The Purpose of Education
Children need to learn what is needed to help them grow and achieve self-actualization (see also, Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs). No matter what the future brings in terms of the energy status of our communities, if we fail to create a social structure that supports this goal, we have failed the potential and meaning of our species. See my prior vision of a social framework, "the Core of a Sapient Society"
In light of my more recent musings (c.f. "What is a Feasible Living Situation for Future Humans" and its sequel, "A Feasible Living Situation - Continued") in which I integrate the fact that our civilization is going to be soon running out of the high-grade energy (fossil fuels) supplies, that makes an industrial society even possible, with the needs of the human condition to strive toward self-fulfillment and enlightenment, the present task is to consider what the point of human existence can be in a future that looks (from our current perspective) grim and foreboding. If humans in the future are, indeed, more sapient, they will understand the priorities of life and center their collective activities around the support for all society members achieving self-actualization. We eat to live. And we live to become whatever our brains will allow. We seek to understand our being and our relation with the rest of the cosmos because, honestly, that is what it means to be human (in my view).
That puts education in the center of human social existence. All else is simply infrastructure support for human mental growth. In my vision of a feasible living situation for a sapient society, I make it clear that mere existence, subsistence, is not an option. If the latter is all that is truly possible then we should just devolve into the brutes from which we emerged and give up all pretense for intelligence and creativity and love and everything else that makes us the wonderful (even if stunted) transcendent species that we are. If we cannot find the happy state of living in and with nature and still exercise our minds to become 'more', then I will look for the exit right now.
But I don't believe that is the case. And I don't believe it (our coevolution of culture and genetics) was all for naught. Not for a second.
So even if societies in the future are reduced to the low-energy forms that existed prior to the industrial revolution, that doesn't mean that we have to live lives that are as difficult and unfulfilling as we might imagine they were back then. First point: people in the 1700's (as an example) were not unhappy on the whole. They might not have enjoyed flushing toilets and instant lights at the flick of a switch, but many of them did find meaning in life. We achieved some very brilliant things in those days. The real question is: can we find a sustainable living situation in which every member of society can find happiness in the sense of self-actualization, even if they are required to work more diligently to supply their basic needs? The answer, I think, will be found in an ability to work smarter, not necessarily harder.
A big difference between then and now is that then a great deal of labor contributing to the progress that was being made came from what might be characterized as essentially slaves. Even today, though we don't call the people in low paying but essential jobs, like farm workers, slaves, they nevertheless perform a huge amount of work that keeps much of the rest of the economy going while being paid substandard wages. They are kept slaves to the work, effectively. Back then, the common day laborer made up a significant proportion of the population; the middle class was negligible by comparison. Today, at least until recently, the OECD countries could boast a very large middle class and we would be hard pressed to actually characterize them as slaves. This is true even though most of them had been brainwashed into believing their jobs were part of their autonomy, when in fact, they simply served the corporate purpose for profits to repay capital. Slaves, not in the conventional sense, but bound to a system that did not necessarily contribute to, or support, their achievement of self-actualization.
If we understand human nature and start to see the beauty of the evolution of sapience as a fundamental value, then we might think differently about why we work and what makes us happy. At least, I suspect the more sapient members of society have already discovered this way of thinking.
Even in a small village of 500 (see the feasible living links above) where a fair amount of the day is spent sustaining life, the concepts of a University of Noesis can provide guidance to how we think about education and governance. Here are some thoughts on the matter.
Education produces two complementary results. It provides an individual intellectual stimulation with knowledge and understanding of the society's conceptions of how the world, at large, works. It should embed the student within the context of how the world works and how that affects the social milieu. We call this enculturation. The social values and mores are imparted to the developing individual (child, adolescent, etc.) but in an ideal world, those values are grounded in meaning from the relationship of the community with the extant natural world. One of the reasons we have such a romantic fascination with indigenous peoples around the world is that we can see how they relate their stories of culture directly to the world that they inhabit. Stories told about industrial society seem to have a boundary that ends with the sidewalks (a fun movie along these lines is The Truman Show with Jim Carrey).
The other result, deeply related to the first, is the knowledge and skills needed to contribute some useful services to society in order to earn a place at the table. In other words, how to earn a living by contributing to society in a meaningful way.
