Monthly Archives: January 2007

Why Launchpad isn’t taking off just yet

Lars Risan, a Norwegian anthropologist leading a group of researchers at the university of Oslo studying “The Political Economy of Free/Open Software” recently put up an interesting blog post about the Launchpad technical infrastructure’s effects on the relationship between Ubuntu and various upstreams, both with regards to Debian, but also with regards to the translation work done through Rosetta as opposed to directly in the upstream.

Risan raises some relevant issues that have received much discussion within the Free Software communities around Ubuntu, namely: What is Canonical’s intended purpose with Launchpad, and why isn’t it Free Software?

He finds that the main lines of argument revolves around the fact that Launchpad is Canonical’s flagship investment, and that the promises of freeing the Launchpad source code will only be kept once Canonical has secured the market for Open Source infrastructure, and that Canonical much like Google seeks to trade in free web services to profit from the unhindered access to the data – the translations, source code, bug reports, specifications and support tickets handled by the system.

While Mark Shuttleworth’s reply to these claims emphasizes that he has no problem if people prefer to use something like Pootle instead. And he concludes:

One thing I can say, though, is that a web service (or even a remote app service) can never create the same level of pain that a proprietary OS can do. Having watched what Microsoft has done, I’m largely motivated by a desire to ensure that countries like South Africa never have to pay a tax like that again.

And that’s fine. Like Google, Launchpad is intended to provide a service which you can choose to use or not. But as Risan points out, the service still isn’t very good. In his case study of how Rosetta works, he concludes:

At the moment, then, Rosetta seems not to be Adding Value ™. It is just adding mess. Neither is it evil. It is just bad.

As Risan does well to show in his paper, it is not a matter of whether Rosetta technically offers the necessary capabilities, but rather whether the infrastructure can work with the various upstreams – in Risan’s case the Norwegian translators of KDE – to make sure the latest translations are available in distributions like Ubuntu which depend on Launchpad for its translations.

The problem is that with Risan’s translations, Rosetta has simply supplanted the Norwegian KDE translators as the translation upstream, thus actually segregating the community rather than uniting it. And the reason for this may exactly be the Norwegian KDE translators’ hesitancy to drop Kbabel and other tools for Launchpad and Rosetta – a platform which many Free Software developers still do not entirely trust, nor will be willing to use until it becomes Free Software itself, or at least until it becomes so good that it would be too much work to build an alternative – like Google.

In this way, the adoption of Launchpad continues to be slow, not because of any bad intent from its architects or lack of interest from its potential users, but because it has been built without consideration for the social connections within and between Free Software projects.

Indeed, Launchpad is often described as seeking to “automate social connections between projects” so that patches and data can be exchanged as smoothly as possible with a minimum inter-community flame-wars (this fits quite well with Ubuntu’s relationship to Debian, where a number of developers continue – rightly or wrongly – to be unhappy with the patches that Ubuntu send back upstream).

When the project started, the Launchpad developers mapped out all the software repositories of the Free Software world and linked them together, but they did not map out the flow of information between these repositories or how its active inhabitants collaborate. Thus Launchpad does not reflect how the upstreams work, limiting their willingness to adopt it, and since they can’t customize it to fit their needs as they would otherwise do – the source code is still unavailable, after all – they simply stay away.

Unlike Google – whose services generally are so easy to use that they require little or no customization, Canonical’s Launchpad is a intricate behemoth of details. Even core Ubuntu developers who use it everyday do get lost in the system from time to time. It cannot be optimized for a single use case, since Free Software projects, though they appear much alike, have subtly and vastly different ways of collaborating – both due to community structures and dynamics, but mostly because of the many different tools they use.

Having the data is not enough. Understanding and incorporating the work flow of the upstreams is also necessary. And nobody will be able to do that better than the upstreams themselves.

This constant negotiation between the technical and the social is the main theme of my thesis, and though I can’t delve into the entirety of Launchpad, I do hope to elaborate further on some of these ideas about the role of technical infrastructure in Free Software projects.

Spending a morning as an anthropologist

This morning I sat in on a seminar about research and anthropology intended to get Danish high school students interested in anthropology. My mother, who is high school teacher, brought her students from Aarhus to Copenhagen on a couple of days of excursion, and in-between seeing the parliament, the foreign ministry and bunches of other important stuff, they also had time to swing by and hear more about what social science research is all about.

