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Monthly Archives: September 2019

Human and Fully Alive

The attraction of any so-called unified theory is in its claim to bring several previously disparate and unreconciled things into a single all-inclusive picture or account. One of my abiding aspirations over the years has been to clarify a unifed theory of human nature, an “anthropology” that doesn’t reduce us to dumb matter or deify us as immortal spirits. Somewhere in between those hopeless abstractions is what we really are – human manifestations of being, or human beings.

Somewhat in the spirit of existentialist philosophy, my interest is not in reductions or abstractions, but rather in the human experience of being alive and somewhere on the path to realizing the potential of what we are and still might become.

If we’re going to figure this out, we have just this one lifetime to do it – however long or short it turns out to be. Extending this project over numerous lifetimes or into infinite time may calm our insecurities to some extent, but with the urgency also suspended it becomes easier to stay in bed and only dream our life away.

In my effort toward a unified theory of human nature and its evolutionary prospects, I offer the above diagram as something of a mandala or “sacred design” to orient our meditation. Its central image is an arrow drawn back on a bowstring, ready to launch into whatever is next. For now, however, it is intended to capture the tensive character of our nature as in a state of perpetual near-release, always becoming and never finally arrived.

Positioned at the cardinal points of my mandala are four attractors, each pulling us into its unique field of possibilities and concerns, as it simulaneously pulls against those opposite to it.

This helps us to quickly appreciate the tension inherent in human nature, seeking some kind of balance between animal instinct and spiritual wisdom, between tribal conscience and personal ambition. A human being strives for survival and longs for wellbeing; seeks affiliation with others of its kind and pursues its own individual achievement.

Jumping into the details of the mandala, we will keep this overall tension in mind as we trace the developmental path that each of us follows on our “hero’s journey.” Necessarily, then, we begin our meditation where each of us begins life: as newborns supported in the rhythms, urgencies, and drives of an animal nature. Our instincts are millions of years deep in the evolutionary design of the body, compelling our searching behavior for what the life-force in us requires: air, water, nourishment, warmth, refuge and loving touch.

This is our “first nature,” referring to what comes first in development as well as what supports everything else from its primal depths.

The prehistory of our species is the long road into Eden, as living forms and nervous systems progressed through the gauntlet of chance, opportunity, catastrophe and extinction. Any theory of human nature, it seems to me, must acknowledge our first nature as essential to what we are – not as some “mortal coil” by which we are temporarily bound, but as a marvel of biological intelligence and our guest pass to the grand ball of our living planet.

Following upward now that lower angle of the bowstring, we come to what first welcomes us to our human adventure: our tribe of family and familiars, a peculiar society comprised of mother and all the others. This is where the social construction project of our “second nature” begins, with the concern of our tribe being to shape the impulses and inclinations of our first nature into something that both reflects and compliments its collective identity.

What I call the moral frame refers to a shared understanding, if not quite universal agreement, of what makes an action “right” and a person “good.” Every tribe has one, and each of us was brought up to follow this code and honor the norms of a moral life. The bonds of attachment that sustained us as newborns gradually expanded and differentiated into a network of tribal affiliations, and it is in this “second womb” of our tribe that our personal identity was forged and fashioned.

If all went reasonably well, we took on the shared wisdom (literally a con-science) of morality that would prompt, censure, and guide our interactions with others.

But it didn’t go entirely without complications. And this reminds us again of the tension in our nature as human beings – following now the shaft of my arrow rightwards to its point. Another aspect of our second nature, of our emerging personal identity, is an individual will that wants us to stand on our own and fulfill our desires.

If our prehistory as a species was a long road into Eden, then the seduction of ego-gratification represents the “fall” of separation consciousness and the loss of our nursery paradise. Many of the mythological accounts of how we got into our present predicament characterize this “tragedy” as the necessary precursor to a more mature, adult, and self-possessed mode of being in the world.

Where it left us was in the middle of two powerful and countervailing forces: a tribal conscience pulling us into conformity with the moral status quo on one side, and on the other a personal ambition to be somebody, to achieve something momentous, and to procure for ourselves the elusive elixir of happiness. This tension – or is it a contradiction? – seems to be built right into our word “ambition,” where two things (ambi) compete for the upper hand: approval and fulfillment, fear and desire, obedience or freedom.

We can get caught here, not fully on one side or the other but suspended in a sticky web of guilt for falling short of social expectations, and self-reproach for giving up on our dreams.

But let’s go back again to that second womb of our tribal identity, and this time take the upper angle of the bowstring to the top cardinal point of my mandala. This is our “higher nature,” commonly confused these days with the glorified and exalted ego, which is really just one way the tension of our second nature can snap, the other being toward a self-negating sense of depravity over never being good enough. What I mean by our higher nature is the liberated life made available to us as we are able to transcend ego and its conflicting motivations to please others and gratify ourselves.

Only as we can drop from our separate center of personal identity and identify with a larger horizon of membership – not just “my tribe” or “our people” or even the human species alone, but with everyone and life itself: the whole shebang – will we finally understand, from experience, that All is One and we are all in this together. The spiritual wisdom traditions are remarkably unanimous in their agreement concerning our place in, and responsibility to, the community of beings that is our universe.

Seeking wholeness, making peace, and promoting the wellbeing of our planetary home circles back to us in the joy of being human and fully alive.

 

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The Teachers We Need Now

What’s the difference between teaching a student and training a parrot?

