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Dharma as Education for the Meta-crisis (Part II)
The Four Insufficiencies of Education
Our education systems are insufficient. Few people would disagree with that assertion! However, the motives for their eager concurrence with my claim, and the efficacy of their schemes for rectifying it, are often wildly dubious. We must pull aside a great deal of thorny jungle brush in order to even have a chance at discovering the ancient and future trail of learning. Put on your gloves and we will see what we can find in this thicket.
Let us first acknowledge that many people feel education is failing merely because of hysteria hyped in the gossipy, stress-mongering popular media. Although it is true that smoke often indicates fire, we cannot place too much confidence in people whose opinion appears to be the mere reiteration of received popular sentiment about our existing educational methods.
In addition, many folks are (equally superficially) inclined to lament the fact that today’s schools no longer resemble their own memories of childhood education. The constant complaint about “young people today” has been haunting our species for a long time — as adults stultify into robust ruts and begin to nostalgically transmute their ancient experiences of agony into some kind of heroic origin story.
So let us refer to this superficial curmudgeonly skepticism as the first layer of complaint against education systems. What else is there?
There is also the problem of mythic education. People in every culture are divided about the teaching of legends. Many self-identified religious “believers” (notoriously distinct from religious practitioners!) expect that education would dramatically improve if we reintroduced our culture’s legendary teachings, usually codified in Magic Books. After all, our ancestors relied upon these stories to align their cultural habits with their notion of a transcendental source of moral authority and heuristic insights.
At the same time, many others believe (!) that it is actually the residual presence of legendary education, constantly undermining the modern scientific consensus, that is to blame for our current woeful state of educational erosion.
There are numerous difficulties involved in the tangle of these two views. Legends can be morally empowering —unless they are conflated with material facts. And they often prove impotent in solving emergent problems unknown to traditional pre-scientific societies. Worse, perhaps, is the fact that reactionary moralizing and widespread emotional contraction in our communities tends to filter the juiciest elements out of the legendary tales — creating a boring form of conventional “religious education” that forces excitable adolescents to rebel against it AND promulgates a truncated notion of the actual (and appropriate) complexity of the human condition. Legendary education often goes astray into pointless and self-defeating attacks on women, gays, sexuality, imagination, intellect, strangeness, provocative art, ambiguity, research, etc.
Yet the rapid anti-dogma enthusiasts, constantly fearful about society backsliding into medieval thought, are often not much better than the very people they condemn. The modern scientific consensus (often years out of date compared to actual scientific research) is frequently foisted upon students with the same repetitive and ill-explained force of legendary dogma.
Periodic outbreaks of “Flat Earthers” are naturally to be expected if 12-16 years of daily modern schooling has only provided students with a well-accepted belief in a round planet — rather than any solid, practical and personalized understanding of the experimental verification thereof.
Another dubious aspect of the zealous anti-dogma crusaders is that the vast majority of historically great intellects, who created the scientific revolutions of the last several centuries, were themselves educated in dogmatic & legend-oriented institutions. It does not seem to have impaired them significantly.
We should seriously consider, then, whether the main functional elements of education are actually strongly coupled to the “content” of assertions about the world — or not.
The second level of complaint against education, therefore, is the conflation of education with beliefs. It is the assumption that education fails when children become adults who “hold the wrong beliefs” and therefore “make the wrong verbal assertions about reality.” The proponents & antagonists of legendary education, in any society, are both involved in the assumption that education revolves around the promulgation of superior belief claims.
To get beyond that endlessly destabilizing contest, we might need to abandon the notion that beliefs-about-reality (and potential exposure to wrong information!) are the most significant active elements of ongoing learning.
If two people who strongly disagree about the story of reality are nonetheless able to converse well, and jointly perform accurate experimental testing, then those shared capacities may dramatically outweigh the acquisition of normative claims and worldviews.
This will come as no surprise to innovators — for they are constantly confronted with the limiting force of conventional belief about “well-known current facts.” There is no real scientific progress at all without a preference for experimental practices over and against widespread ‘expert’ beliefs.
Is there a third layer of complaint against our education systems? Yes. It is the humane complaint.
This argument arises from sensitive naturalists and it attacks the mechanized qualities of social education. Our lively bodies, right brains, ecosystems, emotional security, delight, creativity & venerably childlike spirits are suppressed by a sedentary, rote, institutional machinery which over-rewards bloodless cognition and uses the pretext of education to merely accommodate the dehumanizing habits of unnatural modern living.
