Greg Jones

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Is a classical education, a prerequisite for innovation?

Is a classical education, a prerequisite for successful, meaningful, or useful innovation? Or does it only apply to certain narrow forms of innovation, or not at all? Can literally anyone have a piece of the so called American dream, or does it require years of classical education?

  • Dec 18 2013: The answer is yes and no.
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    Dec 16 2013: As an old professor, the answer is clearly no. Innovation is the result of inspiration and perspiration. But I have known many very rich and innovative people who couldn't form a coherent sentence. A good "liberal arts" or classical education will make a person well rounded, more worldly, and, frankly, more interesting. Not much more.

    I must point out, however, innovation often builds on existing technology. Without the knowledge of that technology innovation fails. If I could have handed Ben Franklin a cell phone, do we suppose he could have built another by the end of his life? No, all of the technology of that device is built on technology previously innovated by some one else. Without a knowledge of that previous innovation the next step becomes impossible. Finally, I would point out that universities are where we keep that knowledge to pass on to others.
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      Dec 17 2013: You certainly convey your own valuable experience, with this wisely worded reply, thanks for taking the time to join my debate.
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      Dec 17 2013: Thanks Greg for this great question...

      Jim Guild, While I agree with your initial statements regarding innovation and inspiration building through synthesis, I would challenge your your last statement regarding Universities keeping and passing on knowledge.which implies wisdom too.

      On balance, what universities spread is embodied in the state of our economies, society and environment. Take inventory and tell me we are leaving a world as robust or healthy as we received it? I'm 64, a grandfather and long time environmentalist (almost 4 decades) and I can say unequivocally that we have collectively undermined future generations in every endeavor that has largely grown out of 'higher education'. David Orr points this out exceedingly well in his book, Earth in Mind and a recent talk he gave at the Schumacher college in England.
      I highly recommend it.
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        Dec 17 2013: thanks Craig, I will check it out
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    Dec 16 2013: With classical education, do you mean the study of Western Philosophy? I think studies in Western philosophy are essential because it gives a person something to think about, it facilities contemplation and meaning, and it provides insight into the human spirit. What does that have to do in terms of innovation? I think that depends on the person and what drives them. People come up with good ideas all the time, it doesn't require a study in Western Philosophy, otherwise where would the rest of the world be? In any case, studies in Western Philosophy are valuable when the person who approaches the study with a dilemma or question they are looking to answer. The activity of action involving the search for meaning in combination with a study in Western Philosophy will enable new ideas to develop, especially if you are stuck in a moral dilemma, challenge, or are looking for new ways to approach a problem. Contemplation is a good exercise. The other thing to note is that any study in the academics is a discipline, and that study of any academic will place you in a 'certain state of mind' so in terms of innovation, a change in the state of mind or how you perceive things like 'virtue' 'values' 'competencies', etc. are very good. Especially, if you take the classes with a teacher that has a good knowledge of the subject. One last thing I learned from being a teacher for a long time in my conversations with many psychologists, many of whom are older and grew up with a traditional 'classics' core curriculum, have told me that they learned most of their psychology of human beings from reading the old saying 'reading is fundamental' might be a 'good' saying after all. The only negative comment I have about education in America is that most people in America having being going to school since they were 5 years old, and by the time they get into University and a doctoral program they spent half their life in school...eee gads! :) have a good one..
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      Dec 16 2013: This is an outside-the-box perspective for this forum! Thanks so much for jumping in with a now quite uncommon and seldom considered point of view.
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    Dec 15 2013: For most people it is really helpful, as it teaches you to evaluate ideas, to analyze things as they are being done and to see where and how they might be improved. There may be a small number of people who can get this without formal education, who just have strong minds, but for most they would need education.
  • Dec 15 2013: "Don't let schooling interfere with your education"- Mark Twain
    "The only source of knowledge is experience"- Einstein
    "Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school"- Einstein
    "I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand"- Confucius
    "Born a genius, raised a dolt"- Keith W Henline

    I believe classical education is absolutely the biggest detriment to innovation, at it's best it promotes slavery and violence!
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    Dec 31 2013: This begs the question of how you define 'classical education'? Do you mean the typical school system of grade school, college, and higher learning? If yes, then I'm a firm believer that classical education is not a pre-requisite for successful, meaningful, or useful innovation. Some of the most innovative ideas come out of necessity, by the desire of finding a solution to a problem; by not having the fear of thinking bravely 'outside the box'; and most importantly having the gusto and wherewithal to execute innovation in its entirety. However, I do believe that classical education in the form of mastery and topic expertise supplies the foundation in which innovation can be most useful and helpful to the targeted audience of said innovation.
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    Dec 30 2013: Picasso tried "formal" education in art but couldn't make it work for him. Einstein had a troubled history in school. Yet, these men certainly were innovative. Innovation clearly comes from within. Education may be thought of like people standing in a window and watching a parade go by. Some of the displays are interesting to some and others are not. One person may focus on a simple display while another may obsess over a more complex one. The "education parade" will affect each person differently. Some may even turn away finding the whole event of no use.

