October 8, 2005    Education

Hidden Assumptions of Educational Theories

Whenever I hear about or read any theories of child-rearing or education, I feel confounded by their underlying assumptions. Unless we agree on some form of an ideal human being, how could we assert in general terms anything to be good or bad for kids? In most cases, if we question the existence of an ideal human being, the theories collapse. This particular article by Mr. Lowell Monke is a good example: “Charlotte’s Webpage—Why children shouldn’t have the world at their fingertips” He argues that there is an appropriate way to use computers for educational purposes, and that our kids today are using computers more than they should. What confounds me isn’t so much the logic of his arguments, but the assumption that there is some sort of an ideal human being that we all strive to raise our children to be.

In order for us to generalize what is good or bad for kids, we must have a way to measure the results. Some may propose to measure by the success of their careers. We could do so by measuring the amount of money or the amount of recognition. Others may propose to measure by how “happy” they are, as elusive as the term may be. Either way, they are still mere assumptions. Since when have we come to an agreement that life is about money, recognition, or happiness?

Whatever we do to our kids, positive or negative, consciously or unconsciously, in the end does not make them better or worse adults; it just makes them different. Many of us grew up with emotional baggage or even traumas caused by our own parents, but is that bad? It’s not that simple. I would not be who I am if it weren’t for my emotional baggage. I overcame part of it, while I still hold some of it. This experience of overcoming or living with our own emotional baggage makes us stronger, wiser, and more empathetic to others. It is part of the education of life. In fact, what would happen to kids who grow up under presumably perfect parents who would not cause any emotional baggage or traumas? These kids would utterly lack empathy toward the majority of others who do have emotional baggage. They would probably never appreciate writers like Dostoyevsky. Even worse: they might develop emotional baggage during their adult lives, and they might have to confront in their middle age significant emotional problems that most of us deal with in our 20s.

Many parents become concerned about how fast their infants are developing, like smiling, sitting up, crawling, walking, and talking. This too assumes that faster means better, but better for what? If a baby does not cry much, we assume that it is a good thing, but good for what? If a baby refuses to sleep in a crib, we assume that it is a bad thing, but bad for what? How would they exactly manifest in their adult lives? What is being assumed in these presumably good or bad things?

Mr. Monke’s article mentions a finding that “students who frequently use computers perform worse academically than those who use them rarely or not at all.” Even with this, who said performing well academically is the meaning of life? Why do we assume that this is a good thing? Did all great men and women in history perform well academically? Even this question itself assumes that being recognized in history is a good thing.

He argues that computers create disconnect between the real world and the virtual world, which in turn creates children who are socially and biologically alienated from the real world. This may be true but it did not stop Bill Gates from becoming one of the most successful people in the world. It appears that he has learned how to relate to real people later in his life, but what is wrong with that? If you didn’t learn something in school, you can learn it in your working life. Who is to say that which order is better?

Educators seem to assume that exposing children to a variety of experiences is a good thing because it helps them to be more balanced. But again, who said that being balanced is the meaning of life? If that is the case, what do we make of people like Andy Warhol, Albert Einstein, William Burroughs, and John Nash? Are they balanced? Should schools prevent creating people like them?

Mr. Monke also assumes that knowing what is presumably “real” is more important than knowing what is virtual. According to him, what we experience on a computer is virtual and inauthentic, and what we experience by touching soil and worms is real and authentic. He draws these lines arbitrarily based on his own conception of what is presumably real. But as long as he uses “soil” and “worms” to function as symbols representing what is real, they never escape the world of representation. In this scenario, especially urbanites who rarely see soil and worms think to themselves: “Wow, this is real soil and worms. I’m experiencing real nature.” Thus their experience remains within the world of representation, no matter how real the situation presumably is.

In a similar fashion, many people travel to remote islands like Galapagos Islands, and think to themselves, “This is real nature.” To them, the idea of going to such a place is to escape what is presumably unnatural and unreal. But, the sad truth is that those islands look that way because we want them to look that way. They are maintained precisely to match our expectations of what Galapagos Islands should look like. If we did not make any conscious effort to preserve them, they wouldn’t be looking the way they are. There is nothing “natural” or “real” about this.

