By , August 14, 2022 1:39 pm

“21 Lessons for the 21st Century” by Yuval Noah Harari, published in 2018, offers an interesting take on the current world even though it was written pre-pandemic. It’s supposed to be about the future but I don’t take it that way since we are living in the future according to when the book was written.

I don’t want anyone to think this is a self-help book, or one of those Jordan Peterson type guides to understanding the world. I don’t read such things. It’s a very thoughtful book written by a left-leaning history professor/public intellectual (a catchall term if ever there were one) with a deep interest in the effect of living in such a changing, global world. As for its purpose, I still can’t discern that even after finishing it. Not necessarily a bad thing.

Sometimes when you live in a fishbowl (the world) you have a hard time seeing the water. This means you don’t realize what’s around you on a daily basis. I feel that Harari’s role is to make the fishbowl visible. He describes the world as incredibly complex and constantly changing. He is critical, sarcastic, blunt. Sometimes he goes on weird tangents, as in the last bit of the book where he goes on about meditation. It was above my head, for sure. But there were a lot of chapters I thoroughly enjoyed, such as his critiques of religion (a human invention) and nationalism (another story humans tell themselves to simplify the world through focus on their country’s excellence.)

I particularly enjoyed the chapter on secularism. As an atheist (a term he did not use), I was curious to see what he’d say about secularism. Not that I don’t know the definition of the word – it’s actually one of the driving concepts in my unphilosophical life. Rather, I wanted to know what his critique would be. Harari (who I’d assume is a secularist) identifies the main preoccupations of secularism as ‘commitment to the truth’, lack of obsession with “any group, person, or book as if it and it alone has sole custody of the truth”, ‘compassion’, ‘equality’. ‘freedom’, ability to doubt and admit ignorance, and finally ‘responsibility’ – that humans care about what is wrong and want to make it better, actively, without invoking some kind of deity. Ironically, his criticism of these ideals is that they’re too idealistic for the needs of the world and can default into the creation of emotion-based stories rather than realities, like any other movement. He calls this the ‘shadow’ of secularism. I will take one for the team and accept that fault.

My favourite quote from the book might be my hook for grade 12 history class this coming school year: “Human stupidity is one of the most important forces in history, yet we often tend to discount it.” This pearl of wisdom comes in the chapter on war. He follows it up with “…even rational leaders frequently end up doing very stupid things.” I love it! So true. And hard to convey in history class when students want to understand why people do things.

For the Careers class I must teach this coming year, I will refer to the chapter entitled “Education” in the part of the book called, interestingly, “Resilience.” Here his premise is that the world is changing so quickly we teachers won’t even know what our students’ futures will be like. I often think about the paradox of me teaching careers class; I’ve been in the same career for 24 years, overridingly at the same workplace, too. Here’s a relevant passage: “In such a [information saturated] world, the last thing a teacher needs to give her pupils is more information. They already have far too much of it. Instead, people need the ability to make sense of information, to tell the difference between what is important and what is unimportant, and above all to combine many bits of information into a broad picture of the world.” I sincerely hope that is what I do, or at least try to do, as a teacher. Later in the chapter he thinks “schools should downplay technical skills and emphasize general-purpose life skills. Most important of all will be the ability to deal with change, learn new things, and preserve your mental balance in unfamiliar situations. In order to keep up with the world of 2050, you will need not merely to invent new ideas and products but above all to reinvent yourself again and again.”

Me teaching the inventing part? I’m not sure about that, but I can definitely help with the life skills part. I don’t hate the Careers curriculum, and it overlaps a lot with the GLS (learning strategies) curriculum that is one of my mainstays in student success. We’ll see how I do offering guidance for the future.

On the whole “21” is a really interesting read with a few weird bits about science fiction and meditation thrown in. It proves to me that the pandemic is not adding new problems to society; it’s just elaborating on ones we already faced. Sadly, we’re not getting better at coming up with long-term solutions.

Next up? I may check out one of Val’s previous recommendations, “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman.

A Tiny Provincial Park

By , August 5, 2022 8:03 pm

Mark S. Burnham in Douro, just outside Peterborough, is the smallest provincial park I’ve ever seen (not that I’ve seen that many). It has no staff, just paid parking.

We went on a very hot day and were met with a very cool forest. Unfortunately, the trail was blocked off at a certain point as they are still cleaning up from the wind storm in May. It feels pretentious to call it ‘derecho’ but I will.

At the entrance it says that the land was owned by the Burnham family who never cleared their land. Therefore, what you see is what the land might have looked like over a hundred years ago, probably more. The sign also says to look up as some trees have their ages on them from sometime before 1975. I’m guessing that’s when the land passed to the province? We only saw one such sign near the entrance to the trail. When I started taking pictures I didn’t notice that I had the camera set to “illustrated” mode. So here’s a kind of funny take on that tree. And then the actual sign.

Actually, the land came to be a provincial park in the 1950s. Here’s what its management plan says about its history: “This land was donated to the Province of Ontario in the1950’s, by the descendants of the Honourable Zaccheus Burnham, a judge from the Town of Cobourg, who originally acquired the land in the 1830’s. From the 1830’s to present day, the woodlot has not been substantially disturbed, except for the removal of fuelwood for the needs of the Burnham family.” (Source)

Even though the park is just off Highway 7 with quite a lot of passing traffic, including lots of trucks, I didn’t mind the sound: reminds me of walking in the Don Valley where you are usually not far from the DVP. It does not take away from the experience of nature, in my opinion.

There are a lot of trees down in this park, and a lot of signs down, too. So I don’t know what the signs said. The one sign still readable was at the start and it said to watch for woodpeckers. I didn’t see any but here’s some evidence that they’re present!

It’s a lovely small park, very accessible. I look forward to going back when the trails are cleared.

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After visiting Mark S. Burnham we drove around in Peterborough, including on Ashburnham and Burnham. I must look into these Burnhams more. One funny thing: the locals apparently call the park Burnham Woods. That’s a nice little play on Birnam Wood in Macbeth. I don’t know if that’s intentional, or not.

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