Have you really read all these?: Anti-libraries and Knowledge

No, I haven’t read all of the books I own cover-to-cover. I read a couple books a week all the way through. I strategically skim and search a couple more. A lot can be learned from the introduction and opening chapters of a book, so I habitually download, search, and read samples from the Kindle store. Highlights and notes from all this reading go into DEVONthink and Ulysses.

PDFs, ebooks, and web archives also go in DEVONthink, where I tag everything. DEVONthink’s AI augmented search helps me find connections among sources, including ones I haven’t read yet.

All of the partially read and unread text I collect and curate form an anti-library, one that has been useful in my writing and research on neurodiversity, disability, tech ethics, and education.

Ulysses and DEVONthink are my zettelkasten, anti-library, research database, cognitive net, and thinking space. No, I haven’t read everything that they and my bookshelves hold, but I’m constantly discovering, rediscovering, and connecting ideas while creating the conditions for serendipity.

Someone walks into your house and sees your many books on your many bookshelves. Have you really read all these? they ask. This person does not understand knowledge. A good library is comprised in large part by books you haven’t read, making it something you can turn to when you don’t know something. He calls it: the Anti-Library.

I remember once in college, the pride I felt about being able to write an entire research paper with stuff from my own anti-library. We all have books and papers that we haven’t read yet. Instead of feeling guilty, you should see them as an opportunity: know they’re available to you if you ever need them.

This is the mark you must aim for as a researcher, to not only have enough material - and to know where the rest of what you haven’t read will be located - on hand to do your work. You must build a library and an anti-library now… before you have an emergency presentation or a shot at a popular guest post.

Source: The 5-Step Research Method I Used For Tim Ferriss, Robert Greene, and Tucker Max

Some questions are only asked by people with a fundamental misunderstanding. The friends who walk into my office and ask, “have you read all of these” miss the point of books.

In his book, The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb describes our relationship between books and knowledge using the legendary Italian writer Umberto Eco (1932-2016).

The writer Umberro Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with “Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have. How many of these books have you read?” and the others—a very small minority—who get the point is that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendages but a research tool. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means … allow you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.

Taleb adds:

We tend to treat our knowledge as personal property to be protected and defended. It is an ornament that allows us to rise in the pecking order. So this tendency to offend Eco’s library sensibility by focusing on the known is a human bias that extends to our mental operations. People don’t walk around with anti-résumés telling you what they have not studied or experienced (it’s the job of their competitors to do that), but it would be nice if they did. Just as we need to stand library logic on its head, we will work on standing knowledge itself on its head.

A good library is filled with mostly unread books. That’s the point. Our relationship with the unknown causes the very problem Taleb is famous for contextualizing: the black swan. Because we underestimate the value of what we don’t know and overvalue what we do know, we fundamentally misunderstand the likelihood of surprises.

The antidote to this overconfidence boils down to our relationship with knowledge. The anti-scholar, as Taleb refers to it, is “someone who focuses on the unread books, and makes an attempt not to treat his knowledge as a treasure, or even a possession, or even a self-esteem enhancement device — a skeptical empiricist.”

My library serves as a visual reminder of what I don’t know.

Source: The Antilibrary: Why Unread Books Are The Most Important

It was about slavery.

Do the racists in your family claim the Civil War wasn’t about slavery but instead about states’ rights?

Yeah, mine too. A steady diet of the Southern Strategy and the Confederate Catechism is evident in their morally convenient ahistorical revisionism.

Civil War lessons often depend on where the classroom is.” In the classroom of our family, we teach our kids to consult primary sources, in this case the declarations of secession of South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, and our home state of Texas as well as the ordinances of secession.

Historian Kevin Kruse offered a helpful breakdown of these declarations on Twitter.

Here’s an embed of the video mentioned in the thread.

If that institution was discredited in the eyes of the world, then the Confederacy itself would be discredited in the eyes of history. So, it became a psychological necessity, I think, to deny that the Civil War was about slavery.

Source: Was the Civil War about Slavery? When did States Rights Become A Popular Explanation for Secession? – YouTube

Historian Kevin Gannon offered a great thread on the history of Robert E. Lee.

What about non-slaveholding southerners fighting in the Civil War? Historian Keri Leigh Merritt explains how oligarchy, then as now, brutalized and divided us all.

One of my favorite resources for teaching American history and social studies is “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong”. Here it is on the states’ rights argument and how textbooks have misrepresented the Civil War.

