Bio Scale (A Response to Jason Preater)

This is a response to Jason Preater’s thoughtful and considered article Human Scale. I am writing this in the same spirit as Jason; I don’t propose to “have the right answers and welcome your ideas.” I realize that many of these issues are addressed in superficial, generalized ways, but I am writing an article not a book. I welcome exploring any of these further as I do not pretend that the space below allows for any definitive conclusions. Nor should it. It’s a conversation.

I will begin this response to Jason’s article by making my intentions clear. I do not feel it is productive to engage in postulations or to set about trying to poke holes in other people’s arguments in order to advance one’s own faith in truth. I do believe in the joys and benefits of thought experiments and playing with ideas before they’re fully baked. In fact, I would contend that having an open-mind and a curiosity about concepts, people, and actions precludes having opinions that are fully formed. Thinking is fluid not static. My response to Jason is as much to exercise and sophisticate my own thinking as it is an attempt to move the conversation forward. Jason’s writings are some of the most nourishing I come across. 

Jason begins by examining smaller models of schooling that are “human scale,” that is, ones that promote “community awareness, parental engagement, good management, and human-relevant learning.” Educators within these models “encourage children to learn traditional craft skills, to gather in village sized communities and to get direct experience from the natural world.” This approach is constructed around the dynamic relationship between the individual and the community and seems to want to slow down and appreciate what is around us.

What is unclear, however, is whether it is the individual or the community that holds greater value. Jason claims that child-centered educators “go a step further [than the human scale] and allow learning to arise naturally from the interests of children,” which leads me to believe that the logical outcome of human scale is the precedence of the individual over community since the spotlight is on the interests of the child not those of the community. That is not to say that these have to be mutually exclusive, but it is a telling starting point to place greater value in the individual than in the community and to hope or expect that the values of the former, collectively, will align systematically with those of the latter*.

The first question to pose is “what do you mean by community?” A shared understanding is fundamental as it involves spatial and temporal considerations as well as understandings of what brings communities together. If communities are groups of people who share common interests, values, and symbols, then, in the digital age, we can discount space. Minecraft is a community that exists digitally, free of spatial constraints. Rules are defined formally and informally by players who share a language, a system of values, and passion. This community transcends local language and culture. Two Minecraft players located in different parts of the world can communicate without the common vernacular that two strangers may share in the same coffee shop but with no reason to speak to one another. Communities conceptually extend even beyond temporal constraints as shared interests and values connect across time. Jason’s own website lists Maria Montessori as a member of the leadership team. The warm smile this puts on my face reminds me that our values are part of a historical tradition rather than entirely borne of our current context. Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities remains seminal.

In this sense, we are part of many communities at the same and different times. Perhaps we can think about this as an infinite number of blocks that represent our dynamic interactions with the world outside (and inside?). On the X-axis, we have time; our relationship with the community changes as time moves on. The Y-axis is space; where are the boundaries of my community? Where do I find its members and where can I not? The Z-axis represents the perception of quality of my connection to the community; how closely aligned do I feel with my community and how willing or able am I to invest myself? We may also add a fourth-dimension, which is the quality of the connection that the community assigns to us as members. This is a two-way street, perhaps even a multiverse as we appreciate each part of the community differently at different times and so it is reciprocally.

The three (four?) dimensions of community

Since we share common interests, values, and symbols with several other groups, we are part of many communities. The block above sits alongside and in the middle of a possibly infinite number of blocks that make up our experiences, some larger and smaller than others, but the sum of which represents our narrative.  

I am reminded of this artwork when thinking about communities

This opens the door to the notion of the individual, a pillar of the Humanist worldview, and Human Scale Education places the individual at the farthest end of its concentric circles. My concern with learner-centered models and anthropocentrism, both to which I refer below, is precisely that they place the individual as both the beginning and the end of the human experience. “Child-centered because what we value most is the child, the individual.”

There are significant biological, physical, and philosophical problems with this idea. Etymologically, individual means we have arrived at the point where we can no longer divide; it is the smallest part. Since it is obvious that we can subdivide humans further, down to organs, cells, DNA, atoms, and quarks, I am assuming that when we speak of the individual we are referring to consciousness, that is, the “hard problem.” It is beyond our capabilities, so far, to understand consciousness in terms of its origins and its nature. Without getting into solipsism, are we certain that consciousness is proper to each being? Is consciousness divisible or indivisible?

Quantum physics have shown that entanglement of matter negate our objectivist (Newtonian) understandings of time and space (as does the Theory of Relativity). Entanglement also creates the physical and philosophical possibilities that we are all connected, that there is no separation, no binary between you/me; us/them; this/that. Of course, the Vedas and the Buddha did not need to theorize that we are a combination of wave and particle-like properties to explain that we are One. Moreover, if life is the infinitely rapid sequence of moments (think of Zeno’s paradox of the Arrow of Time), then there is no individual upon which to hook anything onto. Impermanence is the inescapable essence of existence.

