. Right. You think about Buckminster Fuller’s that interesting map of the world that he made and he showed that you could have an electrical, a planetary electrical grid. And so again, when we lay down basic infrastructures back to Ralls, when you do the thought experiment of what should this basic infrastructure look like, this new civilization, enabling infrastructure, what should it look like? You need to think about that. You don’t just roll it out in the way that’s going to make you the most money as quickly as possible, but this is what we’ve done.

Jim: And so we have to build up from a lot of layers, which we’ll talk about next time. So I think on that point, we will wrap it up here. And as we have decided that we have so much interesting stuff to cover that we’re going to have Zak back for part three, where we’re going to look at the chapter on religion and religious teacherly authority. And we’re going to then go deep on, which we’ve mentioned a couple of times in passing, Zak’s ideas about the 13 social miracles that together with reforming education, essentially, frankly, who are evolving with education, maybe we can solve the meta crisis. So with that, Zak, thanks for coming back a second time. I look forward to talking to you a third time.

Zak: Yeah, me too. This is a lot of fun, man. I appreciate it.

Production Services and audio editing by Jared Janes Consulting. Music by Tom Muller at