Critique of Seth Jordan’s “It’s not what we know that’s important, it’s what we don’t”

The summer edition of Lilipoh magazine (Issue 64, Vol. 16, Summer 2011) published an article by Seth Jordan, “It’s not what we know that’s important, it’s what we don’t.”  You can read the full article on the ThinkOutWord website here.  What follows is a critique of that article.

Reading Seth’s article, my first response is, why is this article written with such strong emotion?  By all appearances there are some strong feelings here, and I am greatly puzzled as to their source.  On the one hand, I could simply pass it off as a writing style.  On the other hand, it could really represent Seth’s inner feeling life regarding his views on the relationship between youth and adults, education, etc.  Regardless, I personally struggled with seeing past the emotional thinking so that I could get to the underlying reasoning.  What follows here is a critique of the reasoning.  My motivation for doing this is fairly straight forward—to provide some feedback to the community from the perspective of one of the “adults” that Seth speaks of.

I think it’s pretty clear that most “adults” have no idea what to do with “young adults.”After years of pushing us through school, we come out the other end and don’t really know much and aren’t very productive.  It takes years for us to settle into jobs, to forget the anguish and idealism of our youth, and to raise families of our own. But those years are an awkward state of limbo – we bumble around and wander and can’t seem to find our place in society.

The article begins with the premise that older adults are disconnected from young adults and that young adults are themselves disconnected from the parental and societal agendas of education and work.  In Seth’s emotional thinking, he views adults as “pushing” young adults through school and concludes that young adults, at the end of this process are intellectually (and perhaps emotionally?) unprepared and therefore also not able to be productive.  The premise is that youth involves feelings of anguish and idealistic thinking which takes years “to forget,” and that transition (into the same disconnected adults, I wonder?) occurs in an “awkward state of limbo” in an attempt to reconnect to society.

I recently met a young man, Gabe, 18, who had just graduated from high school.  I asked him about his high school—he said that in his freshman year, there were over 160 students.  When he graduated, he was ranked seventh out of 65 graduates.  Explaining what happened to the other 100 or so students, he said that they either dropped out, transferred to other schools, were expelled, or died.  He is thrilled to be going to a college in Pennsylvania which he said “has exactly the courses that I want to take and extra-curricular activities that I want to be involved in.”  He is going to major in political science and has been acting in Shakespeare theatre since middle school.  He is a mature yet light hearted young man that clearly communicated his passion and is pursuing an education and career that supports those passions.  Gabe is one of many examples that I could cite of young people that are pushing themselves rather than experiencing adults as “pushing us through school.”

Seth’s viewpoint does have some validity.  However, I would have preferred a more objective introduction, citing research from others that demonstrates Seth’s point.  For example, there is an excellent article from the New York Times, published in August 22, 2010, “What Is It About 20-Somethings?” where the author writes:

“It’s happening all over, in all sorts of families, not just young people moving back home but also young people taking longer to reach adulthood overall. It’s a development that predates the current economic doldrums, and no one knows yet what the impact will be — on the prospects of the young men and women; on the parents on whom so many of them depend; on society, built on the expectation of an orderly progression in which kids finish school, grow up, start careers, make a family and eventually retire to live on pensions supported by the next crop of kids who finish school, grow up, start careers, make a family and on and on. The traditional cycle seems to have gone off course, as young people remain un­tethered to romantic partners or to permanent homes, going back to school for lack of better options, traveling, avoiding commitments, competing ferociously for unpaid internships or temporary (and often grueling) Teach for America jobs, forestalling the beginning of adult life.” (

Problem is: we have no place in society. It can’t be given to us – we have to make it – but there’s no opportunity. We’re expected to climb the ladder like everyone else. Once we’ve reached the rarefied air of the upper echelons of power within an institution (once we’ve become adults) then we too can participate in decision-making… in the creative process. Problem is that once we’ve climbed that ladder, jumped through all those hoops, kissed all that ass, and acted as a cog in a machine for years on end, we have nothing really new to offer. Our true inspiration is gone.  (Not that older people aren’t creative. All I’m saying is that once you’ve been in this world long enough, your creativity tends to be of this world – determined by what is, and less by what could be.)

It is difficult to move past Seth’s emotive language and to connect to his point, which I interpret to be that, given this disconnect with society, the process of becoming integrated takes so long that by the time it is achieved, true inspiration (“what could be”) no longer occurs—one may still be creative, but the idealism that drives creativity is gone.  Again, I would prefer some objective, concrete examples of this perspective—his point is illustrated by the quote above from the New York Times article.  I also don’t see Seth as an authority on this topic—how much ass kissing has he actually done to then, having gone through those experiences, lost “true inspiration” and having his creativity determined “by what is?”