The reason that the anthropologists are interested in having these students visit is that with the new Danish high school reform, a new inter-disciplinary subject called “Cultural Analysis and Understanding” has appeared, and this opens up the anthropological project to a new group of potentially interested students.

Some of the researchers at the department of anthropology are writing a textbook for the new subject and naturally, they’d like to write about cultural issues that may interest the pupils. So, naturally, they took this opportunity not only to tell about anthropology, but also ask the students to answer the question “how can anthropology be interesting for high school students?”

It is always fun to hear anthropologists explain what anthropology is. And I think the three chosen anthropologists, Kirsten Becker (whom the department have hired as a “development consultant” to engage in exactly this kind of activities, promoting anthropology not only to prospective students, but also to businesses of various sorts), Cecilie Rubow and Mikkel Rytter, did a decent job explaining.

So what does an anthropological researcher do?

She can examine just about anything, just as long as she looks at it with regards to social relations and cultural values. It is in some way the quintessential cross-disciplinary subject, since any research field that is based on social relations and cultural values (whether directly or indirectly) can be studied anthropologically. It all emanates from a basic sense of wonder: “What ARE they doing?”

The central element of anthropology is operationalizing that wonder into questions that can be asked and answered through specific methods, and the creativity of the anthropological practice is closely related to inventing good questions to ask and finding creative ways of answering them. The central anthropological methods is participant observation – the tricky position of both being distant, observing and taking notes while actively participating and learning.

It requires living with and among the groups of people that you want to study. As Mikkel Rytter put it: “You develop and answer the questions you’ve asked yourself by hanging out and hanging on.” You attempt to “stick” to the group of people you’re interested in.

And he told the story of how he had heard about a wedding in the community of Pakistani immigrants in Denmark (the group he was studying), but since he didn’t know the lucky couple well enough to receive an invitation, he then had to ask his friends to invite him to the wedding.

So basically he invited himself, and that’s what anthropologists do all the time. We are, as somebody once quite elegantly put it, “professional strangers.”

Rytter also had fun elevating the stereotype of the annoyingly inquisitive child to a hero figure for anthropologists. Constantly asking “why is this?” “why would you do that?” “how would you prefer it to be it?” “when was this?” “can you help me understand?” is quite characteristic of the anthropologist. In essence, we are extremely rude though we try to avoid appearing that way. That’s what anthropologists mean when they talk about strategy: “how can I present myself in such a way that will allow me to ask tons of questions without getting kicked out for being nosy?”

With this semi-brief introduction to the subject, the anthropologists asked the students to go into smaller groups to perform the first three steps of anthropology: Wonder, question, and fret about methods.

They did so under the cool guidance of the three anthropologists, each with their special theme: Ritual and religion (Rubow), Integration (Rytter) and the Body (Becker). And each group would then turn in a coloured piece of paper containing their wonder and ideas on how to use it.

Generally, the students came up with big questions over big areas, and there was a clear tendency to be as inclusive as possible: as many age groups, as much geographical diversity, as broad a context as possible. And it became the task of the anthropologists to show the students how the empirical ambition of this wondering could be tuned down by focusing the questions a bit more and still keep most of the wonder.

Naturally, most of the questions the students came up with were close to questions and experiences that they themselves have had and considered.
Most of the groups discussing religion had focused on the conflict around secularity and religion, and how it seems that most young Danes today are semi-atheist, yet still go through confirmation. How does tradition and faith interact? What does it mean to believe in something? What about creationism – how can you believe in that?

The groups discussing the body asked questions which very much related to themselves: How do people start smoking? Why do some people work out all the time? What kind of bodily ideal do they have? What meanings do people attach to body hair? Is that another generational thing considering how “all our parents found it cool to be totally hairy”? How does body hair affect sexuality? How does the way we play as children affect how we act when we grow up?

The groups discussing integration found themes containing no small matter of reflexivity: What does material possessions and their influence of quality of life mean to immigrants in Denmark? How does Danish party culture segregate immigrants from the ethnically Danish youth? When are you Danish? Is it possible to be “well-integrated” in Denmark while keeping your cultural and religious roots? And what does integration even mean?

The anthropologists then asked counter-questions in order to show how trickily complex the anthropological undertaking can be: How would you study Danes’ relationship to body hair? Study them at the pool? It is actually difficult to go up and initiate a conversation with people when you’re swimming or showering. How would you figure out what role secularization plays between first and second generation Muslim immigrants in Denmark? Do you have hypothesis that you want to confirm? If so, you better make that clear in advance as well.

