Thursday, January 28, 2010

Learning to be better humans

I occasionally present at new hire orientation for my company, so I had some "presentation training" today and yesterday. What was interesting is that the training wasn't just about the obvious (don't cross your arms, make eye contact, don't pee your pants), but it was also about how to structure your presentation to make the desired impact. In particular, one of the consultant's models was about how the audience must go through phases (like the popularized phases of grief, but with less dying).

"know," where the audience is gaining facts, context and background.
"Understand" where the audience is allowed to draw limited conclusions
"Believe" where the audience is aligning with your argument
"Endorse" where you've converted the audience into advocates for your cause

It's an interesting system of viewing a presentation, especially when realizing that you must go in order and don't want to be pushing for the audience to believe your conclusions before you've given them a chance to know the background and understand the arguments. But I'm not really interested in writing too much about this particular methodology.

Instead I'm going to write about what it represents. This method of viewing presentations or rather arguments in general I find to be useful in everyday life. In fact, the basic building blocks of how to interact with others in our society seems amazingly lacking. I can't even find the right word for it. There are many related topics: debate, rhetoric, advertising to name a few. And I think we can all acknowledge how important these things are in our lives. It seems odd to me that the main manifestation for the teaching of all these seemingly core skills seems to be self-help books, management training, and talk show hosts.

At the same time, there seems to be a trend towards pushing math and sciences in primary education. Now I must admit that I am an engineer and highly value technology and progress. However, it appears to me that our society as a whole may be developing our industry to be technically advanced while our population remains analytically and rhetorically primitive.

I imagine that someone living 3000 years ago is genetically not much different than someone living now. And yet our lives are completely different, not just in the societies we live in, but the way we think, and particularly the way we interact. As our technology grows, and our tools become more powerful, I think it's important that we also progress in our ability to interact with each other, to understand difficult societal problems and work together. Basically, I think our technological growth is far outpacing our societal growth.

Most of our large problems are not technology problems but societal problems. Poverty. racism, wars, and even environmental problems are not technology problems. The political quagmire is not from a lack of computational power but from a structural failure to be able to make and enact good decisions. Imagine a population of well-educated, well-spoken, analytically proficient citizens, able to act as a populist-driven democracy. Imagine a world where the masses were not swayed by the campaigning of the few that wield power. OK, this is getting a little heavy for a short blog. Suffice to say, it would be interesting to examine the goal of primary education in the world.

Much of our educational curriculum is evolved. There are things that are necessary, vocational education such as learning how to make change for a dollar. And at higher levels, this translates into math and science where many of the jobs will be. However, how about training on how to be a citizen of this country? How do we learn to be better humans? Don't we all need to progress to some higher state of understanding? Or are we still just apes with cooler toys?

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