I have a friend, Annie, who is 24.  She is the Director of Development for an organization that works with colleges and universities to promote moral and ethical investments for their endowment funds.  She works with youth in colleges to promote education and activism, and with senior decision makers that control the financial decisions.  She was specifically hired by the management of this organization for her creativity, her energy, her new ideas.  This is, in many ways, her dream job because she isn’t just working “in the system” (her previous job was determining how the Department of Social Services funding should be distributed within the legal confines of Federal and state laws), she is instead able to be creative in the private sector.

Citing myself as an example as a software developer, author and consultant, the creativity that I bring to my clients is sought after and, more importantly, could not have been achieved without 20 years of experiencing “what is.”  I and my clients are always striving for “what could be”, which is why I am hired to begin with—in fact I seek out those progressive companies because I want to live in that space of “what could be.”

There’s a creative source to every human being.  We each bring new impulses, new gifts, new talents into the world that the world has never before seen. These of course need to be developed and honed, just as any rich natural resource must be taken up and crafted in order to have an “economic value” (in order to become food, shelter, clothing, or an iPod). But the resources are all there… we’re just waiting to be recognized.  As the author Alain de Botton has stated:  “We talk of waste all the time. Of course the one resource that we continue to waste in prodigious quantities is human life, our own and those of others. We certainly might hope that in the 21st century we’ll get cleverer at managing to extract from people those talents which they themselves are not aware of, and which we all struggle to get a grip on…” Human capital is our greatest waste, especially the never-before-seen splendors of the young.

There’s a source of creativity in every human from which stems “new impulses, new gifts, new talents,” which need to be “developed and honed”, and which is being wasted.  Seth makes a false analogy between natural resources and “young adults” when he writes “But the resources are all there..we’re just waiting to be recognized.”  Gold is gold regardless of where it is dug up.  The “gold” of each human being is unique.  When Craig Holdridge, at my son’s high school graduation, said (and I paraphrase) “education should not be designed to prepare our children for the world, but rather so that the world is unprepared for our children,” I see him recognizing the potential (or as Seth puts it, the “resources”) of young adults.  There is also something of a two way street here—if you want to be recognized, then demonstrate that you bring forth these new impulses—be worthy of that recognition.  Yes, I look at an infant and recognize the incredible potential of that infant.  When I see a 30 year old, I still see the potential, but that 30 year old has a fully developed ego body by this point and so I also look to see how, through his/her own will forces, that person is bringing his/her own new impulses, gifts, and talents “into the world.”  When does a young adult say “ok, I’m going to overcome the dramas of my childhood, stop being fettered by the past, and take responsibility for becoming the fully incarnated human being that I have the potential of becoming?”  I would like to ask Seth, when do you become responsible for garnering the recognition that you seek?

What keeps us from recognizing and developing the gifts of youth for the benefit of all? First: we’re looking for the wrong things in young people. We value information – the right answers to our problems.  Often what young people bring are the right questions. Our power is not in what we know, but what we don’t (and can imagine). Here’s an example from my own life: recently I met with an expert in my field of interest (activism and the social sciences, with a focus on the radical ideas of the 20th century Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner). I asked him about bringing health to society through these extraordinary ideas – what’s already happening and what’s possible? The answer was discouraging: he knew everything that was happening, including the amazing forces of opposition arrayed against any sort of change in the status quo, and saw little hope. I sat there in his office and realized that, because he knew everything about the past, he was unable to imagine the future – the unknown, the impossible – and so was stuck. I sat across from him, a fire in my belly that he knew nothing of, and knew that he had no idea how much I didn’t know, and how that “ignorance” freed me to dream anything, to ask any question, to create any reality.

In this paragraph, Seth’s use of “us” and “we” is inconsistent from everything else he’s written so far—prior to this paragraph, he is in the camp of the youth.  Now he appears to be including himself in the camp of adults (“we’re looking for the wrong things in young people”) but then switches back to being a youth (“Our power is not in what we know…”.)  Does this reveal an identity crisis?  Does Seth view himself as a youth or a guiding adult, or some of both?

Seth answers his own question (“What keep us from recognizing and developing the gifts of youth for benefit for all?”): older adults are looking for the old thinking answers to questions rather than hearing the questions that young adults are asking.  In Seth’s view, it is the question, asked out of a lack of knowledge, that is the power of young people.

