Rediscovering the purpose of learning

Micronesian navigational chart from the Marshall Islands

Complexification is the civilised© operating model for normal™ human primates®. I remain an uncertifiable life form in a perfect® world.

This stance sums up my experience with Western education systems, having been “educated” within such systems, having some experience teaching within such systems, having acted as a coach and mentor to students within such systems, having endured a few training courses delivered by technology vendors, and having been involved in the development and delivery of training courses for technology professionals.

Not only does a strong reliance on formal education by government authorities (reinforcement of national and regional best practices) and global corporations (reinforcement of commercial interests and technological bias) detract from the locally relevant context, it also squashes human creativity and curiosity. The more an education system myopically relies on formal evaluation and comparative ranking systems, the more it instils a hyper-competitive mindset that actively steers people away from appreciating diversity, from learning how to collaborate, and from nurturing and maintaining lifelong trusted relationships.

These characteristics of modern formal education systems are not accidental, they have been designed to operate this way. After several hundred years of formalised education, entire populations have become oblivious to the monocultural bias and damaging effects.

When educators and governments become concerned about escalating rates of depression, suicides, and “learning disabilities”, their knee jerk reaction is to focus on ways to better “assist” children to meet the desired standardised performance targets. The word “performance” points towards the outcomes the system achieves: cohorts of human cogs that act and function in highly predictable and uniform ways, to fit the needs of the entities that benefit from the education system. Increasingly education is shaped by the desires of transnational corporations.

The documentary Schooling the World (Carol Black, 2010) provides an excellent introduction to the history of modern formal education systems, and the webinar Education: Promises, Myths and Realities (Manish Jain and Helena Norberg-Hodge, 2016) looks into possible avenues for undoing the damage of misguided education.

We have created education factories that focus almost entirely on replication. However, humans have evolved as part of highly diverse ecosystems, i.e. we have evolved to survive and thrive in highly diverse contexts, rather than as part of super human scale monocultures, i.e. nation states, transnational corporations, and physical environments dominated by industrialised agri-monocultures.

Modern industrialised societies neglect the four other evolutionary functions that operate in healthy ecosystems that include humans: understanding of the local ecosystem and the roles of the various species within it, selection of variants that increase diversity and strengthen the ecosystem against external shocks, experimentation with new variants to uncover new possibilities, and sustaining collaborations within and between species that are adapted to the characteristics of the local environment.

In the industrialised neoliberal ideology, cultural evolution is reduced to a dangerously simplistic notion of innovation:

  1. The role of selection is reduced to a simplistic optimisation problem in a single dimension, i.e. growth in the abstract sphere of monetary metrics. In a suitably designed financial system this creates a consistent bias that benefits those who start out with above average financial resources.
  2. The role of experimentation is reduced to the superficial material variability that is easily achievable via mass customisation, and it excludes any variability that might undermine the self-preservation of established institutionalised power structures (national governments and transnational corporations). Amongst other things this is achieved by systematically pushing entrepreneurs down a path of “start-up” models that hand over control to speculators, and by co-opting the most compliant and unscrupulous entrepreneurs into the speculator class.
  3. The role of sustaining collaborative relationships within living ecosystems is reduced to the perpetuation of established institutionalised human power structures.
  4. The role of human understanding of the local ecosystem, and the well-being of marginalised groups and of all the non-human inhabitants are at best secondary concerns.

Manish Jain is a pioneer of unschooling. If you enjoyed the Schooling the World documentary above, you will likely also enjoy the podcast Manish Jain on unschooling, gift culture and deep localisation (2018), which is especially relevant for those who feel trapped in the corporate world of busyness, and for graduates who are wondering about potential alternatives to the corporate route to depression and self-hate.

The role of neurodiversity in human scale groups

Societies can thrive at human scale (bioregional networks of groups of 20 to 100 people) and can learn collectively at human scale only if education is not narrowly focused on replication, and if the local culture simultaneously appreciates:

  1. Cultural traditions that have served the local community and the local ecosystem for many hundred and sometimes for many thousand years.
  2. Observations from people with unusual sensory profiles and cognitive profiles, who process information from the local environment in ways that differ from the way in which information is processed by culturally well adjusted people.

The level of neurodiversity within the human species (and within other animal species) has evolved over millions of years, in tandem with rates of environmental change encountered in various ecosystems. Most humans are neurologically wired to be influenced to a very high degree by their local culture (neuronormative humans), and a smaller number of humans is less influenced by the cultural environment and more influenced by the non-human environment and by raw sensory input that has not been processed by cultural filters (neurodivergent humans).

Cultures that are attuned to the local non-human environment are by definition more accommodating to the needs of neurodivergent humans. The less a culture respects the constraints of the non-human environment, the more it is at risk of marginalising or pathologising hypersensitive neurodivergent people with unusual cognitive profiles.

At human scale neurodiversity results in a majority of generalists that replicate and sustain the local culture and in a minority of neurodivergent specialists that act as a valuable repository of scarce and often unique knowledge and skills that become useful in exceptional circumstances, or when interacting with groups that speak a different language and that operate different cultural practices.

Neurodivergent specialists are able to assist the population to adapt to new environmental circumstances by acting as teachers and guides with their unique perspectives and domain specific expertise. Over the course of one or more generations the resultant shift in cultural norms may normalise skills and techniques that previously had been considered irrelevant.

