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Everything We Know Is Wrong – Part One: Education Is Fatal

This is the first in a series of thoughts on education reform and the future of learning. Consider this an “overview” post.

Part One: Education Is Fatal

I have long felt that one’s childhood and their education play off of each other--they are never felt or experienced in equal amounts. Our notions of what constitutes “childhood” vary tremendously due to this exact problem. Some might say that childhood constitues being “seen and not heard”, absorbing lessons, biding time until one has developed fully; others insist that childhood is the most free we’ll ever be and our one moment of true innocence. Still others argue that children are merely young adults, capable of almost all (or at least most) of the same thought processes, rationalizations, and ideas.

We can’t settle this by trying to find the “most correct” perspective. Nor can we limit our options and say that it simply doesn’t matter. Not to be dramatic, but understanding how we develop is critical to changing our world. We have managed to create truly staggering societies based on our systems of education, but in a great many ways we have completely missed the point. And these omissions are coming back to haunt us.

Karma

Now that we’ve built up our civilization to such a degree, lessons that once were self-evident have been lost in the inevitable forward march of culture and consciousness. Their lack is coming out in the way we interact with each other, in the way we abuse our natural resources (even in calling them “ours”), and in the way we think and progress. We are sending thousands to die for someone else’s idea. We are raping the Earth. We are increasingly isolated. We are strangers in our own families, deaf to the cries of others.

Now that most of us in the “developed” world no longer worry about our basic survival, we concern ourselves primarily with the movement of valueless paper, creating, in the very fabric of our cultures, an elaborate and infantile system of punishment and reward whose monumental silliness is matched only by the degree to which we believe in it.

Not one of the above is being done by children. It’s only after a few years of exposure that these traits manifest.

Still think our education system is working?

No, children are different. And education is fatal.

Childhood is a state of true wonder, each moment unprecedented, time elastic and arbitrary. This isn’t a matter of having less responsibility-- it’s a totally different way of seeing the world, far beyond both ignorance and innocence. In Zen, the phrase “Beginner’s Mind” encapsulates some of that idea, though hardly doing it justice. No, I think childhood is a wholly separate time of life: one that follows essentially forgotten rules.

Where We’ve Gone Wrong

We have tried so hard to create children who are like us that we have forgotten what it means to actually be a child. To be potential itself, free of constraint or comparison. And because children learn (from us) to inhibit that “original self” as quickly as possible, they are unable to tell us where we have failed them.

As education begins to work its way into our lives, with the resulting notion of “correct” and “incorrect”, a new and more traditional way of seeing comes with it. The problem isn’t with the principle of education: on some level, we all love learning. But something else triggers the dismantling of “Beginner’s Mind”. Like a virus, the effects are almost inperceptible on a day-to-day basis. After several years, however, a change is clearly evident, and it isn’t a positive one.

Assisted Thinking: Or “Relax, We’ll Take It From Here”

When we stop learning for ourselves and start learning for others, even in the earliest stages of our education, we begin a slow slide into what I call “assisted thinking”. When we are graded on how well we absorb preassigned facts or--the worst offender--how well we take a standardized test (here in the States, it’s called the SAT), we give up that initial impulse to actually explore. We become convinced, however gradually, that most things have already been thought of, and condemn ourselves to a life of nitpicking. It becomes seductive to simply leapfrog over others’ ideas, cherry-picking the ones we agree with and the ones we choose to argue with, and returning to the initial problem with a quick redefinition. A terrifying amount of academic work amounts, essentially, to this-- a simple agreement or disagreement with preexisting statements, occasionally backed up with testimony provided by others who similarly agree. Rarely is forward momentum achieved--rarer still is the scholar or educator who realizes how cyclical this process is.

Doesn’t this seem like a complete waste of time? Why, then, are we contributing to it?

Assisted thinking leads, at its worst, to a strange series of rationalizations where we draw conclusions based on the past rather than the present. What others have thought or done becomes a framework for future action, regardless of its wisdom (or more commonly, its lack of wisdom). We regurgitate what we have been taught, even in areas where our teaching clearly no longer applies. Religions are a great example of this, in that whatever we are taught and retaught with conviction over the duration of childhood, becomes a virtually unshakable belief in our consciousness--simply because someone else told us. Someone else’s idea motivates us to live our lives. Someone else’s idea motivates us to hate. Someone else’s idea motivates us to kill. There’s nothing wrong with religion (and, in fact, it serves a great purpose), but there is something wrong with an unquestioning belief in anything.

We have to realize that something happens to us as children that permits this kind of thinking. And maybe I’m just weird-- I know I always asked “why?”, and still do. It’s possible that most people simply aren’t as innately curious. Maybe that’s why I’m writing this to begin with.

Breaking the Cycle

I’ll break from that oh-so-wonderful tradition of regurgitating old ideas for a second. Stand back. This idea may be half-formed, not entirely polished, and maybe even --gasp!--brand new.

Let’s use our educational system as a way to actually give back to the world.

Imagine a world without facts or one-size-fits-all requirements (that would all come, depending on career choice, later in life). Instead, just think of how meaningful a classroom could be if it actually taught us how to find ourselves. Not in order to slide quietly into yet another mold, another career path, another college; no, in this ideal school we focus our attention on a student’s own wish to help--and the tools that allow them to best realize that dream.

The American Dream?

Kids love helping out. Yet we come from a scarcity mentality, one that says that there are not enough jobs, enough people, enough time to learn what will give us an edge in this “new world economy”. So we work--mentally, physically, emotionally-- to give ourselves “success”. We stress and strain to “get ahead”, sacrificing our deeper passions and wishes in order to provide the lifestyle we want for ourselves and our families. Most of us don’t even know what those deeper passions really are, having repeatedly had them culled out of us, year after crushing year. Why do you think there’s such a big self-help boom going on now that the internet has given us a faster way to communicate (and therefore more time for introspection)?

Abundance-based thinking, on the other hand, starts at the earliest age--in childhood, where anything is still possible. We forget this awareness later in life, becoming self-absorbed and caught up in endless cycles, chasing what we decide is rightfully ours, fearing loss, fearing anything that might get in our way.

What we mistake for happiness is all too often simple survival, with reduced anxiety-- we think we’re “ahead”, happy, fulfilled because for a few moments we have what we need and aren’t struggling to maintain them. We even have anxiety pills, easily available from a doctor, which can make us content with wherever we fit in the hierarchy. But real happiness, real joy (beyond mere material & professional contentment), is something we’ve totally given up on. In fact, the people we meet who have such happiness are often viewed as simpleminded, less-than, inferior.

Childlike.

“No one has yet fully realized the wealth of sympathy, kindness and generosity hidden in the soul of a child. The effort of every true education should be to unlock that treasure.”

— Emma Goldman, Lithuanian-American writer, lecturer and activist (1869-1940)

One of the most intelligent people I have ever met dresses like a bum, somewhat out of necessity, and is one of the best guitarists I have ever heard. Every day to him is an adventure: he talks to anyone, does anything at a moment’s notice, and makes a halfway-decent living off of tips and short-term gigs. Now, I’m sure that he will find a great future in music, due to his skill, but in that same future there will be suits who look at him with disdain even as they’re listening (without even realizing it) to his music at night, wishing they could be as free. He, more than anyone I know, is living the real American dream, that subtler, more elemental, intensely-masculine wish for total freedom. No amount of money can buy it, just as no job can give it. It is innate. And it comes from seeing the world as a place of true abundance.

I won’t speak for him, but it seems to me that most of his anxiety and stress in this life has to do with the fact that he is not “right” for the working world, and is therefore condemned to a certain type of lifestyle--one he enjoys, certainly, but one I’m sure he’d like to change if given the chance. We’d all like to have lots of money--for many people, the problem has nothing to do with the level of hard work and everything to do with the type of work. There are millions of unemployed or barely employed people all across the developed world who don’t “fit the mold” and are therefore barely getting by. Is it their lack of education (adherence to arbitrary standards)? Is it their lack of intelligence? If they asked you why with three jobs and eighteen hours a day of hard work they were unable to make as much as a bus driver or the barely-sentient technician you just hired, would you be able to explain it to them?

Our economy is based on one truism: the further away from manual labor, the more you make. True laborers are often exploited completely, and not paid at all. Others are paid to sit and “think”--their minds are that valuable. But how did they get there?

Imagine if self-inquiry was as highly regarded as external influence--if our own discoveries mattered as much to others as what we were taught. Imagine all learning being prized, irrespective of the specific information that was imparted, because we trust (due to an abundance mindset) that such learning will be of value later in life. We do not try to cram ourselves into a definition. We do not try to cut off our possibilities as quickly as possible. We simply learn, at the rapid rate of one who actually cares. This is what it means to live in abundance.

