Tuesday, April 21, 2020

We Know the Meaning of Life . . . Now What?

In Douglas Adams' novel The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a computer is built specifically to answer the question, "What is the meaning of life?" The computer warns the people that it can, in fact, answer their question, but it's a calculation that will take seven million years. They insist that it's worth the wait. Seven million years later the computer provides the answer they've long awaited: it's 42.

It's a joke, of course, but 42 is actually the answer to many of our earthly questions, at least when we rely solely upon science to supply them. I don't want to give the impression that I'm a science-denier or anything, but despite its pretenses, when it comes to the most important questions, science often leaves us with answers that fall into the category of true, but not useful. For instance, I'm sure that science can tell us the bio-chemistry behind the feeling of falling in love, but everyone knows that if you really want to get to the core of what love is all about, you turn to the poets. So while 42 is, indeed, the correct answer to the question "What is the meaning of life?" it lacks the complexity necessary to satisfy us.

Most of the answers that our school curricula provide children are the residue left over once we've boiled away the complexity, which is why I so often call it trivia, the proper term for information that falls into the category of true, but not useful. We decide what children need to know, we tell them it's 42, then we wonder why they're not interested in school. So we've devised an arbitrary system of complexity to motivate them, relying on grades and tests and punishments and rewards, an ever more elaborate machinery designed to compel all the children to learn that the answer is 42.

And to a degree it works, at least to some extent. That's because complexity always works. It's complexity, not answers, that motivates humans. So yes, grades and whatnot provide at least a modicum of external motivation to replace the natural complexity that has been removed, even if it is a complete distraction from the actual subject matter.

Knowing that the answer is 42 reveals no complexity, it simply is, which means that there is nothing upon which to exercise our brains. But much of what we've come to consider being well-educated, especially in the early years, is based almost entirely on the ability to provide answers, usually in a rapid fire manner, like on a test or when a teacher calls out, "Who knows the answer?" and picks a raised hand. The "best" students are those who have memorized the "rules" that apply to this or that type of knowledge. But that's far from actual understanding, which requires complexity, because it's from thinking through complexity that we actually learn.

When children play, they are fully exploring the complexity of their world. Nothing is simple. They are not waiting for the computer to spit out an answer, but rather are doing the work of the computer, sorting through conflicts that arise between what they know and don't know, discovering new ways of seeing or expressing or understanding. They are asking and answering their own questions, which is to say that they don't need us to introduce complexity in order to engage them: they are already fully engaged because what they are doing is naturally complex. The important thing is not the answers as much as the process of thinking about the complexity. And it's the thinking that motivates us. It's the thinking that is the hallmark of a well-educated person, not the knowing.


I hate to do this, but I earn most of my income by speaking at education conferences and running in-person workshops. I've just had 95 percent of my income wiped out for the next 9 months due to everything being cancelled. I know I'm not the only one living with economic insecurity, but if you like what you read here, please consider hitting the donation button at the bottom of this post . . . Or even better . . . 

. . . sign up for Partnering With Parents a 7-part e-course designed to help you make allies of the parents of the children you teach. 

Or maybe you're more the reading type. In that case, you might want to pre-order my brand new book entitled Teacher Tom's Second Book. We're offering a pre-publication discount right now. Books should arrive by mid-May in the US and a week later in Canada. We are still working out the rest of our international distribution, so hang tight! Thank you!

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
Bookmark and Share

No comments: