Overcoming the Educational Time Warp: Anticipating a Different Future

7. Reuniting Life and Knowledge
The tendency of mind to divide reality occurs in multiple dimensions. Horizontally, it divides reality into innumerable specialized fields of knowledge and activity. Vertically, it places an artificial divide between Life and Mind. It divides knowing from living, education from society, the universities from the real world. The tendency of mind to separate idea from fact divides knowledge from the reality it seeks to comprehend. Mind’s capacity for abstraction generalizes from the particular to formulate universal principles, laws and theories. Abstraction is one of mind’s greatest powers, yet at the same time the source of some of the greatest weaknesses and deficiencies of modern education. It fosters an ever-widening gulf between idea and reality, theory and practice.

All reality is multi-dimensional and complex. It admits of differing perspectives and interpretations, depending on the vantage point of the knower. Viewing the complexity of reality from different perspectives—each valid in its own right—leads to the formulation of mutually contradictory theories in physics, evolutionary biology, genetics, economics, psychology, philosophy and other fields—each internally consistent, but irreconcilable with one another or with the facts they seek to explain. In psychology it has led to multiple theories of personality that appear more applicable to different species of life than to different individual human beings. Only when we are able to conceive of the personality as a living, organic whole will we be able to formulate concepts that are sufficiently inclusive and integrated.

Mind’s ultimate act of abstraction is its own separation from the world in which it lives. While we are increasingly informed about the world around us, we are also increasingly separated, divorced and alienated from it. The Cartesian separation between mind and world is the implicit rationale for the poise of the scientist as an impartial, detached observer of nature, even when he is observing detonation of a nuclear explosion, designing a new biological weapon, or creating a computerized trading platform that can destabilize global financial markets. Nearly a century after physicists discovered the importance of the relationship between the observer and the observation in the study of matter, the knowledge dispensed by institutions of higher education continues to regard the objective reality of the world around us as if we were in some way separate and independent. The artificial detachment of the observer absolves scientists and universities from demands for social relevance, social responsibility and social accountability. Perhaps it also explains the relative complacency of the general public to concerns about nuclear stockpiles, Fukushima type disasters in other countries, global climate change and soaring homicide rates in the USA. Is there an alternative?

8. Values-Based Education
The Cartesian divide between mind and life led naturally to the development of science as the impersonal study of an objective reality independent of the scientist. We easily forget that all knowledge and education are a product of interaction between the person and the world, between human consciousness and the universe in which we live. In that interaction, the subject, the object and the conscious act of knowing are inseparable and of equal importance. There is no such thing as purely objective knowledge. All knowledge involves and is determined by the subjective consciousness of the observer. Absence of personal partiality and prejudice in scientific investigation is highly desirable, though very difficult to attain; but this type of objectivity is too often confused with efforts to eliminate the valid perspective of the subject, which is neither possible nor desirable. All knowledge depends on the viewpoint and perspective of the observer. All knowledge is subjective. All knowledge is mentally constructed and socially construed.

So too, all knowledge is implicitly or explicitly values-based. We decry investment bankers who destabilize financial markets in pursuit of personal benefit, but ignore the fact that scientific research can equally be driven by personal motives of money, career or fame. Even curiosity can lead to consequences that harm society and endanger humanity, as Pandora demonstrated. Every human action must be accessed on the basis of the motives that actuate it and judged in terms of the values it aspires to realize. The quest for impersonal laws of nature in the social sciences divorced from human values and aspirations dehumanizes the study of economics, business, law and even psychology. At a deeper level, the effort to separate and divorce science from philosophy and spirituality is another reflection of the schizophrenia that characterizes society and education today.

9. Conceptions of Knowledge
Is it possible to continuously expand the horizons of our knowledge through education without being drowned by information overload, fragmentation, specialization and alienation of knowledge from reality? The answer to this depends very much on the conception of knowledge on which our educational system is based. Today the words data, information and knowledge are often used interchangeably. We speak of the ‘knowledge society’ with reference to a world in which a plethora of data circles the globe at the speed of light and is accessible at our fingertips. We refer to the continuous doubling or tripling of humanity’s information or knowledge base, when what we really mean is the emerging technologies enable us to collect, store and process an infinitely greater amount of data than in the past. Big Data is not a synonym for more knowledge. It simply means that we now have technologies that can measure and computers that can analyze mountains of data, such as the amount of radiation falling on every square mile of earth 365 days a year or the number of search queries, tweets or Facebook hits every hour.