    Each person remains unique and will achieve and innovate according to the drive and fire in their soul. After all, who could have taught Picasso cubism or Einstein relativity?
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    Dec 29 2013: Greg, according to Sir Ken Robinson modern westernized education tends to stifle imagination which is a component of innovation. What you mean by Classical is not clear but many of the most famous innovators and inventors certainly did not complete any standard educational path. Edison, Gates, Jobs... the list is long enough to begin to suggest that not only is formal education not a prerequisite it looks to be more of a hindrance. To quote another of your countrymen, W. Cowper "learning lies in heads replete with thoughts of other men, knowledge in those attentive to their own." Being full of others answers tends to leave little room for exploring the undiscovered land. I am not deprecating the value of having good skills and mental tools but Lincoln proved that only self motivation is essential for acquiring both knowledge and wisdom not a diploma.
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      Dec 29 2013: Chad you are right, self motivation is important. A recent poll of college students elected in prompt by a classroom professor revealed something interesting. The instructor asked the students how many were coming to school for and education (show of hands), and how many were coming for a "check the block" or "piece of paper" so they could pursue the jobs/careers/etc. they wanted...

      All the hands went up for the "check the block", with a few exceptions who were deemed by the group as naïve.
      Why bother getting an education when there is no money in it?

      Professional athletes and actors get paid millions and the professor with two PhD's in Latin and Ancient Greek makes less than 50,000. Go figure. It also leads to the question of who should you ask for advice?
      Most people will pick the financially successful over the girl of guy with the doctorate in moral conviction. They don't want to go hungry.

      Ironically, "back in the day" prior to institutions of learning or if you travel outside the western world, there are a lot of Innovative people's (who make up a majority) that are doing very awesome things with their brains. Like feeding their whole village, or making things work even though they are lacking in resources.

      When someone shows up from a country will a lot of good resources how do they fit in? Or move to aid? Do they do more harm then good?

      I think the root of classical education is more about moral conviction, an understanding of the human spirit then innovations on how to make money. It would seem that Classical Education is more about "knowing what to do in a crisis", not an economic crisis, I mean a real life or death crisis...apparently classical education seems to pay in dividends when it comes to doing what is morally right or morally wrong. With that, there is a contradiction when countries with Classical education formulas are make war on everyone.

      best regards,

  • Dec 20 2013: Of course, a person needs ethical sensitivity but not a the moment of creating new ideas. A morally wrong idea is not necessarily a bad idea, may be with a different approach it can lead to another idea which is ethically correct and morally valid. So, it is at the moment of sharing the idea, or at the moment of considering whether to put it in practice or not, when moral filters and ethical sensitivity should come in.

    We agree classic education is not a prerequisite for innovation, but I also say that it slowly becomes an obstacle as your experience grows, for the reasons I exposed in a previous post.
  • Dec 19 2013: I only wanted to point out that the so called "American Dream" has nothing to do with the core issue of this conversation, and that, it is curios that it was precisely an Englishman who brought it to the table... Nothing else!... I am not stating it is good, bad, obsolete, valid, void or whatever, just that it has no clear definition for most modern day Americans, and is with this in mind, that I wonder: why the foreigners convince themselves they are able to understand it?...

    Again, this has nothing to do with the original question!!!... So I ask you, why in hell are we discussing a point that has nothing to do with the main subject of this conversation, which is: "innovation"???
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      Dec 19 2013: Thank you! You are right.

      Before this tangent occurred, we were talking about knowledge and innovation. We agreed that innovation can come from anywhere and isn't reliant on any particular discipline.

      In regards to Classic education, it is not a prerequisite. Classic education offers contemplation on moral and ethical value systems, in any tradition, not necessarily Western Philosophy. There are many philosophy's give to us by our human ancestors. A student of classical education ponders these ideas.

      What I think Classic education has to offer is more aligned to an increase in sensitivity to the human spirit, the arts and a concept of liberty and equality.

