Saturday, August 16, 2008

what alan kay said about Universals / Non Universals

What Alan Kay said about his Universals / Non Universals slide at the EuroPython 2006 keynote (transcribed by me from source). I've started a new page on the learning evolves wiki whose purpose is to expand and elaborate further on the meanings and educational implications of the list of non universals. Being accurate about what Alan said seemed to be a good place to start.

  • social
  • language
  • communication
  • culture
  • fantasies
  • stories
  • tools and art
  • superstition
  • religion and magic
  • case based learning
  • theatre
  • play and games
  • differences over similarities
  • quick reactions to patterns
  • loud noises and snakes
  • supernormal responses
  • vendetta, and more (about 300 of these have been identified across cultures)
"In effect anthropologists have been studying humans for about a Century now and firstly 3000 human cultures seem to be very very different. Then they start realising that they seemed surprisingly parametric. Every culture had a language, every culture told stories ... (goes through some of the items on the Universals list)

If you look at these you can see our modern internet culture - it's basically social, it enables us to communicate in various ways and so forth, basically a story based culture"

  • reading and writing
  • deductive abstract mathematics
  • model based science
  • equal rights
  • democracy
  • perspective drawing
  • theory of harmony
  • similarities over differences
  • slow deep thinking
  • agriculture
  • legal systems
"What's interesting is to look for things that are not universal, that seems to have some importance as well. Most people have lived and died on this Earth for 100,000 years without reading and writing, without having deductive maths and model based science .... (goes through non universals list)

These are a little harder to learn than the ones on the left because we are not directly wired to learn them. These things are actually inventions which are difficult to invent. And the rise of Schools going all the way back to the Sumerian and Egyptian times came about to start helping children learn some of these things that aren't easy to learn. It can be argued that if you are trying to be utopian about education what we should be doing is helping the children of the world learn these hard to learn things. Equal rights is a really good one to help children learn. No culture in the world is particularly good at it."


Anonymous said...

The idea of universals and non-universals is quite appealing to me.

I have often thought that many of use get cuaght up in the rat race and end up taking jobs just becuase of the current trends in today's society. In my attempt to ask a non-controversial question to myself "Does society *really* need doctors [insert any profession here]?" I seem to always fall back to asking myself does that occupation appear in all the worthwhile civilizations and societies that I think know of.

Ultimately, it leads to a very similar concept as Universals, namely I prefer to have a job that is a Universal job: medicine, teaching, religion, parenting, etc

Anonymous said...

After reflecting on your article for a couple of days now, I have come to quite a different conclusion to the one I initially came to.

I now think that the 'safe' option for an occupation is one that represents the universals. However, if only really wants to contribute in a manner that could allow the civilization to significantly advance one should actively pursue advancing a non-universal attribute.

And if this were the case, then Equal Rights would certainly be a worthy choice ;)

Bill Kerr said...

hi martin,

Thanks for the clarification of your position. When I read your first comment I thought you had misinterpreted the article. Sorry, I should have said something earlier but have been busy recently. At any rate, I welcome your new position.

Of course, whatever we do would involve some mixture of both universals and non universals. How to mix or combine them in a way that is most educationally beneficial? As a teacher, that's the question that now often preoccupies my thoughts. In another place alan kay suggested that scientific thinking might be the best way to go here.

I'm hoping there might be more discussion about this here

Anonymous said...

I found Martin's comments interesting, because I've kind of been facing this in my career as a software developer. Programming requires some non-universal skills, which is one reason, I guess, the profession is smaller and less politically influential than other professions. I've reintroduced myself to some advanced technologies (in the computer science sense) in the last couple of years, and I really like them, and I think they could really help improve productivity and design. They are used hardly at all in the software/IT industry, and I think it's primarily because they are poorly understood. It's more difficult to find work using them, but all the same I think they are worth pursuing. The ideas Kay has talked about in relation to these technologies has been very inspiring to me. He talks about them in the context of advancing civilization. So I agree with Martin that while it's worthwhile to pursue these ideas, it's a challenge to do so, because it's a) rare to find people who understand these ideas, and b) it's difficult for most people to understand these ideas, much less the significance of them, because of their (poor/average) educational background. Most dismiss this stuff as either too hard to understand, or if they grasp some aspects of it dismiss it as "a solution looking for a problem". I've come to realize that this is what trying to advance civilization is like. It takes on the appearance of trying to solve a problem that doesn't exist yet. All too often though the problems DO exist, it's just that most have become so accustomed to them, taking them on as givens, that they don't see that they can be alleviated. At least here in the U.S. (perhaps this is universal) civilization has a tendency to justify its own existence, that "this is just the way things are". Saying, "No, it can be better" is a hard one for most people to grasp, without them thinking you're an impractical "dreamer" who's going to get nowhere fast.

Bill Kerr said...

