The Internet Renaissance
or, A Personal Discourse on Education
So this letter is going to be a bit meandering, with my observations and experiences mixed in with information gleaned from YouTube videos and a few dives into internet rabbit holes. I do not in any way, shape, or form claim to be an authority on education, whether in theory or practice but these are some thoughts I’ve had on the subject that I’d like to share and bring to your attention in the hopes that you also give it some thought. While I’ll try to stick to facts and make appropriate references, I also didn’t want to get bogged down in extensive research which will ultimately eat into my time and make me second guess myself enough that this newsletter may simply not happen. This is not going to be peer-reviewed, thank goodness.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get into it. From the title, you probably have an idea of at least a couple of the things I’ll be discussing. Firstly, the Renaissance. While we were not exceptionally well-off, my parents did their best to keep me well informed and engaged by buying me a great many books. As such, my first encounter with the word Renaissance was probably in one of two books my father got me: A book on the Evolution of Flight and another that was a general overview of inventions and scientific discoveries in (mostly Western) history. In both books, Leonardo da Vinci made an appearance because in addition to being a renowned artist, he was also an inventor and one of his more notable inventions was an early prototype for the helicopter:
Leonard da Vinci’s sketch of an “Aerial Screw”, a prototype of the modern-day helicopter (Credit: Wikipedia Commons)
Also, while I most clearly remember the Baroque period from my earliest music classes in secondary school, the Renaissance was also an important period in music history, in which the harpsichord (an early ancestor of the piano) and the violin family of stringed instruments were invented.
The Renaissance is not an exact period in history, but rather a timeline of connected changes/movements in the prevalent schools of thought in art, science, and philosophy, which took place between the 14th and 17th centuries. It was birthed in Europe after the Middle Ages, which were characterised by the aftermath of the fall of the Roman Empire which included plagues, wars, and a general sense of despondency for which they were sometimes referred to as the Dark Ages. The Catholic Church was the primary seat of power and influence in the Middle Ages but several incidents, such as the schism in the Church due to the Martin Luther-led Reformation, the fall of the greatly diminished Christian Byzantine Empire at the hands of the Islamic Ottoman Empire and the Bubonic Plague decimating the European population, led to medieval people questioning the authority of the church which emphasised piety and the afterlife over the actual condition of those still living.
As scholars fled the conquered Byzantine Empire and arrived in “mainland” Europe (primarily into the city-states that make up modern-day Italy) with many classical Greek and Roman texts, they met and contributed to a shifting zeitgeist where the emphasis was increasingly being placed on the role of man in nature as an active participant in his fate, as opposed to being entirely subject to “God’s plan” as interpreted by the Catholic Church. This new school of thought came to be known as Humanism and was heavily influenced by the works of classical philosophers, such as Plato, Virgil, Cicero, Epicurus, etc., which had been (re)discovered by scholars like Petrarch, who were concerned with the intellectual “darkness” of the Middle Ages and longed for Man to return to the “pure radiance” he had during classical antiquity.
The invention of the printing press by Gutenberg and the introduction of both original and interpreted literary works in everyday languages, as opposed to only the immensely formal Latin of the aristocracy, meant more people had access to information and scholarship. Additionally, increased contact with the rest of the world as a result of the Crusades in Asia, trade with Islamic states and trans-Atlantic trade led to the emergence of a middle class in cities such as Venice, Genoa and Florence as many families amassed wealth from commerce. Families such as the Medicis of Florence sought to legitimise their wealth and establish their social dominance by the patronage of the arts. They commissioned great paintings, sculptures and even architecture, with many of the most well-known artists of the time such as da Vinci and Michelangelo being recipients of patronage from the Medicis.
This is where things get interesting and less like a Wikipedia page on the Renaissance (which I thought to give an overview of here rather than directing you elsewhere. You’re welcome). In my dives for this letter, I discovered something intriguing about the Renaissance. While conversant with the concept of the Renaissance Man, — which is based on the Renaissance concept of the Uomo Universale or “Universal Man” — I did not realize that such individuals, e.g. da Vinci, were not entirely the product of some sort of individual excellence. Instead, they were as much the result of deliberate planning and intentional policy decisions based on the core tenets of Humanism, as they were exceptional talents.
Nowadays, it seems most people think of philosophy as dusty writings and quotable quotes from long-dead men who had entirely too much time on their hands. However, during the Renaissance, Humanism had a real, tangible effect on the actions and lives of people, even if those effects were somewhat confined to the affluent. If we take a look at say.. the Medicis, who were more or less Florence’s ruling family at the time, we see they made deliberate decisions on how to spend their money, conduct their business, and develop their city based on humanist ideals. In the employ of the family was one of the more significant contributors to Humanism, Marsilio Ficino, who believed in the concept of “Platonic Love”; which at the time, based on Marsilio’s interpretation of Plato’s works, referred to loving as the process by which one works to attain a state of enlightenment through the appreciation of beauty.