      I am not advocating for a certain philosophy. I am just acknowledging what I perceive to be the function of Classic education in terms of utility.

      Does a person need ethical sensitivity when creating new ideas (Innovation)? Or is that a constraint to free thinking?
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    Dec 19 2013: Hey, Greg can you get us back on track. I am not sure we are answering your question. What are your thoughts?
  • Dec 18 2013: I just read an article about an unrelated subject, which made me shift my point of view a little bit by making me stumble upon 3 key issues regarding innovation:

    1) Classical education is more an obstacle than a prerequisite for innovation, this is due to the fact that formally educated people tend to approach problem solving in "proven" and/or "standardized" ways (please note the quotation marks), which greatly narrows the range of possibilities they are willing to consider, and that, obviously hinders innovation.

    2) Because of that: experts usually do not make breakthroughs intentionally, when an expert in some field makes a breakthrough, it is in most cases the result of an accident, or in other words: luck.

    3) So: it is the lack of expertise (please do not confuse with ignorance) which enables one person to approach problems in different new untested ways, and this is precisely what really drives innovation.

    In conclusion: the answer is a rotund: NO.
  • Dec 17 2013: Of course not!

    Most people will agree that the two most successful, meaningful and useful innovations of human history are the fire and the wheel, and most people will also agree this two innovations weren't made by any formally educated cavemen.

    In modern days innovation comes from knowledge and hard work, but as you may agree formal education is not the only way to get knowledge, so when it comes to innovation, knowledge itself is a whole lot more important than where or how you got it.

    Anyone can innovate, remember The Beatles?, who of them had a college degree? who of them spent 6 years studding in a conservatory?... yet, I challenge anyone to dare to say they didn't innovate in a successful, meaningful and useful way. Consider also, the history of the computer and internet industries which are plenty of successful, meaningful and useful innovations made by college drop outs. Formal classical education is not a requirement for innovation and success, it is indeed a proven way to achieve them for some kind of people, but it is not, by any means "the only way", and it is not for all either, if that was the case then 100% of the college graduated will be innovative, successful or at least happy, but the number of college graduated that innovate in a successful, meaningful and useful way are just a small percentage and certainly much less than 100%.

    BTW, what has to do the so called "american dream" with this discussion?
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      Dec 18 2013: I am not sure, the American Dream just keeps coming up. I have Dreams all the time, I wouldn't call them American, but I would call them dreams.

      Anyway, you said something very interesting, do you think that knowledge and hard work in necessary? At the same time are college degrees easy? Don't they take knowledge and hard work? I agree that that is not the only route to innovation. I think you are on to something, didn't Aristotle say something about that? :) I am pretty sure that in every culture published or unpublished would say hard you is right on target. I would like to add that Knowledge, Hard Work, Certainty of effort and energy of soul...and asking your neighbors to help out might work out for the better too...
      • Dec 18 2013: It is a curios fact that most Americans do not have a clear definition of what the "American Dream" is, and even more curios how non-Americans dare to talk about it as if they knew better what it is.... anyway, that is not the core of the subject.

        Just yesterday I was doing some research about some unrelated field, but as a collateral result of that research I shifted a little bit my point of view about innovation, please read my latest post.
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          Dec 19 2013: seriously, are you still hung up on the American Dream? Do you know what compartmentalization is? Since, you are so hung up on it.
          Do you have a problem with Americans?
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    Dec 17 2013: Greg,

    Back to your original question on innovation...I don't think classical education is the "success" route a person needs to take. It is more in alignment with what you suggested, a "network" of people and connections. A guy could be sitting on a rock in the middle of no where and come up with a good idea.

    I would say that any type of innovation needs to have a goal in mind, what that person or group would like to accomplish, a dream, a vision, a wish, a goal....

    This take cooperation of effort, energy of will, or soul...with that, I think you should consider that inspiration is the key. I would advocate that inspiration with a intent to better the lives of other humans is a good path, but there many forms to inspiration.
  • Dec 17 2013: Mr Mac, there is another conversation going on here about education. What the "adolescent" child does not understand is that without a fundamental core, you'll never get anywhere. Without looking beyond 4 years, you'll never get children educated. With people constantly messing with education, and the children of today, and so the country of tomorrow suffers. I'd encourage you to look at China's education policy, where over twenty years ago they sent droves out to Europe to get educated, and continued that for a very long time. You only need to look at the rate of scientific papers and others that now have Chinese name on them, whereas in the past it was american. You only need to take a flight to silicon valley to realize that 1/2 the work force there are on h1b visas. You only need to look at those companies that cant get h1b staff are opening engineering and development centers in china. You only need to realize, that there now more people employed in the US in financial services than in manufacturing, and design, and engineering combined. You only need to realize that it's an inevitability that eventually there wont be anyone to sell those financial service products to. You only need to realize that when people have no money, even google goes bust, as all of their income is through ad's, and who's actually making those products? Not America. You only have to realize that in the last financial crisis, if china and russia asked for debt repayment on the bonds they hold, there wouldn't even be financial services.

