22 September 2018

Is Education Important?!? Yes, But Schooling May Not Be

Why is education important? 

That is the question behind the actual words of complaint when school has the audacity to impose upon a child's time and attention. 

You know the scene:

Imagine your most beloved child is before you in full complaint mode. 
S/he is whining about memorizing times tables or the futility of algebra or the monotony of history. 
S/he is pleading for your sympathy with that pouting face that irks you just so or is simply defiant with arms crossed or hands on hips. 
The complaint will probably include, "Why do I have to…" 
Part of you sympathizes but the parent voice in your head is telling you to do your job as the parent and not give in to mere sympathy. 
Playing out your parent role means they have to get over it and do what needs to be done.

I challenge you to answer their actual concerns, not their stated questions. 
But to do that you need to gauge the true depth of those concerns. 
If you can approach their concerns rather than answer their questions, then you have the opportunity to offer both sympathy AND strategies to get over it and do what needs to be done.

The benefit of the following approach is that it does not require your child to know their real concern or it's depth. 
You don't even have to know yourself, you just have to be willing to go through the process and pay close attention to how your child reacts. 
If you can stay with it long enough, your child will either move on or you will be clear that you need more help. Either way you have something of value. 

Education is Important for Disillusionment

The foundation of this approach is that we don't really know what is actually going on except in fragments. 
This is true of everything in our lives; our world, our relationships, and our own minds. 
We feel and sometimes think we know, but our minds have evolved exquisite methods of generating a myriad of unconscious assumptions that fool us into believing we have a true and correct knowledge of our world, our relationships, and our own minds when the truth is we don't. 
If we assume that our knowledge is mostly an illusion, then we have to have a practice of disillusionment to figure out what is really going on. 
This is not the extreme position of positing that there is only illusion, but the moderate position that we are inherently prone to illusion and the wise course in emotionally charged or high stakes situations is to verify our shared understandings to ensure our actions serve the well being of all and align with our moral values. 

Your child's complaint and the underlying concerns are, therefore, most likely arising from an illusion. 
Since we are also assuming that your illusions are just as pervasive as your child's illusions, then your best bet is to gather reliable evidence of what is really going on and then go from there. 

I have included several visual illusions on this page to remind you of how we can be fooled by our own minds. 
These illusions are all caused by our minds automatically filling in information or unconsciously interpreting it. 
Our minds do exactly those two things all the time in everything we do without our even knowing that it happened. 
That's why we need to collect a lot of evidence and find where it converges to know what is really going on. 
Science is the social organization of the necessary process of disillusionment. 
Eyeball Blind Spot Illusion
The reason the dot disappears is because you have a lacuna, a blind spot, on your retina where there are no light receptors because that is where the optic nerve is attached. 

There are three underlying primary concerns behind complaints about being made to do stuff. 
  1. This task is unfulfilling
  2. This task is not connected to immediate reality
  3. This task is not connected to larger realities (it is not in alignment with the most important moral challenges we face today)

Each of these deep concerns may arise from illusions rather than actual reality. 
When a task seems unfulfilling then hedonism or intellectualism may be confounding our understanding of the situation. 
When the task seems not to be connected to immediate reality then fear or social proof may be getting in the way of recognizing how the task fits into a larger plan or goal. 
Finally when the task seems unconnected to larger moral issues then identity and certainty may be impairing our ability to discern the proper path towards expressing our integrity.
So when your most beloved offspring or student complains there are three levels of concern and two illusions behind each concern:
  1. Unfulfillment Concern
    • Hedonism Illusion
    • Intellectualism Illusion
  2. Unreality Concern
    • Fear Illusion
    • Social Proof Illusion
  3. Immorality Concern
    • Identity Illusion
    • Certainty Illusion

Education is Important for Work

The trite answers that the parent voice in all our heads provide in answer to the phrase, "Why do I have to…" is, "Because I said so!" 
This is a power struggle in the making, of course. 
That obvious answer is rarely stated, however, because given a choice we adults like to invoke a more pervasive power on our side so the slightly cleverer answer is, "Because that's the law (or the rules)!" 
Of course, even the clever answer is trite because it begs the question of why the law or the rules say so.

