Democratic Schooling:
Nurturing Every Child,
Not Just Playing The Odds

by Don Berg, Founder
Attitutor Services

Intro, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

Part 2 of 4

The Illusion:
Coerced Symbol Manipulation Results In Education

In order to understand the pervasive illusion about education we have to step back from the present.

We have to step back far enough to get a wider perspective than that afforded by the illusion itself to see how it fits into a larger pattern.

The dominant illusion about education was formulated based on a particular view of human history.

In the past the primary sources considered authoritative on our early history were religious texts that used ambiguous metaphors passed down from our oral traditions to describe what went on before.

Unfortunately that view was severely limited. Western traditions, until relatively recently, have assumed that everything worth knowing about humans occurred within the past 5000 years or less.

The extreme version even went so far as to promote the idea that everything in existence is less than 5000 years old (despite a variety of evidence from many fields of human endeavor to the contrary.)

But since then we have developed more precise ways of determining and describing what would have been going on in the deep past.

I bring your attention to the following milestones:

Decade Scale
Computer Technologies ~50 years ago
Century Scale
Pre-computer Media (radio, telegraph, etc) ~100 years ago
Science ~500 years ago
Millennia Scale
Mathematics ~3,000 years ago
Reading/Writing ~5,000 years ago
Agriculture ~10,000 years ago
Tens to Hundreds of Millennia Scale
Spoken Language/ Storytelling ~50,000 years ago
Thousands of Millennia Scale
Origin of Life (Optimizing States of Mind) ~4,000,000,000 years ago

The milestones go backwards from our most recent innovation in symbol manipulation, the computer, and notes the rough time scale of each major advance in the complexity of our abilities.

Most importantly I ask you to notice three things;

First, that the history of all the various forms of literacy extend back only 5000 years which coincides with the transition from oral to written history and the period of our inherited view of how long humans were previously thought to have existed.

Second, notice that agriculture and spoken language both pre-date literacy.

Remember that with the development of agriculture, in particular, our species developed whole new ways of organizing how we control our own and other people's behavior for the common good.

Third, note that the vast foundation upon which all forms of symbol manipulation, including our pre-literate ability to tell stories and use language, are successively built up on our ability to achieve optimal states of mind.

What, you ask, is an optimal state of mind?

Other than being the legacy of all our living ancestors extending back around 4 billion years, optimal states of mind are the ability to achieve a balance within our body/mind (which are not separate in any meaningful sense) that enables us to make use of both our ability to attend to everything important that is happening right now in this moment and our abilities to look into the past and future to get an accurate sense of what can and should happen in subsequent moments.

If we lose our balance in this particular challenge then we can get lost in an unreal fantasy about the world as we wish it could be or we can get completely absorbed in all the infinite details of the universe of the moment.

In either case we may fail to anticipate either an immanent threat or a better opportunity and ultimately lose our chance to make a contribution to life and humanity.

In short, achieving an optimal state of mind is the method that all living organisms use to survive.

If you have experienced flow, the state of focused effortlessness that is described by high performers in every field when they are able to lose themselves (in a good way) in an activity, then you have experienced the primary example of an optimal state of mind.

The more mundane versions of optimal states are usually described in neutral to positive terms like being focused, happy, satisfied, etc. While non-optimal states are described in negative terms like anger, confusion, depression, etc.

All of our emotions are potentially optimal depending on the situation, so it is not simply experiencing certain emotions.

In his book, Flow, Psychologist Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi (pronounced Me-high Chick-sent-me-high) says it is the ideal match of the challenge of a situation with our abilities to handle the situation.

Thus, it is also a moving target. As our skills and abilities increase the level of challenge necessary to achieve the flow of optimal states of mind also increases.

Having noted that optimal states of mind are the foundation of all our symbol manipulation activities, then consider that the illusion about education is based on the mistaken view that symbol manipulation is the most basic activity to be accomplished in education when, in fact, achieving an optimal state of mind is an even more fundamental skill.

Think about it this way, why do we manipulate symbols? We do not manipulate symbols for their own sake. We manipulate symbols to achieve something even more basic, optimal states of mind.

This is a drive that we share with every living thing that has ever existed and our apparently unique talent as a species to create and manipulate symbols is a more elegant, refined and complex technique for accomplishing that same basic function.

The wisdom of over 4 billion years of life makes this our most elementary, our most primary drive.

The opportunities that we have as humans is to do this one thing in a huge variety of ways, generally involving symbol manipulation.

Now consider a rough history of the power structures by which we control our own and other people's behavior for the common good.

This is how we, as a social animal, engage with others to achieve the results we want in the world instead of doing it alone.

In the pre-symbol manipulation era of life there was one obvious rule for power structures that is still evident today; might makes right and the strong and bold get their way.