    And if America does not start looking long term at education, and stick to a plan that doesn't get changed with every incumbent, it does not bode well for the people of America. And in the other conversation, someone mentioned that now even PHD's are taking minimum wage jobs.

    Where as Shanghai, 20 years ago, hardly had a skyscraper, to day it has more than downtown Manhattan. That should in itself tell you something.
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      Dec 17 2013: You are doing a lot of comparison. I don't see what that has to do with the original question, which was about innovation. so far I just hear a lot of complaining.
      • Dec 18 2013: you in good company not seeing it, there are about 250 million Americans that to don't see it. They'll probably only wake up when it's far too late.
      • Dec 18 2013: That sir, IS exactly the right question.
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    Dec 17 2013: Perhaps also, the function of a university and or classical education is not merely to learn? But also to connect people? That is to say that, University degrees open doors for innovative people? Clearly, certain types of innovation require such social connections, whereas, innovation per se in general, does not require and standard eduction entry point,but is certainly required for industrial or medical and many other forms of innovation? But that also, innovative people, come from all walks of life, social class, and education attainment? Richard Branson being a prime example, having left school a 15 and also suffering from dyslexia.
  • Dec 17 2013: I would like to echo what Bryan was asking about what is exactly your question in your headline and the question about the "American dreams."
    1. In your headline, did your mean "Is a classical education, one of the prerequisites for innovation", then my answer is; I agree. But I have to say that lot of great innovation came from someone who had little formal education, but the idea was derived from his work experience. It means that the "knowledge" learned from one's work experience AND the person's INNATE ANALYTICAL ABILITY, without the "classical education", contributed to his successful innovation. (see Harald's list of names).
    2. The mentioning of "American dream" .seems kind of a disconnection. This term is not related to the innovation from your topic for discussion, This term is the end product of innovation as well as hard work, financial ingenuity and perhaps the skill in political manipulation as well. It certainly does not necessarily need a sole prerequisite of a classical education, whatever your precise definition of it.
    Let me also comment on the question of many "innovations" in the field of physics, chemistry, mathematics and medical sciences. These fields of physical sciences originated/developed from European, or other, countries BEFORE THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA WAS BORN. So the development of atomic bomb as well as atomic energy were by American citizens from Europe. Also, let me say this; There had been great original innovation in many things, without them many subsequent "innovations" could ever exist, BEFORE THERE WERE ANY SO CALLED CLASSICAL EDUCATION SYSTEM ever been started. In other words, we all benefited from the innovations from the past, regardless when and where, and by whom, a particular innovation was made. So, to say that classical education is the only prerequisite for innovation is a little egocentric. As a university faculty myself, I hesitate to join this group of advocates of such theory/view.
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      Dec 17 2013: I think you are on to something doc, the concept of the American dream is a imagination construct. I am in agreement with you that classical education is the only area of knowledge available to people in terms of innovation.
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    Dec 17 2013: What is success?
    What is meaningful?
    What is useful?
    Who or what determines that?
    How many conquests did the Romans and others make disguised as allies?
    What innovations did they make under the same character?

    The question is what are you trying to invent?

    I am not sure what you mean to say about the American Dream, being an American I am inclined to ask, Are we racing towards something? Why are you so interested in judging the Americans dream?

    It would seem, Steven, that you are concerned about the problem of Inequality. Europe in general experienced centuries of inequality, at the cost of such humanity. The same can be said of England and its centuries of imperialism, and tyranny...the entire country of England was almost lost to the Nation of Germany. It came so close that the "adolescent" child had to aid England.

    We have all heard this argument before, Why is it up to America to invent a solution to the World's problem?

    We are talking about pre (prior), requirements, needed to make new stuff? right?

