The Art of Learning:
Revitalizing the Educational Dinosaur
by David Jay Brown
The word education comes from the Latin educare, which means “to bring out that which is within,” but in our upside down civilization it has come to mean “to put in that which is without.” It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to realize that our present educational system is in trouble. On this point everyone agrees. Not only is our system vastly outdated and under funded, but we seem to have lost touch with the original inspiration for providing an education. Our antiquated educational system is in desperate need of an upgrade, as well as a reconnection to its roots. The stimulus for the educational process to evolve resides in our understanding that the present system– from pre-school to postdoc– is founded upon an insectoid industrial-minded model of society as a machine. Students are rolled on and off an assembly line, where they are mechanically molded to conform to a pre-existing societal niche. The organization of human activity in this area too much resembles the rigidly conforming patterns of social insects.
The problems with our present system are obvious to anyone with an Elementary School education. It’s a sad but true fact that the rigidity of our present educational system actually inhibits creativity and stifles the imagination, which is why our society is so deficient in these essential resources. Natural curiosity is crushed by oppressive monotony and forced conformity. Because the grading system penalizes students for making mistakes, they are therefore encouraged to focus on getting good grades rather than on really learning, exploring, and experimenting. The grading system also promotes competition over cooperation, so that people are conditioned from early on to work against one another, rather than together. Most of the time students are discouraged from asking questions. Perhaps the biggest irony of all is that we go to school to learn communication skills, and when we get there they tell us to sit still and be quiet.
But this is not really the fault of the understaffed, often mis-trained, underpaid teachers. Classrooms are drastically overcrowded. Textbooks, teaching and testing methods are long outdated. The entire system needs to be completely uprooted and reorganized from the bottom up. Without even getting radical, it becomes a basic question of value. Does our society value education enough to do the simple and obvious things– like invest more money, hire more teachers, cut down on classroom sizes, and give students more individual attention?
Education, like life, should be an adventure. School is here so that we can explore, discover, and create. The natural curiosity of childhood is an extremely valuable quality, and every step should be taken to help preserve this important national resource. The worst injustice that we can do to our children is to bore them. School should be fun and entertaining– inspiring, interactive, involving, and interdisciplinary. Part of the function of a good teacher is to keep the students’ attention. Courses should be taught by instructors who feel passionately about their material. Everyone remembers that one special teacher they had that loved their work so much their class was actually fun. Students should not be thought of as passive receptors, but rather as part of a dynamic learning system.
The learning process is enhanced by involvement. We remember information better if it is charged with personal meaning– if we can associate it with something that we already know and is relevant to our lives. First and foremost a good education should teach people how to learn. Before we can choose what we want to learn, we need to learn the basic techniques of how to learn. Fortunately the cavalry is on the way. In my hometown of Los Angeles, I’ve seen the emergence of many grassroots organizations determined to help rebuild the post riot-ravaged areas of south-central LA, and there is a lot of focus on restructuring the educational system. The ideas expressed in this essay are similar to the ones being put into motion by an organization in LA called UP. Similar alternative education projects, such as LEARN, are springing up all over the country.
The evolution of high technology also holds much promise for improving the future quality of education. Personal computers will soon replace textbooks (not teachers), allowing students to have a more interactive and participatory experience with their material. Animated graphics will bring the subjects to life, and questions will be asked periodically of the student to insure that they are mastering the material. One must demonstrate their acquired knowledge before they can advance through higher levels. Competition with oneself for higher scores would motivate mastery and self-improvement, in the same fashion that video arcade games do. Timothy Leary (who said to us, “You don’t teach courses, you coach.”) has been a driving force in the development of this type of educational software.
Eventually Virtual Reality technology will replace simple keyboard-monitor-type personal computers. Wrapped in Virtual Reality head and body gear that controls sensory input, the educational experience will expand to fill more of the senses. With computer generated simulations in Virtual Reality, students will be completely immersed in their learning environments– feeling with their hands the way certain atoms slide together to form molecules, or walking around on the rocky red surface of Mars. Most significantly they will be able to freely interact with their environments at will.