The ambiguity of terms relating to knowledge leads to ambiguity regarding the aims and content of education as well. It is, therefore, necessary to define the way we use these terms. The process by which we learn from life experience commences with the observation of the world around us and the gathering of innumerable bits of sensory data. The correlation of these bits of data generates Information. We see a flash of lightning in the sky and then hear the sound of thunder a few seconds later. We correlate the light and the sound to conclude that they result from an approaching storm. We learn to estimate the distance of the storm relative to our location by the time delay between the two events. The storm is five miles away is information derived by analysis of the data. Correlating repeated experiences of this type leads to the thought that sound travels more slowly than light. Correlating two or more pieces of information generates Thought. We also note that the lightning may be obscured by cloud cover, but transmission of the sound persists in spite of the clouds. Correlating two or more thoughts born of the information derived by analysis of the data, we eventually formulate an idea or theory that explains all these experiences in a coherent, consistent manner. In the measure our conceptual conclusion is confirmed by further observations, analysis and careful correlation of thoughts, we come to regard the idea or theory as a form of knowledge. Neither data, information, thoughts nor ideas themselves constitute knowledge.

The process of education currently involves all four of these stages in the process of knowledge generation—observation of data, analysis of data to derive information, correlation of information to form thoughts, and integration of thoughts to constitute coherent principles. It is noteworthy that in this entire process we rarely reflect on the characteristics of the human mind that is engaged in the process of knowledge acquisition. Brain research may be a specialty of Psychology and Neuroscience, but the application of the instrument we call mind to our understanding of reality is of essential importance to all fields of knowledge. Social scientists emphasize the limitations and distortions imposed by our social construction of knowledge. We interpret experience in terms of our own conscious and subconscious values, beliefs and experiences.

The tendency of mind to divide and re-aggregate, to abstract theory from reality and to divorce the observer from the phenomena observed constitutes essential knowledge for understanding the past history of human social evolution and knowledge generation. It is at the root of the errors and problems that now confront humanity in the fields of economy, ecology, politics, science, society and culture. But even more importantly, in a world that is changing so rapidly and in which retention of all available information has become both untenable and detrimental to human intelligence, essential knowledge about the way we human beings observe, perceive, understand and interpret reality is vitally important knowledge that needs to be transmitted to future generations.

It is ironic that we spend so much time using our minds in search of knowledge and so little trying to acquire knowledge as the instrument we utilize for that purpose. The study of the mind, the way we think and other ways in which we seek to know reality is essential for every human being in search for knowledge, regardless of the field. It is not a subject that can simply be left to philosophers, psychologists or neuroscientists. Education that anticipates the future and prepares for it needs to encompass knowledge of the fundamental characteristics of mind applicable to all human activities, both mental and social.

10. Person-Centered Education
Mistaking the means for the end is a common human folly beautifully depicted by George Bernard Shaw in his play Pygmalion. Professor Henry Higgins, an expert in the science of phonetics, takes on the seemingly impossible challenge of educating a flower girl named Eliza within three months to acquire the speech and manners of a high-born aristocrat. On achieving this remarkable feat by passing her off as a princess at a gala ball, he and his associate celebrate in triumphant self-satisfaction, never for a moment considering the effort that Eliza has made to acquire the specialized knowledge he offered, the psychological process that motivated her to make such a prodigious effort, the impact of that training on her as a person, or its utility in her future life. At the height of his celebration, Eliza bursts out in frustration and throws his slippers at him. Higgins was guilty of the unpardonable crime of priding himself on his knowledge of phonetics, forgetful of the fact that education is all about developing human beings, not creating mannequins or robots with perfect diction.

Shaw’s play is a satire on an educational system that mistakes specialized subject knowledge for real education. The worship of abstract knowledge divorced from life and devoid of relevance to human beings is at best a superstition, at worst a tragic crime against the human mind, heart and soul. In depersonalizing knowledge, it dehumanizes both the instructor and the student.