Frankly, I am deeply concerned that Seth feels that the power of young people (here he seems to include himself again into this category) is not what they know, but what they don’t know.  There’s a reason George Santayana wrote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  Or George Bernard Shaw: “If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience.”  Ignorance is not power.  It is at best ignorance and at worst, dangerous stupidity.  When Seth talked with this “expert,” is the inability “to imagine the future” the result of “knowing everything about the past” or merely an artifact of this person’s personality, or his morning breakfast?

Yes, parents, educators, politicians, CEO’s—they all can all do better by listening to the questions rather than asking the questions with a set of preconceived answers.  But the right question changes over time.  Parcival goes on a lengthy journey before he asks the right question.  In ignorance, the right question probably is “how did we get here?”  In knowledge, the right question might be “where do we go from here, and how?”

After relating the Fourteenth Century Chinese parable about the monkey master, by Liu-Ji, Seth writes:

What I want to point out is the monkey that enlightened them and how. It was not the wisest nor the strongest monkey, nor the eldest who led them out every day. It was a “small monkey” – one that was probably too young or unfit to be one of the leaders. Whereas leaders tend to be at the center, holding it all together, the right question often comes from the periphery, from those on the edge who don’t fit in, who sit on the border of the unknown. Out of his ignorance (and perhaps a bit of courage) the small monkey asked the right question, the one that allowed the other monkeys to reframe their perception of the situation, and, out of this “reframing,” to change it.

So, from Seth’s perspective, the point of the story is the fact that the “small monkey” (presumably young and innocent) is the one that brought new thinking to the situation.  Within the context of Seth’s article, this is only half of the picture.  The small monkey doesn’t just ask “can’t we take the fruits without the old man’s permission?”  The small monkey first asks a question to acquire knowledge: “Did the old man plant all the fruit trees and bushes?”  The small monkey still needs to learn more: “Can’t we take the fruits without the old man’s permission?”  This knowledge is necessary for the small monkey to formulate the critical question that brings enlightenment to the group.  It is not, as Seth writes “out of his ignorance [that] the small monkey asked the right question,” but rather out of knowledge that the small monkey builds the framework to ask the right question.  I also disagree that the right question often comes “from those on the edge who don’t fit in.”  I think, more accurately, the right question comes from those in the center who deeply understand an existing process.

Larry Page and Sergey Brin were respectively 22 and 21 years old when they met in 1995, and a year later began collaborating on a search engine that would become Google.  They met at Stanford and were both computer science graduate students.  They were deeply in the center of the state of the art technology at that time.  Because of their deep understanding of where the technology was, they were able to bring new ideas to the world, to ask the right questions.

So how can we do the same – how can we find the new impulses and inspirations, as well as the new questions, which can lead us out of this mess? By inviting young people into the center. Not permanently (we don’t all need to be in the center all the time) but with a healthy flow. Young adults need a voice in our institutions. We do need jobs (especially jobs where we’re creatively engaged and not just wage slaves) but we also need to take on leadership roles in our communities – to join the town council or school board (these might be too boring if you just sit around reciting Robert’s Rules of Order, so check out the Art of Hosting if you want ideas of how to create a really engaging group process). We need decision-making bodies that are not only composed of the oldest and wisest (and richest) members of the community, instead we need diversity, fresh perspectives, smart answers and naïve questions.

At this point, my view on the matter diverges so much from Seth’s perspective that first, I would not want to “do the same” (ask out of ignorance.)  Second, the answer to “how can we find the new impulses…” is obvious—through a deep knowledge of what is and what has been.

Otto Scharmer, in his book Theory U illustrates this in his five movements of the Theory U process: co-initiating, co-sensing, co-presencing, co-creating, and co-evolving.  Dr. Scharmer describes the second step as going “to the places of most potential: observe, observe, observe”—this is the process of acquiring deep knowledge.  We’re not asking questions yet nor providing answers.  As Dr. Scharmer writes: we’re in a gesture of learning, listening “with your mind and heart wide open.”

But instead, what Seth is suggesting is to bring ignorant young adults into the center (“our power is [in] what we don’t [know]”.)  This is eloquently demonstrated when Seth writes “we need decision-making bodies that are not only composed of the oldest and wisest (and richest) members….,instead…” How would we complete that phrase, ending in “instead?”  Like this: “instead we need the diversity…” of the youngest, dumbest, and poorest members!