Curiously enough, the three anthropologists were so caught up with all the wonder, the questions and the methods that they almost completely forgot to talk about the analysis and the knowledge that they actually produce. Maybe that is the less sexy part which the students will have to figure out for themselves…

Thesis writing

I met with thesis advisor (or supervisor – I’m not really sure about the proper English terminology here. I think advisor sounds more precise) yesterday to discuss the outline of my thesis.

As I had figured, he agreed that it was a good idea to design each chapter as independent essays with their own argument and conclusion which I could then connect into an overall argument by writing a “meta-text” into the main text referring to points made in other chapters where appropriate.

Our main discussion this time was on how to best build up a good structure to give the reader all the necessary pieces to understand the highly technical and specialized field the thesis is about. He demanded that I didn’t take too much for granted, not about the reader’s empirical or technical knowledge of the field, nor about the reader’s grasp of the anthropological theories I plan to use.

As he said, “most anthropologists like Bruno Latour and the concept of Actor-Network Theory for completely different reasons than most other academics: We find most of his points about the social construction of technology as blindingly obvious, but we do like the succinctness and stringence of his arguments. On the other hand, we aren’t too fond of his methods which seem crude to say the least. Other academics find his basic premise of socially constructed technology mind-blowing and stick to his methods as at least some way of dealing with this (to them) new way of perceiving the world.”

As it is, the relationship between the social and the technical will at the very centre of my thesis, but he warned me not to become too overenthusiastic about Latour and use him as a basis for discussion rather than as a conclusion in its own right. I find this exceptionally clever, especially since I was leaning towards doing this anyway, and it will only make my analysis so much clearer and sharper.

The main challenge of writing such a big lump of text like this thesis – it will end up at around 30.000 words – is getting them all in the right order. Building the argument in such a way that the reader will always read whatever seems most amazingly curious and interesting at that point. When writing chapter one, I have to find out what do the reader needs to know in order to read chapter 2? What framework do I build to make it as straightforward and accessible as possible?

So far, I’ve sought to develop each chapter around specific empirical cases to make the conflicts and theoretical issues at hand as concrete as possible. My advisor has kept telling me: Use the best cases! The ones you like the best! You will be delving into these and the more exciting and curious you find them, the better analyses you will write about them in the end!

So that’s where I’m at now. I’m starting out writing a chapter (what is going to be the third of six) with a solid overall structure in mind, and hopefully it won’t change too much in the meanwhile.

A rebellious mixtape

From time to time I get caught up in technological nostalgia. Sometimes I find myself missing phones with rotary dials: You got that tacit touch of the mechanism inside and you could guess at how things worked inside. Now phones are just black boxes that emit random beeps. In the latest iteration, they’re even trying to do away with the tacitness altogether by removing all the buttons and just having a touch screen which will feel the same no matter which function you try to use.

This tendency of minimizing the physical element of the technology and making people interface even more directly with the information is very much part of the times. And even if it is a win overall, making information freely available, accessible and modifiable, it is also a loss in the way that we have started to appreciate it less.

One of my favourite analogue technologies was the cassette tape. I spent a fair part of my younger days with a walkman. I could take all of my parents’ old LPs and pick my favourite tracks, and but them on tape. I had tapes recorded from the radio and tapes given to me by friends. Each bit of music was a physical object with a history. I exchanged mixtapes with a pen pal and got a tape full of Czech hip hop and Belgian alternative rock.

Actually, it was just like it is with digital music now, except slower and in worse quality. Both of which came from the physical media. But the limitations of the physical media – the cassette tape – is what I miss the most about it. When you put a tape on your walk-man, you knew you were in for a ride. You pretty much had to accept what was on the tape.

There was no “Shuffle” function, no “Forward” function that instantly skipped to the next song. Once you’d listened to music for half an hour or 45 minutes, you’d have to take out the tape and turn it around and reinsert it. There was a clear, physical feeling of time passing: If you wanted to skip a track, you had to fast forward, spending time listening to the tape winding. And if you weren’t careful, you might miss the next song as well.