The parent voice defends the rules by explaining the necessity of getting a job. 
The story is that you have to have a diploma and/or degree(s) to get a good job so you can act responsible by supporting yourself and your family when you become an adult. 
This answer is trite because by "job" we usually mean getting a paycheck and if that's what it's all about then it is an insult to the value of human lives.

We certainly need to find our work in this world, but we are not on this earth to have a job. 
We are human beings who are supposed to make a meaningful contribution to the well-being of all that we are a part: from our global ecologies; to our society; to our families, circles of friends, and organizations; to our individual body/mind; even down to the cells that make us up. 
If a job is just a paycheck, then work is doing what really needs to be done in service to goodness, truth, beauty, unity, and joy (which might come with a paycheck sometimes, too.) 
Having a job is less important than being a good person with meaningful work to do. 
Depth Assignment Illusion
Notice that without great effort you cannot see the picture above as simply a two-dimensional set of shapes.

Education is Important, but School May Not Be

I have to make a clear distinction between schooling and education, like I did between a job and work. 
Becoming an educated person means you have access to optimal states of mind regardless of the situation you are in. 
You are able to perceive accurately, think clearly and act effectively to achieve self-selected goals and aspirations. 
(On my definition of education page I address the inadequacy of the dominant conception of education as the delivery of knowledge, skills and information.)

Schooling, on the other hand, mostly consists of jumping through the hoops of instructional accounting to get symbolic rewards like test scores, grades, diplomas, degrees, etc. 

If the goal is only to get a job, then schooling is important. 
But if the goal is to find your work and become educated, then schooling may not be important, it depends on what your work is. 

There are three fears that arise from being made to do schoolwork:
  1. the apparent absurdity of school rituals and/or the irrelevance of the "work,"
  2. the fear that what students are made to do is truly a meaningless waste of time, and
  3. the global context that makes it all seem pointless.

Given my distinction between schooling and education, then I take these fears very seriously. 
If the child is correct that school rituals are absurd, the work irrelevant, that their time is truly being wasted, and the world situation makes it all pointless, then there is a serious problem. 
But as I said before, we have to consider the deeper possibility that they are under the spell of illusions, rather than observing reality. 
Dots Not There Illusion
Notice that as you look at this picture there are only white dots at the intersections of the grey lines, and yet in the periphery around where you focus your attention there appear to be black or grey dots at the intersections.

Why is education important? 
That is the question when you hear complaints about school work.
But there are three very valid concerns behind the complaint, even though the cause of the concern may be an illusion rather than reality.
Part 1 of this article set the scene and the foundation for how we are wired for illusions. 
In this conclusion I explain the different illusions and how I would approach the process of disillusionment.

  1. Unfulfillment Concern
    • Hedonism Illusion
    • Intellectualism Illusion
  2. Unreality Concern
    • Fear Illusion
    • Social Proof Illusion
  3. Immorality Concern
    • Identity Illusion
    • Certainty Illusion

Why is Education Important? Fulfillment via Disillusionment

To find the path to fulfillment we have to see through the illusions of 
  • immature hedonism, which is mere pleasure seeking, and
  • immature intellectualism, which is overly concerned with clever ideas.
The hedonistic illusion is based on over emphasizing the illusions of the body's physical/ emotional/ sensual aspects. 
The problem with immature hedonism is that it does not give sufficient acknowledgment to the communal interdependence of our lives. 
The truth is that we are fully integrated body/mind systems. 
The 'childish' concerns that they could be doing things that are much more fun or that are more meaningful are only childish to the degree that the child's concern is only for themselves. 
But that is often not the case.

