Excursions Of A Bibliophile

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Sculpting a Beautiful Mind – Rejuvenation via Re-education

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on June 19, 2012

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it – Aristotle

Another brilliant mind ruined by higher education” was the screaming yellow pin up badge that I encountered on the first day of walking into the cubicle of my mentor on my first job. At that time I could not make out if he was being silly or prescient. By any measure he was one of the most well educated citizens of India, having his bachelors and masters degrees bestowed on him by two of India’s finest institutions. Eighteen years later and given my own experience, I cannot but concede some ground to the hidden truth in the statement I had read then. Well, “ruined” is a harsh verdict. “Incomplete” “Misdirected” or “Inappropriate” could be better characterizations

For a while now, I have been feeling a visceral need for re-educating myself. A complete overhaul of sorts without upsetting what I have already learnt.  This time around I would want education to be on my terms: at a time, place and pace of my choice, containing content that gives me joy, broadening my horizons in ways that have not been done before and above all waking in me the once fascinated and curious child who has long gone into a deep slumber. I want my education to be eclectic, chosen from fields that are diverse, emergent, relevant, wisdom giving and far removed from any material motives. In other words, it has to be education as an end in itself.  From the place, circumstances and time where I came from, my first round of education was largely mercenary. My perceived skills and felicity with academic subjects were matched with those career choices which maximized my chances for improved livelihood and material well-being. This livelihood centric focus persisted till I completed my education

Now, I want my education to have a completely different orientation. I want it to help me explore vistas which I have never seen before. Knowledge, as we all know is intoxicating and liberating. The more I have it, the more I want it in an endless cycle. However, I have always preferred to accumulate my knowledge in a semi-structured and partially guided mode. Autodidactism is not my cup of tea. While the joys and advantages of gathering knowledge in an unstructured fashion are immense, the single biggest disadvantage is its time consuming nature and that is a luxury that I cannot afford. I need the help of a teacher to set the ball rolling with the big picture and help me build momentum. Once done, I chug along quite well with diligence and focus. Till about last year, there was a sense of despair that I will not be able to fulfill my dreams of re-education. But it looks like all that is set to change – thanks to internet and the growing crop of open source education initiatives.

Two professors at Stanford viz. Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng along with a couple of venture capital funds in collaboration with Stanford, Princeton, Penn and University of Michigan have launched an open source initiative called Coursera.org where courses from diverse fields are offered on a technology platform with free access to the audio, video and references to exhaustive reading material. This will have to be followed with self-study and evaluation tests with no attendant fear of grades and failing. The objective is to enhance the understanding and familiarity in chosen subject/s and explore it in a way that is not regimented. Self-discipline is of essence

Coursera is offering a growing cornucopia of interesting courses which I believe that money cannot afford to buy – at least in my parts of the world.  As a first shot at re-educating myself, I have opted for the following courses:

  • Greek and Roman Mythology
  • A History of the World since 1300
  • Modern and Contemporary American Poetry
  • Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World
  • Introduction to Genome Science
  • Listening to World Music

There is a method to madness in the choice of my courses and all of them I believe will open new horizons for my mind. Greek and Roman mythology while being enjoyable on its own will create a much needed context for the understanding and enjoying classical poetry. The course on American poetry will introduce me to the likes of Emily Dickenson, Whitman and other American greats, History of the world since 1300 will expose me to the seminal events that define modern man’s progress. To look back on the turbulent journey of humans over a period of 700+ years must definitely be a sobering feeling and all education while enriching should also be sobering. At some level, all writing is exploration and sense making both by writers and readers. The course on fantasy and science fiction in the context of modern world will hopefully expand my awareness of this sense making. The famous biologist E.O.Wilson once said the following:

The twenty-first century is going to be the century of the environment worldwide. And in science, it is going to be the century of biology

Over the last 5 decades there have been some dazzling developments in the field of biology and I have always burned with this silent desire to get know these developments in a greater detail. The small course on Genome science hopefully will be my first step. And lastly, there is an interesting essay that I read recently from Lewis Thomas’s wonderful book “The Lives of a CellNotes of a Biology Watcher” where the author speculates on what should be the most appropriate material that humans should send to extra-terrestrial life as an introduction to our species and then suggests the following in his inimitable style:

 “…. perhaps the safest thing to do at the outset, if technology permits, is to send music. This language may be the best we have for explaining what we are like to others in space, with least ambiguity. I would vote for Bach, all of Bach, streamed out into space, over and over again. We would be bragging of course, but it is surely excusable for us to put the best possible face on at the beginning of such an acquaintance. We can tell the harder truths later”

Music fascinates me for its ability to transcend cultural barriers and offer a joy which is personal in ways that are unthinkable. Yet music is not static. Musical elements get borrowed from one culture into another. The course on Listening to World Music attempts to explore some of these aspects of world music and it would be interesting would to make myself aware of these things.

Half a dozen courses of great diversity, import and intellectual octane should go a long way in sculpting a beautiful mind and this to me is rejuvenation via re-education

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