Thursday, December 31, 2020

An Education That Emerges From Those Things That Most Affect Us


In 1675, French rationalist philosopher Nicholas Malebranche wrote, "The mind does not pay equal attention to everything it perceives. For it applies itself infinitely more to those things that affect it, that modify it, and that penetrate it, than to those that are present to it but do not affect it."

I don't know if this insight was groundbreaking at the time, but for most of us today it seems self-evident. I know that this is true of my own mind and from what I've read, modern scientists concur. It makes sense that our minds would have evolved like this. Or rather, it's rational to conclude, at least, that our senses have evolved to filter out the "noise" in our environment in order to focus on those things that have the greatest impact on our fitness. In a world of plant life, for instance, we're more likely to notice the ones that provide nutrition or the potential for shelter, but if a tiger prowls onto the scene, the plants fall to the background as our minds suddenly have more pressing matters on which to attend.

We've not evolved beyond this order of things, but since most of us are no longer in environments full of tigers our minds are free to prioritize other things to perceive more precisely (although I expect if a tiger did prowl into our field of vision, we would still take note of it above all else).

We notice the flicker of the fire before the darkness that surrounds it.

We salivate over our favorite food while barely noticing the china no matter how fine.

Jarring sounds draw our attention ahead of general hubbub.

Our friends tend to occupy more of our attention than do the chairs in which they sit.

This isn't to say that our minds can't focus on darkness, dishes, din, or dinette sets, but it's rendered increasingly difficult by the presence of other things that more directly affect it, that modify it, and penetrate it. This is what our minds have evolved to do. As a strategy for survival it has a history as long and successful as humankind. A mind equally attendant upon all things is far more likely to fall prey to tigers than one primed to apply itself to pay attention selectively.

This isn't a new insight about the human mind. We've known it for hundreds if not thousands of years, long before Darwin, yet most of what we call schooling flies in the face of this self-evident wisdom. Children come to us with minds finely honed through millennia to identify those things to which it should most rigorously attend, manifesting in an urge to "play" with those people and things in the quest to more fully understand them. But at school we tell children that they are wrong. That they must sit. That they must be silent. That they must ignore their most vital urges. That they must instead learn to look at and listen to the things that simply do not interest them. Our teachers are then tasked with "making it interesting," a nearly impossible feat in an environment full of flickering flames, friends, and tigers. This isn't to say that these things might not one day be important, but for right now, we are asking children to set aside one of the most fundamental aspects of consciousness, the thing that makes learning a self-motivated activity, and instead look away from the flicker of flames, the sounds that attract us, and the people we love to instead attend to trivia. 

We devote most of our energies to diverting their attention away from those things to which they are naturally attracted, nonsensically insisting on educating against the tide of human evolution. Our minds seek to educate themselves, to think about, manipulate, and understand those things that most affect us. Our senses have evolved to determine our course of study. When we finally free our children to pursue their interests, we will have finally perfected education.

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