In Our Education System:
What are the  Nuts and Bolts?

Mr. Lowell Monke wrote an article that criticizes the dominance of mechanical metaphors in our education system today.

I agree with Mr. Monke's attitude of caution about educational technology in his article, but there is a serious contradiction in his presentation:

"Of course, symbol manipulation—reading, writing, mathematics—is the unavoidable nuts and bolts of schooling."
Unplugged Schools by Lowell Monke, Orion Magazine Sept/Oct 2007 Issue

The contradiction occurs on two levels; the surface imagery and the deeper concept.

If there are "unavoidable nuts and bolts," as he claims, then he envisions a machine that is constructed from those fundamental parts and is inherently mechanical.

But, he is thus contradicting his argument against having schools that reflect mechanical thinking.

We can give Mr. Monke the benefit of the doubt by calling this a metaphoric faux pas but, of even greater concern is the deeper conceptual foundation for schooling that he simply assumes as a given.

Whatever you create will, in some way, reflect the most basic materials you use to create it.

In creating an education system, if you take symbol manipulation as the most basic element, then you will generate a system that is entirely limited by the nature of symbol manipulation.

By invoking the image of "unavoidable nuts and bolts" Mr. Monke gives the impression that symbol manipulation is the most fundamental part of the machine, the basic part from which everything else in the machine is made.

I argue that symbol manipulation is not basic and that a system of schooling that makes this mistake is (and will always be) incapable of consistently producing the kinds of good results Mr. Monke desires.

I propose that the true foundation of good education is optimal states of mind and, therefore, a good school system must use this as it's conceptual foundation in order to consistently produce good results.

In a proper education system optimal states of mind are more basic than symbol manipulation

The main problem I have with symbol manipulation is that in order for it to be the most basic element of our education system, we have to presume that anyone who cannot manipulate symbols must inherently be uneducated.

This raises the even more fundamental question of what it means to be educated or not.

When I talk about someone who is educated I mean someone who perceives accurately, thinks clearly, and acts effectively to achieve self-selected goals and aspirations.

This does not require schools, degrees, diplomas, classes, teachers, students, tests, nor grades.

This does not even require any symbols at all, let alone the ability to manipulate them.

Thus, in my way of thinking about education it has more to do with a person's attitude towards being in the world rather than manipulating symbols.

If someone is uneducated then they have a problem in one of those three aspects; perception, thinking, or acting effectively.

If they are trying to perceive, think, and act in a context that is centrally defined by symbols, then symbol manipulation is, of course, crucial.

But if symbols are incidental to or nonexistent in the person's context, then symbol manipulation is not crucial.

In any case, what is crucial in every context is the state of mind of the individual.

If they get confused, angry, sad, depressed, or otherwise disengage their attention from the reality of their situation and cannot exercise control over how their attention is directed towards that reality then they are an uneducated person.

Taking this perspective puts human beings on a continuum with all of life and schooling is simply a more complex way to organize the same need that other animals meet in different ways.

All animals have the need to direct their limited attention on the situation in which they exist.

They need to invest their attention in perceptual and cognitive inputs that will pay rich dividends in guiding their actions for survival.

Unlike most, perhaps all, other animals, human beings have the opportunity to think about and reflect upon the ways they investment their attention.

We can think about how we think and study which ways of thinking are the most productive investments of attention.

I am suggesting that thinking of education and organizing our education system in terms of symbol manipulation is less productive than thinking of education in terms of attentional investments.

And, naturally, an education system that is built on this foundation will operate very differently than one based on symbol manipulation.

I believe that the most basic elements of an education system are the structures of governance of our own and other people's behavior for the common good, the processes of exchange with each other and our environment that we use to meet our needs, and the patterns of consciousness that result from living within those governance structures and exchange processes.

The measure of success should be increasing the patterns of consciousness that we recognize as optimal states of mind such as purpose, optimism, cognitive order, cognitive complexity, engaged attention, enjoyment, cooperative coordination of behavior, etc.

The media circus that we live in, which was the central foil in Mr. Monke's article, is immediately transformed from the only show in town to one of many props available on the stage of our lives that we can use to optimize our states of mind.

Nature is the oldest most reliable tool for mind optimizing that has proven itself on the evolutionarily time scale, whereas all our media are just a flashy new gadget by comparison.

An education system that makes optimal states of mind its foundation would be investing in the deepest and most reliable aspects of human nature; the aspects that we have inherited over evolutionary time.

Electronic media today represents an invented aspect of human nature that should be considered as vulnerable as a newborn on an evolutionary time scale.

Symbol manipulation is older than the electronics in which we manipulate symbols today, but it is still young.

If you don't mind the high risks then there is a chance for some high rewards, but that means there are inevitable failures, as well.

And the question is whether we can afford to lose the investment if it goes bad (and by the best estimates these days losing would be catastrophic.)

Developing education policy to support this view is the most crucial task ahead.