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People, passions, and ants: A diatribe

I recently discussed with a friend an insight I had, that instead of force-feeding (what it feels is) requisite knowledge to every student, the education system should be facilitating each student to learn what they like in their own time, based on their own inclinations and curiosity. It’s not an original concept; it’s mentioned in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” among other places. There are two sides to this line of thought. On the positive end, I hypothesize that every student will learn much more efficiently, using fewer resources ($ per student), what he himself feels driven toward. On the other hand, I’m not sure how practical such an idealistic model is in the real world.

The example I discussed with my friend was mathematical proofs. I said that instead of having students memorize mathematical proofs from textbooks, each student should develop his own mathematics, the way “real” mathematicians did. (This is the reason there are many discoveries in science that are made by different people at the same time, independent of each other.) The first thing I see this model doing is eliminating a great majority of students in every field of study. As a mathematics student myself, I know that I am far from inclined – even though I admire the genius of those who are – from deriving all the mathematics I’ve been spoon-fed thus far. Another sticking point is that there is a base level of knowledge that has to be imparted to a child before he’s able to take off on his own. What that level is (elementary school? middle school?) is highly debatable among pedagogues. Granted, for those with a natural calling for the mathematics, a peremptory introduction to numbers should unleash a latent creativity. But what about the millions of others (like myself) who’re grinding through the higher education system to emerge as computational drones to serve some area of the economy? In a world of 6 billion and growing, how do you account for everyone’s passions?

A world of 6 billion resembles people less and ants more. When we talk about not who died but how many died in some disaster or bomb explosion, how do you maintain the reality that those people blowing up were as alive as you are right now? This detachment is a well-documented psychological phenomenon, and psychologists argue that we need it to be able to function in the world, lest we fall to the floor in tears every morning watching CNN, unable to go about our daily lives. What’s less talked about, however, is the price on human relationships this detachment places. Not even relationships, but something as simple and fundamental as how one human perceives human beings in general. There’s a huge gap between how humanly we see those we know (family, friends), and how unconcerned we are with everyone else. While this gap is necessary for survival, it’s getting too large. It seems that only those we know are humans; everyone else is just a number. How else would you swallow 600,000 dying in an earthquake in China in 1976? Imagine the lot of your social circle evaporating so quickly.

We watch movies like “Lord of War” and “Jarhead” that try so hard to drill into us the reality of war. It’s not romantic, patriotic, or even necessary. Gandhi had it right when he said “An eye for an eye will make the world go blind.” So where in the social food chain do we intervene to stimulate reform? The answer I think is at the bottom, at the base of the pyramid – with the children of the world. Proper education from well-trained and well-paid teachers will get us there. That brings me right back to the digression I made earlier, that this plan is just too idealistic to envision in effect in the world we know.

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