In today's world this concept has undergone a horrible mutation to become mostly education for the sake of getting a job and it really doesn't matter if that job provides a contribution to society as long as it has a good income. The latter factor is automatically assumed to mean it must be worth something to someone, otherwise they wouldn't pay for it! But a quick look at what people are willing to pay for these days, and the general lack of anything close to sapient judgment, will tell you that this is no more a consideration of what is good for society as it is what can we do to help ourselves with the least effort for the biggest payoff. Incorporating appeals to sex or power usually work to get people to buy anything these days. Taking advantage of our evolved natural desire for fat, sugar, and salt (from when these were in short supply) is another good way to make profits and provide people with meaningless jobs making the rest of us, at least those so inclined, obese. Those jobs are hardly working toward the good of society (see: Wikipedia on Fast Food Nation).
What then would education strive for in a world of sapient beings living close to the land and realizing that high powered energy subsidies are a thing of the past? What would a University of Noesis strive for at the village level?
Systems Thinking — The Theoretical/Intellectual Pursuit
The mind is most stimulated by abstract thoughts that mean something. We humans are adept at constructing elaborate models of the world in our heads where we can manipulate the variables and run the models in fast forward to think about what the future might hold in store for us. Any knowledge that we can acquire that will help us formulate the abstractions, the concepts that can be uncoupled for a time from the anchors in reality and manipulated in their own right, is something that excites us. And we start out in early life compelled to acquire it.
Unfortunately not too long into our modern experience of education, the natural tendency to learn principles and concepts is beaten out of us by a system that is geared to just one thing. It needs to teach us sets of rules that must be obeyed in order that we can get along in the giant machine of the corporated world. What could be done differently?
I have written quite a bit about systems science and systems thinking (see: Series Index, scroll to bottom to see the series on systems science).
The single most damaging omission in our current approach to education is the lack of systems thinking used to frame and organize the knowledge being taught and the subsequent lack of systems thinking developed in the students. It is the lack of comprehension of systemness that keeps most people ignorant of how the world really does work. It's lack is one of the main reasons so many people today cannot see the impending crises that we face.
In my sapience series I point out that a key component of sapience, even as much as it is underdeveloped in the current species, is the capacity to think systemically. Systems thinking is a natural way for humans to integrate what they perceive about the world. It is how we form concepts and abstractions in the first place. But, unfortunately, it is only weakly understood explicitly by the majority of people and so remains stunted in its development. Worse yet, in modern education with its unholy emphasis on specialization to the exclusion of more broadly pursued general knowledge, what natural capacity that exists in the human brain has been sacrificed in the name of the god profits. Schools routinely beat it out of students starting at an early age. By the time I see college-aged students they have been fully indoctrinated with the 'party line' of a society bankrupt of values putting human self-actualization above material wealth. I see a few who still have a spark of systems thinking trying to get free of the conventional view. But these are sadly few in number, and my ability to help them free themselves is hampered by lack of time and impositions of the 'system' of education that worries more about accountability (to make sure we teachers are following that party line) than the ultimate mental health of the students.
In the sapient society this will have to completely change. In indigenous tribes, even today, knowledge of how to live, what to do to make life pleasant and fulfilling, is very much a matter of thinking systemically. People have to have a strong tie to the environment and how all of it works, and how it affects the tribe and the individual. This is where we came from and it is why we have natural built-in systems thinking in the first place. We will have to rekindle the strengthening and sharpening of systems thinking as a key goal of education in the University of Noesis. Starting with a deep sense of how all things are connected and interact over various time scales of significance to many generations, students need to gain explicit knowledge about what those components of life are, and learn their actual interconnectivities. Moreover, they need to learn about dynamics and how things can change over time. All of this is factual and structural knowledge. The student has to be exposed to it and internalize it. Some aspects, especially the more general patterns of dynamics and interconnectivity, will be integrated into the tacit knowledge that will ultimately support wise decisions. Much of it will become explicit expertise. A great deal of it will become ingrained skills that will allow the student to become a valuable member to society. But all of it will have deep meaning to the student. The student will know what is needed and they will know that they know. And, as part of the self-actualizing process, they will feel deeply satisfied with their capacity to understand.
One of the greatest benefits of having deep systems thinking is the transferability of understanding between domains. The natural human ability to think in terms of metaphor, simile, allegory, etc. is all part and parcel to our ability to map mental images from one field of knowledge to a seemingly completely different field. The reason we can do this is simply the fact that we are able to perceive and conceive those deeper patterns of systemness in all things in the world. As long as one lives in a society that has a clear sense of values based on what is physically feasible (i.e. knowledge of feasible energy flows, requirements for life, and constraints imposed on the species) then one will grow up hearing the stories of life based on reality (embellished by imagination, I think — see below — but not based on it) and those stories will reinforce the systemic view of existence.
