Foundation or Federation

Sal Khan, of Khan Academy, has been doing daily “homeroom” live streams to help students and their parents manage during the coronavirus pandemic and its attendant school closures. Though I’m neither a parent nor a student (not officially anyway; I like to think I’m always a student because I always love learning), I have listened to some of the homeroom sessions because I respect Sal and appreciate the advice he dispenses. Today someone asked him about his favorite books, and the first thing Sal mentioned was Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. This is a favorite of mine too, and at least in part for the same reason Sal gave: The series paints a distant future in which an age of darkness looms. Though this new dark age is inevitable, one man, Hari Seldon, believes its length and impact can be greatly lessened if a group of scientists, inventors, etc. can come together to forge a Foundation which will serve as a warehouse of knowledge. (This is a conceit also explored in other science fiction works such as Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, Walter M. Miller’s  Canticle for Leibowitz, and others.) Asimov doesn’t gloss over the coming dark age, but his vision is optimistic nonetheless.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, I see Star Trek’s Federation as another optimistic picture of the future. I have also mentioned how impossible it seems, given the current tenor of discourse on nearly any topic both here in America and abroad. This is nothing new; our optimistic Mr. Asimov many years ago said:

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’ (Isaac Asimov, Newsweek, January 21, 1980)

The fear of society’s devolution into dystopia is a mainstay of science fiction. The possibility of it actually happening feels truer today than ever, however—at least more than at any other point in my lifetime to date. Maybe that explains my obsession with ongoing learning. I may not ever zoom around the galaxy on a mission “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before,” but I can do my part to help bring about the Federation…or the Foundation.

Three Good Instructional Websites

I love learning, but as I mentioned yesterday (College Advice from Someone Who Sucked at College), college and I never gelled. Happily, the internet has some great options for learning. Some of those options are completely free! I’d like to introduce you to three of them.

Sal Khan is an internet hero. His Khan Academy (Khan Academy) began humbly. Sal began tutoring his cousins in math in 2008, making simple YouTube videos to illustrate his lessons. Since then, Khan Academy has added history, art, programming, career advice and more to its very thorough offering of mathematics from elementary to advanced levels. The site is easy to navigate, with clear learning pathways along which you can earn badges to reward your progress.

It was through Khan Academy that I discovered Crash Course (Crash Course). This project from John and Hank Green grew out of their successful VlogBrothers YouTube channel. Crash Course lessons are delivered in fast-paced, often humorous videos, each 10-15 minutes long. Courses include history, engineering, theater, philosophy, chemistry, and more. In addition to Crash Course, the Greens’ company, Complexly (Complexly), also manages several other educational YouTube channels like SciShow (in several flavors), Art Assignment, and Animal Wonders. They have also partnered on educational projects with Mental Floss and PBS Digital Studios. Once you enter their orbit, you’ll find enough brain food to keep you busy for a long time!

Finally, a site that is more specialized: Justin Guitar (Justin Guitar). YouTube has no shortage of music how-to videos, but few people have put as much thought, effort, and love into an instructional music site as Justin Sandercoe. His sit is a must for anyone interested in playing the guitar. In addition to well-ordered video lessons, his site includes interviews with notable players, and resources for sheet music, staff and TAB paper, equipment, and more. Justin’s thoroughness and personable teaching style make this site an example of internet instruction at its finest.

While it’s easy to think of the internet as little more than a collection of cat pictures, extremist propaganda, and endless threads vitriolic argument, if you look past the clutter you can find a wealth of learning opportunities. At its worst, the internet is a time-wasting sinkhole of nastiness. At its best, it really is the information superhighway.