In Search Of A Liberal Arts Education For The Modern Era

Atthis summer’s Exosphere
we had a wonderful participant by the name of
Lucas. Initially a member of the Philosophy Stream, he
decided to switch to Biohacking after
learning about the cool stuff that its members planned to work
on. So at the end of the orientation week he took his bag,
moved into “the Biohouse”, and began to learn “how to science
the shit out of nature.”


Rob, Lucas, and Felipe

One of the very first lessons saw him attempt to take
meticulous notes on flora in the area surrounding the Campus.
Unsatisfied with his skill in sketching a particular flower, he
got frustrated with the laborious nature of this process and
asked our Biohacking Fellow Gabriel Licina why they had to do
this. “Can’t we simply take a picture and be done with it?”

The conversation that followed led him and the other members of
his Stream to a number of profound insights about what it means
to think and work scientifically. More than that, it revealed
how much we humans struggle with perceiving the world around us
accurately, building robust understanding out of it, how
difficult we find it to communicate all of this to others, and
how fragile this human enterprise we call
 turns out at times.


Sketching the flower

“Why not take a picture?” ��

Yes, why not take a picture of the flower instead of (badly)
sketching it? After all, the fidelity of a photo dwarfs that of
a sketch by several orders of magnitude and you can always
print it out and stick it in your notebook. What do we gain by
spending a lot of time for so little in return?

Well, Lucas, you gain a lot, but you won’t find it in your
notebook. Instead, you’ll find it between your ears, in your
fingertips, and your eyes. See, we can draw a meaningful
distinction between seeing and remembering a thing. When you
“lay eyes” upon that flower, the rays bouncing off of the thing
hit your eyes and your brain forms an impression: a memory. But
the story doesn’t end there, because what your brain does with
that memory can radically change it.

Every time you recall a memory, your brain alters that memory
before putting it back. So seeing something once gives your
brain very little to work with and makes errors in your
perception that much more likely, and therefore consequential.

“But isn’t that the perfect argument against sketching and
for photo taking?”

No, because the point of recording an impression of it lies not
only in having that impression, sketch, or photo. Instead, it
lies in practicing a number of skills, the mastery of which
makes you a competent scientist and more effective human being:

  1. practicing your ability to accurately perceive an object
    and commit it to memory,
  2. practicing your ability to build your own model with
    increasing fidelity and work with it, and
  3. practicing your ability to communicate your experience of
    that object via your model so that others can work with your
    experience as though they had lived it themselves.

In effect, we ask our students to practice the entire process
of absorbing information (perception), processing that
information (modeling), and then producing effective
outputs (speaking). For the greater part of two
millennia, this explicit process formed the framework of all
education in the Western world. They called it the Trivium and
taught these three parts as Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric.


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Once an individual had “completed” his study of the Trivium,
they moved on to the Quadrivium, consisting of:

– Arithmetic (number),
– Geometry (number in space),
– Music (number in time), and
– Astronomy (number in time and space).

Together, these sets of skills formed the “liberal arts”, a
coin termed by none other than Aristotle. In contradistinction
to the so-called “servile arts”, the liberal arts — as the term
suggests — gave you all the necessary tools to earn an
independent income and join the free citizenry, while the
servile arts consisted of crafts that you carried out under a
master for basic amenities. Taken together, the Trivium and the
Quadrivium formed a lens for making best use of our five senses
and conduct a life in defiance of circumstance.


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Since Aristotle, the interconnected domains of human activity
in technology, philosophy, culture, economy, and society have
undergone certain changes — some minor, and some of a radical

The question basically asks itself: what do the modern
liberal arts consist of? Shouldn’t we update them to reflect
those changes?

I submit that we find a clue in those dynamics so ingrained in
our culture that pointing them out takes no special
intelligence. I talk, of course, of the capitalist logic.
Neither I nor Exosphere deny the role that the market has
played in creating prosperity — heck, we’ve run
entrepreneurship bootcamps and helped our students create their
own businesses. But it increasingly becomes clear that in the
modern age freedom means something slightly different.

“Today, one doesn’t gain independence from circumstance by
leaving servitude and joining the market, but by learning how
to leave the market at will and survive, nay! thrive
outside it.”~ Moritz Bierling, Director of Research
at Exosphere

How to live happily in a world you don’t understand

We have heard a great number of reasons that participants have
for coming to Exosphere. Some struggle more with self-efficacy,
others would like to make a quantum leap in understanding the
world, and most of the others have both of these kind of
handled but want to make sure they haven’t missed something
important, so they search out new people. All of this boils
down to a genuine desire to “live happily in a world we don’t
understand”, as Taleb puts it.

At the Academy we teach a specific set of skills, regardless of
the domain a student chooses to earn a living in, because they
make for valuable tools no matter what you do. Incidentally,
they also constitute a solution to particular versions of
modernity’s unique challenge:

transitioning all of our social systems from functioning only
AT human scale to functioning BEYOND human scale.

I have already written extensively about this phenomenon
in my Primer on Alternate Reality
. Here’s the gist of it: thanks to the equalizing
power of guns and their superior numbers, the common people
overthrew the aristocracy and pretended that everybody’s
individual contributions to society have equal value. Blinded
by this falsehood and their own moral righteousness, and aided
by mass media and mass transportation, they proceeded to spend
down several millennia worth of economic, informational,
normative, and many other forms of capital to pay for
extraordinary levels of consumption.

Which leads me — and us — to the present situation.

Wouldn’t you agree that we currently struggle, on an individual
and societal level, with problems that go beyond the abilities
of an individual person to solve, or even fully comprehend?
Global financial crises, growing inequality, crises in science,
economic disruptions, failing social systems, corrupt political
systems, environmental collapse — the list goes on. Clearly
things need to change, and change soon.

Now, one way we approach this problem is by helping our
participants at the Academy practice three specific skills:

  1. Building and maintaining mutually beneficial relationships
    with people that think, work, and live
    entirely unlike you,
  2. seriously committing yourself to a lifelong process of
    learning, and
  3. doing the accounting, both literally and metaphorically
    through active note taking, thinking, and decision making.

(If any of this confuses you, watch this speech on
 or below��
by Exosphere founder Skinner Layne)

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