Systems thinking is the philosophy of sapience. It guides us in developing questions. It presses us to delve into deeper meanings. And it provides a general framework for learning about the real world. It will be essential as the basis for education.
Permaculture — How to Live
We humans, and our children need to learn how to live in a world that can provide our needs, if we know how to accept the gifts.
Systems thinking is at the heart of the methods for growing food we call permaculture. Ecology studies the natural systems in which complex living systems develop and thrive. Mankind emerged from a hunter-gatherer based existence in which reliance on natural systems to supply food was THE way of life. Because of man's developing cleverness our species learned to harness certain aspects of that natural ecology to improve the consistency and reliability of food production. Today we generically refer to this as the agricultural revolution. I expect that the actual development of primitive agriculture, in which the land was tilled, planted, and irrigated (if needed) by human and animal labor, took several thousand years to evolve from the earliest attempts to bring intentional control to the systems of nature. Animals were domesticated as a way to increase the reliability of protein supply. Grains were cultivated and selected to increase the reliability of vegetable supplies. Trees were selected and taken care of to increase the reliability of fruits and nuts. This was man at his inventive best.
Sapience, born of a long history of internal systems thinking and culturally disseminated knowledge, guided humans as they improved their survivability immensely over many generations. But somehow, as the demands for other kinds of thinking, namely tactical and logistical, became more important for maintaining a settlement (needed for farming) and managing a growing and increasingly specialized population, systems thinking along with its co-requisite mental capacity for strategic thinking, became less needed by most members of the communities and fell, if at all, to a few 'leaders' who took over the systems thinking for the whole society. At some point in our long history of developing agriculture and mechanization it became necessary to diminish any real systems thinking tendency in the general population so that they would focus on the day-to-day mechanical tasks of building tools, working fields, husbanding animals, and keeping track of things in general.
There is currently a reawakening of systems thinking in the domain of growing food. This is the permaculture movement (see the Wikipedia article for more details). This movement addresses something incredibly fundamental in the human way of thinking and the way of being. Working in the soil, planting and culturing food plants, is so basic and almost primordial in the human psyche. Even in my declining years the joy of getting my hands into rich soil and working it, despite the fact that doing so causes some untoward pains for the following few days(!) is so rewarding that I cannot help but believe that this 'toil' is deeply ingrained in us. Moreover, the mental stimulation of understanding and working with the natural relationships between soil, climate, pests (even), weeds (too) and our well being is incredibly satisfying once one gets beyond the superficiality of our so-called modern lives. Ask any hunter how they feel about the process of preparing, stalking prey, the kill, dressing the carcass and so on. Generally you will get a sense of the euphoria that they feel in participating in a truly ancient practice of nourishing the body, the mind (knowledge of the prey's behavior), and the soul (loving the land and nature). Believe it or not, this goes for red necks and weekend warriors as well. There is something about knowing how the natural world works and using that knowledge to support ones' self and family that cannot be gained, ever, by going to the mundane jobs of the modern world and bringing home the 'bacon'.
Permaculture is a way of living. It uses systems thinking in the way that is most natural to humans to organize our sustenance. It can be a spiritual practice more profound than any prayer or supplication. And it works wonderfully well given the right environment. Of course, if we choose our living situations unwisely, we will never know the joy of working with nature for our support. We will only become slaves to scratching out a subsistence life. We will only be able to fulfill the lower levels of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. And that is sad.
Machines — How to Make Life Easier
We are rapidly approaching the end of what we have called the machine age. But really it should be called the age of automation. Or, perhaps, the age of taking humans out of the equation!
We have gotten into the habit of using extrasomatic energy to do just about everything for us. Our machines have effectively relieved us of having to do any work for ourselves (see: "Our Energy Cocoon"). But, this is predicated on having a limitless supply of high powered energy such as is supplied by oil. That age is coming to a close.
Education should teach us how to find leverage in our world to make life easier without relegating us to a couch.
Humans are natural inventors and machine (tool) users. That won't end with the loss of extrasomatic energies like oil. On the way to the industrial revolution humans invented some spectacular tools that provide work leverage and extracted extrasomatic energies from the environment that were available. This isn't going to change just because we will no longer be able to have internal combustion engines (ICE) to motivate our machines as we do today. Sapient mankind will be no less inventive than we are now.
The key to the future is appropriate technology. Machines will still be a part of man's repertoire of survival skills. But those machines will be more in harmony with the environment we will actually inhabit. Does this include electricity? Will there be some kind of combustion-based motivation such as steam engines (from wood fuels for example)? I suspect the answer will be yes.