“But that’s preposterous,” you say. “We need to learn certain kinds of information, even if we don’t like it. We must be prepared for the future.”

Ahh, but therein lies the very problem…

Freedom of Expression

The drive to truly express ourselves does rear up one last time after schooling begins--as that intriguing mess of hormones and emotions, the Teenager. Typically it’s here that one rebels from the societal norms, in order to gain acceptance and to find what makes them unique. What’s really interesting is the way these very qualities are quickly squashed. We are taught--some catch on faster than others!--that the “only way” to succeed in life is to make yourself presentable on paper. If you can’t do this properly, you’re condemned to a different kind of life, one where your personality can come forward beyond the confines of a suit. And while these jobs may lead to higher satisfaction, they are usually on the opposite end of the income scale.

In essence, we reward those who spent time learning to present themselves, rather than those who continue to spend time learning on their own. Though we think we are rewarding actual skill, we are in fact rewarding those who are best at “pretending”.

Educate Yourself First

The single most important thing I can impart to anyone (beyond, perhaps, that “this moment is all we have”) is that we need to educate ourselves first.

We need to keep learning. We need to find out what makes us truly excited. There is something out there, even if we’ve lost the tools to look for it. If you aren’t finding your passion, you are living a lie. Simple as that.

We were all instructed that trading our time for money was a perfectly reasonable way to channel our instinct to help. Yet we’re slowly finding that this tradeoff is harmful to our own well-being, detrimental to all but our most basic desires, destructive to original thought and is creating an increasingly stagnant and destructive world. Steve Pavlina wrote a terrific article on deciding how we should be living, and I would encourage you to check it out before the next ten years take away your desire to change. You must discover what you’re living for. You must find opportunities in line with your reasons for being alive.

Education, in this broadest and most important definition, is not the responsibility of a school or a specific teacher. It is not the responsibility of a job. It is yours alone. And real learning comes from being able to fit the pieces of one’s life together, to constantly re-evaluate your thinking in light of new information. It’s about forging new and unusual connections, rather than being hung up on (or worse yet, content with!) repeating the predictable. And this, to me, is what school, and particularly higher education, are for. Not to force us into tiny pathways of established wisdom, but to encourage and develop our ability to discover and communicate on our own. Education is fuel for the fire of creative thought. Uniqueness begets uniqueness.

We cannot create an original idea by analyzing and interpreting existing information. Life is ultimately about the questions, not the canned responses. To believe otherwise is to condemn oneself to a peripheral role, and ultimately, a peripheral existence.

“It takes a long time to grow young.”

-Pablo Picasso

Don’t remain satisfied with “getting through it”. Deep down, you know you aren’t doing enough--even when you’re working hard, you have an excellent resume, you have the house and car everyone wants, and you’re in great shape. You’re still not serving the world, and until you do something about it, that lack and dissatisfaction will make itself heard in one way or another. Look at our world.

We (as a species) truly do want--and need-- to help. But the only way to retain any sense of that earlier life, that wholly free-thinking and compassionate dedication from childhood, is in exploring what really matters to us. Anything else is false: dedicated to false gods of money or prestige, false enthusiasm for projects one couldn’t care less about, false happiness, false hope.

We were never taught these lessons as children; we knew them innately. We’ve simply forgotten.

Show a worker how his contribution matters, and you’re guaranteed to see an increase in productivity for as long as his goals and yours are in line. Make them feel their ideas have real merit, and you’ll have dramatically more enthusiasm--again, as long as their goals and yours are aligned. Treat people like the constantly-growing, endlessly-curious being they once were, and they will seize the opportunity to provide you with real value in unexpected ways. Treat them as enemies, as subjects, as conduits to stuff full of information, and you will end up with today’s world, today’s wars, today’s thinking, today’s scarcity mentality.

The educational system we have put in place is crippling our freedom, our intelligence, and our creativity. After decades of reinforcement by jobs and higher schooling, we emerge without a spark of passion, masters of assisted thinking, pretending whatever we can so as to appear as obedient and subservient as possible to future employers--and spending our free time wondering where we’ve gone wrong.

We need to remember what it is to feel alive. And we need to create educational constructs which help ensure that future generations never lose sight of that feeling. We need passion, courage, and consciousness, and we need them far more than we need unhappy employees and discouraged wage slaves, assisted thinkers and money-hungry litigators. We need original thought, from original minds, and we need it now.

So how can we begin? Stay tuned…

(Part one in a series.)

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