When I was at the University of Pittsburgh, I was involved in retreats for incoming students with the University Honors College. (I know, I have always been a nerd, but you knew that from the nature of this blog.) One of the things that came up in the discussions was what is the point of going to college and getting an education. My friends and I got to edit one of the readers that was used as a backdrop for the discussions.
With the question of what should an education include, I included this passage from In My Own Way: An Autobiography, by Alan Watts. He was an interpreter of Oriental philosophy and wrote books on Buddhism, Taoism, Zen, and other similar topics in the 1960s and 1970s. In writing about his own education in England’s school system, he took time out to describe his own ideal education.
“I am inclined to believe that these schools are justified more by the eccentrics who resist the system than by the conformists who come out as the system intends.
“It is now becoming obvious that the same can be said of almost all school, and of universities as well. They are production lines turning out stereotyped personnel and consumers for the industrial machine – a machine which is more and more subservient, not to human needs, but to the abstract purposes of technological expansion for its own sake, of the money game, and of competition for the hollow reward of status. And the markets are flooded with things which I, and other who have come to their senses, do not want to buy. In my own school days stereotypes were a little different, but no one can resist a system designed to produce preconceived ‘character’ without suffering a few wounds. To compensate for lack of real success along the lines laid down for me I came out of the process with an ego large than I needed, and was as clumsy among ‘normals’ as one whose clothes are too big for him.
“It is perhaps idle to wonder what, from my present point of view, would have been an ideal education. If I could provide such a curriculum for my own children, they, in their turn, might find it all a bore. But the fantasy of what I would have liked to learn as a child may be revealing, since I feel unequipped by education for the problems that lie outside the cloistered, literary domain in which I am at home. Looking back, then, I would want to have arranged for myself to be taught survival techniques for both natural and urban wildernesses. I would want to have been instructed in self-hypnosis, in aikido (the esoteric and purely self-defensive style of judo), in elementary medicine, in sexual hygiene, in vegetable gardening, in astronomy, navigation, and sailing; in cookery, and clothes making, in metal work and carpentry, in drawing and painting, in botany and biology, in optics and acoustics, in semantics and psychology, in mysticism and yoga, in electronics and mathematical fantasy, in drama and dancing, in singing and playing a musical instrument by ear; in wandering, in advanced daydreaming, in prestidigitation, in techniques of escape from bondage, in disguise, in conversation with birds and beasts, in ventriloquism, in French and German conversation, in planetary history, in morphology, and in Classical Chinese.*
“Actually, the main thing left out of my education was a proper love for my own body, because one feared to cherish anything so obviously mortal and prone to sickness.”
*”This is a serious proposal, for Chinese is, for us, a far better language for ‘mind-training’ than Latin or Greek because it is the most evolved and highly sophisticated language least like our own. Thus, the patterns of thought upon which it is based bring out, by contrast the implicit and largely unrecognized patterns of thought which underlie our own tongue – as that ‘events,’ represented by verbs, must be set in motion by ‘things,’ represented by nouns. Furthermore, anything said in English may be said in half the time in Chinese, while German and Japanese take twice the time. Some form of written Chinese would also be a marvelous language for computers, because it can be read at a high speed and each character, or ideogram, is a nonlinear Gestalt, or configuration.”
Watts’s critique of his own education is awfully similar to what Montaigne said about the shortcomings of education in his day. For Watts, education is creating consumers and cogs for a grand societal machine who do not reflect on the larger meaning of life. Montaigne talks about how pedants produce people who do not think beyond the questions of status and repetition of the knowledge they learned in school. “We only labour to stuff the memory, ad leave the conscience and the understanding unfurnished and void,” Montaigne writes.
I wonder if part of the problem is that educators are always designing the perfect education for the last generation as opposed to the one that they are education. The hard truth about experience is that there is no way to learn it other than to go through it.
I think the other part of the problem is that it is easier to regurgitate than understand. It is hard to get people to comprehend and reflect and study. It is also hard to teach someone when you do not have confidence in your own knowledge. If you don’t believe that you know what you are teaching, then you can’t teach it. So, it makes sense that pedants would want to avoid anything that would question their level of knowledge or expertise.
One place where Watts is exactly right for me is his very last paragraph (before the footnote) about the thing being left out was a proper love for his own body. When I was in school, I was one of the bookish, smart kids. I was not supposed to be an athlete. I fell into a stereotype imposed by the outside world. It was not a nefarious thing, it was just that this was the way that world seemed to operate. We all fell into the patterns presented to us when I was young. By high school, I was starting to break out of it, but it took a long time for me to appreciate my body and learn that it could be trained to do far more than I ever thought it could. (That is another blog, but it is interesting to see myself and others I know discover an athletic side they didn’t think they had.)
For my part, it is interesting that Watts writes as though the matter is settled and there is no future learning to be done. In thinking about this topic and my life, I am always thinking about new things that I can learn and how I might go about doing it. I think that is part of why I started reading this set and writing this blog. I think the end of my schooling was not the end of my learning or even the end of my time in classrooms. When I stop learning, I get bored and want to move on. I am still constructing my ideal education and add new topics daily.
My biggest problem is not having the resources to study everything I want right now. I have had to learned that I need to pick and choose what I study at any given moment. This is a lot more successful than trying to do everything at once. For a long time, I refused to pick things because I was afraid it would lead to me never being able to go back and try other things. While I realize order has its effects, I am learning that it is better to commit to things, like reading this set, and come back to other things later or as I need them. Building foundations goes a long way to future success.
I have rattled on here enough, but I will try to come up with an ideal curriculum for myself. As for my blog readers, what do you wish you had learned? What would you like to learn? Have you made plans or started learning these things?