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.

Transition: From Walled-in with Thoreau to Take-off with Buckminster Fuller

“We can never get enough of nature,” Thoreau says (297), yet we will soon have turned the entire planet into garbage. But, as Slavoj Žižek has said, we must learn to love garbage, for it reflects our imperfections (Examined Life, at 1:04:40). “I desire to speak somewhere without bounds,” Thoreau says, in the Walden chapter titled “Conclusion” (303). He was aware of the pun. In “The Ponds” chapter, he says, “I detect the paver. If the name was not derived from that of some English locality, – Saffron Walden, for instance – one might suppose that it was called, originally, Walled-in Pond” (173).

“The universe is wider than our views of it,” Thoreau says (299), yet he’s limited to worldwide travel in wooden boats. But he’s aware of the limitation, and the ambiguity of his predicament: “The other side of the globe is but the home of our correspondent. Our voyaging is only great-circle sailing” (299). Travel, for vacation or business, amounts to the same thing, for we cannot vacate ourselves, but must bring us with us on any trip. Thus Thoreau proposes that we travel to “whole new continents and worlds within [us], opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought,” for “there are continents and seas in the moral world” (300). And why should we make such a trip? “How worn and dusty the ruts of tradition and conformity! I did not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world” (302). He “will pass an invisible boundary” (303). How will he pay for the trip? “Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul” (308).

“What is the most important thing we can be thinking about?,” Buckminster Fuller asked his grandson on the way to LAX (8). Thoreau comments, as if riding in the backseat of the car, “My neighbors tell me of their adventures with famous gentlemen and ladies, what notabilities they met at the dinner-table; but I am no more interested in such things than in the contents of the Daily Times. The interest and the conversation are about costume and manners chiefly; but a goose is a goose, dress it as you will” (308).

And a planet is a planet, Fuller might have responded, and how will we address it? “What are men celebrating?,” Thoreau asks (308). Thoreau was not a specialist, and he celebrates, in Walden, his non-specialist skills, the ability to cross over the boundaries of disciplines. This is why there are so many ways of looking at Walden, and why Thoreau (like Fuller) was an inventor – his vision was not walled-in by the format of a specialized discipline. Buckminster Fuller was also a non-specialist who avoided the traps of specialization and categories (because, as we will see Fuller explain, specialization leads to extinction). And specialization leads to artificial categorical definitions of all kinds that place claims on individual lives: “This ‘sovereign’ – meaning top-weapons enforced – ‘national’ claim upon humans born in various lands leads to ever more severely specialized servitude and highly personalized identity classification,” Fuller says. “As a consequence of the slavish ‘categoryitis,’ the scientifically illogical, and as we shall see, often meaningless questions ‘Where do you live?’ ‘What are you?’ ‘What religion?’ ‘What race?’ What nationality?’ are all thought of today as logical questions,” yet, Fuller says, “These questions are absurd” (p. 31). The specialist is the go-to man, yet Fuller says, “All universities have been progressively organized for ever finer specialization. Society assumes that specialization is natural, inevitable, and desirable” (25), dangerous assumptions, for, as Fuller says, “society operates on the theory that specialization is the key to success, not realizing that specialization precludes comprehensive thinking” (24).

Thoreau was a comprehensive thinker, but he only glimpsed, in his criticism of the railroad, the damage that was to occur, or how worldwide poverty would belie his dictum, “Love your life, poor as it is” (307). He would have been appalled at the costs we’ve incurred, the lack of generalist and comprehensive thinking. Thoreau’s Walden was published in 1854, Buckminster Fuller’s Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth in 1969. The juxtaposition of the two works (though published 115 years apart) creates a dialog between Thoreau and Fuller, a conversation that might suggest answers to where we’ve been, where we might have gone, where we appear to be headed, and where we still might have the possibility to go.

Fuller, R. Buckminster. Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. First published, 1969. New edition, Baden/Switzerland: Lars Muller Publishers, 2008/2011 [Edited with Introduction by Jaime Snyder].

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. 1854. Boston: Beacon Press, July 15, 2004 [Introduction and Annotations by Bill McKibben].