The real subject and object of education are the same. The subject of education is a human being. The object of education is to develop the mind and personality of that human being. Everything else is secondary, often irrelevant and many times detrimental to mental, emo­tion­al, social and physical health and well-being. The real challenge confronting education for the 21st century is not about altering the curriculum to focus on STEM, ITC, nanotechnology, microbiology or any other discipline. It is about abandoning the superstition that transfer of information and narrow disciplinary expertise is education. Mistaking the object for the subject has led to a world of scarcity in the midst of inconceivable abundance. Robots of either the metallic or flesh and blood variety may be great at high speed calculations but are utterly incapable of grasping or dealing with the subtlety and complexity of human life.

Knowledge is and always will be central and essential to education, but the knowledge we so desperately need now is about how human beings think, feel, act, interact, respond to each other, innovate, create, seek and find fulfillment, overcome the limitations of the past and embrace the possibilities of the future, grow physically and mature emotionally, develop organizationally and evolve consciously.

Education is the means evolved by humanity over millennia to consciously accelerate the development of the individual and the evolution of the society. In an earlier age when information and specialized professional expertise were scarce and extremely difficult to come by, the emphasis on these goals was understandable. In the coming age when information is superabundant and growing exponentially, what we desperately need to develop is the capacity to correlate and synthesize, to place isolated pieces of information within a cohesive framework of thought, to think independently from first principles and originally outside the sanctioned boundaries of accepted knowledge, to reintegrate abstract thought with the world in which we live, and apply it for the growth and development of our own personalities.

Person-centered education needs to be founded on a comprehensive conception of what a human being is and of all the aspects and dimensions of the human mind and personality that can benefit from education. This encompasses a wide range of physical, interpersonal, and mental skills, faculties, capacities, abilities and values. It encompasses all the functions of the human mind, such as observation, perception, judgment, understanding, thinking, will, imagination, and intuition, as well as social and emotional faculties for interactions and relationships with other people. It encompasses all the layers of personality from the most external manners and behaviors to deeper levels of character and individuality. The development of these capacities can be done through many different types of learning experience, including all academic subjects, where the objective is to develop the person and not merely transfer information. Biography, contemporary events, literature and drama, anthropology, the study of accomplishment in business and politics, achievement in sports and the arts, the study of scientific discoveries, philosophy, and all fields of history provide rich material.

Employment is cited as a primary goal of higher education in an age of increasing computerization and robotization. Today, we are aggressively pursuing a course that transforms human beings into robots far more efficiently than it imparts human capacities to computers. We need to be educating people to do what computers and robots can never do, rather than preparing living, breathing people to compete with the memory capacity or calculating speed of a mainframe. The knowledge and skills society needs in the 21st century are those that nurture the mental, emotional and social development of individuals who know how to live and interact with other people, to lead and collaborate with others, to understand themselves and empathize with others. It needs individuals with the courage to question and disagree, not the submissiveness to unquestionably accept as wisdom all that science proclaims as the present version of truth. It needs individuals who seek opportunities to be creative, not merely productive; to create employment for themselves and others, rather than seeking a job; who know the value of values, not merely laws, rules and procedures.

The response of the educational system to the issues flagged in this article will have enormous impact on the future of global higher education and evolution of global society. The questions raised here are far easier to ask than to answer and far easier to comprehend than to act upon. But these are among the most critical questions that need to become central to the discussion about the future of education and the human community. How can we shift the focus of learning from reverence for the past to anticipation of the future, from information to understand­ing and thinking, from passive to active, from abstracted to contextualized, from fragmented to integrated, from subject centered to person centered, and from productive to creative?

Such a radical change cannot be made universally in a year or a decade, but it can begin, grow and spread rapidly. It cannot be done so long as we look up in awe to the pillars of the old system and imbue them with a sanctity or prestige that, however warranted in the past, is insufficient for the future. True education is to replace superstition with knowledge, and that includes a superstitious reverence for past glories. Our blind faith in the present system is the greatest bar to evolving a better one for the future. The strategy of striving to emulate the current best and raising the average to the level of the best is valid and useful in many fields, but only in the measure the best truly represents a viable model for the future. Otherwise we risk reinforcing an outmoded version of perfection, like striving for benevolent monarchy when what we really need is liberal democracy. A right starting point might be a systematic effort to identify the seeds of future education wherever they already exist and consider how these seeds can be multiplied and further developed.

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