Slavery was the underlying reason that South Carolina, followed by ten other states, left the Union. In 1860, leaders of the state were perfectly clear about why they were seceding. On Christmas Eve, they signed a “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union.” Their first grievance was “that fourteen of the States have deliberately refused, for years past, to fulfill their constitutional obligations,” specifically this clause, which they quote: “No person held to service or labour in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labour, but shall be delivered up . . .” This is of course the Fugitive Slave Clause, under whose authority Congress had passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which South Carolina of course approved. This measure required officers of the law and even private citizens in free states to participate in capturing and returning African Americans when whites claimed them to be their slaves. This made the free states complicit with slavery. They wriggled around, trying to avoid full compliance. Pennsylvania, for example, passed a law recognizing the supremacy of the federal act but pointing out that Pennsylvanians still had the right to determine pay for their officers of the law, and they refused to pay for time spent capturing and returning alleged slaves. South Carolina attacked such displays of states’ rights:

But an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations. . . . The States of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, have enacted laws which either nullify the Acts of Congress or render useless any attempt to execute them.

Thus South Carolina opposed states’ rights when claimed by free states. This is understandable. Historically, whatever faction has been out of power in America has pushed for states’ rights. White Southerners dominated the executive and judicial branches of the federal government throughout the 1850s—and through the Democratic Party, the legislative branch as well—so of course they opposed states’ rights. Slave owners were delighted when Supreme Court Chief Justice Taney decided in 1857 that throughout the nation, irrespective of the wishes of state or territorial governments, blacks had no rights that whites must respect. Slave owners pushed President Buchanan to use federal power to legitimize slaveholding in Kansas the next year. Only after they lost control of the executive branch in the 1860 election did slave owners begin to suggest limiting federal power.

South Carolina’s leaders went on to condemn New York for denying “even the right of transit for a slave” and other Northern states for letting African Americans vote. Before the Civil War, these matters were states’ rights. Nevertheless, South Carolina claimed the right to determine whether New York could prohibit slavery within New York or Vermont could define citizenship in Vermont. Carolinians also contested the rights of residents of other states even to think differently about their peculiar institution, giving as another reason for secession that Northerners “have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery.” In short, slavery permeates the document from start to finish. Of course, the election of Lincoln provided the trigger, but the abiding purpose of secession was to protect, maintain, and enhance slavery. Nor was South Carolina unusual; other states used similar language when they seceded.

Despite this clear evidence, before 1970 many textbooks held that almost anything but slavery—differences over tariffs and internal improvements, the conflict between agrarian South and industrial North, and especially “states’ rights”—led to secession. This was a form of Southern apologetics. Never was there any excuse for such bad scholarship, and in the aftermath of the civil rights movement most textbook authors came to agree with Abraham Lincoln in his Second Inaugural “that slavery was somehow the cause of the war.” As The United States—A History of the Republic put it in 1981, “At the center of the conflict was slavery, the issue that would not go away.”

Source: Loewen, James W.. Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (pp. 139-140). The New Press. Kindle Edition.

This is hard history, but as the states’ rights racists in our families reveal, we have to teach it and do a much better job than we have done so far.

It is often said that slavery was our country’s original sin, but it is much more than that. Slavery is our country’s origin. It was responsible for the growth of the American colonies, transforming them from far-flung, forgotten outposts of the British Empire to glimmering jewels in the crown of England. And slavery was a driving power behind the new nation’s territorial expansion and industrial maturation, making the United States a powerful force in the Americas and beyond.

Slavery was also our country’s Achilles heel, responsible for its near undoing. When the southern states seceded, they did so expressly to preserve slavery. So wholly dependent were white Southerners on the institution that they took up arms against their own to keep African Americans in bondage. They simply could not allow a world in which they did not have absolute authority to control black labor—and to regulate black behavior.

The central role that slavery played in the development of the United States is beyond dispute. And yet, we the people do not like to talk about slavery, or even think about it, much less teach it or learn it. The implications of doing so unnerve us. If the cornerstone of the Confederacy was slavery, then what does that say about those who revere the people who took up arms to keep African Americans in chains? If James Madison, the principal architect of the Constitution, could hold people in bondage his entire life, refusing to free a single soul even upon his death, then what does that say about our nation’s founders? About our nation itself?

Slavery is hard history. It is hard to comprehend the inhumanity that defined it. It is hard to discuss the violence that sustained it. It is hard to teach the ideology of white supremacy that justified it. And it is hard to learn about those who abided it.

We the people have a deep-seated aversion to hard history because we are uncomfortable with the implications it raises about the past as well as the present.

We the people would much rather have the Disney version of history, in which villains are easily spotted, suffering never lasts long, heroes invariably prevail and life always gets better. We prefer to pick and choose what aspects of the past to hold on to, gladly jettisoning that which makes us uneasy. We enjoy thinking about Thomas Jefferson proclaiming, “All men are created equal.” But we are deeply troubled by the prospect of the enslaved woman Sally Hemings, who bore him six children, declaring, “Me too.”

Literary performer and educator Regie Gibson had the truth of it when he said, “Our problem as Americans is we actually hate history. What we love is nostalgia.”

Slavery isn’t in the past. It’s in the headlines.