So basically, you just had to sit there and take it, and hope that whoever had made the mixtape knew what they were doing. It was like having a radio station just for you. As Nick Hornby so eloquently put it in High Fidelity:

To me, making a tape is like writing a letter ?? there’s a lot of erasing and rethinking and starting again. A good compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do. You’ve got to kick off with a corker, to hold the attention (I started with “Got to Get You Off My Mind,” but then realized that she might not get any further than track one, side one if I delivered what she wanted straightaway, so I buried it in the middle of side two), and then you’ve got to up it a notch, or cool it a notch, and you can’t have white music and black music together, unless the white music sounds like black music, and you can’t have two tracks by the same artist side by side, unless you’ve done the whole thing in pairs and…oh, there are loads of rules.

To me, the cassette tape was the ideal medium for exchanging music. Because it brings context with it. It is a suitably bothersome process to make a tape that you will want to do it properly. You can’t just fill side B with top 40 junk and leave it at that. Would you write half a letter and then just paste in a tabloid article rather than finish the letter properly?

Of course not! So in the spirit of old cassette mixtapes, I’ve dug out an old 80-minute tape (2×40 minutes) and put together a mixtape. I thought it would be an interesting exercise to put together a tape containing some of the most vibrant, passionately rebellious songs I know. So here goes:

Side A:
The Clash – Lost in the Supermarket
Against Me! – Turn Those Clapping Hands Into Angry Balled Fists
Tracy Chapman – Talking About A Revolution
John Lennon – Working Class Hero
Fela Kuti – Zombie
Manu Chao – Clandestino
!!! – Me and Giuliani Down by the Schoolyard

Side B:
Aretha Franklin – Think
Bob Marley and the Wailers – Get Up, Stand Up
Ton Steine Scherben – Keine Macht Für Niemand
Rage Against The Machine – Killing In the Name of
Helt Off – Det Brinner i Paris
Billie Holiday – Strange Fruit
Ani DiFranco – Your Next Bold Move
The The – Lonely Planet

My rules for this mix were: Only one song per artist, cover as many parts of the globe and as many kinds of music as possible. Both men and women, and of course, make the music fit as well as possible.

If you think that I have left out obvious choices, please feel free to list them below. Preferably with reasons as to why I should included them.

Oh, and since there are laws against that sort of thing, I can’t make music available here. But if you’re curious, send me message, and I’ll send you a mixtape. 🙂

On limbo

I found a brilliant expression in a newspaper review recently which I subsequently have adopted. It finds its best use whenever something seems to be almost ridiculously low-brow and attention-seeking. As in:

Did you see that TV-show yesterday? They were just dancing limbo beneath the lowest common denominator.


It works even better by sounding less mathematical in Danish, so your mileage may vary.

Spending time on computer games

World of Warcraft has proven to be the most popular of the many different Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games (MMORPG) played by millions of people all over the world. These players play together or against one another in huge multiplayer worlds – each being able to contain several thousand players at a time.

These games differ from other computer games in that they are designed to contain a social element which ensures that people not only invest time in playing but also in building a network of other people whom they can share the playing with. Its praises have been sung by many, noting how the game is redefining how people play games and interact online.

To accomodate this social level in the game, the game mechanics are designed in such a way that the game never ends. You can’t win. Sure, you can reach level 60 – the highest level attainable, but then there will be new “epic” equipment and the challenges that yield this equipment are so insidiously difficult that you will need to work together with other players in groups of up to 40 people in order to succeed. And then you will only have a slight chance of actually getting the item that you hoped to acquire.

I haven’t played World of Warcraft for more than a few hours to get an idea of the basic game mechanics, so I haven’t experienced the extended social interaction to any degree, but Jakob, a friend from the hall of residence where I live has showed me how he plays World of Warcraft at level 60, and his interaction with the other players – both through on-line chat and live voice TeamSpeak. And it really is developed from a simple game into something that is a distinct social commitment like meeting your friends to play golf or football. For instance, my friend’s guild meets every Wednesday and Sunday to go raiding for raiding for treasures.

Coordinating these Raids can be very time consuming indeed:

Let’s say you want the “epic” items from the Alterac Valley battleground. This is a PVP arena that up to 40 people can participate in. On my server, the wait to get in is usually about an hour and a half, assuming there are enough people to start the battle. In order to buy these items, your reputation with the denizens of Alterac Valley must be Exalted. To get from Neutral reputation to Exalted requires 42,000 reputation. You earn maybe an average of 1000 reputation if you play a full battle, less if your side loses. That means you have to play at least 42 battles, which run from one to four hours each. Let’s say the average is two hours, which is optimistic. In essence, getting the reputation you need requires at least 146 hours spent in Alterac Valley, much of it just waiting to get in.

