Posts Tagged ‘Mark Twain’

A Free ‘College Education’ on Your Computer Screen

April 21, 2009

Farnsworth invented electronic TV as a 14 plowboy

Farnsworth invented electronic TV as a 14-year-old plowboy

I twice had the pleasure of meeting the widow of Philo Farnsworth, the man who had envisioned electronic television while plowing an Idaho potato field as a boy of 14. No kidding!

His widow’s name was Elma, but she went by ‘Pem.’ When I met her, circa 1990, Pem had completed the first book-length biography of Philo called Distant Vision.

It’s an interesting read, especially the part about Philo programming his first TV station, W3XPF in Philadelphia. Farnsworth… who received precious little formal education after high school… was racing against the ruthless General David Sarnoff, head of RCA, to prove the concept of television by actually programming a station. Farnsworth had conceived of television as a kind of ultimate educator, a technology custom fit to bless the lives of humanity.

The word ‘television’ was invented well before there were any channels to change and Farnsworth’s philosophical determinism on the topic was common among the television pioneers. Several years before he’d founded RCA and decades before the advent of TV, Sarnoff himself circulated a memo to friends in which he wrote: “I believe that television… is the ultimate and greatest step in mass communications.”

Farnsworth began broadcasting on W3XPF in January 1937 in Philadelphia, about six months after RCA started experimental broadcasting in New York City. RCA’s first TV broadcast had singing acts, a dramatic reading from a Broadway actor, and a performance from three ballet dancers. Farnsworth made an abortive attempt at televising educational lectures before following RCA’s lead into entertainment.

Farnsworth’s electronic television, he found to his dismay, seemed to demand something not only livelier but shallower than education for the masses.

In short order W3XPF was producing a mix of orchestral music and singers, variety and novelty acts like ‘Baby Dolores,’ a 4-year-old singer/dancer. RCA demonstrated electronic television at the 1938 World’s Fair in New York. Then WWII broke out and everyone who was once a television specialist was now a radar specialist, Farnsworth included. Television as the great educator of the people fell through the cracks for decades.

In retrospect it’s easy to understand why television as an educator didn’t fly in the earliest days of the medium. Really gifted lecturers are rare. Compelling educational TV can be made today, but producing it can be expensive and requires technology and pedagogical approaches that were decades away in 1937. And then there’s the issue of exactly what to program. Videotape wasn’t invented until the 1950s. Until then all TV aired live. Even in 1937 a university might offer hundreds of different courses. But which one to televise?

You might also blame anti-intellectualism among the American populace, but I reject that argument. Beginning in the 1830s a broad swath of Americans embraced a rising tide of informal adult education. Lecturers would tour the cities and the backcountry talking about the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, philosophy, religion, languages, the evils of liquor and tobacco, and more.

Mark Twain made a good living as a lecturer before enjoying fame as a writer. And in the century before movies and television, people in smaller burgs especially had few of the outside diversions we enjoy today. Back then, education was entertainment.

Consider the Lincoln-Douglas debates. People would watch the debates for several hours, break for lunch then come back, break for dinner, and then come back again for a third session. If there really ever was such a thing as ‘American Exceptionalism,’ some part of the explanation must be owed to our historical propensity for self-improvement.

Now benefiting from the long tail made possible by digital content and inexpensive storage, Farnsworth’s dream has come true. Only the TV is on your computer or even your phone.

Since March 26, 2009 YouTube has offered a broad aggregation of videos from the nation’s accredited 2-year and 4-year colleges and universities, all free. The project was undertaken by a tribe of volunteer YouTubies.

Philo Farsnworth, self-taught  genius, would have loved it.

[Check this sample clip featuring Elizabeth Barrett-Connor, MD from the University of California San Diego. She lectures on the topic of the apparent relationship between obesity and Alzheimer’s disease. As she takes pains to point out, no causation has yet been proven.]

Knowledge as a Goal of Informal Learning

June 18, 2008

I\'m a Serious Shakespearean Actor Dammit, Why Do I Have to Wear this Ridiculous Getup?“Far too many people—especially people with great expertise in one area—are contemptuous of knowledge in other areas or believe that being bright is a substitute for knowledge.” Peter Drucker


One of the great fictions of modern American educulture is that it’s enough to know how to learn. That the purpose of education isn’t to ‘memorize meaningless facts’… that’s what the Internet’s for, after all… but to learn how to learn.