Most of the children I have known who have awakened to the inanity of school are roused by their concerns for the issues of the wider world due to their maturing perspective on life. 
They sense that there are important problems in the world that need to be addressed and with typical youthful exuberance they want to jump into the fray immediately. 
This is not mere childishness, it is the expression of an emerging social conscience. 

The intellectual illusion is based on overemphasizing the body's mental/ spiritual/ thinking aspects. 
The problem with immature intellectualism is that it does not give sufficient acknowledgment to the experiential basis of our shared understandings.

The intellectual side of the path is more commonly expressed by teenagers who are rapidly developing a more complex view of the world and find that schools and mainstream media dole out simplified versions of what they are learning in other ways. 
It is possible that children and teens are expressing an immature frame of mind, but it may also be the unskilled expression of a maturing frame of mind. 
It is our obligation as responsible adults to assume the best and react accordingly by inquiring into how they would prefer to act on their empathetic impulses (which would equally reveal to everyone concerned if those empathetic impulses were not, in fact, present and adjustments could be made accordingly.)

To address the inquiry to fulfillment then we have to enter into a dialogue about what principles we should be operating within. 
I would first of all turn the question back onto the curious child or a disgruntled teen and ask them why they think the law and adults, like me, agree that school is necessary. 
In my experience kids reply with the trite and true answers of our conventional wisdom about jobs. Sometimes, with children more than teens, that is enough for them to get on with doing what needs to be done. 
But, if they are still in the mood for questioning and given that basis I would ask them about what they think is the right thing to do about their concerns.
  • What would you find more fulfilling than schoolwork?
  • How could you be responsible for the commitments that have been made so far, and
  • if a change is called for, then how can we respect the people who are staying with the old course while we take a new course?
These questions activate the principles of respect, responsibility, and our commitment to having integrity in our relationships. 
And these are far more important lessons than any inane school rituals or make-work. These questions of fulfillment activate principles of both virtues and values to guide our actions. 
There is no presumed nor prescribed answer, only a process for respectfully looking past the illusions of what we both think is the situation, and getting down to what really matters, which is figuring out how to meet the fulfillment needs of all concerned.
Apparent Motion Illusion
The motion that you see in this illusion is simply your brain interpreting the information it has in a particular way (no animation on my part.)

Why is Education Important? Resilience via Disillusionment

If the conversation regarding fulfillment does not resolve the issue, then there is something deeper going on. 
The real issue may be quite indefinable, and if you find yourself lost then it is time to take the next step which is to make a concerted effort to nail down what you both share as an understanding of reality. 
This is an important basic practice for both adults and kids.

The illusions that tend to drive us off course in this aspect are 
  • fear and
  • our propensity to believe social proof without question.

One of the most important functions of a proper education is helping people develop a variety of strategies for facing their fears. 
As Roosevelt once said, "The only thing to fear, is fear itself." 
If we can learn to face our fears then we will have the most important tool for staying in touch with reality.

The opposite illusion from fear is the safety of a group through our deference to social proof. 
We are inherently programmed to feel safer when we conform to a group, even if our direct perception of a situation disagrees with the group's opinion. 

This was demonstrated by a variety of experiments in which one subject (told only that the experiment is about perception) is put with a number of other people and told to make a simple judgment about the longest of three lines on a printed card. 
What the subject does not realize is that all the other people in the room are working for the experimenters, and are not fellow experimental subjects. 
What they found is that if the group is of just the right size (not too big nor too small) then a large percentage of people will overrule their direct (and correct) perception of which line is actually longer and concur with the blatantly incorrect claims of the rest of the group. 
These findings clearly demonstrated what has become known as groupthink. 
Groupthink is based on an evolutionarily useful illusion that we will be safer if we conform to our group's judgment than if we act on our individual opinion.