I am not suggesting that we shouldn’t think carefully about the role of the “individual” in society. That is actually the point, but within a different way of thinking, a post-Humanist value system

Jason moves onto classical Humanism, whose core is “the idea of humanitas, a common set of values that come from being human and lead to compassion, benevolence and virtue.” Maybe, but incompletely. Humanism emerged when we abandoned God as the source of all value in our lives, that is, when we abandoned Theism. Before the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution that sparked it, when Theism was the ubiquitous worldview (not all cultures were Theistic, of course), people derived meaning from God. God had a plan and our actions existed within the framework of God’s will, of good and evil. What the self wanted did not matter, in fact, want often led to sin. People operated within a different set of values and connections to a world existing between heaven and hell. When God died, he left people without a sense of external meaning. As a result, meaning came from the self, personal moral compasses, and desires. People began to follow their true selves and “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” became the rallying call of Humanism. Meaning was derived from the self. Hence why the Chapel of Florence to which Jason alludes creates a sense of “awe and wonder” because it is the scale of your body that is reflected in “the space around you.”

No wonder economic liberalism is the child of Humanism: atomization and self-interest follow the outlook that the individual, the human, is pinnacle of existence. Whether Humanism had education at its heart is debatable, or perhaps it did for the (often autodidactic) elite who had the luxury of leisure and wealth to learn. Jason stresses the point, on which we agree, that education was “a training for the leaders of the republic, not for the workers.” It is only recently that liberalism extended education universally and then, as much as today, education exists/ed mainly as means to achieve economic goals. How many times do we (and our politicians) connect education with employment potential, skills for the world of work, productivity, measurable outcomes, or international competition (think the triennial PISA frenzy)? For years during and after the Enlightenment that birthed Humanism, universal education did not exist in any substantial way for countless urban and rural poor, slaves, or minorities. The state’s role in using education to inculcate values of nation-building and prepare for war spoils the idealism of some progressive and populist (in the original sense of the word) movements.

There exists an inherent tension in Humanism between cognitive and its affective drives. This tension has not been resolved and our worldview continues to value intellect above all, as if it existed independently from the rest of us, that is our body and mind (if there even is an “us”). Yet recent advances have shown that the Cartesian dualism and the belief in free will that have been the bases of our sense of reality are no more than chimeras. Benjamin Libet’s experiments in the early 1980s (and John-Dylan Hayes more recently) showed that brain activity determines our actions before we feel the desire for said actions, independent of whether we even take action. If the roots of our desires lie within biochemical neural networks, then free will does not exist. While this does not mean that we live in a prison of determinism, it does question our notions of what it means to be an individual. Furthermore, we cannot separate the brain from the body when we know that 80% of nerve traffic flows upward from the heart to the brain, that the gut electromagnetic field is larger than the brain’s, and that the automatic nervous system (sympathetic and parasympathetic branches) tell the brain whether to focus on the hind brain (fight or flight) to the frontal brain (thinking and planning)**.

The idea that humans are distinct from other life forms because “no other animal is capable of this kind of reflection” takes us back to the idea of consciousness. Perhaps no other living being is capable of this kind of reflection, but I am not sure that matters. We know that other animals experience consciousness, though we do not—and cannot—know what form that takes. There is incontrovertible evidence that many animals have memories, express emotions, and communicate with peers who lie beyond their sensory fields (whale songs). The ability to access different levels of consciousness does not seem enough, to me, to conclude that humans are more valuable or important as a species than other life forms. If we take the argument to its next logical step, we should be able to subdivide humanity based on other metrics. What criteria shall we use? Intelligence? Strength? Race? Wealth?

I am not being flippant. If we accept that consciousness is reason enough to render humans more valuable than other life forms, then we should be prepared that others will use equally arbitrary metrics to create value-based hierarchies, which does not bode well for equality within the human species.

Jason continues his thoughtful article by connecting the rejection of anthropocentrism with a return to Rousseauian dreams of the noble savage. While many Luddites may cheer for joy, my position is different. Bio-centrism, which moves away from anthropocentrism, does not mean going back to the ways of the Indigenous peoples of the Amazon; it is a post-Humanist position, one that accepts and anticipates the biotech and infotech revolutions. It sees opportunities in technological developments and the unimaginably different ways of life that we will experience in a few decades. I don’t view technology as delivering the promise of some miracle cure just around the corner to solve global warming. Bill Gates and similar peddlers of techno-theist illusions (religious narratives in themselves!) want us to believe that if we can keep it going with our recycling programs for just a bit longer, someone will invent something to make all our environmental problems go away, so sit back and order some more stuff, it will be alright. No, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is inevitable and we must re-consider ourselves within our possible futures.