These recent events reveal, at least in part, how American schools are failing to teach a critical and essential portion of the nation’s legacy-the history and continuing impact of chattel slavery. Research for this report reveals that high school students don’t know much about the history of slavery in the United States, with only 8 percent able to identify it as the central cause of the Civil War. This should not be surprising, given that most adults wrongly identify “states’ rights” as the cause. Widespread ignorance about slavery, the antebellum South and the Confederacy persists to the present day, and is on display in controversies over monument removal in places like New Orleans, Louisiana, and Charlottesville, Virginia, where protests turned deadly in the summer of 2017. Students and adults alike may even hold fringe beliefs, including notions propagated by white nationalists, such as the idea that slavery wasn’t “so bad,” or that the Irish were enslaved.9 Few Americans acknowledge the role slavery played in states outside the South.

Teachers struggle to do justice to the nation’s legacy of racial injustice. They are poorly served by state standards and frameworks, popular textbooks and even their own academic preparation. For this report, we surveyed more than 1,700 social studies teachers across the country. A bare majority say they feel competent to teach about slavery. Most say that the available resources and preparation programs have failed them. Almost all regret this deficiency, recognizing that teaching the history of slavery is essential. When we reviewed a set of popular history textbooks, we saw why teachers felt a lack of support: Texts fail in key areas, including connecting slavery to the present and portraying the diversity of the experiences of the enslaved. State content standards, which are meant to set clear expectations for instruction, are scattershot at best, often making puzzling choices such as teaching about Harriet Tubman long before slavery, or equivocating on the cause of the Civil War. When we consider the available landscape of materials and expectations, it is no wonder that teachers struggle.

Source: Teaching Hard History: American Slavery

The right to learn differently should be a universal human right that’s not mediated by a diagnosis.

We have created a system that has you submit yourself, or your child, to patient hood to access the right to learn differently. The right to learn differently should be a universal human right that’s not mediated by a diagnosis.

Source: The Gift: LD/ADHD Reframed

My family lives this system, which is why I really appreciate Albemarle County Public Schools’ Seven Pathways, which states:

No child within the Albemarle County Public Schools should need a label or prescription in order to access the tools of learning or environments they need. Within the constraints of other laws (in particular, copyright) we will offer alternative representations of information, multiple tools, and a variety of instructional strategies to provide access for all learners to acquire lifelong learning competencies and the knowledge and skills specified in curricular standards. We will create classroom cultures that fully embrace differentiation of instruction, student work, and assessment based upon individual learners’ needs and capabilities. We will apply contemporary learning science to create accessible entry points for all students in our learning environments; and which support students in learning how to make technology choices to overcome disabilities and inabilities, and to leverage preferences and capabilities.

Source: Seven Pathways

Yes to all of that.

I like Albemarle’s approach to education technology. I write about them in “Classroom UX: Designing for Pluralism” and “Communication is oxygen. Collaborative indie ed-tech.

They recognize the structural, institutional, and framing problems Jonathan Mooney describes in this great talk on reframing LD and ADHD (which is the source of the title and opening quote in this blog post you’re reading).

I transcribed my favorite moments from the talk in “The Gift: LD/ADHD Reframed”. I’ll conclude with selections making the case for two of my rules of thumb for inclusion.

  • agent > patient
  • identity > diagnosis

“The right to learn differently should be a universal human right that’s not mediated by a diagnosis.”

An essential component of my journey was an identity transformation from being a patient to being an agent.

Disability industrial complex is all about what people can’t do. We spend most of our time trying to fix what they can’t do. When all we do is fix people the message we give to them is that they are broken.

We’ve built an entire edifice of intervention that’s about fixing people.

We’ve built this whole infrastructure about fixing folks, about turning people into passive recipients of treatment and service, of turning people into patients. But being a patient is the most disempowered place a human being can be.

You gotta fight against this, you gotta be an advocate, you gotta have a voice in your education.

We need to cultivate a sense of agency in people which is the opposite of patient hood.

The most meaningful interventions, the most meaningful people in my life were people who cultivated a sense of agency.

We have a medical community that’s found a sickness for every single human difference. DSM keeps growing every single year with new ways to be defective, with new ways to be lessened.

When all we do is fix people, the message we give to them is that they are broken. Nobody lives a meaningful life feeling broken.

It’s that narrow definition of intelligence, behavior, and motivation that is really my disability. Not dyslexia, not ADHD.

In many learning environments we think good kids sit still. The good kid is the compliant kid.

Young folks like me are given the identity of being bad.

“What is your problem?” If I had a nickel for every time I heard that word in my life.

I was given this identity that I was a problem because of a norm in the environment that good kids sit still.

We’ve built learning environments based on the myth that appropriate and valuable human behavior is about compliance.

I had overcome not ADHD, but I had overcome the feeling of being the defective person morally because I didn’t comply to the myth that good kids are compliant.

That’s agency. That’s somebody who refuses to negate somebody’s humanity because of a label.

Source: The Gift: LD/ADHD Reframed