Such complaints are often dismissed as overly sensitive, over indulgent, “feminine,” and decidedly un-rigorous but experimental schools based on these principles have been tried for centuries with varied but often highly successful results. The dangers of a narcissistic culture of self-esteem & safe spaces, lacking the classical competencies and sang froid to “get things done,” are real concerns but often wildly exaggerated and frequently unrelated to the actual suggestions of sensitive naturalists and new scientists who cite the demonstrated utility of well-balanced, good-feeling citizens —uniquely suited to deal with a larger scope of reality beyond the narrow military-industrial-corporate needs envisioned by the founders of the modern state school system.
Aspects of this quasi-romantic critique hold up well. Our civilization’s exceptional minds, leaders and inventors commonly join together in their antagonism toward rote-learning, boring pedagogy, narrow vision, conventional wisdom and merely linear knowledge. A further critique builds upon these elements.
The fourth complaint-layer, even subtler, is that education is just not… educational. People who pass exams frequently do not retain the information upon which they were tested. Knowledge is a poor substitute for authentic embodied understanding. Your ability to superficially recognize patterns, and provide verbal-symbolic responses to standardized material, may tell us very little about whether you actually grasp the issues, grok the dynamics, etc.
Can you actually ask good questions about the topic? Are you able to effectively direct your interest into these issues? Do you see where progress can be made? Have your behavior, feelings and unconscious intelligence incorporate the data? Are you inclined to specialize in this material and, if so, can you balance that well with generalist skills and experiences? Have your reasoning skills and intuition begun to cooperate productive in the given theatre of understand and capacity? Etc.
To "swallow and regurgitate information appears quite distinct from chewing thoroughly, mixing with saliva and digesting in appropriate amounts. Only one of those two procedures results in the material becoming part of you.
What is Learning?
I am going to distinguish between two types of skill-acquisition. Type 1 is a kind of automatic, adaptive response to the pressures of a circumstance. Type 2 is a quasi-voluntary, developmental encouragement of understanding that applies beyond current circumstances. It is the latter, of course, that resembles a generalized, positive vision of “dharma” — and which might be able to make the “metacrisis” workable for human beings.
Type 1 education is so ubiquitous that it often fails to get labelled as a learning procedure. It is what we share with other plants and animals. The leopard does not study a textbook about the mechanics of hauling broken-necked gazelles into trees. Her education consists of simply struggling with her own body and the physics of the immediate situation. Perhaps there is a modicum of neural imprinting, during her short childhood period, upon the actions of her mother. Much of what she can do (i.e. understands how to do) is the result of structure and instincts grappling with urgencies in the local niche. This is will very familiar to anyone who was “taught” to swim by being unceremoniously chucked into a lake.
However this process is not limited to physical and animalistic skills. Being able to twang your vocal chords so appropriately that you survive the stressful inquisition of a stern second grade instructor, and emotionally please your ambitious parents, is decidedly similar.
Anything from playing football to being able to calculate a tax return or express a political opinion on social media might arise through permutations of this basic learning process. It is highly plastic. Nature gets a lot of work out of this approach but it does have a few drawbacks.
It tends to form a limiting and reactive identity-membrane around the degree of skill development. This identity prides itself on its skills, assumes all positive results are from its own magical deployment of its skills, rejects alternative perspectives, feels mortally wounded if the skill-set fails or is challenged, suffers progressive difficulty into continuing to learn, stagnates, plateaus, enters into dismissive conflict with people who are both less and more skillful, denies the significance of alternative skill sets, etc. This is not necessarily stupid. It may provide some sense of integrity and survival advantage in creatures that are relatively short-lived and engaged in constant very serious struggles within a predictable niche. However, in long-lived, highly adaptable human beings — spread over a great variety of niches and able to access vast range of perception that are immediately applicable — a contrast emerges.
Dharma advocates might call Type 1 “egoic.” Analogous to the metacrisis, it progressively suffers the side-effects of its successes, leaving many other problems unaddressed and increasingly confining itself in ways that are maladaptive over longer spans and in regard to richer notions of the rewarding qualities of existence.
Type 2 education is typically what we hope the word education implies. That is true whether it is a contemplative mystic student learning to be “better” at the monastery, or a parent hoping that a private tutor will steer his son toward a better life, or a person joining a gym with the idea of getting healthier, stronger, better looking — more generally competent, satisfied and capable of taking productive action in multiple domains. Developmental education.
This is distinguished from Type 1 by many factors. Among them are: it is ongoing, often not immediately useful, concerned about superficial vs authentic assimilation, (at least nominally) tries to secure adaptions that may apply over changing world conditions, accesses, evaluates and personalizes encoded data from a wide variety of sources and media, values the fact of learning and changing, continually exceeds its own previously established levels of locally adaptive understanding, admires the general fact of insight, studies and attempts to leverage its own learning styles against changing types of data, balances types of learning exercises in body, mind and emotion, wonders what it ‘ought’ to do with its learning, intentionally attempts to learn what it is not necessarily moved instinctively to do, continues to learn even when immediate stressors are removed, etc.
