When I was growing up, I had the good fortune to attend a progressive school in Chicago from 4th grade to 12th grade. There were a lot of hands-on projects. Each student in an advanced biology course was required to take care of his own rabbit, guinea pig or hamster in the school laboratory to become accustomed to typical laboratory animals. Students also had to raise fruit flies to determine genetic patterns. There was a lot of emphasis on creativity. Every year students had to take art and music classes. And every day, there was some sort of program in the school auditorium – a program that was produced by some class group in school or that involved an outside speaker or performer. There was a great emphasis on original thinking. Each class assigned a lot of independent study projects for which a student was responsible. Grades were based to a great extent on essays, reports and other special projects rather than simply exams. In short, it was a school that emphasized primary experience. Progressive education was developed at the end of the 19th century by the American philosopher John Dewey. At a time when America’s living environment was becoming increasingly affected by industrialization and the corresponding sensory distortion, John Dewey tried to use the school as an enclosed environment to bring back an organic grounding in which students could root themselves as well as more organic blendable continual stimuli to stimulate students more fully to life. Students learned through focusing on processes rather than dry facts, through doing and creating rather than simply absorbing and through original thinking.
In order to draw a student into the primary experience of the external world, there was a great emphasis on the social interaction involved in group process. Students would become involved in putting on plays and putting on county fairs. This approach, by the way, was quite different from another creative approach to education – the Montessori system – which emphasized much more the primary experience involved in individual creativity and reasoning.
These educational approaches were very distinct from a more traditional education which was based on rote learning and tests of the results of that learning. One filled one’s mind with defined discrete facts to psychologically transcend above the organic perishability of nature and the more organic traditional living environments. Traditional learning was a psychological defense against mortality, a way to protect the mind from focus on death by filling the mind with timeless seemingly eternal facts: free-floating cognitive knowledge not immediately tied down to the primary experience of earthly grounded situations. If there was critical thinking, it did not tend to be thinking outside of the box that explored alternate ways of viewing things and discarded established procedures. It was more likely to be close textual analysis that explained the established thinking on a subject and that didn’t deviate too much from it. In order to immerse himself in established thought, there was a great emphasis for the student to immerse himself in the classical languages – Greek, Latin and Hebrew.
Nowadays, both traditional and progressive education are being strongly displaced by a third way in education. This is the way of computer education. Learning online. Some educational institutions are using it as an increasingly strong adjunct to classroom education. Other institutions, particularly universities, are using it as a complete program for education.
Computers represent a new form of mediated education. Traditional education was an attempt to impart the mediated cognitive content of defined discrete facts and ideas through the primary experience of classroom education and the partly mediated experience of books. I say partly mediated, because there is the mediation of the symbols of language, namely letters and words, but the symbols are presented in the primary experience world of tactile material books. Compared to computer education, there was with traditional education some more immediate sensory experiences involved in getting a person to the transcendent level of experience of holding durable facts and ideas in his mind.
With computer education, almost the whole experience involves the mediated virtual world. This mediated virtual world has the appearance of eternity, because it lacks materiality and therefore organic perishability. Without matter, nothing is subject to rotting or crumbling.
So progressive and Montessori education were strong assertive attempts to bring back rich vibrant experiences and organic grounding to the lives of students in modern technological living environments. They were attempts that affected the lives of a relatively small portion of the students in modern technological society. These attempts were not strong enough to fight back the growing influence of consumer technology in most people’s lives. So now a larger and larger percentage of educational time in most schools is spent on computer-related activities. Robotization appears to be an impelling unstoppable force.
I have come to realize that the three phases that we have been discussing here – traditional education with its transcendence above nature, progressive and Montessori education to reconnect to organic grounding, and succumbing to the ultimate transcendence apart from nature with computer education – have parallels in other areas of human life.
We have just discussed in my previous article, three roughly analogous phases in painting. The transcendent figures of Realist painting that rise above organic perishability. The embedded figures in an enveloping ground in Impressionist painting along with the blurring of figure boundaries in other modern art movements. And then there is succumbing to a transcendent virtual world of art created by video cameras and computers. After transcendence rising above organic perishability, there is a temporary rebellion to reconnect to organic grounding which is then displaced by a transcendent virtual world. Consumer technology based education. Consumer technology generated art.
Here is another three phase pattern. Traditional sex in marriage, free love, virtual sex. For a long time in the Judeo-Christian world, the preferred approved expression of sex was within marriage. This was a way of focusing on the figure aspects of sex – those related to the creation of the figures of children through a committed family to contribute to the surrogate immortalities of each of the parents as well as to the larger family and the community.
Then along comes the creation of the birth control pill at a time when the transformation of the world by modern technology was occurring. The birth control pill allowed people to engage in free love – sex that was free from the commitments of marriage and childbirth. It was sex focused on obtaining organic grounding and organic blendable continual stimuli in the one form that was still readily available amidst the sensory distortion of modern technological living environments. The only organic surfaces readily available in these living environments were other human bodies.
And then along comes virtual sex through modern consumer technology: phone sex, video sex and even machine-generated virtual sex. This represents the total subsuming of the most organic grounded process available to humans into a mediated technological process. It represents a defeat of the struggle to find grounding and organic stimulation in spite of the sensory distortion generated by modern technological living environments and modern consumer technology in particular.
The development of modern technology is such an impelling force, that it has been able to put out technological responses to counter the benefits that come from the attempt to reconnect to organic grounding in different facets of human life. It is up to us, those people who are concerned about the increasing robotization of humanity, to focus on activities and situations that affirm organic grounding, and, just as important, to find activities and situations that create balance in our lives between organic grounding and the creation of transcendent figures, a balance between making and preserving our human imprints.
© 2013 Laurence Mesirow