[Squeakland] the non universals

Bill Kerr billkerr at gmail.com
Wed Aug 15 08:05:56 PDT 2007

hi alan,

Thanks for extensive clarification of the items which I had left question
marks on

>From what you say the "non universals" group originates from you (!) which
sort of explains why I couldn't find other references to it on the net

I have used your lists at a few meetings and it has provoked a response of
sorts. On the one hand some people say the "non universals" is an
interesting list. However, I've also noticed some reluctance or inability to
discuss the items on the list in any real detail or to discuss the
implications for the formal education system. ie it seems to come at people
from left field

In his dissertation on the history of the Dynabook John Maxwell asks "what
is a powerful idea, anyway?" and also argues that there has been a  decline
of powerful idea discourse

What I'm noticing in educational discussion groups, blogs etc. on the web of
late is much talk about "web 2.0", "school 2.0" but this tends to take place
outside of a framework that maybe there are powerful ideas that really do
have to be taught in some way.

You do say that the major stakeholders don't get it. What I see there is
curriculum frameworks being used as blunt instruments of control. I'm
suggesting, too, that many of the "radicals", who describe themselves as
"web 2.0" are not getting it either.

In this context I like the idea of your list of "non universals" and John
Maxwells' idea of the need for more powerful idea discourse. However, I'm
also left feeling a bit unsure of the status of the "non universals" list,
eg. how complete is it? have people argued about it and disputed it?

I could think of some non universals / powerful ideas that are not on your
list, eg. Darwinian evolution, computer-human symbiosis for starters ...

I'm also curious about its connection with using computers in learning.
Clearly etoys and logo can be used to assist teaching some of those concepts
in constructionist fashion, esp maths and science. But for others I don't
see a close connection at the moment (eg. equal rights, democracy) -
although the OLPC project is becoming a part of that.

Bill Kerr

On 8/14/07, Alan Kay <alan.kay at squeakland.org> wrote:
>  Hi Bill --
> There are various sources for "universals" on the net and off. Quite a bit
> more has been found out about these since the days of Lorenz and Tinbergen.
> One of the several fields that studies these as scientifically as possible
> is called "NeuroEthology" and there are a number of good books on the
> subject. T.G.R. Bower was one of the first to study very young humans
> specifically. An ancillarly field that has appeared in the last few decades
> is called "bio-behavior", and there also a number of illuminating books
> there.
> I picked some of the "non-universals" that I thought were important (and
> some particularly to contrast items in the universal list).
> To answer your question marks ...
> "Theory of Harmony" is kind of like "Deductive Abstract Mathematics" in
> that most traditional cultures have some form of counting, adding and
> subtracting -- and some make music with multiple pitches at once (as did
> Western Culture before 1600). But the notion of harmony before 1600 was
> essentially as a byproduct of melodies and voice leading rather than a thing
> in itself in which chords have the same first class status as melodic lines.
> How and why this appeared is fascinating and is well known in music history.
> Some of the most interesting composers in the Baroque period (especially
> Bach) tried to make both the old and the new schemes work completely
> together. Bach's harmonic language in particular was an amazing blend of
> harmonies and bass lines with voice leading and other contrapuntal
> techniques (quite a bit of his vocabulary is revealed in his harmonized
> chorales (some 371 or 372 of them)). That these two worlds are very
> different ways of looking at things is attested to by a wonderful piece by
> Purcell "The Contest Between Melodie and Harmonie".
> As with "Greek Math", history doesn't seem to have any record of a
> separate and as rich invention of a harmonic theory. So it is really rare.
> "Similarities over Differences" was to contrast with the standard
> processes of most nervous systems of most species to be more interested in
> "differences over similarities" (which is listed on the universal side). At
> most levels from reflexes to quite a bit of cognition, most similarities are
> accommodated and normalized while differences to the normalizations have a
> heightened significance (of "danger" or "pay attention").
> Paying attention to differences is good for simple survival but makes it
> hard to think in many ways because it leads to so many cases, categories and
> distinctions -- and because some of the most important things may have
> disappeared into "normal" (in particular, things about oneself and one's own
> culture). So we unfortunately are much more interested in even superficial
> differences between humans and cultures and have a very hard time thinking
> of "the other" as being in the same value space as we are....
> Part of the invention of modern math by the Greeks was their desire to get
> rid of the huge codexes of cases for geometry and arithmetic. This led to
> many useful abstractions which could be used as lenses to see things which
> looked different to normal minds as actually the same. For example, the
> Greek idea that there is only one triangle of each shape (because you can
> divide the two short sides by the long one to make a standard triangle of a
> given shape). This gets rid of lots of confusion and leaves room to start
> thinking more powerful thoughts. (The Greeks accomplished the interesting
> and amazing feat of using normalization to separate similarities and
> differences but paid attention to the similarities.) Calculus is a more
> subtle and tremendously useful example of separating similarities and
> differences. Convolution theory is yet more subtle ...
> One way to think of my chart is that a lot of things we correlate with
> "enlightenment" and "civilization" are rather un-natural and rare inventions
> whose skills require us to learn how to go against many of our built in
> thought patterns. I think this is one of the main reasons to have an
> organized education (to learn the skills of being better thinkers than our
> nervous systems are directly set up for).
> History suggests that we not lose these powerful ideas. They are not easy
> to get back.
> The non-built-in nature of the powerful ideas on the right hand list
> implies they are generally more difficult to learn -- and this seems to be
> the case. This difficulty makes educational reform very hard because a very
> large number of the gatekeepers in education do not realize these simple
> ideas and tend to perceive and react (not think) using the universal left
> hand list .....
> Cheers,
> Alan
> At 09:11 AM 8/13/2007, Bill Kerr wrote:
> Alan Kay has a couple of slides in his Europython 2006 keynote,
> illustrating Universals and Non Universals
> It's right at the start of this video:
>  http://mrtopf.blip.tv/file/51972
> From anthropological research of over 3000 human cultures, he presented
> two lists, the first were universals, the things that all human cultures
> have in common. This list included things like:
>    - language
>    - communication
>    - fantasies
>    - stories
>    - tools and art
>    - superstition
>    - religion and magic
>    - play and games
>    - differences over similarities (?)
>    - quick reactions to patterns
>    - vendetta, and more
> He then presented a list of non universals, the things that humans find
> harder to learn. This list was shorter and included:
>    - reading and writing
>    - deductive abstract mathematics
>    - model based science
>    - equal rights
>    - democracy
>    - perspective drawing
>    - theory of harmony (?)
>    - similarities over differences (?)
>    - slow deep thinking
>    - agriculture
>    - legal systems
> These lists are really important I think as a guide to what our formal
> education system ought to be teaching - at least a starting point to a
> discourse on powerful ideas, as distinct from the dumbing down and
> smothering effect of generalised curriculum statements
> I'm curious as to where alan got his list of "non universals" from and
> would like more details about them. I put a question mark after a couple I
> didn't understand but which sounded interesting.
> When I google "non universals" anthropology not much comes up but the
> search universals anthropology was more successful:
>  http://www.amazon.com/Human-Universals-Donald-E-Brown/dp/007008209X
> or
> *http://tinyurl.com/28n7vv*
> --
> Bill Kerr
>  http://billkerr2.blogspot.com/
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> Squeakland at squeakland.org
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