Antifragile Education

Describing the contrasting responses to the same naturally occurring phenomena, volatility specialist Nassim Nicholas Taleb begins his book Antifragile (Random House 2014) with this analogy, “wind extinguishes a candle and energizes fire.”  He argues that rather than suffering from the effects of unpredictable shocks, chaos, and disorder, we must use them. Taleb continues the analogy by describing what it would be like to fully embrace this adventure: “you want to be the fire and wish for the wind.”  We need the unknown, the imperfect.  We actually require entropy, error and turmoil. Using examples from political, financial, and medical sectors, Taleb teaches that “…complex systems are weakened, even killed, when deprived of stressors.”  Our purpose, he advocates, is finding a way to “conquer the unseen, the opaque, and the inexplicable.” Imagine a shipment of delicate glass, packaged in materials designed to cradle and protect them from the stress of the mailing process. Stating what seems to be the obvious, Taleb says, “the fragile is the package that would be at best unharmed.”  Labeling the reverse as antifragile, Taleb explains, “the opposite of fragile is therefore what is at worst unharmed.”  Detractors have argued with him, suggesting that robust is actually the one on the other end of the spectrum. Taleb explains the difference: “the resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.”  Taleb considers Antifragile his “one master idea” and calls this book his “central work.”  Though his manner can be quite abrasive, and his comments can be rather arrogant at times, his narrative creates a semi-autobiographical description of radical ideas that will completely shift your worldview.

An Antifragile Education

Though this book is about the concept of antifragility in general, there are many education-specific comments. His passion on the topic is framed by his youth. Growing up during the Lebanese civil war, Taleb began to “disbelieve in structured learning.”  Even though Taleb went on to acquire degrees, he describes himself as a pure autodidact, one who is a self-taught person.  Becoming an intelligent antistudent was his focus, instead of becoming like “the students called ‘swallowers’ in Lebanese dialect, those who ‘swallow school material’ and whose knowledge is only derived from the curriculum.”Homeschoolers will resonate with Taleb’s emphasis that “scholarship and organized education are not the same,” and his argument for genuine learning. One of the reasons why he is skeptical is because of domain-specific skills. He illustrates, “seeing the nontransferability of skills from one domain to the other led me to skepticism in general about whatever skills are acquired in a classroom, anything in a non-ecological way, as compared to street fights and real-life situations.” Taleb believes unless learning occurs authentically, it won’t stick; “what is picked up in the classroom stays largely in the classroom.”  His skepticism in the discussion of education “applies to the brand of commoditized, prepackaged, and pink-coated knowledge, stuff one can buy in the open market and use for self-promotion.”  Instead, Taleb labels the original aim of education as “learning was for learning’s sake, to make someone a good person, [and] worth talking to.” Though Taleb argues against “lecture-driven knowledge,” he still believes that one can use this learning and still be a strong intellectual, “provided one has a private library instead of a classroom.”  As a teenager, Taleb set a personal goal to read between 30-60 hours a week, and he has continued to meet the self-imposed requirement through the intervening decades, often hauling suitcases full of books in his travels. In addition to reading, Taleb advocates spending time as “an aimless (but rational) flâneur benefiting from what randomness can give us inside and outside the library.”  This randomness is easily introduced through homeschooling efforts, when we are free to roam, collaborate, and observe real-life. As we continue to expect the learning in a steady way, we will reap anti-fragile results.

Time is On Your Side

Taleb is sure that time is one thing that will benefit any antifragile process, since, “the fragile breaks with time.”  He explains, “time is functionally similar to volatility: the more time, the more events, the more disorder.”  He continues, “if you can suffer limited harm and are antifragile to small errors, time brings the kind of errors or reverse errors that end up benefiting you. This is simply what your grandmother calls experience.”   Time will show you kindness.When considered in the context of education, this concept should help us feel calm. We have time. There is no conveyor belt forcing us forward in homeschooling; we can allow time enough

Provide Rigor and Randomness

Rigor is synonymous with thorough, consistent, meticulous work. How can that possibly pair well with randomness?  Taleb promises, “provided we have the right type of rigor, we need randomness, mess, adventures, uncertainty, self-discovery, near-traumatic episodes, all these things that make life worth living.”  The combination of the rigor with the random will synergize to create the anti-fragility. What exactly is “the right type of rigor?”  Taleb doesn’t specify or elaborate on this concept, but perhaps it can refer to our motivation and our momentum. These seem to boost antifragility, and exponentially increase our ability to thrive.

Beware Iatrogenics

While teaching, we will consistently notice opportunities to jump in and quickly offer help to our students, trying to expedite the process, alleviate the frustration, or hasten understanding. An antifragile system will improve when we refrain from intrusion, because the antifragile needs the dissonance. Taleb is careful to explain, he’s not against the notion of intervention, instead, the lack of awareness of potential harm done by intervention. “The name for such net loss, the (usually hidden or delayed) damage from treatment in excess of the benefits, is iatrogenics, literally, ‘caused by the healer,’ iatros being a healer in Greek.”  We need to look for a break-even point between the benefits of intervention and the harm of intervention, the moment when the help we offer is better than having the problems continue. Finding that balance feels undoubtedly daunting, but simply by naming the problem, we improve in our awareness of it. So, next time you have a student struggling with pronunciation, or one who is floundering with exponential calculations, your first step will be to pause. Consider the importance of their struggle, and don’t intervene too early.Looking at the broad definition, Taleb suggests that education itself is a concept “grounded in interventionism.”  We need to know when to interfere and when to let the process alone. Taleb encourages us to have confidence in “the natural antifragility of systems, their ability to take care of themselves.”  We need to restrain ourselves he continues, “and fight our tendency to harm and fragilize them.”As homeschoolers, we already have begun to learn to process the naturally occurring volatility. We already thrive and grow when exposed to shocks and stressors. We know what it is to have obstacles, hurdles, and unexpected twists and turns as we take the education of our children out of the traditional environment. Apply the idea of antifragility, and become the proverbial fire wishing for the wind.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *