Why Foundations Matter - Principles #5

Publish Date
Dec 8, 2021
Principles Series
In a sentence, there's this: we need the right building blocks of thought before we go out and try to build a cathedral.
Our discourse around current events is consistently taking complex topics and simplifying them into quick sound bites or 280-character tweets. If you follow this discourse regularly, you’ll be sure to learn very little about the true issue. But you will start to notice trends that suggest why the marketplace of ideas appears to be failing.
Today we’ll cover the first option: that people lack the underlying building blocks needed to look at issues critically. Tomorrow we’ll cover the second: that tribalism has come to trump principles.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that today’s citizens, generally, lack the right frameworks to evaluate topics critically. Over the past forty years, our education system has at best remained stagnant, largely cut civics education, and seen worsening performance in math – another main source of logic and abstract thinking.
Mental foundations work a lot like physical ones: they ain't pretty but they are essential to building complex structures.
Mental foundations work a lot like physical ones: they ain't pretty but they are essential to building complex structures.
Broadly, schools have also suffered because they have shifted to teaching to overly prescriptive tests and state and federal regulations to focus much more on specific skills rather than general knowledge. This shouldn’t be a surprise. When you have 80,000 pages of guidelines of what to cover, it’s impossible to cover broad concepts in fear of missing one of the 27 different things you need to teach about, let’s say, fractions.
Thus, these foundations and principles have become a rare (and valuable) resource. First principles thinking is largely a contrarian movement for precisely this reason – few people have been taught to think in this way.
Many of these foundational approaches are well-preserved in writing such as Plato and Aristotle. And while one can learn from that, there are improvements we can make to providing those concepts over 2,000 years later.
Of course, this isn’t a textbook for reaching the level of Plato. Not that one could exist! The steps to embedding this kind of thinking comes from talking, discussing, debating, and eventually creating cultural values around principled thought. That’s a value we desperately need to embed. As we'll get to in later pieces, culture is a distributed system. So small starts like this blog and countless other sources, both bigger and smaller, are the only concrete steps we can take in order to start to make a difference.