Sunday, September 17, 2006

I fear this post may be an example of public rumination on my part as I am simply reflecting on many inspirations: a recent conversation with a research neuropsychiatrist; reading Howard Gardner's Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century ; Dan of tdaxp's posts "Fingertip Feeling, and Other Implications of a Modular Mind", "Time, Orientation, Universalism, and Vocab: Notes from Chapter 2 of "Adapting Minds" by David J. Buller", "Social Teaching Strategies" and "Genetic and Experiential Individuality" ( the latter inspired by J.R. of Edgewise who asked Dan as well as myself via email about Rudiger Gamm).

Pondering these things is leading me in the direction of concluding that the public school system will only be successfully reformed if it is redesigned with the primary objective of producing autotelic learners. Such an outcome would certainly be beneficial for the students whose productive working life may stretch to America's tricentennial and who will have to demonstrate nimble cognitive adaptivity in order to prosper through waves of technological and societal changes.

Unfortunately, such an objective runs counter to:

a) the priorities of the American educational establishment who are deeply invested in the current institutional structure of public schools and universities, a highly regimented, 19th and early-mid 20th century, mass-system, hybrid.

b) the political and social goals of public education's harshest conservative critics, who while open to considering radical changes in institutional structure, are often inclined to authoritarian models of curricular instruction that actively deter the emergence of genuinely independent thought.

These are very broad generalizations. Exceptions exist of course.

Students today live at the onset of a radical globalization and violent countervailing forces amply detailed by Dr. Barnett in PNM and BFA. That however is not the entire longitudinal picture. Consider just these few fields of research:


Quantum Computing

Genetic Engineering


There are others, say Complexity, Network, String theories, Brain research and so on. The list can be increased or reduced but the point remains the same. Each of these fields are in a different stage of development but all have the potential to yield results with significant to highly significant society changing effects. And all are likely to intersect during the lifetime of today's kindergarten student. Thus, they face a near-future world that may- from the standpoint of society if not biology - have not just one but many potential points of "singularity". To say that these students will need to be resilient in the face of these changes is the acme of understatement.

What are we doing today to prepare these students ? Not all that much. NCLB, which is a stupidly blunt and economically wasteful instrument, has laudable goals of enforcing a national minimal standard of content richness, student skill mastery and teacher quality. It is about raising the floor a little, not about fixing the collapsing roof, broken wndows or decaying walls. Neurolearning research has, for some time, demonstrated evidence that the human brain has the quality of modularity but the educational system up to a least the undergraduate level continues, predominantly, to push instruction in a starkly linear fashion.

And American education will continue to do so, despite the best intentions of its teachers or political leaders or legislative mandates, because that is what it is structurally designed to do and can do nothing else.


Dan of tdaxp ponders the question further.
Extremely interesting.

How would autotelic social learning work?
I wonder if I am a throwback. Often when I consider the educational system that I remember (which has nonetheless changed -- for the worse, I think -- since my experience), and when I consider the quick pace of changes within the world, I think that the crucial factor missing in our schools is one that is related to epistemology, or ideology. I.e., no strong basic foundation is given, by which all other subjects can be assimilated and learned according to each student's personal application of that foundation to the subjects at hand.

I think this may be a result of the science vs religion debate, since teachers in the public school system, too afraid to deliver any basic epistemology, either avoid such a cohesive framework or else do so underhandedly or subconsciously. In the first case, no glue is given for understanding the subjects at hand together or modularly, and students are left with a train of facts that seem quite unrelated and perhaps confusing. In the second case, the same may result when passive-aggressive or underhanded epistemological or ideological biases are left unexplained and thus indistinct, vague, for the students trying to understand the importance of what they are learning.

(I should note, that whether a largely leftist and atheist bias informs the teacher's teaching or a strongly religious bias, either one is left indistinct, vague, by the teacher too afraid of being upfront with students about his/her bias.)

Of course, the educational system therefore could serve as a metaphor or an analogue to the larger problem in America: the conflicts and disputes; the lack of solid foundation and a disagreement over America's raison d'ĂȘtre and, indeed, America's future; and so forth.

Incidentally, I've also been partial to Emerson's idea (stolen from others writing before him, including Montaigne and various ancients), that our educational system nevertheless may be helpful, as is, for those students who need some source outside the linearity and traditional habits of the family -- i.e., some students always seem to find something of worth in the system, despite the faults of the system -- but also, that many spurned activities (in Emerson's time: horseback riding and dancing were examples he gave) are just as useful, probably more useful, for some students. It is curious that in his essay on New England Reformers, Emerson noted the dead teaching of university systems --

"But is not this absurd, that the whole liberal talent of this country should be directed in its best years on studies which lead to nothing? What was the consequence? Some intelligent persons said or thought, 'Is that Greek and Latin some spell to conjure with, and not words of reason? If the physician, the lawyer, the divine, never use it to come at their ends, I need never learn it to come at mine. Conjuring is gone out of fashion, and I will omit this conjugating, and go straight to affairs.' So they jumped the Greek and Latin, and read law, medicine, or sermons, without it. To the astonishment of all, the self-made men took even ground at once with the oldest of the regular graduates, and in a few months the most conservative circles of Boston and New York had quite forgotten who of their gownsmen was college-bred, and who was not."

--but that a paragraph or two earlier in the essay, he mentions the Roman habit of not teaching a student anything he could not learn standing up! Hmmm. How would Emerson know that fact if he had not studied the old books?
This is hardly new stuff, just new terminology. Check out "Latin-centered classical education" and the concept of "multum non multa" for starters. The entire classical education system was geared around teaching people how to educate themselves, giving them the structured mind of a reasonable person and the ability to take joy in learning for learning's sake.

How so? Internal motivation is not necessarily the same thing as narrow mastery.
Greetings all,


Are you asking about whether autotelicism can be created in individuals learning in a group environment or whether a group can have emergent, collective, autotelic qualities independent of it's members ?

I would say " yes" to the first the contingency is on the degree of productive engagement between student and teacher, student and peers and student and text( or equation or what have you).

On the second, I believe so - actually, answering you properly requires another post. Or two.


Your point on epistemology is very well taken. Schools do not, by and large, model conscious metacognitive strategies for students and they should. Self-regulation of attention is a tool for moving from passivity to active evaluation.


Classical liberal education was designed to inspire critical thiking and very frequently this results in sudents who are autotelic - who value and live " the life of the mind".

Despite the best efforts of Mortimer Adler, this approach has not been transplanted to the bureaucratic, industrial-age, school system.
Genetic Engineering has done some interesting and useful things. However, the real revolution in biological science is taking place in the new field known as Synthetic Biology, which essentially involves constructing new lifeforms from scratch.
Part of my point is that if you want autotelic learners, you need to mentor them, and that requires resources the schools cannot bring to bear: love, patience and nearly one-on-one attention for large parts of the learning process. Adler, bless his heart, was doomed from the start.

I suspect that, at more than the margins, any attempts at inculcating love of learning and self motivation through communitarian methods is equally doomed. But if you want it for yourself or your kids, there are available methods to reaching that state.

You have added to my knowledge base. :o)


We mostly agree.

It doesn't have to be quite 1:1 but it should be a relatively low ratio and the mentoring is the key aspect. There is a building of intrinsic motivation through modelling, by dynamic exchange and the provoking of insight.

Schools are simply not structured to do this but to impart basic skills to the masses and some more advanced preparation to a college-bound minority ( even the latter group are not taught to critically think - as in the sense of doing, say, real scientific or historical investigations or reading literature in depth)
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