All joking aside, if we have naïve questions coming from the periphery by those invited to the center, then where are the smart answers coming from?  Yes, from those people (young and old alike) that can bring fresh perspectives, from those people that have experienced the center and can move into the periphery.  However again, a voice “in our institutions” must be earned, not through naïve questions, but by intelligent questions gained from “observe, observe, observe” that demonstrate knowledge of the box.

Besides inviting us in to your organizations, we need real space to do our own thing within society at large. I don’t mean another skate park. We need to have the means to explore our options (a paid year of civil service world-wide) and the capital to create new forms (see England’s Child Trust Fund). And some of us still want to continue our education (we can’t cultivate our gifts unless we have access to good teachers) but why aren’t schools free? Is this not a right that we can all agree on? Do only the economic elite deserve this privilege? This is ridiculous. And schools shouldn’t just be free for students, they should be free for teachers. Why can’t they work out of their own inspiration? Why should they be handed a curriculum from some bureaucrat thousands of miles away? That politician doesn’t know me! They have no idea how to unearth my gifts! (For more on this issue, see Nathaniel Williams excellent article “Educational Reform, Good Intentions, and Good Ideas“)

Seth continues–not only should young adults be invited into organizations, but they need a space “to do [their] own thing.”  Young adults need the means (“capital”, so I’m assuming Seth means financial means) to explore and create new forms.  Some young adults want to continue their education—why aren’t schools free (not costing money, I assume) and why aren’t teacher’s free (to determine their own curriculum.)

This comes across as elitist to me—I wonder, at what point does a young adult transition from being given “everything” (by my estimates, I paid close to $100,000 for 14 years—two kindergarten years and first through twelfth grade—of Waldorf education for my son) to balancing their needs with their means–earning the “capital” that is required for their space and educational needs.

The question “why aren’t schools free?” is naïve.  As Nathaniel Williams writes in the article that Seth mentions, “…schools have to be funded by profits generated through the economy.”  Perhaps schools can be free to students, but the school still costs something which comes from the political and economic spheres of society–spheres in which adults work.  I would like to know when Seth feels a young adult should begin contributing to his/her own educational costs?  When should a young adult begin contributing to the economy, so that schools can continue to be free for those that are younger?

But the most interesting question for me is, if “our power is [in] what we don’t [know],” why, Seth, do you even need schools?

If we don’t do these things pro-actively then things will get worse, and when things get worse the younger generation will probably just force their way into the center anyways (for an example see the recent Egyptian uprising). As Rudolf Steiner said in his Ideas for a New Europe:  “If we set up administrations that fail to take into account the rule of metamorphosis and change, then we are quite simply making sure that every succeeding generation will be revolutionary. The social organism is a living organism.”

Again, I’m not sure who the “we” is—it seems that the “we” is now people like me, who are contributing in the economic sphere, gifting to the cultural realm, etc.  And what is it we’re supposed to do other than “inviting [you] into [our] organizations” and providing you with free space and education?

So, once you take these suggestions and invite some punk kid on to your board, let me just remind you of one thing: you’re not the one with the answer. That kid might have the question, and you might have some good information and life experience. Mix all that together and maybe the answer is somewhere in-between, floating around in the room somewhere.   But you don’t know the answer because the answer is new, it’s never been seen before. You have to find it together. It has to be done through a genuine listening-in to the future. This ain’t easy, but it has to be done. We’ve got a world to fix.

Yes, we do need people with new ideas and we do need to bring together people with “good information and life experiences” together with people with new ideas, so that we can “find [the answer] together.”  But do I want to invite “some punk kid” into my business?  Not really.  I would rather invite someone that has a grounded knowledge of my business domain, or at minimum, has demonstrated the ability to learn.  A few years ago, I was invited to demonstrate some new technologies to an investment company that was looking for innovative ways to improve their software development.  Along one wall there were probably 50 or so boxes labeled “Dell.”  I asked what they were for, and my host replied “they’re computers because we hire about 100 Harvard and MIT students every summer as interns to teach them our business.”  Yes, these were young people in what you might call an elite sector of the population—those that could afford an Ivy League education.  But it’s also an elite sector of the population that qualified to go to those prestigious schools, and I imagine some of those received some scholarships.  And this small company (which chartered a bus to bring its employees that lived in NYC to Stratford CT every day and hired a catering service to provide a free barbeque every Friday and had their offices in a beautiful wooded area next to hiking trails and lovely river) recognized that “the answer is new” and, even if those interns didn’t end up working for them, they were being given real world experience so that they too could one day be brought into the center.