"I've come to realize that this is what trying to advance civilization is like. It takes on the appearance of trying to solve a problem that doesn't exist yet. All too often though the problems DO exist, it's just that most have become so accustomed to them, taking them on as givens, that they don't see that they can be alleviated ... civilization has a tendency to justify its own existence, that "this is just the way things are". Saying, "No, it can be better" is a hard one for most people to grasp, without them thinking you're an impractical "dreamer" who's going to get nowhere fast"

Well said Mark. I get the feeling that those who like the idea of "inventing the future" tend to congregate in rather small and sometimes modest communities and spend a fair bit of energy just keeping the candles burning, the smalltalk community being one of these.

How to grow the leading edge? Difficult.

Anonymous said...


There are advancements, but I guess the reason the ones that really take hold are only incremental is they fit the "better mousetrap" scheme. Here in the U.S. we have this saying about creating opportunities for yourself, "Create a better mousetrap", ie. invent something of practical/pragmatic value. A lot of entreprenuerialism is based on this. It's instrumental reasoning, where the solution fits a problem that people can immediately recognize. There are occasionally inventions that come to market that have a sophistication I can recognize. They are head and shoulders above other devices in their category.

I think I've told you this before that I have a feeling what's going on in some cases is there are smart, well educated people, who have a good grasp of our cultural heritage and/or the non-universals, and they use that knowledge to create works that consumers gravitate towards. What they create does not outwardly demand that the audience or user understand our culture to a great degree, or understand the non-universals. These "secrets" are inside the creation, giving it its uniqueness and power, but outwardly it appeals to people largely in terms of the universals.

So it seems to me what our society tends to do is recognize the fact that there are a relative few who know about and care to do the work to grasp and use the powerful ideas of our civilization, tells them that they are very valuable as creators of consumer products (artifacts that appeal to the universals), and brings them into research and development positions, or hires them as writers and producers. They develop the products that the rest of society can relate to and consume. In effect it perpetuates a multi-tiered society.

Though he hasn't come out and said it, I gather what Kay would like to see is for all children to learn the non-universals, the inventions of our culture, not just a select group.

There are many in our society who like it the way it is (multi-tiered), many of them among our least educated. You talked about it once, the students who say, "I'm not going to learn from you". They identify with a particular working class of society, and see the lifestyles and knowledge of people from other classes as "other" and suspect, and they shun it. I used to hear about it in school, and I still hear about its effects. When a childhood friend of mine went to jr. high school he began to be concerned about acceptance from his peers. He wanted to be "cool". One of the conditions of that, along with wearing the right fashions, was not being smart. Even though he was bright, and was capable of getting good grades, he deliberately neglected or messed up his own work in order to get "average" or "below average" grades. This gained him the social acceptance he wanted. Eventually his mother found out about this and set him straight, telling him she wanted him to show his intelligence in all the work he did, regardless of the social consequences. After that he stopped sabotaging his own work. I remember being shocked to learn about this, because I didn't have that kind of peer pressure. In fact when I got to high school it was the opposite. There was peer pressure to do well.

Perhaps one of the problems is that the teachers don't know why what they're teaching is important. They just know that it is important, because that's what society tells them. I remember when I took algebra a question our teacher frequently got asked was "How does X relate to something in the real world?" What the students were really asking was, "Why do I need to learn this beyond just satisfying some authority's fetish with mathematics?" I remember my teacher kind struggled with the question. He came up with some answers to it, though I don't remember exactly what they were. I think they had to do with engineering problems. As I've discussed the importance of mathematics with others I've come to discover that giving examples like this is pretty weak, because a student can just say, "Well I don't plan on doing that. So I don't need to learn it." They'll become another one of those people who say, "I was taught the quadratic equation, and I've never used it again." I remember in one of your posts you referred to a math professor who said that the point, for example, was not to learn the quadratic equation, but to learn to think. I think it's safe to say that for most math teachers in public schools, even good ones, this doesn't occur to them. Further, the mathematics curriculum doesn't communicate this idea well either. In some math classes I had they were good about doing proofs, but in others they just presented math theorems in rote fashion. In most of them there was no sense of viewing math in a larger context beyond itself. The best my algebra teacher could do to expand on it was think in terms of certain careers, which come to think of it falls right into promoting a multi-tiered society. Students pick up on this cue, and they decide for themselves, "This is pointless. I'm not going for that. I'm going to stay in the social strata my parents are in," or something of that sort.

I wonder, when students question the point of mathematics, for example, if they were shown how it's to their advantage to learn this way of thinking, not in terms of career, but in terms of perceiving things better, then they wouldn't worry about the multi-tiered society stuff. They could just say to themselves, "This will make me a better thinker." Just speculating, but perhaps if mathematics was actually taught in a coherent fashion that the students could relate to the question wouldn't even come up, because the answer would be obvious.