This isn’t the setup for a joke but actually a very serious question. To train a parrot you need to repeat a word or phrase that you want the bird to imitate, over and over again until it starts to articulate what sounds close to what you’re saying. With persistent repetition the parrot might eventually sound just like you, to the point of fooling someone listening in another room.

Even then we wouldn’t say that the parrot has learned how to talk or is ready to hold a lengthy conversation on a topic of interest, would we? That’s because merely repeating what you hear isn’t the same as understanding what it means or being able to think critically about something.

Once upon a time a curriculum committee got together and asked, “What do third graders need to know in order to move on to fourth grade?” This content knowledge was identified and then standardized across the public school curriculum, stacking up from one grade to the next. Lesson plans were designed around these learning objectives and assessment measures were defined that would let schools know whether students were ready to progress.

Eventually classroom instruction would get focused on “teaching to the test,” where this grade-level knowledge was repeated over and over until students could choose the right answers most of the time. By devoting a large amount of instructional time to preparing students for tests, teachers could improve passing rates and schools could attract higher enrollments, thereby showing themselves worthy of more funding for the resources they needed.

The acquisition of knowledge is a crucial first step toward understanding and meaning-making – what education is really all about. A full account of what I call “the learning ladder,” however, necessarily goes beyond instructing students in what they need to know in order to complete an assignment, pass a test, or move on to the next grade.

If it’s only a matter of being able to repeat what they hear in a lecture or read in a textbook, then teaching students is not essentially different than training parrots.

Beyond knowledge acquisition, genuine learning must involve students in a process of assimilating new knowledge into what they already know or think they know. Obviously, this kind of intellectual activity requires more from the student than just a talent for memorization and recall. To effectively assimilate new knowledge and then apply it to the work of solving problems and making meaning depends on the higher skills of critical thinking.

In How Schools Make the Problem Worse I pointed out that critical thinking, which should be the gold standard of education, is a skill-set that relies on executive brain functions located in the prefrontal cortex. To support the work of critical thinking, a student needs a good working memory, strong mental focus, and an ability to inhibit impulses that might otherwise distract attention away from the object of study. These brain functions which underlie the higher cognitive skills of learning are themselves a symptom of brain and body health – how rested, well-nourished, aerobically active, and internally centered a student is.

Schools that ignore this crucial factor of health in their students, or actually undermine it by generating unnecessary “test stress” and stocking vending machines with “fake foods” that impair healthy brain function, truly are making the problem worse.

The “problem” is that students are deficient in the critical thinking skills required in higher learning. In reality, the education system is making the problem worse in two ways: (1) by ignoring or compromising the health of student brains and bodies, and (2), reaching back to my earlier point, by devoting itself to teaching students only what they need to know in order to pass tests and get through to the next grade, not how to think critically for themselves.

It’s true that critical thinking demands more of students and their brains than does memorizing and repeating what they hear in class or read in textbooks. But there’s a nasty trap here: Memorizing and repeating information is inherently uninteresting – we can even say it’s boring if it has no relevance to a student’s personal experience and quality world. See my post The Relevancy Gap in Education for more on this.

Because schools have to rely on assessments to prove themselves worthy of support to state legislatures and external funders, it seems their only recourse is to push harder on students to “succeed” – which only makes the problem worse.

What schools have done by way of adapting to this cut-score culture of education today is increasingly to accommodate students’ lack of interest and effort by lowering the challenge gradient, essentially making it easier for them to pass and less likely to fail. If that’s unfortunate for the students, what’s doubly unfortunate for the schools themselves is how this over-accommodation has made it necessary to impose more and more interventions designed to stop the downward slide. Consequently the cost of getting students through the system has steadily increased over the past couple decades.

In an education system that is more about training parrots than teaching students, instructors who teach to the test most successfully – i.e., have higher passing rates than their colleagues – are those who get recognized and rewarded. This isn’t surprising, since every club or culture tends to elevate those members who exemplify its core values. If test scores are the metric of success in today’s culture of education, then teachers who produce better results are naturally regarded as more gifted, more dedicated, and presumed better at teaching.

But if teaching students is more about activating and shaping their critical thinking skills than getting them to repeat back on a test what they need to know before moving on, then the best teachers are those who demonstrate for students how to engage their topic as critical thinkers.

In How Schools Make the Problem Worse I analyzed critical thinking into eight logical operations whereby concepts are formed, factored, and reconstructed by the mind in the process of learning. In modeling the skills of critical thinking for students, good teachers demonstrate

  1. Analysis: by breaking a topic down to its elements or basic components
  2. Synthesis: by putting elements into patterns of higher relationship
  3. Induction: by moving from specific cases to more general principles
  4. Deduction: by deriving conclusions from broader generalizations or premises
  5. Abstraction: by constructing an overarching idea from diverse items or individuals
  6. Concretion: by condensing an abstract idea into its concrete examples
  7. Inference: by drawing reasonable conjectures from what is already known or given
  8. Prediction: by tracing a line of causality to the most probable or near-certain outcome

It’s essential for us to distinguish between what might be called the “catalog of knowledge” or what is currently known about a subject, and the critical thinking skills of which the catalog itself is a product. Students in a Biology class, for instance, might be taught the catalog of present-day biological science, and then tested for their ability to recall and repeat this information on tests.

Or they could be taught how to think critically about their subject (i.e., how to “think like a biologist”) using the eight logical operations of critical thinking. Teachers who can model critical thinking for their students and actually bring them into the activity of constructing meaning around a subject and deepening their understanding of it – opening their minds, igniting curiosity, and making it personal – are the teachers we need now, more than ever.

 
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Posted by on September 3, 2019 in Education, Timely and Random

 

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