The World Beyond Your Head

by Matthew B. Crawford

Matthew Crawford is going to mess with your head to help you see the world outside of it. Combining an impressive understanding of philosophical thought with the concrete reality of ice hockey, short-order cooks, motorcycle traffic, and the world of pipe organs, Crawford is going to help you grapple with the crisis of attention. It is a wrestling match rooted in how one sees the world; only through mental representations of it (those, he argues, increasingly engineered) or in "how we encounter objects and other people." Crawford writes, 

Skilled practices serve as an anchor to the world beyond one's head--a point of triangulation with objects and other people who have a reality of their own.

There were places where Crawford made my head hurt. But that was because he was introducing thought leaders, concepts, and constructs that are not a part of my everyday musings. And while I think his evolutionary worldview causes him to miss the point on some issues of morality and the Protestant Reformation (is he a victim of a sort of "choice architecture" [page 117] himself?), his cogent thinking and writing is insightful and full of implications for life in general and education in particular.

Crawford contends, and following his line of thought I agree, that we are cheered on to "think for ourselves," but often those choices are engineered for us by a world increasingly governed by big data. Don't worry, this is not a "Look out for Big Brother" kind of text. It is a whack on the side of the head to think about how you are thinking and what we must do become an individual in an age of distraction.

The more I review notations I have made throughout the book, the more I am looking for another star to assign to my rating. Here are a few of my highlights:

1. Ascetics of attention: "Without the ability to direct our attention where we will, we will become more receptive to those who would direct our attention where they will. . . . Distractability might be regarded as the mental equivalent of obesity."16

2. Autonomy talk: It stems from Enlightenment epistemology and moral theory which pushes against perceived forms of coercion and posits us as independent beings. The "virtue of independence" can make us suspect of what has come before and leave us standing aloof from experience. But Crawford points out that "it is when we are engaged in a skilled practice that the world shows up for us as having a reality of its own, independent of the self." Engaging that reality, we think individually and become more human. Page 27

3. Freedom: "We have moved from an argument about the illegitimacy of particular political authorities in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, to the illegitimacy of the authority of other people in general, to the illegitimacy of the authority of our own experience." Chapter 5, "A Brief History of Freedom," page 122). Is our so-called freedom being manipulated by "the dark arts of attentional design"? (page 107). It sure looks that way.

4. Education: The dangers inherent in treating education as a business enterprise (see chapter 6, "On Being Led Out" particularly pages 138ff). Crawford gave me new appreciation for the role of the professor in the digital days of MOOCs. They are the mentors that help us connect ideas of the past with the information of the present. 

5. Celebrating the craftsman: Crawford's focus on the artist, whether that be the short-order cook, organ maker, or skilled motorcyclist helps to reevaluate and reposition innovation; recognizing it's importance without bowing down to it as the be-all-end-all in business, education, and life.

This book is worth your read -- and re-read!