I use “we must” deliberately in order to segue into Jason’s thought-provoking paragraph, that I quote in full:

You may have noticed in the preceding paragraphs how many times I wrote “we have to”, “we should” and “we must.” That “we” includes humanity as a whole. Another paradox, because even though you go to an Amazonian tribe to refine your arguments, your feet are still in the halls of power. You aspire to come back with ideas that will topple the orthodoxy, overturn the establishment and definitively defeat the evil supremacists, racists, colonialists and Humanists. If they persist in holding on to their mistaken beliefs, you will use the superiority of your intellectual arguments to gain the upper hand in universities and advisory bodies. When the education system is in your hands, you will be able to mould future generations in a better image. I don’t need to say that this is an authoritarian argument.

This is existential, almost nihilistic. Jason leads us to the question “why should we try to change anything if we risk falling into authoritarianism if we will be the ones writing the dominant narrative, masters of the superstructure?” Yet is this not what the Humanists have done by killing God? 

If humans are the only species who are capable of reflection sophisticated enough to “re-evaluate the scale of human values” (as Jason posits), then we are beings who can conceptualize shifts of morality across time and space. Taking this further, can we deny that there is such a thing as a global mind (Al Gore) or a social growth mindset (Thom Markham)? Better yet, should we deny these and favor an amoral world, through fear that a ubiquitous social morality will turn authoritarian? This takes us deeper into a centuries-old philosophical debate that I cannot pretend to resolve, but it is worth asking, and as always, it is worth reflecting (that word again) on what future(s) we want.

When 140,000 species go extinct every year, when projections estimate 20 to 50% or all species will be extinct by the end of the century, when we see the quality of our environment decay though air pollution, contaminants in our food, in our water, when we experience (or witness or even know of) racial discrimination, economic injustice, one in six children in the US who goes to bed hungry… the list of problems is overwhelming and can be discouraging, but it is also a source of strength because we can rebel against the system that perpetuates and even thrives on these problems. 

So the question becomes not should we fear change because it might lead to authoritarianism, but rather, how can we accept this system that, through its lack of socio-economic, environmental, and racial injustice is itself authoritarian?  

And now I circle back, with Jason, to the Child Scale, to working with the child to allow curiosity, exploration, and wonder to flourish. I return to this idea that we should connect with the community, “learn traditional craft skills, [gather] in village sized communities and [get] direct experience of the natural world.” We must nourish this sense of wonder if we are to move toward a bio-centric worldview. We must overcome the Nature Deficit Disorder (Robert Louv) and see nature as part of us and we are a part of nature. Nature is not a place where we take what we need. Even sustainability is not enough. We need regeneration. We need eco-reciprocity (Haydn Washington).

We need to resolve the tension between technology and nature. We need (here I go again with “we need”) to ensure that they become complementary rather than opposing forces. Perhaps we should begin by thinking in terms of the Precautionary Principle, whereby “when an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.” I would replace “human” with “the bio-collective.” 

So yes! to a world where children are free to wonder, to explore, and never to stop loving nature. But also yes! to a world where we think and act for the benefit of the bio-collective. This may require a re-drawing of the Hieroclean concentric circles, this may refine Valerie Hannon’s Four Levels of Thriving†. This may force us to imagine communities as fluid, without defined spatial or temporal boundaries. This may have us reconsider all life as having equal value, worthy of being at the center. A bio-centric worldview.

I don’t think it’s so easy as to advocate for learner-centered paradigms and think that’s the solution (I don’t believe Jason does either). In fact, I believe we should move beyond learner-centered for reasons that I have written here and elsewhere. This is more than something that needs an incremental fix, it is more than a problem with education, the “how” and “what” happens in schools. These are existential questions, fundamental ones concerning our place in the universe or, deeper yet, the nature of consciousness (is it social and, if so, what does that mean and imply?). This is the underpinning of a new way of thinking about education and its place in society. Education, “what for?” Education not separate from society, fluidly integrated in it. Like water. Like life.

Luckily there are people like Jason who are willing to exchange ideas and raise objections in constructive, productive ways, not trying to poke holes for their own self-indulgent ego stroking or cover their ears within their lonely echo chamber. Honest conversations to explore ideas are what take our thinking forward. Is this not what we claim to want in our classrooms? 

I am grateful for my exchanges with Jason on social media, on Zoom… I see him as part of my community… where there is no distance thanks to technology, so we can connect for its benefit. 

* Or maybe we have a Neo-liberal outlook and that is indeed what we want.

** Thom Markham introduced me to these facts, thank you.

† Intrapersonal, interpersonal, societal, planetary

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