In such a paradigm who cares what Metternich said about power or what the account in the Gilgamesh Epic says about the civilizing of Enkidu? Who wants to go to a party where people are talking about that kind of nonsense anyway?


But to everyone silently nodding their heads right now it pains me to say that Drucker is exactly right. Here’s why:


With wider knowledge comes the ability to express yourself more clearly. Remember what Twain said; the difference between a good word and the right word is the difference between a lightning bug and lightning. You get that power from informal learning,


Sometimes skills alone aren’t enough. E.D. Hirsch in his book The Knowledge Deficit recounts research among children who were good readers but with little subject knowledge versus kids were subject matter experts but with poor reading skills. The subject matter was baseball. The unsurprising result was that in tests of comprehension, kids with knowledge of baseball but poor reading skills outscored kids with good reading skills but no knowledge of baseball.


Knowledge helps you bridge cultural and socioeconomic gaps. Better than 53 percent of the world’s people are Christians, Muslims and Jews, or ‘Children of Abraham.’ That is, all three groups share a common affinity for the biblical patriarchs from Abraham on back. So if you’re a Christian and were in a room with a Muslim and shared nothing else in common, you could at least talk about Adam and Noah and Abraham. But only if both of you had knowledge of those subjects. And only if at least one of you knew about that common heritage.


It’s like that silly episode of Star Trek called Darmok (see the picture above), where Captain Piccard gets beamed down to a planet with Paul Winfield, who plays Dathon, an alien captain whose race speaks only in mythological metaphor. An actual line from the show is “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.” [Imagine ordering a burger using only metaphor. How would the pimply teen behind the counter ask you if you wanted fries and a Coke with that?]


Ridiculous as the premise of show was, the point is potent; metaphor is a powerful bridge. But only to the degree that all parties have knowledge of the metaphor.


And Captain Piccard began bridging the gap with Dathon when he told the story of Enkidu and Gilgamesh.


Knowledge also helps you cut through the crap. If you understand the first law of thermodynamics, you’ll never be persuaded to invest in a “perpetual motion” machine. If you understand the hallmarks of Ponzi schemes, you’ll never be bamboozled by one.


How do you obtain knowledge beyond your current ken? Well that’s simple, you keep learning. Informal learning is the answer. And you stretch yourself by adding knowledge that might not have appealed to you at an earlier age. Remember when you were younger and you didn’t like guacamole? Nowadays what’s a Super Bowl party without it?

And when you’re at that party and the commercials grow dull, add a little spice by dropping some Gilgamesh on them. Hey, it worked for Captain Jean Luc Piccard.

Informal Learning and The Learner’s Guild

April 30, 2008

More American adults will undertake some kind of informal learning this year than will attend all movies. More Americans will engage in some unofficial instructional endeavor than watched the last American Idol finale and the last Super Bowl. Americans love their entertainment but they’re almost hardwired with the desire to learn.


It’s a rich heritage. Benjamin Franklin was an autodidact… a self-taught student. So, too in large measure was Horace Mann, the famous educational reformer, who got his books from a small library Franklin himself had founded. As early as the 1830s the American backcountry was filled with teachers who toured the sticks teaching farmers and merchants topics both useful and arcane. Mark Twain started making his first real money not as a writer but as a lecturer in the 1860s. Later, facing bankruptcy, Twain returned to the lecture circuit to pay off his debts.


Nowadays according to the U.S. Department of Education 70 percent of Americans adults undertake some kind of informal learning each year… more than one and half times as many Americans who are enrolled in some kind of formal education or work training. Of those whose household income is greater than $75,000, 78 percent engage in informal learning. Among those with a graduate degree the number of informal learners is an astonishing 89 percent! Even the most educated among us realize that all education is self-education.


The high income and well educated understand that the power to understand ideas and express themselves clearly… which travels hand in hand with ongoing learning… correlates with almost any definition of success. Like the lab experiment that yields a reward every time the lever is pressed, the well-educated keep on pressing the education lever. And they do so consistently throughout all of life’s stages.


Yet informal learning almost flies under the radar. That’s because by its very nature informal learning is so broad as to defy easy categorization. Reading up on working with exotic woods is informal learning. So too is listening to language tapes or watching that documentary on penguins on the Discovery Network. Maybe there’s a goal in mind like improving your employability by learning a HTML. Or maybe you’re like Franklin and you learn just because you like to learn.


Into this comes, The Learner’s Guild.


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This is my third blog. My first is now inactive, but my second blog, on the subject of ’cause-related marketing’ currently ranks either number one or two and all the major search engines.