Both of these illusions, fear and groupthink, dissolve in the light of proper scrutiny. 
Given generous amounts of time, space and trusted companions to reflect and consider deeply what is happening in a situation we will neither remain fearful nor continue to succumb to groupthink. 
The next step in truly addressing anti-school sentiments is to support your youthful inquisitor with an abundance of resources for facing his/her fears and verifying their grasp of reality with trusted companions. 
The key to resolving this level of distress is supportive resourcefulness.

As responsible adults we must create an environment in which the children in our care can access the resources they need to undertake the journey of simultaneously facing their fears and also taking risks within the safe boundaries of a trusted group.

Why is Education Important? Human Survival via Disillusionment

The final aspect of addressing the real inquiry is putting the global situation in perspective. The illusions that derail us at this stage are 
  • our identity and 
  • our certainty that we know what's really going on and by extension what is going to happen.

We have a direct experience of being an individual person with a consciousness that is essentially isolated within our mind and body from everyone else. 
The truth is that we are not actually isolated in the sense that we can act independently of others. 
It is a very useful illusion to think that we act independently, but our actions are fundamentally restrained by our understanding and our understanding of literally everything is restrained by how our brains are wired to understand. 
Thus our actions are restrained in many different ways and this is a huge blind spot for us. 
The fact is that we are embedded in a vast web of relationships with 
  • our cells,
  • our body/mind,
  • our families/friends/organizations/cultures,
  • our society, and
  • our global ecologies.

All these different levels of reality shape our behaviors in innumerable ways that we don't always know about and rarely, if ever, truly understand. 
And yet we insist that we are 'free' individuals based on our direct experiences of acting in ways that certainly seem free to us.

The opposite illusion is our certainty that we know what is going on. 
The truth is that we have a lot of good guesses. But no one really knows for certain because the world is notoriously unpredictable beyond the scale of our immediate personal sensory awareness.
We do have a very good grasp of what is happening in our physical and relational worlds at a narrow range of scale that is centered on the extent of our literal sensory awareness. 
Beyond that we get steadily less reliable at knowing what is going on and particularly bad at predicting what will happen.

Take medicine, for example. 
The scale at which medicine operates is necessarily centered on our human bodies, but only very recently in human history did we discover the basic features of our cells at the microscopic level and the basic principles of public sanitation at the macroscopic level. 
And there is no reason to believe that we have mastered medicine at either the microscopic nor the macroscopic levels. 
On the microscopic level while we may have mapped genomes we still do not understand how they actually produce the seemingly infinite variety of living things. 
And at the macroscopic level given the looming threat of global pandemics and other medical catastrophes today, we do not truly understand that scale either.

The solution to our illusions of identity and certainty is to educate ourselves to take advantage of the features of human experience that have proven their value over evolutionary time scales and apply them to the whole range of living beings on the planet today, not just humans. 
The features of human experience that have proven effective on evolutionary time scales are what I call optimal states of mind. 
Optimal states of mind are probably more commonly known as enjoyment, happiness, and a myriad of other positive emotions, feelings and thought patterns. 
I refer to "optimal states of mind" instead of positive feelings and thoughts because it is very important to have a way to distinguish our moral path from the illusions that divert and distract us. 
The difference between positive states of mind and optimal states of mind is that the optimality of a state takes into account the long term objective results of experiences rather than just the subjective evaluations of them. 
Thus the pain and momentary suffering that must be endured to achieve a respectable level of skill in a martial art, as I did years ago, may have been optimal given the ultimate results, even though they were subjectively experienced as negative at the time.

Optimal states of mind have been evolutionarily stable for all living things, not just humans. 
The traditional content approach to education, exemplified by the 3R's of reading writing and arithmetic, are all very new inventions evolutionarily speaking and our 'high' technologies are effectively worthless from such a large timescale, so far.
What we can truly count on is the wisdom of life itself which has proven itself for many millions and billions of years longer than we have existed as a species. 