You can only participate in these battles with any chance of surviving if you’ve reached level 50 or more, which means another big chunk of time invested in the game in order to participate. Another blogger illustrates just how much time it takes to reach such a level:

There’s a command in World of Warcraft that tells you exactly how long you’ve played with your active character and how long you’ve been playing at your current level. […] I’ve had World of Warcraft for almost exactly six months now […]

So I typed in /played over the weekend and I got back the figure of fifteen days and four hours for my main character – another nine hours for my second. Fifteen days solidly. That’s three hundred and seventy three hours of immersion in Nordrassil when I could have been doing something else, something more useful.

Let me give you some context there. Imagine playing WoW was my second job, which is how it has felt at times. Thinking in terms of eight hour days and five day work weeks, I’ve played the game for roughly two and a half months. And that’s on top of the day job. […] More alarming still is that even though I’ve played it for that length of time, I’m still only level 51.

Investing such an amount of time in the game will give you even more time to interact and talk with the other players, creating further social obligation to the other players and to the character that you have created for yourself in the game. Yet as at least one observer has noted, most players do not actually spend this time socializing directly with other players, but it is more the comforting feeling of not being the only playing the game, a sense of “being alone together.”

Instead, most of the social interaction takes place among the highest-level players where social interaction is necessary in order to play the game successfully, and among those players who know each other already, some of whom even begin to substitute actual physical time together for time together in the World of Warcraft , as one self-proclaimed gaming geek humourously describes how he and his wife spent their anniversary weekend at a fancy five star hotel in downtown Seattle:

“We made sure to find a place with wireless internet and we both took our laptops so we could play WOW all weekend.

… Kara turned to me and said ??We??ll have this hotel room all to ourselves with no baby, you know what we should do??

My mind exploded into possibilities. We only had a day before we left for the hotel, where was I going to get an ostrich?

??We should do our first Molten Core run.? She says.

The words were like music in my ears.

??That??s hot.? I told her. Then I leaned in and whispered, ??We should get fire resist enchants.?

So Saturday night we ordered a pizza to the hotel room and spent five hours in Molten Core. Each of us came away with an epic which was super cool. I know the first year anniversary is paper and I think the fourth is linen, I guess the sixth is Arcanist.”

So it seems that it is the fascination and challenge of the game that is the initial draw for new players. That is how most computer games engage their players. But unlike other games, this one has the community around playing the game built directly into the game itself, and as the game progresses the community becomes the goal of the game in lack of any other lasting goal. But even with the social aspect at the centre of the game, it is still limited means of expression that requires huge amounts of time from the player. One one-time long-time player commenting on Slashdot critically put it this way:

Yes, WoW does foster a huge sense of community, Yes, it does form relationships. Indeed, I know of THREE couples who met, engaged, and married during the course of playing together. (this taken from my ingame relations with… say 200 people on a semi-regular basis) However… Every person I know of who quit seems grateful that they did so, Acting as if they finally kicked some long drug habit, or Finally escaped from some prison. Mind you, I come from the raid game, but there are those who would say that is the entirety of WoW. Take a second and ask yourself why would they be grateful they have quit? geh. the Game is addictive, in the same sense that having a weekly game of pool is addictive.

And addiction is a recurring theme in a number of the blog entries I found when examining how people use World of Warcraft, but I mostly I was struck at the number of comments each of these posts had attracted, agreeing and supporting them in “kicking the habit”.

“So, sure” the helpful mediator would interject, “the game is a tremendous timesink, but so are all computer games, aren’t they? But the game is also a social enabler, surely it’s not all bad?”

Of course not. I have played a lot of computer games in my time, and learned a lot through them. I will readily agree that a good part of my English skills and understanding of American popular culture can be attributed to playing adventure games such as Day of the Tentacle, while my interest in world history to some degree was established by playing Civilization, and my interest in fantasy literature and multi-ended stories were fed by playing role-playing games such as Baldur’s Gate. Indeed, you might conceivably argue that if it hadn’t been for computer games, I might never have found any interest in computers to begin with.

I might even dare agree that the central aspect of computer games is fun as Raph Koster defined it: “learning in a safe-environment.” And I believe that there is a huge pedagogical potential in computer games from that perspective, building fun and accessible learning curves to many different subjects.