The toys we give to our infants often have cartoon images of things in nature, like animals, flowers, stars, etc.. One could argue that it is pointless, or even harmful, to introduce something unreal before we expose them to the real things that those images represent. Obviously, infants have no idea that those images are supposed to represent something else. To them, a cartoon image of a lion is just another abstract shape with its own reality. It is we, the adults, who project unreal-ness onto this abstract shape, because we see it as a symbol that represents a real lion.

In the same way, anything that kids experience on a computer has its own reality, which is independent of what is presumably “real”. It is misguided to view the problem in terms of “real” and “unreal”, or “natural” and “unnatural”. Experiences on a computer is simply another type of experience, and it is not any better or worse than any other types of experiences. The experience of actually climbing Mount Everest does not have anything inherently better than the experience of playing a video game about Mount Everest. In both cases, what you get out of it would depend on your attitude and motive. If you are climbing Mount Everest with the sole purpose of finding valuables left behind by dead mountaineers, some enthusiastic kid who is learning about Mount Everest in interactive program may actually get something more significant out his experience. In this manner, understanding what is “real” or “natural” has nothing to do with such clichés as soil or worms. Anything can become mere symbols depending on your attitude. By the same token, anything can become “real” or “natural”, whether it’s a computer or a drug.

We are integral part of Mother Nature. Whatever we do is part of the process of nature. It is not possible to draw a line and say this is natural and this isn’t. What is unnatural is to create such a division where none actually exists, and to assume one to be superior to the other.

Since things like trees, rivers, and animals are so foreign to those of us who live in urban areas that we create a romantic notion of what “nature” is. We assume that nature is everything that we are not. It is precisely this division we create in our minds that in turn creates a need to control nature, and makes us want to “seize nature by the throat.” Nature is functioning right here in the middle of Manhattan Island in New York City. Everything we see here is part of the process of nature. If we truly understood that we are part of nature, not separate from it, then we would not have any desire to control, exploit, or destroy nature. We would then understand that it is as ridiculous as poking ourselves with a knife or smearing our own faces with gasoline.

By the same token, there is no need for us to feel that we have to control the development of our kids either. The issue with education isn’t what we teach them, but what we learn from them. The focus needs to be reversed. There are too many parents and teachers whose concerns are how to control the growth of their children (e.g. by forcing them to use computers, or by taking them away from them). Kids don’t need to be controlled; they know how to grow up as long as they are allowed to. Whatever brilliant educational theories we use for our kids actually only satisfy our own egos. We should just worry about resolving our own problems, learning about ourselves, learning from our kids, and educating ourselves; the rest will follow. We are not the master-controller of human nature that we think we are. We are only fooling ourselves to think that. Nature is far smarter than we could ever imagine.

Most of us think that we are in control of our own eating, but even the most advanced science cannot explain exactly how we are digesting our food. Even though we don’t understand it, we do it every day. Something as simple as walking involves a very complex mechanism that we don’t fully understand; yet we do it so effortlessly. If we start thinking about how we walk, we start to walk funny. In the same way, if we start thinking so much about how to educate our children, we will interfere with our natural ability to raise and teach children. We don’t understand it, but we already know it. That is the way nature works. We don’t want to trust our own nature, because our egos are not in control of it. We feel scared of whatever our egos are not in control of.

When parents or teachers do something evil to their children, the problem isn’t in their educational ideology, perspectives, or systems; the real problem is them. It is a manifestation of their alienation from their own natural wisdom. It is partly because they are busy looking for nature in places like Galapagos Islands. Fixing or changing the educational system would not solve this problem. If we would simply focus on our own problems and resolve them, the educational problems would vanish along with them.

Mr. Monke seems to think that he could “solve” our educational problems like solving a computer problem, but there is nothing to solve, because there are no problems; only differences. Any solution is proposed to achieve some sort of ideal, but there is no such thing as an ideal human being, and therefore no solution. The problem only exists in our own heads.