There are two entirely antithetical prerequisite to becoming a scientific researcher or life-long scholar: a pride in one’s opinions, especially those that one believes to be original, and a willingness to receive and incorporate criticism from the self and others. Opposite as they are, these two prerequisites are both responses to our ‘confirmation bias’ and ‘consistency bias,’ which are at the same time the most pervasive and harmful failure of our reason and the source of our motivation to learn and to keep learning. We like learning information that confirms who we are and how we see the world, and we hate to be seen as a hypocrite or as holding inconsistent beliefs, values, and opinions. (digression: Robert Cialdini shows us in his book “Influence” how various sales professionals use these biases to manipulate us, but it is sad that our educators are not nearly as crafty.) We are much more likely to remember information that we sought intentionally instead of simply to pacify the powers that be, and also find it quite a bit easier to motivate ourselves to digest that information in the first place. This realization has been one impetus behind “student-centered learning” and other progressive movements in education. One theory that spearheaded this trend was that of Carl Rogers, which was based on 19 propositions. His 11th and 14th propositions are of particular importance to this discussion:
11th: “As experiences occur in the life of the individual, they are either, a) symbolized, perceived and organized into some relation to the self, b) ignored because there is no perceived relationship to the self structure, c) denied symbolization or given distorted symbolization because the experience is inconsistent with the structure of the self.” (taken from wiki)
This is why the above biases are so central to learning: we are highly motivated to absorb information that confirms who we are, discard that which bears no relation to our identity, and actively thwart information that dis-confirms our identity. Student-centered learning attempted to incorporate this insight, although I saw none of this influence in my own education–not even in college, where I was more often than not punished for creativity, passion, and initiative. In fact, it is quite clear that this progressive ideal was never really put into practice at all. This is quite simply why the Handicap Principle As Educational Ethos is so attractive to so many bright students: failing to draw any meaningful connection between the material they are forced to learn and their burgeoning identity, they forge their identity on a war against this imposition instead of on an alliance or treaty with it.
Education is simply not about learning information; it is about becoming a self or growing a ‘soul,’ if you will. Lamenting the fact that he would likely wallow in obscurity despite his merits, Kierkegaard referred to his age as “an age when passion has been obliterated in favor of learning.” Has anything really changed since the 1840’s? We pretend to keep the “liberal arts” ethos alive by giving our students all 31 academic flavors, but fail to really connect any of these to the students’ tastes. Even if we do foster such a connection, it doesn’t really matter, because they will just be forced to ignore their passion in favor of choking down sample after sample of the other flavors, perhaps until they reach graduate school–perhaps not even then. Unfortunately, our children are probably wise enough to have realized with William James that “The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.” Thus, we churn out generation after generation of professional test-takers who, thinking that they know what to overlook, are most adept at quick memorization, recognition (but not recall), and a quick and efficient memory wipe to make room for the next such arbitrary hoop they must jump through.
The impossible situation that our teachers and policy makers face is the fact that children will not naturally educate themselves; that “discipline” is not natural to children but yet is a prerequisite to developing a full soul. We can’t simply let our children do as they please thinking that their natural curiosity can compete with modern entertainment. Railing against Rousseau’s “born free fallacy,” Roger Scruton reminds us that:
“We are not born free: freedom is something we acquire. And we acquire it through obedience. Only the child who has learned to respect and defer to others can respect himself. And such a child is one who has internalized the rules, customs and laws that form the boundaries of a shared public world.”
The matter of freedom being something we acquire through culture has taken on a renewed importance for me having just finished reading Julian Jaynes, who proposes that self-consciousness itself is acquired through culture. All of this would seem to make a more “authoritarian” model of education necessary, but then we are stuck with this “authority” presenting a perfect target for the natural youthful rebellion that takes hold as adolescent students begin to form an identity. How are we to solve this impossible situation? I think that Rogers, in his 14th proposition, gives us a starting point:
14th: “Psychological adjustment exists when the concept of the self is such that all the sensory and visceral experiences of the organism are, or may be, assimilated on a symbolic level into a consistent relationship with the concept of self.” (taken from wiki)
Notice that information doesn’t need to be consistent with a child’s identity or opinions, but must be assimilated or brought into a consistent relationship with the concept of self. Thus, it is perfectly fine to have students who violently disagree with something we are forcing them to learn, as long as we allow them the freedom to protest, and thus bring this information into a relationship with their self (albeit a negative relation). William James brilliantly stated that “To be a real philosopher all that is necessary is to hate some one else’s type of thinking.” We should aim to channel youthful rebellion instead of quell it; to selectively play the devil’s advocate so as to goad this passion into action instead of leaving it festering in mute and impotent resentment. Rogers tells us that any information that is inconsistent with the organization of the structure of the self will likely be perceived as a threat, and the more of these threats there are, the more rigidly the self structure is organized to maintain itself. Thus, we should challenge our students with plenty of these threats and watch as they marshal the resources of their selves and in the process grow equal to the challenge. We are squandering an opportunity to capitalize on the natural biases that even used car salesmen are adept at manipulating! Once we get a student to the point where a good portion of his pride is based on his knowledge and opinions, we simply need to keep exposing him to new information that will challenge the status quo of his identity–his consistency bias will take care of the rest!