But to me it seems that World of Warcraft requires way too much time compared to how much you’ll learn from it. I suppose that at its highest level of playing the game, you’ll be able to command and direct 39 people in a real-time battle, but most players will only learn that the way to get ahead is to put in much more time that you can afford to develop your character.

There is a word for this kind of character development. It’s called grinding. The point is that it is not fun, it is not a learning experience at all, but just work to get to the next level and the in-game abilities and possibilities this will allow for. It is no longer the process itself but its goal that will yield the fun.

And that is the most common complaint I’ve found from those quitting the game: “Think what I could have done with all of that time I spent playing World of Warcraft” – not all of it is productive time, of course. Sometimes people will play games as relaxation or a bit of escapism from a dreary work day, and that’s fine.

But when these players stop after months and months of intense playing, many of them find that they have nothing at all to show for it and wondering at what they could have spent their time on instead.

An interesting aside is that some Free Software hackers actually call F/OSS hacking their own kind of MMORPG, and many of the same traits are present: Online sociality, common goals, fun and learning. One hacker even wrote an applet for GNOME so that he could see his GNOME Bugzilla level directly from the desktop panel:

Level applet

In this way F/OSS hacking can even replicate the “level-grinding” through triaging bugs. But this sort of grinding seems much more acceptable, as it does lead to a applicable real life skill and makes Free Software better for all of mankind. If only MMORPGs did the same…

The cultural gendarmerie is here

Jeppe, a good friend of mine, has initiated his official career as a cultural critic with one his theatre buddies on their own website called the Postulatorium.

The project was originally intended to be a tv-show containing a youthful combination of comedy, satire and cultural education. Unfortunately, the idea was pitched at the same time as Danish TV started showing their own bile-infested program for cultural criticism.

Radio didn’t work either, since they insisted that it should be on a station with youth appeal, but they couldn’t get any of the relevant stations interested in a show that wasn’t solely about music.

It was until they decided to try their hand at the media with the lowest barrier of entry: The world wide web that the project got off the ground. So far the content is kind of sparse, but the idea is sound, and well worth supporting. I’ll try and see if I can get them to do a podcast. I’m sure their kind of humour would work well like that.

Changing teaching

What now feels like a long time ago, I wrote on anti-teaching and my curiosity towards the book Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner. Well, as chance would have it, I got the book for Christmas, and now I have had my curiosity sated. Well, actually more like whetted.

Written in 1969 by two former high school teachers turned professors of education, it remains a very thought-provoking book, seeking to tear down some of the fundamentals of the school system as we know it and rebuild it with a different focus.

Their starting point is that that the degree of social and technological change itself has changed through the 20th century:

… we’ve reached the stage where change occurs so rapidly that each of us in the course of our lives has continuously to work out a set of values, beliefs, an patterns of behaviour that are viable, or seem viable, to each of us personally. And just when we have identified a workable system, it turns out to be irrelevant because so much has changed while we were doing it.

Based on this observation on the increased pace of change, which we can only confirm for the last 35 years since the book was written, Postman and Weingartner seeks to identify the central values necessary to prepare students for life in a world of constant change.

They argue that in such a situation, you can’t teach textbook material, because the text books will be outdated by the time the students graduate, instead they find it most relevant to teach the students to reflect and and make up their own minds on the changes around them. To think for themselves:

We are talking about the schools’ cultivating in the young that most ‘subversive’ intellectual instrument – the anthropological perspective. This perspective allows one to be part of his own culture, and at the same time, to be out of it. One views the activities of his own group as would an anthropologist, observing its tribal rituals, its fears, its conceits, its ethnocentrism. In this way, one is able to recognize when reality begins to drift too far away from the grasp of the tribe.

This intellectual instrument they call a “crap detector”, borrowing a term from Hemingway describing the single most important characteristic necessary to become a great writer.

Having stated their goal as the development of fully functional crap detectors, they commit the rest of the book to discussing which changes will be necessary in the school system to accommodate such a change of focus.

Heavily inspired by Marshall McLuhan, they go on to state that with teaching, too, “the medium is the message.” Which implies that that the critical content of any learning experience is the method or process through which the learning occurs. They connect this John Dewey‘s maxim “learning by doing”, arguing that you only learn what you do, and if learning consists of sitting quietly, passively absorbing, remembering and regurgitating information as required that’s also what you’re going to learn to do.

