Learning vs. Education in the Anthropocene

[1197 words]

Human beings are biological learning machines.

This is an idea I return to, continually, probably because it has deep roots in truth. Our brains are extremely well adapted for learning. (I note that I am saying “our” as if both the persona writing now and any potential readers of the resulting text are all, of necessity, part of Homo sapiens.) There is a kind of embodied and experiential confirmation of the notion that human brains are focused on learning, are excited about learning in different ways, have a high level of potential for learning and are very effective at it. Learning is a quasi-natural, quasi-effortless activity for humans. Humans are “natural born learners.”

Alongside other characteristics of human cognition, like counterfactual thinking or counter-reality thinking (which comprises lying, creativity, reflecting on the past and anticipating the future, fantasizing, posing “what if” questions, conjuring robust alternatives to manifest reality, theorizing, thinking abstractly, writing literary narratives, etc.), learning is probably what the human brain does best. We notice patterns, analyze them, hypothesize about what they mean, then we recall both the the pattern-sensing activity and the information that we draw out of it. That reiterated activity — thinking, coming to new understandings, inscribing them as retrievable memories, retrieving them readily — and the ways in which those cognitive events change our perceptions and behaviors for the future are the phenomena that comprise “learning.” It’s what humans do, even without guidance or teaching. It’s built in. It’s evolutionary.

The capacity to learn, a set of neuro-chemical and microscopically anatomical processes (new patterns of brain activity and neural connection), must be distinguished from “education,” which is a cultural construct. Learning is largely innate. Education is artificial and imposed.

Granted, there are significant areas of overlap. Learning can be social and collaborative. One could even consider learning to be capable of developing organically and naturally into a systematized process that looks like education. Quite frankly, education, for all of its complex, social, constructed nature, cannot be divorced from learning as a process. Still, one can distinguish between innate, fundamental or naïve learning, which is enabled primarily by evolutionarily shaped brain functions (supported by the most fundamental level of social order, like family or clan), and educated learning or formal education, which is complex, highly structured, with many rules and criteria. Education is institutional. It is about social values, social order, facilitation of social functions and the efficient or effective pursuit of socially significant actions, decisions, communications, collaborations and other kinds of communal effort. Education is about society. It is not about the learner.

I recognize that there is value in education. Indeed, one can hardly imagine modern society without it. That necessity, though, does not mean that education is consistently good or that it is moral. One can admire the efficacy of education in Victorian England, for example, which seems to have offered benefits to many (primarily men), across social classes. Viewed from a certain perspective, it seems like it was a nearly optimal result. However, we must also note that the real benefit was for the Empire, which developed a ready supply of colonial administrators and bureaucrats who had all been certified through education as being literate and numerate, who, furthermore, typically embraced and re-propagated imperial values and prejudices.

Granted, one can make critical thinking and the questioning of authority a part of the educational system, as a means for avoiding the abuses or errors of Victorian England, for example. Indeed, one can produce literate, thoughtful graduates who will refuse to fall in line as imperial bureaucrats or doing what they are told unquestioningly. However, it is rarely done. Indeed, its is nearly impossible to strip education of the ideological underpinnings that promote and support a society’s orientation, prejudices, and strongly held views.

Education necessarily reproduces the blinders, the cultural prejudices, and the ideological lenses of the society that mandated it. That inevitable phenomenon is a significant part of why so few in the U.S., for example, can take a step back from the economic system to observe and evaluate in a truly critical manner what might be described as the dishonest, inequitable, corrupting, environmentally destructive, and dehumanizing aspects of market capitalism. (NB: Being clairvoyant about the dysfunctions of capitalism is not incompatible with believing in some of its values, which I do.) What is more, it is nearly impossible in highly digitized societies to insulate oneself from digital technologies and media, which, in this case, have a firm hold on American citizens’ mental models, preferences, predominant metaphors, and prejudices.

To make these observations personal, indeed, self-critical, I note that the ideas that initially motivated this blog (specifically, credentialing and the educational certification of skills valued by potential employers) are problematic. Those ostensibly innovative approaches to higher education are about employment and little else. They are all about producing qualified workers, not about fostering engaged citizenship. In a word, much of the original impetus for this blog proceeded with little concern for environmental stewardship or ethical decision-making. It aligned more with the goal of manufacturing compliant, competent, productive workers of a sort that employers desire and will pay good money for — so that more product can be generated and more sales made, which also entails more resources being cosumed, more air and water polluted, more carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere.

At this point, I’d like to take a deep breath. It’s not just that I am feeling sour about education. It’s that, whatever social good Developed-World educational systems in industrialized societies have produced, they have also reinforced a certain “productivist,” capitalistic, consumerist mentality that virtually guarantees that our species (along with nearly all other parts of the web of life) will plunge headlong into climate catastrophe long before a majority of first-world human beings begin to pay serious attention to questions like whether or not serious environmental interventions and climate-change mitigations are called for. We will fiddle while the world burns down, then realize, in a stupor, that we are fools, and that it is far too late to save our home. That is the real tragedy. Let us have the integrity and the courage to acknowledge that it is because of the hypnotic power that unquestioningly pro-capitalist, pro-technology, pro-consumerist “education” has over learners in industrialized societies.

This is part of the evolutionary paradox of Homo sapiens, where we risk leading ourselves to an evolutionary dead end (i.e. extinction). I might add that while those of us in First-World and Rapidly-Industrializing societies are committing species-wide suicide (without fully understanding what we are doing, obstinately refusing to learn from the warning signs along our path), we are taking along with us a multitude of others life forms. We are imposing drastic climate change on poorer, more vulnerable nations and peoples. We are extinguishing plant and animal species at a prodigious rate. We have greatly degraded biodiversity and destroyed complex equilibria in ecosystems across the planet. We are burning down our planetary house even as we refuse to invest in fire-fighting resources and tools.

Is there not some way for us to return to a simpler, more web-of-life-connected experiential kind of learning that does not simply indoctrinate folks to be good workers, good consumers — which is to say, resource-depleting, high-carbon-footprint, profit-maximizing consumers — or complacent and compliant citizens who fail to see the vast failures of the systems in place? Freire and Illich were right. Biesta, I’m afraid to say it, is not quite on-target for this set of conditions. Radical change is called for, by which I mean de-schooling, stripping things down to a kind of primitive, back-to-nature, questioning, critical learning, then rebuilding for justice and sustainability. I suspect that we probably need to toss virtually all of “education” out on its ear for the good of the world. Unless, of course, the culture of education changes rapidly enough to meet the challenges of the Anthropocene, which seems unlikely.

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