“The Book I would pass to my children would contain no sermons, no shoulds and oughts. Genuine love comes from knowledge, not from a sense of duty or guilt… My wish would be to tell, not how things ought to be, but how they are, and how and why we ignore them as they are.” – Alan Watts, The Book, p. 19-20
This is an essay about what learning can be, not what it “should” or “ought” be. I have been in education reform for over 20 years, and I can say with some authority that forcing education to change has been spectacularly unsuccessful.
If examined carefully, successful social change in other areas, like social and economic justice, happened more as a result of “pull” (not push) by conscience-driven groups or cultural creatives who demonstrated a different way and refused to abide by conventional rules.
Likewise, the success of present and future learning relies almost wholly on the pull of creative engagement, the “can” do of conviction, invention, and idealism meeting the problem-solving spirit.
The problem with “should” is simply this: “Should” has its roots in systems of thinking that have failed significantly enough on the practical level for us to distrust its assumptions on the concept and value level.
… And assumptions mean everything to success.
‘Grid’ Knowledge and ‘Spaghetti’ Knowledge
“You cannot teach an ego to be anything but egotistic, even though egos have the subtlest ways of pretending to be reformed. The basic things is therefore to dispel, by experiment and experience, the illusion of oneself as a separate ego.” – Alan Watts, The Book, p. 20.
The ego in learning and life is a box among other boxes. Knowledge created from an ego framework, what I call “grid” knowledge, can only add and rearrange boxes, it cannot transform its fundamental assumptions and therefore the nature of learning.
That is why reform continually fails. What looks different is essentially a variation on a failed assumption theme. “The learning code” has remained the same.
It is time to transform the learning code and therefore the learning possibilities that spring from the learning code. We need to follow learning back to its DNA, the malleable primal pallet of what is possible to learn, and find new ways to express our learning genes.
Basically it boils down to this, we are re-emerging into an organic, integrated, oral “spaghetti” knowledge world, but we still have the habits of a mechanistic/industrial, discrete, linear “grid” knowledge world.
“Grid” knowledge rests on resisting change and establishing order, “stability,” and authority through accepting and imposing certain forms of knowledge as the foundation of legitimate thought. Then it “builds” subsequent knowledge from that. Grid knowledge says, “Been there, done that… Now let’s build more on it.”
The inductive “spaghetti” knowledge world is actually quite a bit like our own brains. Everything is interconnected. Memory and thought is held in changeable, flexible, orientations and relationships that grow and reorient in tune with our experience. Spaghetti knowledge is provisional, always experimenting and looking for more coherent and effective ways to organize itself over the lifespan.
In ways we need both “spaghetti” and “grid” knowledge, as a way to buffer possible excesses, too much change or too much stasis.
Here is the problem though: We are collectively addicted to grid knowledge. We’ve let it take over and run our lives for us, and now it is literally and figuratively killing us.
Just look at societies, bureaucracies, and institutions—departments, rules, standards, roles, classes, castes, prejudices, stereotypes, hierarchies, specialties. So much is assumed and automated for the purposes of an almost mindless industrial-like production.
“More and more, faster, better.” It has gotten so absurd that we have hyper-competitive kindergarten selection processes for elite schools in the U.S. and globally.
The evolution of the world into greater complexity and interconnectedness is outstripping the ability of our individual and collective egos to manage. So ego is doubling down by trying harder, imposing harder, and asserting ever more strongly maladaptive values, methods, and ways.
Reform will not do the trick. We need transformation.
How Might We Learn to Transform?
What are the “grid” assumptions we must challenge, and what might the “spaghetti” knowledge alternatives look like?
The overarching “grid” assumption is one of separate beings whose benefits are maximized through material attainment and serving either the self or some exterior authority. It is a philosophy of zero-sum, win-lose, either-or finiteness. Hence “the grid” sees competition as a kind of natural law.
The overarching “spaghetti” assumption is one of being intertwined, what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “interbeing.” Beings either win together or lose together depending upon their ability to optimize their connections in an aware way. This mentality tends to focus on non-material benefits like close community and creative opportunity and sees collaboration as the facilitator.
Here, to consider in broad terms, are some of the past failed assumptions and new possibilities to accelerate creative learning transformation beyond conventional education, economy, community, politics, and spirituality.
Education: Grid: Education is for training (especially for a job), reproducing and expanding old knowledge and structures. Assessment is about graded answers to someone else’s questions. Problem: Now we have colleges graduating too many job applicants, and students who can’t think for themselves and don’t know how to create their own paths. Spaghetti: Maybe schools could be community-based and embedded in the world, where learners can initiate engagement and collaboration on actual problems and opportunities they experience in their community and within themselves.
Economy: Grid: Enlightened self-interest: “Everyone works for themselves and their families and it will all work out.” Acquisition drives achievement and advancement. Problem: We are running out of natural resources and fewer and fewer powerful individuals are stacking the economic deck in their favor. Spaghetti: Local economies, globally-linked, can produce non-material and material benefits that benefit the community and can be exchanged with other communities. Contribution becomes more important than achievement.
Community: Grid: Community is mostly a container for the family, a place where people of similar background and interests can live together separately, so each is in his or her proper place. Problem: We have unprecedented mixing, interethnic and cultural marriages, job mobility, social media, and so on making “community” no longer a box or space but a kind of market bazaar. Spaghetti: Community can be a potential place for fulfilling friendship and cultural exchange.
Politics: Grid: People are elected to represent the “interests” of their constituents. Through haggling and maneuvering some kind of compromise is worked out where all sacrifice some and benefit some. Problem: This simply does not describe current politics. Extreme elements are pulling parties away from acknowledgement of the values of others. Compromise is being replaced by gridlock all over the world. Spaghetti: Grass-roots coalitions can be formed across dividing line over areas of broad agreement. Different approaches can be tried, for instance, to reduce unwanted pregnancy, rather than focusing on the contentious after-the-fact issue of abortion.
Spirituality: Grid: Everyone has their own religion and denomination or can choose “none of the above”. Freedom to worship is institutional in nature. Problem: Churches are losing membership in droves. Young people do not agree with the hyper-engaged bigotry (against gay people, immigrant, poor, black) evident in some churches, and they are bored by the ritualistic format of others. There appears to be no effective place for moral formation and spiritual leadership that is current with the needs of emerging generations. Spaghetti: As shown within the huge explosion of people that define themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” opportunities are arising to deinstitutionalize religious experience and create actual, active communities of worship tied to shared spiritual conviction and informed (but not dictated) by tradition.
This list or essay is not complete. It is provisional and quite broad at this point. It is suggestive. This essay is meant to promote consideration and engagement with new premises, directions, and experiments in learning applied to all areas and sectors of life. We are building our plane as we are flying and we will be experiencing in real time what it means to be connected and knowing.
In other words, we will be the fork and the spaghetti.
Now, I need you to continue the conversation. Sign up on Citizen Zeus and send me an email at: firstname.lastname@example.org to contribute your own insights and questions. Which of these areas resonates most with you? Which areas have I missed? What insights came to you as you read?