    What classical education defines is 'how this argument' that was generated by a simple question, is the same argument ,people have been having since Ancient Greek Civilization. If you study, The Federalist Papers, which is about the Constitutional know...The ratification of the Articles of Confederation? The United States Constitution. After the American people released the British from service to our country, the Americans studied the lessons from the classical empires. I would gather that Lord Blackthorn, Locke, some documents created by some very interesting English people in 1215, 1628, 1689 did some similar things, they saw inequality looked to the study of History and Philosophy for the Answers. The ideas of Freedom, Equality, the security of those principles, keeping things in balance, to avoid things like tyranny.

    My question is, what is Innovation? Is it bringing people together as equals, to share ideas?

    see ya, all the best.
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      Dec 17 2013: Rather than analyzing the wording of my question( as seems to be the trend here) I'm was hoping to spark conversation about innovation.Thanks anyway.
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        Dec 17 2013: It doesn't seem that way. It is more of a conversation about presumption.
  • Dec 17 2013: Absolutely it is, you see people without it, are basically dilettantes, who think and presume they know, when in fact they confuse those concepts with understanding. Unfortunately you'll find those people, mainly in countries with very little history, you know the kind that think something from the 1920's is an historical item.

    As for the American dream, it reality that's a fallacy, it always was, always has been, always will be. I don't expect many Americans will agree with that, but, who cares, it's not like the majority of people will ever achieve it. And that's the rub - flypaper.

    What's probably the an important point that's typically overlooked is that Americans tend to blow their own trumpet, re-write history through Hollywood and the media, and then start believing their own press releases. Where as the UK for example creates the first cloned animal, with very little money nor fanfare. Nor for Tim Berners-Lee and the creation of the internet (they'll try to sell you Al Gore did that :)). Same is true for the majority of Europe, quiet understated understanding and creation, underpinned by a real foundation of quality classical education.

    You could say well America created the Atom bomb, but what created the foundation for that and virtually every other invention, was the importation of talent from Europe. In the case of the Atom bomb, NASA that all came from Germany.

    Think of America as the adolescent child, who when they create something, have to scream "look at me, look at me", hopefully one day they'll grow up.
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      Dec 17 2013: Good point, the origin of innovation can be global, as you point out, the space program wouldn't be where it is if it weren't for Wernher von Braun, who also no doubt had a hand in producing many weapens of terror.
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    Dec 16 2013: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Henry Ford,.....
    They all are examples that formal education isn't necessary to invent something.
  • Dec 16 2013: At the very least, it teaches proper use of punctuation, such as in the properly-punctuated sentence "Is a classical education a prerequisite for innovation?"--unless, that is, one, actually speaks, like this, and one is trying, to specifically represent, how one speaks, in writing.
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    Dec 16 2013: Perhaps if I were to ask, is a university and or classical education, a prerequisite for online innovation? Does the same apply in the technical world of apps,websites and internet technology innovation?
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    Dec 16 2013: No; it most certainly is not. Indeed the institutional system of education destroys innovative tendencies. It's a system that was created more for religious indoctrination than for creating a group of innovators. There really are a lot of education related topics today. Hopefully that means there will be enough people around here interested in my ideas on alternatives to the current education model.
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    Dec 15 2013: Are you referring specifically to the value of studying classics?
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    Dec 15 2013: Perhaps If I were to ask, is a university education, a prerequisite for successful, meaningful, or useful innovation? Perhaps it would make the question more current and relevant.
    • Dec 15 2013: In that case, it really depends on what sort of university education we're talking about.
      Studying things like engineering or software design shoot a person's innovative ability straight up, while studying something like philosophy or literature, while potentially interesting, probably won't lead to anything new (there are exceptions of course, but they only serve to prove the rule).

      It used to be that people got along fine without a formal education in those things, but as the complexity grew over the generations, that stopped being the case. You could design a better grain grinding windmill on intuition alone; good luck trying to do the same with say, a modern jet engine.
      If you're trying to innovate with something less technical, an education isn't as crucial. Intuition holds its own in many of the more humane disciplines. An all around untrained individual doesn't know the first thing about, say, engineering, but it doesn't take a degree to argue philosophy.

      Of course, most people don't refer to the more technical disciplines as "classical". Make of that what you will.
  • Dec 15 2013: If by classical you mean things like literature and history, then honestly, no, they don't contribute to innovation one bit.

    Their purpose is a different one. The strengthening of a national identity, the creation of a common cultural denominator, and depending on exactly when and where, a certain amount of indoctrination as well.
    These things have their purpose (and potential for harm), but they're not meant to drive innovation.