This guiding philosophy was imparted to the artists who benefitted from the Medicis’ patronage so that even as they created works that are still regarded as masterpieces today, they did so intending to guide those attracted by their beauty to deeper contemplation on say Man’s place in the natural order:
or the nature of virtue. The Medicis also extended their patronage beyond art into areas such as science as they were also patrons of Galileo Galilei, a famed astronomer, physicist, and engineer who tutored the Medici children, and even architecture as they commissioned several plazas and chapels in Florence and other structures elsewhere on the Italian peninsula. In all of this, the Medicis were deliberate in their efforts to create a cohesive sense of idealism, duty, and pride in their citizenry through the use of art in something like a Renaissance public education campaign.
Now, as I said before, I’m no expert on education so when I gained this insight into Renaissance “civic” education, I decided to do a little more digging into the history of formal (Western) education itself. I won’t go into as much detail here as I did with the Renaissance but it suffices to say that even as the Renaissance was ongoing and great leaps in knowledge were being made, the great majority of people were unaware of these developments. Most people did not have access to a curriculum or any form of formal schooling and were instead being subjected to heinous conditions as slaves and serfs. Children, in particular, were being treated cruelly to make them so afraid that they were obedient and worked hard and long for little to no reward. Children’s education had morphed from play and exploration in the time of the hunter-gatherers to drudgery and hard manual labour due to the advent of agriculture.
So it looks like there are 2 concurrent timelines of education, one for the affluent and the other for everyone else, that started to converge sometime around the 1st Industrial Revolution. As the idea of universal, compulsory education began to take root, everyone seemed to have their agenda of what they deemed appropriate education:
Religious leaders saw education as a way of “training up children in the way they should go” according to scripture and indoctrinating the general public into their way of life.
Industrialists saw education as a way to train workers, by acclimatising them to long hours of dull, repetitive work and providing them with just enough knowledge to enable them to carry out instructions properly.
Governments saw education as a way of disseminating nationalist ideals, cultivating patriotism, and churning out good, loyal soldiers.
Occasionally, the odd educational Reformer would arise who seemed to truly want to provide children with the moral and intellectual foundation needed to develop into upstanding, competent adults. Alas, even they often had an agenda of what they deemed necessary to build such a foundation e.g. moral lessons and disciplines, such as Latin and mathematics, that would exercise the children’s minds and turn them into scholars.
Regardless of their motives, all the “educators” had this in common: They saw schooling as Inculcation, i.e. the implanting of certain truths and ways of thinking into children's minds. The only known method of inculcation is forced repetition and testing for recollection of what was repeated. As such, the desires of the children themselves were disregarded and neglected, with their instincts to learn via play being repressed and punished by regimented and proscriptive schooling. As a result, we have had generation upon generation of children growing up to be deeply flawed adults who see learning less as an opportunity for growth and more as an avenue to continue to perpetuate existing power dynamics, be they social, economic, or political, etc.
Bringing us to the modern-day, 5 centuries hence, we see that not only does education as it currently exists fail to prepare us for full and fulfilling lives, but it is also especially ill-equipped to prepare us for life in the Internet age as we rapidly advance into what might be the 5th Industrial Revolution. I saw a question on my Twitter timeline the other day that was basically someone asking if people would rather have
Most of the responses asserted that robust systems were the better option, but one responder made an interesting proposition: That a cycle of robust systems and exceptional individuals is needed to keep said system sustainable, and not just sustainable, but continually improving with the individuals serving as sort of servicemen for the system, and helping it iterate.
Currently, if we were to look at the general state of things through this cyclic view, it would appear we are in a period where the system is broken, and as such, exceptional individuals who prevail in spite of it are the norm. This would mean that at this point in history, we are uniquely positioned to utilise these exceptional people to help revamp and recalibrate the system so that it functions robustly. Looking back at the Rennaisance, it would appear the time is ripe for those with a clear vision to undertake the mission of recalibration, using the best and brightest amongst us at this time to inspire and create a system that works to the greatest good of now and the near future.
Much ado is currently made of the Creator Economy and how people are learning all sorts of skills online that they use mainly to support themselves financially. As a result, there are many products and much content being made at any given time, both commercially and as passion projects. Platforms like Substack, Patreon, and Kickstarter try to help artists, writers, musicians, and other creators earn money by creating and catering to a community. Alas, these tiny pockets of exceptionality do not move the needle on the scale that would truly help us create a robust system that benefits the greater majority of people. Much is made of Outliers, but a system that relies on the existence of Outliers is no system at all.
I think I’ll wrap things up here and leave you with this: Systems that work do not just happen, as much as the universe tends towards entropy, so also do human systems tend towards disarray. We need to make a deliberate, sustained effort to create a world that is more equitable and allows for as many people as possible to fulfill their potential and self-actualise. Thank you for sticking with me to the end, and I hope I have been able to make you curious and motivated enough to consider how you might contribute to creating a robust system of things.
Until next time, Peace and Aerial Gears.