The following empirical observations are no coincidence:

  1. Autists often develop unique bonds with specific animals and sometimes with inanimate objects of personal significance.
  2. Autists often feel deeply connected to the natural environment and are distressed and consciously aware when their access to the natural environment is inadequate.
  3. Autists often develop deep areas of expertise in relation to topics or skills that may or may not be of immediate relevance to the surrounding culture. In one sense they are natural specialists, in another sense they often ignore all established discipline boundaries. Depending on the level of appreciation within the local culture they may take on unique roles as healers, navigators, tool makers, artists, musicians, explorers, and teachers.
  4. In healthy relationships between autistic children and adults the primary direction of social learning is reversed, i.e. the adults learn more from the children than the children learn from the adults.
  5. Autists and others who are identified as unusual / exceptional / neurodivergent within society are noticed because they depend on others in ways that differ from local cultural norms. Autists in particular lack the ability or willingness to self-promote that is expected within hyper-competitive W.E.I.R.D. societies.

The role of neurodiversity in Western cultures

Western industrialised societies and other societies that have adopted a neoliberal economic ideology force all its members to specialise in the skills needed for social competition, which predictably results in high rates of depression and high rates of suicides, especially amongst the autistic population that is incapable of playing the competitive social game. This raises an interesting question. How have W.E.I.R.D. cultural norms been able to spread and become established in many parts of the world?

  1. Over the course of the last 10,000 years, growing levels of inter-group conflict in densely populated areas have led to cultural norms that appreciate of the ability to deceive and out-compete other groups, and have resulted in empires with deep social hierarchies.
  2. Even though the emergence of language allowed humans to become increasingly successful by developing highly collaborative cultures, humans have retained the latent primate capacity for operating competitive social hierarchies. Within the hierarchical structures of “civilised” empires, the capacity for deep knowledge and technological skills of neurodivergent individuals have increasingly been co-opted to serve the benefits of small elites.
  3. The automation of manual labour with the help of fossil fuels and the automation of cognitive skills with the help of digital computers have reduced the reliance on human tacit knowledge about the natural environment and the technologies we depend on. Mass produced food and other basic necessities can increasingly be produced with minimal human input. Digital technology has greatly enhanced the reach of hierarchical structures and coercion.
  4. The competitive pressure within industrialised societies pushes the neuronormative population into roles that focus on self-promotion and so-called leadership skills, i.e. socially acceptable forms of bullying and deception that constitute the recipe for climbing the social hierarchy. At the bottom of the social pyramid, desperation and survival instinct compel individuals to engage in the competitive social game. The demands of social competition ensure that with very few exceptions only those with a severely compromised moral compass reach the upper echelons of the pyramid scheme.

The work that actually keeps the population in industrialised societies alive is performed by a limited number of poorly paid essential workers, and by a growing number of highly automated systems. Automation has led to deep hierarchical structures of bullshit jobs and to a growing precariat at the bottom of the social pyramid scheme.

Catalysing locally relevant collective intelligence

Humans are learning the hard way that a focus on competition and attempts of hierarchical control work against humans and the entire planetary ecosystem. The exciting aspect about the human capacity for culture is that via a series of accidental discoveries and inventions, we have created a global network for sharing valuable knowledge, as well as opinions and misinformation. It apparently takes a virus like SARS-CoV-2 to put this network to good use, and to shift “civilised” cultural norms away from profit maximisation and back towards sharing knowledge for collective benefit.

You may wonder what tools are available to us to shift from a state of collective delusion to collaborative social environments that catalyse creativity and mutual aid in ways that are adapted to local needs at human scale. The ecological lens provides us with a meta-language which is based on universal cognitive abilities of humans, and which allows knowledge to be shared, examined, and integrated into local knowledge systems in a very conscious and selective manner.

You may also wonder which aspects of Western industrialised knowledge are worthwhile to retain (and for how long), given that cultural evolution is a dynamic process that unfolds over multiple generations. The following sets of knowledge are good candidates for preserving and cultivating in a global knowledge commons:

  1. Locally successful collaborative social operating models and traditions, which can be documented in detail, including their known scope of applicability and known limitations, and can be made available for partial or complete adoption and refinement by communities in other parts of the world that are facing similar challenges and constraints
  2. Our scientific understanding of the natural world, which complements traditional forms of knowledge about local ecosystems
  3. Some of the diagnostic tools, treatment regimes, and surgical knowledge of modern medicine, which can be made available for integration into holistic approaches to well-being that are adapted to the specific contexts of local cultures and physical environments
  4. The engineering knowledge that underpins our digital computation and communication technologies, which allows us to share, validate, and incrementally refine valuable knowledge globally
  5. The engineering knowledge needed for local generation of electricity from renewable sources, to power essential digital technologies and to compensate for local or temporary limitations of human labour
  6. The emerging de-engineering knowledge needed for creating zero-waste cycles of material resources, to reduce and ultimately eliminate our dependence on the mining of non-renewable resources

Any tools and sets of knowledge that are incompatible with a path of radical energy decent are likely to rapidly become legacy technologies that are only relevant from a historic perspective – to warn future generations about technological approaches that have lead to existential risks.

I will close with a wonderful quote from autistic meteorologist Eric Holthaus:

One of my most favorite parts of humanity is that time and time again, across all cultures in all parts of the world, friends and neighbors come together during times of crisis to help each other. No one needs to organize it. It just happens. For more than 100 years we’ve had scholarly evidence that this is true. When times are hard, we are altruistic by nature…

I firmly believe we are in one of those times right now, on a global scale.

For the first time in human history, we’re participating in a simultaneous recovery from a global tragedy in real time. After a year of Covid, decades of a climate emergency, and centuries of systematic exploitation of marginalized people we have reached The End.

This is The End of life as we know it, and The Beginning of what absolutely must be an era of empathy unlike any we’ve had the courage to create so far. We know we can’t stay on the path we’ve been going, and we don’t know where new paths will lead us. We’re in a liminal space — a new kind of trauma we don’t have a name for yet…

We can’t wait any longer.

Every day, every project, every revolution, is always imperfect. There will never be a “right” time. Ask for help. In this moment of transformation, someone will be there.

Eric Holthaus

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