The way that every organism navigates life is through seeking to optimize it's state of mind. 
Consider slime mold. 
There are multitudes of individual single celled organisms spread hither and yon across a forest floor. 
Then food begins to run out in one area. 
Each individual reacts to the shortage by producing a chemical that attracts the attention of other individual slime mold cells. 
The longer they don't get enough to eat the more of the chemical message they send out. 
When the chemical reaches a certain concentration the cells each move towards the higher concentrations and they soon aggregate into a single multi-cellular organism. 
The pseudopod that forms then goes through a whole lifecycle of it's own that eventually ends with it dispersing into the environment again as single celled organisms spread hither and yon across the forest floor. 

Without the benefit of any of our complexities of culture, let alone the complexity of a brain, these creatures creatively seek the optimization of their states of mind. 
When they are running out of food they get whiny and antsy just like we do and the only thing that satisfies them is either more food or taking creative action to resolve the situation. 
In this case, joining with other slime mold cells to cooperatively generate a whole new organism. 
Essentially, they gather like minded folk together and do something about what ails them in a frenzy of coordinated action. 
To paraphrase Margaret Mead, "Never doubt that a committed group of organisms can change the world, indeed, nothing else ever has."

What the slime mold does is to detect a particularly alarming change in it's environment and then responds. 
What the slime mold cannot do is detect whether or not the chemical concentration it is responding to is really other slime molds or just an experimenter dousing it to see what happens, or a predator luring it to it's death.

It is our ability to see that our concepts of the world can be wrong that makes us human.
We are the first being that we know of with a concept of illusions and what they mean for our survival. 
The moral duty that accompanies our unique talent for detecting and manipulating our own illusions about the world is to apply our talent to the preservation of all life not just our own. 
This is not a duty that arises out of some nobility or divinity on our part, it is a duty that is simply commensurate with the power to destroy all of life that we have also attained. 

Education and Schools

So what is the relationship between the school drudgery that our young person is questioning and the education that we argue is so important? 
There is no easy answer, but everyone, no matter what their situation, has the opportunity to wrestle with the essential moral imperative to do no harm and help when they can. 
Our duty as teachers and parents is to assist our young charges with developing practices that activate the principles of virtues and values, that get us in touch with reality, and ensures that we act to achieve well-being for all. 
Therefore every responsible adult is called to get real with their awakening young person and find out to what depth their disaffection with school runs.

Are they simply unfulfilled? Fulfillment is largely a matter of having the right attitude in whatever circumstance you find yourself. 
Thats why I preach teaching kids attitude first. 
Attitude is the most practical reference point for optimizing our states of mind and you can read more about that on my definition of attitude page..

If they are more than merely unfulfilled, then they are grappling with deeper feelings that should be taken seriously through listening deeply yourself and providing supportive resources to help you both get straight with each other about the reality of what is going on.

If it is even beyond deep feelings then you both need to look carefully at how to support each other to get in touch with changing the situation to optimize your states of mind, to develop practices that will help you both to face fears, take risks, get clear about what's real, and together build a life that is fulfilling and worthwhile.

What about school?

If it serves as a useful resource for learning and teaching the moral path of disillusionment then stick with it, otherwise ditch it. 
Do not unquestioningly accept school people's word for the value of schooling, they have a vested interest in the illusion that schooling is synonymous with, and the exclusive path to, education. 
Schools are a tool that can be used to acquire an education, but they are certainly not necessary, and they can sometimes be a hindrance. 
School people who know this try their best to be helpful and not hurtful.

So, why is education important? 
Because when we understand it properly as our uniquely human opportunity to establish a regular practice of disillusionment, then it serves as the true path of nurturing moral behavior that enables a child to live a fulfilling life and withstand adversity, plus it might just save our species from extinction.
Education Policy is also critically important if we want an educational system that fully supports parents and educators to act in the best interests of the children.

Click here for another page answering why is education important (UNESCO Education For All).

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