Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

February 2010 Archives

My sister Mimi and I are opposite in many ways. She was a straight A student and I was a solid B student. She seemed to be able to focus and get through her schoolwork easily where I struggled.

My sister ended up with her choice of any university she wanted to go to and ended up first at Harvard and then at Stanford and is now in the midst of an academic career.

I, on the other hand, was unable to get into any of my first choice universities and ended up dropping out after a few years. I was later convinced to go back to university again by a well known physicist I was working with and dropped out again after becoming disillusioned with formal education as well as my ability to pay attention and learn anything. (I also discovered the amazing community that was the Chicago nightlife scene of the late 80s.)

I think it's fair to say that the most important thing that I learned in my formal education was touch typing in junior high school and possibly the importance of camaraderie and athletics during high school wrestling.

Despite my completely dysfunctional relationship with formal learning, I've been able to learn enough to run companies, give talks and be allowed to go to some of the same conferences as my sister.

I was talking to my sister whose research focus is learning and digital media. We were discussing formal learning versus informal learning and how I probably survived because I had the privilege of having access to smart people and mentors, the support of an understanding mother, an interest driven obsessive personality and access to the Internet. I completely agree that improving formal education and lowering dropout rates is extremely important, but I wonder how many people have personalities or interests that aren't really that suited for formal education, at least in its current form.

I wonder how many people there are like me who can't engage well with formal education, but don't have the mentors or access to the Internet and end up dropping out despite having a good formal education available to them. Is there a way to support and acknowledge the importance of informal learning and allow those of us who work better in interest and self-motivated learning to do so without the social stigma and lack of support that is currently associated with dropping out of formal education?

Or... is the answer to make formal education more flexible and capable of supporting a wider spectrum of types of learning to enable people like me to "make it through the system"? Oddly, as my informal education has finally started to reach limits in certain areas, I find myself increasingly reaching out to formal education institutions for the rigor and depth that I need to explore my areas of interest.

My sister just posted her talk New Media and Its Superpowers: Learning, Post Pokemon which is highly relevant.

I just finished reading Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan by Jake Adelstein after seeing a post on Tokyo Mango about it. I rate it up there with the classic The Enigma of Japanese Power by Karel Van Wolferen and my more recents favorites Dogs and Demons by Alex Kerr and Tokyo Underworld: The Fast Times and Hard Life of an American Gangster in Japan by Robert Whiting.

All of these books provide a thoughtful view of Japan from the perspective of a non-Japanese and I think are essential readings for anyone trying to understand modern Japanese history and culture. So much of the really important underlying context and culture isn't translated from Japanese into English and even if it were, it would be mostly incomprehensible without framing it in a Western context.

Jake Adelstein does a great job of making the book very fun to read, personal and accurate. His background as a professional Japanese journalist covering crime in Japan for the Japanese edition of Yomiuri, one of Japanese mammoth newspapers, adds a lot of credibility and cultural sensitivity that are lacking in most books about Japan that are written by non-Japanese.

I also liked the way that the book presented the perspective of the Japanese underground and Japanese culture through personal stories and narrative and didn't try to explain all of Japan. It's nearly impossible, even for Japanese, to understand why things are the way they are in Japan and it's only through experience and listening to stories like Jake's that you can begin to stitch together your version of Japan.

In The Way of Zen by Alan Watts, Watts describes that it is impossible to explain in English, all that is Zen. In fact, the Zen masters explain that Zen is beyond words. He describes how most Japanese Zen masters do not even try to "explain" Zen. He admits that although his Western background and his attempt to explain Zen in words by definition fails to capture the true core essence of Zen. However, he argues that because he lives between both worlds, he is able to describe Zen in words much more clearly than the masters might imagine.

That's what I think about the good books about Japan written by non-Japanese. Japanese often don't explain context or pretend that everyone knows what is going on. I think this leads to a lot of misunderstanding and the development of unspoken rules and culture shared only be small groups of people hidden in most part from the public. Publishers in Japan are also very sensitive about publishing books about taboo subjects in Japanese.

I highly recommend the book.

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