Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Missing Links

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Question: What is the key missing ingredient in our education system?

Answer: Faith. The faith to remove the constraining safety harness of systematisation sometimes; the faith to be bouyed by the warm currents of naturally occuring meaning and connections between siloed disciplines. Free-fall is easy when you have a safety-net, and we do.

Indra’s Net: Hindu tradition refers to the magical jewelled net of the mythical god Indra. The net represents the threads of life and existence, for everything in the universe is said to be connected and part of a whole. We call that whole ‘God’. At every joint in the net is a precious jewel that reflects all the other jewels in the net including their reflections of that jewel itself.

We see that connectedness in maths with the Mandelbrot set, in long range weather forecasting with the butterfly effect (where a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon effects weather systems in Europe), in religions which constantly remind us that God is One and that everything is made by God and is part of God. We see it in the Jewish saying that whoever saves a single person saves all of humanity. We see it in the Chinese proverb ‘if you cut a blade of grass you shake the entire universe’. We see it in Freud’s psychoanalytic theory where all of human history is present in every human being.

In fact, the ‘holistic’ net-like nature of our ‘all-connected’ ‘joined-up’ universe reveals itself to us every day in a million different ways. Who has not experienced strange coincidence in their life and been struck by the sense of grace that accompanies it? The practice of pattern recognition and event-linkages is a useful learning skill that also enhances emotional sensibility. They can be applied in geography, history, maths, you name it.

Imagine a geography lesson about Wales using this example of North Wales shipwrecks:

- In December 5th 1664 a ship sank in the Menai Straight off the coast of North Wales. 180 passengers drowned. There was just one survivor, named Hugh Williams.
- On December 5th 1785 another ship sank there, 59 passengers drowned, again there was just one survivor, named Hugh Williams.
- On Augsut 5th 1820 yet another ship sank there, drowning 19 people; just one man survived, his name … Hugh Williams.
(cf Cliffe, Charles Frederick. The Book of North Wales, p. 155. London: Hamilton, Adams & Co., 1851 and Coghlan, Francis. Guide to North Wales, p. 69. London: Simpkin, Marshall & Co., 1860.)

Imagine a history lesson on US Presidents using this example of Lincoln and Kennedy:

- Both concerned with civil rights
- Lincoln elected 1860, Kennedy elected 1960
- Both killed beside their wives on a Friday, both shot in the head from behind
- Both Presidents had children who died at the Whitehouse
- John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln in a theatre and ran to a warehouse
- Lee Harvey Oswald shot Kennedy from a warehouse and ran to a theatre
- Lincoln’s secretary, Kennedy, advised Lincoln not to the theatre
- Kennedy’s secretary, Lincoln, advised Kennedy not to go to Dallas
- Both succeeded by southern democrat senators named Johnson
- Andrew Johnson born 1808, Lyndon Johnson born 1908
- John Wilkes Booth born in 1839, Lee Harvey Oswald born 1939
- The names Lincoln and Kennedy both contain seven letters
- Andrew Johnson and Lyndon Johnson both contain 13 letters
- John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald both contain 15 letters
- Both assassins were killed before going to trial

Or imagine a maths lesson containing these examples of number pattern:

1x8+1=9
12x8+2=98
123x8+3=987
1234x8+4=9876
12345x8+5=98765
123456x8+6=987654
1234567x8+7=9876543
12345678x8+8=98765432
123456789x8+9=987654321

Or
1x9+2=11
12x9+3=111
123x9+4=1111
1234x9+5=11111
12345x9+6=111111
123456x9+7=1111111
1234567x9+8=11111111
12345678x9+9=111111111
123456789x9+10=1111111111

(I could offer many more examples here, some truly astounding, but I’ll save the best for later.)

I am not suggesting that we make anything like superstition part of our curriculum or pedagogy. But I am suggesting that we engage learner’s minds with issues of pattern, linkage and meaning in order to inspire a sense of wonder, a hunger for knowledge, a sense of the connectedness of all things which is the essence of spirituality, a sense of faith in the purposive and meaningful nature of the universe, and a love of learning. How better to address the growth of nihilism among our young? What better way to teach our young people to ‘think with feelings in their muscles’ as Einstein put it. How better to show the depth of humility and humanity that we need to foster in our young, the depth to admit of meaning beyond our ability to explain or systematize. And how better to show the wisdom of our faith in its goodness? Or would we rather continue to demonstrate our inhumanity, our conceit and our foolishness?

If we have faith, as Christians, Jews, Moslems, Sikhs, Rasta, Humanists, Hindu, Bahai, Buddhists, socialists, capitalists, anarchists or whatever, perhaps we should remember the story of Indra’s net and try to release the stranglehold of systematization that is choking our young people and killing our future. Our over-reliance on the safety harness of systematisation is like frightened rabbits caught in the headlights of looming chaos. Sartre’s dictum that there is nothing to fear but fear itself was never truer.

I have recently been asked by a high school to serve as a resident ‘wizard’ to inculcate this sort of approach across the whole curriculum, showing the students how to make meaningful links across boundaries and silos. My hope for the New Year is that more schools will catch on and show that they are truly worthy of the faith they demand from their communities, not just to get more exam passes but to provide a fully rounded education fit for human beings.

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