That is the shared ideal of both esoteric religious practice AND smart secular educational institutions.
Mutual Coupling of Proto-skills
We will examine the idea of “proto-skills” more in Part III of this article but, for now, let us assume that Type 1 learning — in humans and other animals — involves the instinctive deployment of certain very basic methods (or “computations”) that make situations workable.
Imagine you are attempting to build a beaver. What will it take for your organic robot to behave like a beaver? It will need to do certain simple things many times. Duplicate other beavers. Focus on whatever resembles beaver food. Chew wood. Drag wood to central locations. Understand the warning implied by tails slapping on pond water.
You get the idea. Beaver DNA and beaver brains provide a set of behavioral options that can be used, again and again, to adapt the beaver to the world in which it lives. This adaption takes the form of skill development which looks like “understanding” its world.
Any given beaver may or may not deploy all the possible skill-building tactics (proto-skills) that are available. Some might prove problematic in a given situation. Some might be emphasized only if other beavers demonstrate them. Certain basic tactics will be exaggerated and others will become almost obsolescent as each generation adapts to its situation of survival, reproduction and experiential empowerment.
This set of skills, probably always partially instantiated, would become a problematic limitation if the beaver were to start living 80 years, needing to read newspapers, basing its food supply on events thousands of miles away, concluding that some its instincts might be in error…
Under extended, nuanced or radically transformed circumstances the beaver brains and behaviors will require some adaptive, reflective adjustment of their proclivities if they are to survive and thrive. They need an additional educational factor.
How do we reprogram ourselves? How do we notice a skill or skill level is lacking? How do we exert self-control over our basic set of skills if the situation demands it? How do we open new types of frontiers or learn from people we’ve never met or innovate new solutions?
All of those aspects of Type 2 education require some additional factor. A meta-factor, if we permit ourselves that ambiguous prefix, that consists of a set of basic skill-building functions that provide feedback, orientation, evaluation and modulatory control over the bundle of computational options from which organisms are normally selecting their learning strategies.
In order to secure this modulatory feedback there has to be a second set that can interact with the first set. Functions such as self-awareness, self-modification, intentionality, skill re-evaluation, bracketing present strategies (for spatially or temporally distant goals), persisting despite seeing no immediate way into a set of information, etc. all involve some form of recursive sensing, analyzing and modifying.
Without these recursive functions, afforded by the mutual interactive coupling of two basic sets of proto-skills, human beings would not exhibit the extraordinary hierarchy of complexification that occurs over our maturation period.
The cognitive enrichment of our subsequent “stages of development” is enabled by the same factors that permit people to succeed in educational system — which are also the same factors upon which the varieties of dharma practice around the world and through history are based. That’s the overall claim of this article.
Ultimately it is the presence of the engaged or “coupled” second set of skills that permits our emerging awareness of the nature of the first set. Type 2 education is anchored, therefore, in an increasingly clarity about the basic active elements or strategies that enable both types of education.
Type 1 education can proceed a long way before stagnating. Type 2 education, however, is potentially endless, proceeds through a pattern of mutuality, balance, joint-attention, relational coordination, etc. The can both evolve but in distinct styles.
Ordinary “flatland” skill development and knowledge acquisition is common among humans and other animals. It involves a rapid uptake of certain skills connected with evolutionarily emphasized stress and opportunity factors. However it tends to exhibit diminishing returns, ossification and a destabilizing impact on other organisms, systems and goals. Conversely, the stage-like growth in complexity exhibited by “meta-coupled” skills sets generates conditions of self-refinement, intentional skill-building, incorporative balance, alignment with other systems of values/goals and the orienting production of surplus integration, coherence and the empowering constraint of generalized meaningful well-being in terms of innovation, productivity and troubleshooting.
It becomes apparent that a repeating pattern of intentional reciprocal balance and coordination is present in the various meta-coupled developments. Notions of “brain hemisphere balance” and “body-mind education” and “egalitarianism” and “working with contradictions” and “joint-attention between students and teachers” seem to involve a similar pattern of enhanced learning through mutual coordination and feedback. That should give us an indication of some types of protoskills present in the second set.
It will be both tricky and ultimately necessary — if social, technological, human and spiritual education are to proceed in ways that can handle the world of today and tomorrow — to clarify the potential full sets of these interaction clusters of protoskills that convert information and situations into education and development.
So what are the basic elements of education?
To be continued in Part III…