Reading between the lines, Seth’s point, which as I understand it is that young adults have new ways of looking at problems and need to be included in the decision making process is, frankly, obvious.  But his premises are all wrong—power is not in what you don’t know.  It’s what you do know and that you bring in from your own life experiences that creates new answers.  However, anyone can do this, young and old alike.  Unfortunately, Seth’s message (a rather old one at that) is lost in rhetoric and emotional thinking and frankly turns away the reader—“the author is a pompous, pseudointellectual idiot” was one of the responses I received from a member of the software developer community in which I participate (most responses were less colorful) when I asked people to read his article.  I would encourage Seth to consider that if he wants to be heard, if he wants to be invited into the center, that the adage “it’s not what you say, but how you say it” is something to which he should pay attention.  I would also encourage Seth to consider his logic as well, as I am left wondering what his life experiences have been up to this point that result in such faulty thinking.  And not to belabor the point, but what we don’t need in this world is more “us and them” thinking.  Dr. Tautz quoted Steiner as saying: “We must perceive only the striving … We must have the feeling that ‘everyone in the room knows something that we don’t know.’” (AWSNA, Ponderings on The College of Teachers)

One thought on “Critique of Seth Jordan’s “It’s not what we know that’s important, it’s what we don’t”

  1. Hey Marc, thanks for your critique and thanks for sharing my article with others. Your response is food for thought. I think you see my central point but I’ll try to say it in different words in case there was confusion: I’m advocating for greater inclusiveness in social/societal processes – especially the conscious including of the “youth voice” in such processes.

    Of course all minorities need to be brought into what I’m describing as the “center.” This is also what Otto Scharmer would say: we need all key stakeholders who are part of a process to be included in the decision-making for that process. It’s also generally “best practice” in community organizations and non-profits. I’m focusing on the “youth” minority because it’s the one I know best and I think they have a specific role in society.

    It’s not because they know more or because they have greater experience then older people (they don’t). So perhaps they should just listen to those who are wiser then them and let those people make the decisions. Or maybe they should be included so that they can gain experience and become informed and fully participating citizens (as in your example of the Harvard and MIT interns). And maybe, like all minorities, it would be useful for them to describe their viewpoint and needs so that whatever decisions people do make will consider them as well.

    These are all good reasons to advocate for greater inclusiveness of the youth voice. But my main point is that they actually have something positive to bring to the table. They actually have a greater capacity to think outside of the box because they haven’t been in the box as long. I know I framed it in somewhat bold language but it’s not really that radical a thought. What is perhaps more radical is a thought from Rudolf Steiner in this regard. He describes how human beings actually design their lives before they incarnate (he believes in karma and reincarnation), and that each of us bring specific gifts and inspirations that are appropriate for our own development as well as appropriate for the time within which they live. Younger people were more recently in the spiritual worlds and so their impulses are more instinctively of the future. But they can’t actually realize those impulses unless older people with greater experience help them see their paths and develop.

    So in my mind we are wasting the vast spiritual treasures that lie dormant in people because we’re trying to fit them into social forms from the past and not uncovering their gifts which are of the future.

    It’ cool if you don’t agree. I couldn’t quite understand why from your blog post… I guess because you think that the people who should be making the decisions are those who have acquired the most experience and intelligence from the past. That’s fine. I see that expertise is super important, I’m just not too worried about those people being given a chance to participate.

    Because you question my motivations for writing the piece I’ll just answer that super quick. It’s not for my own sake. I’ve already served on boards and planning committees (and I’ve been offered 4 jobs and 2 new board positions in the past year). I’m not too worried about myself. I’m more worried because all the boards I know have no young people on them and no fresh ideas and a lot of institutions I know are failing. I’m also worried about the young people I know who have no support for their initiatives (financial or social), no one recognizing what they’re bringing into the world. This is the main reason why the Credere Fund, a program of Think OutWord, gives away money to young people with new initiatives, because most of these people would never be recognized or supported by those in the center. Their ideas are too new, too “fringe.” They’re agrd to make sense of because they’ve never been see before (ideally… this is what I think you were referring too with the Craig Holdrege quote).

    In April I went to an Initiative Forum in Jaerna Sweden that was organized by YIP, the Youth Initiative Program. About half of the 200 participants or so presented ideas for their own initiatives, things they wanted to do to help bring about a healthier world. 100 young people with new ideas and with idealism and enthusiasm coursing through their veins and not one foundation in the room with the financial means to actually support any of them. Most of those projects will languish and those young people will not grow into the human beings they could become, will not become “initiated” because there was no community support and recognition for their initiative.

    Thanks for the feedback that my tone sounded “emotional.” I’ll keep that in mind in the future.

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