Of course, it's not really that simple, but it's a good rule of thumb.

Once again there is a trade-off continuum between the extremes of:

  • The person who is the physically strongest and boldest getting their way, thus you invest developmental resources in physical size and strength plus mental characteristics of aggression and decisiveness


  • The person who is the most socially connected and has the most communicative influence getting their way, thus you invest developmental resources in mental skills of emotional intelligence, cleverness and ingenuity in conjunction with social skills that provide access to the existing movers and shakers of society

The development of symbol manipulation techniques makes the second option much more sophisticated than could ever be achieved before.

In evolutionary terms humans have made a commitment to the second strategy, which is evident when we are compared to our evolutionary cousins gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans.

Our long ancestry was committed to the first strategy long before the second developed, so we still have evolutionary programs that have us favor the strong and bold even within our sophisticated social networks.

But, because of our ancestors commitment to venturing across the continuum, we have a much greater range of responses than ever before.

The key thing to think about in terms of the different power structures is the efficiency by which each kind of power is maintained.

The strong and bold method requires a person who is strong and bold to be present whereas the social connection and communication method can delegate the maintenance tasks to symbols that essentially reside inside a person's mind.

The social power structure in human society today is based on a combination of establishing a group identity that spells out a standard set of roles that are played by individuals and having those roles become automatic cognitive frames through which each person views their situation.

A CEO of a Fortune 500 company knows what to do, how to dress, and what her responsibilities are to others.

And, back when she was a 2nd grade girl in school all the answers were different but she had equal confidence that she knew the role she was expected to play.

And the majority of the time it works without a hitch.

Being complex living beings we can sometimes be creative about how we choose to play out our roles, but we also have checks and balances in the system to ensure that the common good is ultimately served most of the time.

The education illusion essentially arises from our inherited myopic view of human history and what it means to be human.

In previous eras we have had the conceit to believe that we were created separate from and, more importantly, placed in a superior position above all other creatures on the earth several thousand years ago.

We have acted as if we have the powers of God to determine our own and other people's fates independent of the consequences.

We took our symbol manipulation skills to be the very fundaments of our society and built schools that reflected all of these conceits. This view of humanity and it's place in the world is wrong.

We exist on an ever creative evolving continuum with all of life that has been and continues to be developing over the course of over 4 billion years.

We share the same fundamental drive as all other living creatures to optimize our states of mind. We just happened to have taken a path that enables us to reflect on this history and appreciate the blessings that God (or Goddess, or Allah, or whatever name you prefer for the ultimate cause of everything) has bestowed upon us.

We are beholden to all the other beings on the earth for the quality of our lives and while we have attained previously unimaginable powers, we are still dependent on other people and other creatures for our existence.

We will reap the consequences of our actions even with all our newly developed powers.

Now that we have a better understanding of our proper place as one of many species living interdependently on planet Earth, we can see that the illusion was not an intentional act against our own interests, it was simply an honest mistake based on our misconceptions about the world and our place in it.

When we came to realize how powerful our symbol manipulation skills were at changing our world we gave it all due respect from the perspective we had at the time.

When we examined our history it was evident that authority plays an important role in our lives, then, once again, we did our best to give it all due respect from the perspective we had at the time.

The industrial schools that dominate education around the world are the result of those mistaken methods of trying to fulfill our moral obligations to both society and our children.

The day-to-day behavior of students in democratic** schools give the impression of wildness and a lack of proper authority when we look at that situation from our mistaken assumptions about the primacy of symbol manipulation and the importance of obedience.

From those same assumptions the traditional classroom appears to be a very carefully cultivated and beneficial educational environment.

What is hidden by our assumptions in the case of democratic schools is how the democratic school prepares young minds for their eventual instruction in symbol manipulation which is so efficient and effective that it is not in evidence on an everyday basis.

What is masked in the industrial classroom are

  1. how the power structure distracts children from attending to their natural impulse to optimize their own state of mind and
  2. how the constant barrage of symbol manipulation activities becomes a barrier to efficient and effective acquisition of those skills because the children have not developed reliable access to optimal states of mind.

So, in essence, the images of the different types of schooling show us the trade-offs in action.

The industrial classroom invests it's resources in direct behavioral control that emphasizes a maximum of symbol manipulation activities.

Democratic schools invest their resources in a strong social structure in which children are empowered to discover the necessity of symbol manipulation to achieve their own goals and then supports them to acquire those skills efficiently and effectively.

** My use of the term 'Democracy' in this article is meant to designate a broad range of power structures that engage students in making meaningful real-world decisions about the operations of their school, including participating in the formal resolution of conflict through some form of student dominated group often called a 'justice board.' My use of the term does not recognize any distinction between democracies and republics.

Democratic Schooling: Introduction, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

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