Unapologetically elitist

From Uscolia: “Imagine the earth as a gigantic experiment in learning. Every minute 256 babies are born with brains identically wired for inquiry and knowledge. A minute later, however, each newborn in its crib, cradle, bassinet, basket, or carry cot is exposed to different signals that begin to shape its brain, and each one embarks on a separate trajectory leading to a different adventure. It is called life. The way the stimuli are organized and presented to these newborns determines the path they take through life. If you are aware of it, you can help guide its course to a considerable extent. But you must have a path marked, or at least a direction of travel—mapped out at birth or close thereafter.” Uscolians believe that they have discovered such a path.

On this day, when Uscolia is published, 256 babies continue to be born every minute. But the parents of how many of these will read Uscolia? Indeed, the parents of how many will read any book? The parents of how many can read at all? The parents of how many can afford to spend time, energy, and resources on anything not directly related to survival? Perhaps the greater good would be better served if Uscolians showed us how to spread basic literacy to hundreds of millions who still haven’t achieved it, to inhabitants of the Amazon basin who have never heard of amazon.com. Until that happens, let us learn from the Uscolians all we can—without teaching.

Are Uscolians, then, unapologetically elitist? In a way they are. By definition, the acquisition of any knowledge or skill is elitist, because it separates one from all those who lack this knowledge or skill. The more learning you acquire, the narrower the circle you belong to becomes. If you are literate you already belong to an elite, admittedly a large one, comprising 83% of the world population, leaving the remaining 17% behind. If you completed high school, you belong to a smaller elite, comprising 66% of world population, and if you have a college degree you are part of a 7% elite, leaving 93% of the population behind. Those who achieve true excellence in the sciences, arts, business, or some other area are likely to belong to a highly exclusive club, leaving more than 99% of the human race in the dust. Any gain in knowledge and skill advances you and separates you from those less knowledgeable and skilled.

With aristocracy all but gone, elites are what we have left to emulate and endeavor to join. They are not as alluring as the aristocracy but are more accepting and offer many more options for joining because they come in many flavors: cultural, financial, political, religious, military, and others. In societies in which most of us have a fair theoretical chance of becoming part of at least one of these, elitism is not a slur word.

Perfect pitch and native fluency in music

Defining perfect pitch is not a straightforward matter. The correct term is absolute pitch, or the ability to identify or generate any pitch without a context. This is to distinguish it from relative pitch, which is the ability to recognize or generate a pitch after being given a reference pitch. For example, if you played a C on the piano and named the note, then you played a G and asked what it was, a person with relative pitch would be able to recognize the G by comparing it with the C. This skill can be developed at any age.

What we generally refer to as perfect or absolute pitch is the ability to sing a G out of the blue, any time, on demand, without any reference pitch. On one hand, it is not entirely accurate to talk about developing this skill, because all babies are born with it. On the other hand, if it is not maintained, by about the age of one it disappears. On the third hand, it is not enough to be able to hear the differences between the pitches, which all babies do: it is necessary also to be able to attach the correct name to each pitch, which must be learned. Babies acquire this skill the way they acquire their native language: by extensive exposure to the association between the object (sock) and the corresponding word (“sock”), and in the case of pitches, between the sound (sol) and the corresponding word (“sol” or “G”).

The reason most of us don’t have perfect pitch is that our parents didn’t point out to us the pitches of the sounds in the environment. It is possible to argue that there is a reason why our mothers were able to point out to us the color of the tomato and of the grass but not the pitch of the birdsong or the thunder. Being able to differentiate between colors is a selected trait; those who couldn’t tell the color of the mushroom ended up eating the poisonous one. Knowing the pitch of the cat’s meow has no consequences for survival. This may be perfectly true, and it may explain why so few of us have perfect pitch. We’re in a vicious cycle. The fewer parents have perfect pitch, the fewer are able to help their children retain it. But it does not disprove the mechanism by which it is achieved and achievable, or the benefits that can accrue to those who have it, that the brains of those who have perfect pitch differ from the brains of those who do not. Going one step further, it is reasonable to argue that retaining perfect pitch is an important element in achieving native fluency in music. Indeed, it is almost an automatic byproduct of the exposure that eventually leads to native fluency in music.

Thomas More’s “Utopia”

Thomas More’s Utopia is a timeless masterpiece that has not only added a word to the dictionary of every language on earth, but also a genre to the repertoire of world literature. My audacity to even claim any sort of kinship between Uscolia and it would be unforgivable, were it not for several thousand other books that have already done so in course of the last five hundred years.

Why is the genre More invented so popular? And why did he invent it in the first place? One is tempted to say that More used the indirect narrative simply to save his skin. Certainly, people have gone to the scaffold for less, as indeed More himself did twenty years later, not for something he wrote but for something he refused to write. But I think that looking at Utopia as a defensive stratagem is simplistic. More could have used less elaborate allegoric means to put some distance between himself and his subversive message. In my opinion, the answer lies in the complexity of the issues More addressed and in the tools at his disposal to tackle them.

Like the rest of Europe, England in the 16th century was rife with social, political, and economic problems. From his position as a well-to-do commoner (a lawyer), on one hand in the service of the crown and on the other managing a large household of ordinary people, More witnessed these problems at all levels and from all perspectives. Inequality was epic. Injustice obscene. Inefficiency paralyzing. Incompetence colossal. Even if More had the luxury to publicize his views freely, there was no coherent political, social, legal, and economic theory that a devout humanist could have appealed to for a credible solution to the many problems the subjects of Henry VIII shared with other Europeans. More’s stroke of genius was to solve all these problems in one fell swoop in a remote land whose geographic coordinates were not entirely precise. On the island of Utopia there were no constraints imposed by the Catholic Church, no difficulty curtailing the power of the monarch, no consideration owed to a parasitical aristocracy, no obstacles to limiting the amassing of enormous wealth. It all could be accomplished in one compelling narrative, where all the parts fit together neatly. It is a brilliant device, and an infinitely versatile one, which can be replicated and adapted to solve any number of otherwise difficult to solve or unsolvable problems, like education.

The innovative utopian setting is only the beginning of the delights More’s book offers. More embeds his extraordinary story into a frame of real places, people, and events, mixing masterfully fact with fantasy, keeping a straight face through most of the narrative, while occasionally sending the knowledgeable reader a long, meaningful look. The eloquence, erudition, and elegance of More’s little book have been endlessly imitated but never surpassed.