We humans have learned an incredible amount of definitive knowledge about how the world works. We know how to work metals (e.g. recycled from the abandoned cities of today). We know how to harvest energies from wind, water, and soil. All that is needed is a systems thinking mentality to design appropriate matching of energies actually available with machines that give us leverage and make us more efficient at whatever we do.
A key element in making our progeny successful in this endeavor is to not make the same mistake that the current species made in using success in leverage to justify increasing the population. Presumably eusapient peoples will understand that just because we have enough food doesn't mean we can have more offspring than the system will sustain. In fact, one of the main reasons why I think that humans must evolve greater sapience in that future time is that our current species isn't even capable of addressing this issue in any meaningful way today. Regulating our numbers to match the supporting capacity of the environment will require significantly higher wisdom than we have at present. Machines may be used to ease the burdens of labor involved in making a living. We can and should be able to take advantage of this capacity (our cleverness) to do so. But we cannot mistake this capacity for a reason to have as many children as we desire. In reality the promotion of having children arose from several levels of ignorance, a biological mandate that most of us have been unable to override, and the simple facts of old age and the need for care when one can no longer do the hard work of living.
But sapient beings with knowledge should be able to transcend these old arguments. Invent and use machines — yes! — but maintain the population at a sustainable level. That should be the meaning of machines and all technology. Doing so will contribute directly to the ability for individuals to achieve self-actualization.
Humanities — How to Make Life Worthwhile
Another advantage of applying systems thinking to living with nature and with invention of machines to make life easier is having time left over to enjoy human creativity to its fullest. Our children should learn how to enjoy life to its fullest.
Art, music, literature (stories), poetry (mental imagery) are all parcel to the human spirit. Sapience doesn't lessen the impacts of these even if it does involve a capacity to override the limbic system. If anything I think increased sapience must enhance one's appreciation for the aesthetic aspects of living. Take the layout of a permaculture 'garden'. It is beautiful in a way the rows of common agriculture can never be. Everything fits. It fulfills a role. It has meaning. It is a kind of poetry.
The highest level of Maslow's hierarchy involves the expression of our inner joys and meanings. A human who is freed from the kinds of stresses we commonly have today is able to let her soul fly. They can play and do it with media that capture the expressions. Painting, sculpting, writing, composing and playing instruments are all expressions of human joy in self-actualization. No one needs to be an impresario, a prodigy genius, to feel the expansion of life that comes from singing, dancing, and playing. One way of knowing the success of a future sapient society will be by how much singing one hears in the village.
These outpourings of expression of the inner self are for sharing. What can bring a community together better than sharing our aesthetics with one another?
Education — Helping Each Individual Achieve Self-actualization
I guess I am a dreamer. I suppose I am guilty of desiring Utopia,. Guilty as charged.
But dreaming is where reality begins. If I am right about the 'direction' of human evolution toward yet greater sapience then dreams of human life as an integral part of nature will not have proven a fool's game. And tomorrow's children may yet find education a wonderful and natural experience.
In that future village I see education as a village endeavor. No schools in the current sense, but families and the whole village would be engaged in educating the young to fit into the rhythms of life and the community in a way that they would be able to express the very best of human nature. Education would focus on how to live, how to live well, and how to enjoy a worthwhile life. This education would not be viewed as the end-all of learning, but just the beginning. Humans are not passive, constrained beings. We will most likely always strive to go beyond our seeming containments. I don't for a minute believe that these future villages will represent quiescent humans staying in their place, as it were, to achieve sustainability. No. Humans are expansive by nature and I don't think being more sapient will kill that quality. But what I do see is that with appropriate education and eusapient minds comes the wisdom to know when, where, and how to best test the limits. Humans have to learn how to expand but in balance with the natural world in which they live. No one, certainly not me, can say what that might be. That is for the future to determine.
But clearly the way we are currently going about expanding our presence in the universe now is unsustainable. We have been too eager and unwise in how we've gone about it. We need to take time to establish our base in this natural world. We need to become fully educated about how this universe works and what we can do within the requirements of the laws of nature. Perhaps, in my dreams anyway, mankind will become more fully sapient and the education will become natural.
Special Note to Regular Readers: As with many of my previous blogs I have made liberal use of links to Wikipedia articles to supplement my writing and to help you do further investigations if you wish. I made a donation to the Wikipedia Foundation to show my appreciation for this invaluable resource. If you find yourself taking advantage of these links, please consider giving your financial support also. Check out The Wikipedia Foundation support site. PS. I am making this solicitation on my own — no requests from Wikipedia! Thanks.