During a recent interview with visionary Virtual Reality pioneer Jaron Lanier, he discussed with us why he thinks this new technology holds so much promise as an educational tool. He spoke from an evolutionary perspective. “We all evolved as creatures in Nature,” he said, “and our learning in a natural setting was very keyed to environmental or social situations. If you look at the stimuli that create the most intense selective recall– it’s people, smells, and environments. An environment using Virtual Reality is the only one of those that can really be packaged as a media. It’s really striking to me that children are expected to learn a variety of things, but always with all the same stimuli– in the same environment, with the same social group, and the same smells. So you have this incredible drudgery in which you’re supposed to retain a variety of memories. This is completely absurd. The grinding monotony of school just collapses into the memory of the one room.”
Traditional classroom learning seems then to run completely counter to the natural way that the brain learns new things. Marilyn Diamond’s research at UC Berkeley demonstrated that placing an animal in a more complex and varied living environment actually increases the cortical thickness of their brains, when compared to animals in a relatively deprived environment. To put things back into alignment again Jaron suggested that we could create “a virtual world for the express purpose of making it a memorable place in which you could learn something new.” He used dinosaurs as an example. “You can simulate the old forest, have those big dinosaurs tromping around, and that’s all fun,” he said with enthusiasm, “but then you can do a wonderful thing, which is that kids can become dinosaurs, and try to step on their friends. What’s great is they can become the things they’re studying and achieve identity with it. So that’s also a very effective way to learn something. And it’s not just dinosaurs– they can become molecules like DNA or mathematical shapes.”
Sound like the way you want to learn? Although the technology is basically already here, don’t throw away your textbooks yet, as it will be awhile before Virtual Reality hits your neighborhood school. Obviously funding is the basic problem. When we asked Jaron about getting Virtual Reality into public schools he said, “I’ve talked to schools a lot about this. And there are very few schools that can afford it. We did a pilot program with a school, but a lot of schools in the country today can’t even afford a new basketball hoop. I mean it’ll happen eventually, but I don’t think our society has the commitment to spend any money at present on this.”
Neuroscience research opens up new pathways for improving the educational process through neurochemically boosting our intelligence. In a recent conversation that I had with John Morgenthaler, author of Smart Drugs and Nutrients, he told me that he thought improving our educational system will involve a “nutritional awakening.” He cited a study done by Dr. Stephen Schoenthaler at California State University Stanislaus, in which it was shown that when a basic vitamin and mineral supplement was added to a student’s diet their IQ score dramatically jumped an average of six points, when compared to a placebo. Cognitive-enhancers such as Hydergine or Piracetam provide us with further educational tools for improving our memories and the clarity of our thinking, as well as increasing the density of inter-neuron brain connections. They also give us a sneak preview into the ways that discoveries in neuroscience may help to enhance the learning process for students in the future. Future cognitive-enhancing drugs won’t give people instant knowledge, but they will help us acquire it by improving the brain’s capacity to more efficiently process information.
Rupert Sheldrake, author of A New Science of Life, said that he thinks “It is of primary importance to recognize consciously that education is a form of initiation….modern education involves an initiation into the rationalist or humanist world-view…An alternative educational model would still be based on initiation, but a broader kind, not confined to the intellectual realm.” Traditional tribal societies often employ the shamanic use of psychedelic plants as part of initiation rituals. Many renown philosophers, such as Aldous Huxley and Alan Watts, have believed that one day the ritualized use of psychedelics will be integrated back into the educational process, and that one’s education would involve training in the spiritual, as well as the physical, dimensions. This was the “moksha medicine” of Huxley’s final novel Island.
Far-sighted ethnobotanist Terence McKenna envisions a future that contains what he has come to call an “archaic revival”, or a return to the “mysteries” of pre-history, which are revealed through the disciplined use of boundary-dissolving psychedelic plants. Psychedelics will perhaps be utilized by some future society as an initiatory gateway into the understanding that Earth can be viewed as a school, and life as a series of advancing lessons. The present critical state of our world clearly indicates that our species is in the midst of a collective final exam. Terence said that “We must teach our children that they are going to be called upon to make decisions that will affect the state of life on this planet millennia in the future.” Indeed we must, and if for nothing else, let this be the purpose of education. Because life is ceaseless mystery, living, we discover, is a never-ending learning process, and where education ends and life begins is not easily defined. But as we expand the educational process with interdisciplinary integration, so that we amuse as we inform, the boundary between what is called “school”, and what is called simply “living life”, will blur indistinguishably together.