More to the point of proposition 14, we should furthermore change the overall goal of our educational system to the singular goal of fostering “psychological adjustment,” instead of aiming for certain minimum levels of competence in math and science or other such attempts to keep America economically competitive. This might mean that we send far fewer children to university, but only because we have allowed them to be who they really are. Instead, we send everyone to university regardless of academic talent or inclination, which results in 1) outstripping the capacity of our university system to give each student anything more than a reading list and some professors opinion on that reading list, and 2) strapping every person starting out in this world with a mountain of unnecessary debt. If you think that “psychological adjustment” is a foolish aim for education you are in for a surprise. The dirty little secret is that this is why education is compulsory in the first place: the mistaken assumption that simply forcing the 31 flavors down every child’s throat will engender better adjustment to society and lower crime rates. “If they are in school,” we tell ourselves, “then they won’t be knocking over liquor stores, and hell, they might even learn something!” However, we place test scores in the privileged position of determining the measure of each students “adjustment to society,” instead of realizing that this sort of adjustment starts with Roger’s “psychological adjustment.” We force our kids to adjust to an industrial model of society that is rapidly becoming irrelevant while all the while ignoring the thing that needs the adjusting–the students soul. Even if our kids know what society is all about, how are they supposed to “adjust to it” when they don’t know who they are? How does one adjust something that he hasn’t created or experienced yet?
This stress on “psychological adjustment” is all the more important because our specialized sciences produce such a diversity of contradictory pictures of man. There used to be an old joke that you learn just enough philosophy in college to royally screw you up, but I think that the joke is even more apt for every other branch of the humanities. Kierkegaard wrote of his time that “the incongruity in it and the reason for its anxiety and restlessness is this, that in one direction truth increases in extent, in mass, partly also in abstract clarity, whereas certitude steadily decreases.” Max Scheler makes a similar point: “In no other period of human knowledge has man ever become more problematic to himself than in our own days. We have a scientific, a philosophical, and a theological anthropology that know nothing of each other. Therefore, we no longer posses any clear and consistent idea of man. The ever-growing multiplicity of the particular sciences that are engaged in the study of man has much more confused and obscured than elucidated our concept of man.” Though these writers are now quite dated, their perspective is just as relevant today. The problem of finding a coherent picture of man to which one can foster a consistent relationship is certainly much harder than learning Calculus or Chemistry, yet is entirely ignored by modern education. This is precisely what students need help with! Once they have some vague notion of who they are and what they are interested in, they will need much less help in learning Calculus. “He who has a why can endure any how,” Nietzsche tell us, and yet this “why” is precisely what is left up to each student’s imagination. Why is it that every Algebra teacher in the country is plagued by the question “why do we need this nonsense” and yet no teacher feels obligated to provide an answer? Nietzsche also claimed that every system of thought “says only: this is a picture of all life, and from it learn the meaning of your life. And conversely; read only your life and understand from it the hieroglyphics of universal life.” This perspective should be carved into the very walls of our academic establishments.
This is what I would like to see happen:
1) The teacher should be guide and initiator again, instead of babysitter and uncritical coach. He should be both devil’s advocate, example, leader, and mentor in the Oxford-style tutoring tradition. He should be able to voice his opinions and stand for something. He should be able to discipline his students without constant fear of legal action.
2) School should not be compulsory (legally or practically), especially higher education.
3) We should stop subsidizing failure by transferring massive amounts of resources from those who make good use of them to those who don’t. Students should be challenged to become worthy of the privilege of education instead of made to think that it is their “natural right” by virtue of their ability to draw breath.
4) We should retool our metrics for “success” in education away from standardized tests and towards “psychological adjustment,” a task made infinitely easier by enacting #2. Any professor worth his salt should be able to tell within ten minutes of holding a conversation with a student if he belongs in university or not, but instead we rely on watered-down, meaningless, expensive, dehumanizing, and ubiquitous testing.