Common sense

If you're a regular reader of this blog you'd be aware I'm a fan of podcasts and online lecture series.

I consider this exploding opportunity to learn online, from some of the world's biggest brains, one of the greatest achievements of the internet to date, next to Red Hot Pie.

One voice I have a lot of time for belongs to Dan Carlin, who hosts the Hardcore History podcast, as well the long-running internet radio show Common Sense, wherein he deconstructs issues of the day from what you might call a "meta-perspective".

In his recent podcast about constitutional reform in the United States, he compares the daily news cycle of comment on the "issues de jour" as people arguing about symptoms, while he likes to discuss diseases.

As a couple of reviewers of Carlin's show have said: "[It is] thinking, not blind opinion. This is neither left nor right ... it's an intelligent, articulate, knowledgeable person talking to you as if you have a mind."

And: "This show isn't just good and entertaining, when you listen to it you feel it's important. Dan isn't arguing a liberal or conservative agenda, he's taking current issues and saying, 'wait, what does this mean'?"

In other words, Carlin doesn't argue a partisan line. He takes a humanist line and it's as refreshing as it is rare.

In an episode that aired late in January this year, Carlin poses the question whether American voters are actually smart enough to play the democratic role needed of them.

His inspiration was a piece by Natalie Wolchover on the wesbite, Life's Little Mysteries, who writes: "The democratic process relies on the assumption that citizens (the majority of them, at least) can recognise the best political candidate, or best policy idea, when they see it.

"A growing body of research has revealed an unfortunate aspect of the human psyche that would seem to disprove this notion, and imply instead that democratic elections produce mediocre leadership and policies.

"The research, led by David Dunning, a psychologist at Cornell University, shows that incompetent people are inherently unable to judge the competence of other people, or the quality of those people's ideas," writes Wolchover.

She makes the point that if two experts are arguing about something as complex as tax or constitutional reform and cannot agree on the best path to follow, how can we expect lay people, who have to vote on it, to decide with anything approaching wisdom?

"It is very difficult for [lay people] to identify the candidates who are actual experts. They simply lack the mental tools needed to make meaningful judgments," writes Wolchover.

More often or not, it's the expert or politician who offers the most emotive argument who gets the chocolates. And if, as so regularly happens, their opposition choose that tack as well, we end up with the infamous "race to the bottom".

The solution, argues Carlin, is a better educated voting public; people who can be counted on to apply a measure of good judgment to their electoral decisions and who are smart enough to see through the smoke and mirrors of spin, attack ads and the machinations of special interests.

But how do we even attempt to achieve this level of intellectual competency when our education systems are a century-old model, designed to produce drones, not thinkers?

This is a subject I wrote about in 2008, through the prism of social intelligence and sex education, directing you to the now famous TED talk given by British creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson.

"As children grow up we start to educate them progressively from the waist up and then we focus on their heads and slightly to one side (the left)," said Robinson in that speech.

One of Robinson's bugbears is shared by Carlin - that 'modern' schools are still based on an early 19th century model created to churn out workers for industrialism. As such, they value subjects like English and maths but not liberal arts or philosophy, let alone dance, drama or music.

We thus tend to produce kids who learn but do not think, who recite answers, not ask questions.

This makes for poor voters and poor citizens, who are ill-equipped to examine even the most prosaic of issues, let alone the big question reforms we need to be implementing to survive in a rapidly changing world.

Which brings me back to online learning - something Carlin has been championing for six or seven years - and of which I am now an ardent disciple.

I did physics at high school. I hated it. My teacher was, perhaps, the most humourless, unimaginative man I had in my entire schooling, which is sad, because physics rocks.

Now, imagine if I, or any child struggling with this subject, had this guy as their physics teacher?

Obviously, he can't be there face to face with every student, but streaming him to a class via the internet would be 100 per cent more engaging than listening to some boring (and bored) dude reading from a text book.

This, argues Carlin, is the future - where the best teachers in the world will, via the internet, will be available to the greatest number of students.

Just last month, our own ANU joined Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's web-based learning platform edX, offering free online courses.

I could not be more excited.

Well, except when I'm on Red Hot Pie.

You can follow Sam on Twitter here. His email address is here.