As an alternative to this sort of traditional schooling, Postman and Weingartner roll out a long list of suggestions all focusing on changing the dynamics in the classroom to help the students define and shape their education in ways that they can take an interest in. Most central is the Inquiry Method of teaching which they sum as the following:

– The teacher rarely tells students what he thinks.
– Generally, he does not accept a single statement as an answer to a question.
– He encourages student-student interaction as opposed to student-teacher interaction, generally avoids acting as a mediator or judging the quality of ideas expressed.
– He rarely summarizes the positions taken by students on the learnings that occur. He recognizes that the act of summary or “closure” tends to have the effect of ending further thought.
– His lessons develop from the responses of students and not from a previously determined “logical” structure
– Generally, each of his lessons pose a problem for students.

It will be too much to go into detail about these points here since these points pretty much make up the bulk of the book, but a really good example is Frank Miceli’s essay “Education and Reality” which is included in the book. It doesn’t appear to be available anywhere else, so I’m tempted to scan it in and make it available here.

What is more interesting for me is to compare these ideas, written well before I was born, to the schooling that I have received over the past 20 years. And I find that my first ten years of school did heed much of this advice quite well, and I guess I have my wonderful grade school teacher to thank for that.

But after that, as I went through high school (Gymnasium) and my first years at university, I can see what I didn’t realize at the time: All of the good skills that I had learned asking questions, wondering and engaging with what interested me slowly withered while my head filled with facts that I couldn’t place or find good use for, yet I was told would be relevant for me to learn (as I wouldn’t be the best judge of that?)

Slowly I resurfaced. Found my own way and learned stuff that interested me, though often in spite of my teachers rather than because of them. And now, as I embark on my thesis, I feel like I’m back where I started with my advisor asking me to only focus on the stuff that really interests me, asking me hard questions and not offering any closure. Asking for my anthropological reflections to be my guide.

And I’ve missed it. That honest interest in me. In what I want to do. Not that impersonal distance of “I am just here to present the facts. I can’t make you learn it” as if you can separate the activity of “teaching” from the students “learning”.

It’s funny to see now, that many of the ideas that Postman and Weingartner suggested now have been integrated into the big Danish high school reform that was initiated last year. Now, 10 years after I began high school, my little brother is in his first year there, experiencing the reform first hand with all of its many inter-subject projects and redefined subjects. And he does work very hard at it, learning German, maths and all the other relevant things on offer.

And while what is learned may be much the same as before, the teachers feel overworked, stressed and haunted by bureaucracy, trying to adjust to the new inter-disciplinary projects and the new wide-open directions each lesson suddenly can take as the students ask unexpected questions. In a recent opinion piece in the Danish newspaper Politiken, four high school teachers illustrate some of these issues.

For instance how students are unable to learn new languages such as Spanish, French or Italian at any decent level because of the new inter-disciplinary project courses which take up to 6 weeks where the students won’t receive any language training and most likely will forget most of what they’ve learned already, forcing the teacher to start over with refreshing and rehashing old lessons before moving on.

Or for instance how the new Antiquity Studies subject (which deals with “long and short lines of European culture”) now allows connecting Plato with American Psycho or relating Woody Allen’s Match Point with Sophocles’ King Oedipus which puts such a strain on the teacher to familiarize himself with more than 2500 years of history in order to confidently draw such parallels.

These concerns are genuine, and shows that many of these high school teachers simply aren’t prepared for such a reform as advocated by Postman and Weingartner and to some degree implemented by the Danish Ministry of Education.

The central idea behind this is that it should be the concerns, interests and ideas of the students that should be central to the education, not the whatever curriculum the individual teacher has decided upon beforehand.

Most of the people I know from university can’t remember much of their beginner language from high school, mostly because they learned it, but never since have had active need for it. A high school language teacher should seize the opportunity to make intensive inter-disciplinary language courses, ending up with a field trip to a country where that language is actually spoken so that the students can become interested and make actual use of it.

No student would expect their teacher to know all of 2500 years of history by heart. But that is also beside the point. The Inquiry Method is based on the teacher and the students learning together. There is no need to have all the answers beforehand. Most people in real life don’t – why should teachers be any different?

The central problem seems to be that most high school teachers (and generally all university teachers) are deeply in love with their own subject and their own interests which makes it extremely difficult for them to engage themselves in what might interest their students. To teach is no longer simply to dispense facts on your favourite subject, but to go on a journey of discovery and to learn with your students.

Perhaps most importantly, teachers will have to do away with idea that students can’t teach them anything. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The secret of education lies in respecting the pupil.”