Back to School: An Interruption to Learning?

Buckminster Fuller’s Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth is available on-line at the Buckminster Fuller Institute. I think of it as Fall nears and students return to school, though they’ve no doubt been learning all summer, and school may be an interruption to that learning. Fuller explains, “Of course, we are beginning to learn a little in the behavioral sciences regarding how little we know about children and the educational processes. We had assumed the child to be an empty brain receptacle into which we could inject our methodically-gained wisdom until that child, too, became educated. In the light of modern behavioral science experiments that was not a good working assumption” (Chap. 1, para. 9).

The Operating Manual was first published in 1969, and I first read it at Cal State Dominguez Hills in the early 1970s as part of the 20th Century Thought and Expression Minor, an interdisciplinary, non-specialist course of studies: “Inasmuch as the new life always manifests comprehensive propensities I would like to know why it is that we have disregarded all children’s significantly spontaneous and comprehensive curiosity and in our formal education have deliberately instituted processes leading only to narrow specialization” (Chap. 1, para. 10).

Fuller was an inventor and an architect, and a philosopher and a teacher whose work touched regularly on the forms and reforms of education: “In our schools today we still start off the education of our children by giving them planes and lines that go on, incomprehensibly ‘forever’ toward a meaningless infinity” (Chap. 2, para. 1).

Throughout Spaceship, Fuller illustrates the debilitating effects of specialization and reflects on the success of generalized thinking, the ability to look at one thing and see something else, to invent. The specialist is unable to invent because his learning narrows to a dead-end point in an institutionalized tunnel: “Once man comprehended that any tree would serve as a lever his intellectual advantages accelerated. Man freed of special-case superstition by intellect has had his survival potentials multiplied millions fold. By virtue of the leverage principles in gears, pulleys, transistors, and so forth, it is literally possible to do more with less in a multitude of physio-chemical ways. Possibly it was this intellectual augmentation of humanity’s survival and success through the metaphysical perception of generalized principles which may be objectively employed that Christ was trying to teach in the obscurely told story of the loaves and the fishes” (Chap. 4, last para.).

Around the same time as Spaceship, pictures of Whole Earth began to emerge. These pictures lacked boundaries: “We begin by eschewing the role of specialists who deal only in parts. Becoming deliberately expansive instead of contractive, we ask, ‘How do we think in terms of wholes?’ If it is true that the bigger the thinking becomes the more lastingly effective it is, we must ask, ‘How big can we think?’” (Chap. 5, para 4).

Operating Manual begins in metaphor. The title itself is a metaphorical argument. “I am enthusiastic over humanity’s extraordinary and sometimes very timely ingenuities. If you are in a shipwreck and all the boats are gone, a piano top buoyant enough to keep you afloat that comes along makes a fortuitous life preserver. But this is not to say that the best way to design a life preserver is in the form of a piano top. I think that we are clinging to a great many piano tops in accepting yesterday’s fortuitous contrivings as constituting the only means for solving a given problem. Our brains deal exclusively with special-case experiences. Only our minds are able to discover the generalized principles operating without exception in each and every special-experience case which if detected and mastered will give knowledgeable advantage in all instances. Because our spontaneous initiative has been frustrated, too often inadvertently, in earliest childhood we do not tend, customarily, to dare to think competently regarding our potentials. We find it socially easier to go on with our narrow, shortsighted specializations and leave it to others—primarily to the politicians—to find some way of resolving our common dilemmas. Countering that spontaneous grownup trend to narrowness I will do my, hopefully ‘childish,’ best to confront as many of our problems as possible by employing the longest-distance thinking of which I am capable—though that may not take us very far into the future” (Chap. 1, para. 1).

Related Post: Earth-Glass Half Empty or Fuller? Reposted at Berfrois as Planet Earth as Spaceship.

Ivan Illich, Education, and The Good Life

Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society (1972) exposes our assumptions that a degree is an education, that medicine is health care, that security is safety, that institutionalization of jobs in corporations, schools, and government creates our freedom. We’ve come to confuse degrees, medicine, jobs, and security for the good life.

When what we value, what we want, becomes institutionalized, our values grow frustrated, and what we want turns against us: “…the institutionalization of values leads inevitably to physical pollution, social polarization, and psychological impotence: three dimensions in a process of global degradation and modernized misery…this process of degradation is accelerated when nonmaterial needs are transformed into demands for commodities; when health, education, personal mobility, welfare, or psychological healing are defined as the result of services or ‘treatments.’”

It’s not a question of spending more money on education, but of a lack of respect (value) for alternative forms to institutionalized education: “Rich and poor alike depend on schools and hospitals which guide their lives, form their world view, and define for them what is legitimate and what is not. Both view doctoring oneself as irresponsible, learning on one’s own as unreliable, and community organization, when not paid for by those in authority, as a form of aggression or subversion.”

Modern segregation of family, church, job, and school leads to specializations of each, which in turn results in our feeling confined in each, able to do only one thing at a time. In “the medieval town…traditional society was more like a set of concentric circles of meaningful structures, while modern man must learn how to find meaning in many structures to which he is only marginally related. In the village, language and architecture and work and religion and family customs were consistent with one another, mutually explanatory and reinforcing. Education did not compete for time with either work or leisure. Almost all education was complex, lifelong, and unplanned.”

For Illich, the problem is that “members of modern society believe that the good life consists in having institutions which define the values that both they and their society believe they need.” A wise man, Aristotle argues in Nicomachean Ethics, is one who knows what is good for himself and for everyone else. What will happen to Education? Given our current confusion of wants, as Frank Sinatra sang, we may have to “just wake up,” and “kiss that good life goodbye.” And learning to live without our good life as we have come to know it just might be something we should want.