Art, Nature, and Freedom: Toward a Better Future for Education

This year has seen a historically rapid rise in adoption of alternative forms of education. Virtual and remote education has become the norm, home education proper has seen a spike, and perhaps most interestingly educational “pods” have become mainstream. Amidst all this educational ferment I would like to offer some thoughts on what an ideal, or at least more ideal, education would look like.

Freedom

The best education is self-directed, where the learner seeks out new knowledge and is willing to be instructed. Children are naturally curious; babies explore the world that is so new to them to the extent they are able, and this natural drive to learn, if left to its own devices, will drive a human being to increase his or her knowledge of the world throughout life. This drive runs deep, and may be common to all sapient life in the universe; for a being, like a human, whose survival and flourishing rests upon thought, the will to learn about the world, and thus learning how to master not only nature’s raw material and lower life forms but also oneself, might be considered a fundamental expression of the will to power.

Play is an expression of this will to learn; recent years have seen a revival of scientific inquiry demonstrating the educational benefits of play, particularly for small children. The practice of play and its benefits, however, are far more widespread. Bigger children and even adults play, as do a wide variety of lower animals. It’s entirely conceivable that play is common to all forms of life, and perhaps even common to existence itself.

Play, while associated with being useless and childish, is actually at the heart of that most adult of activities: romance, intimacy, sex, and childbearing. It is striking how many behaviors characteristic of two children laughing and playing with each other are reflected in how grown men and women make love to each other. Scientific and philosophical inquiry itself is fundamentally playful. This is usually unremarked upon but is more obvious in some instances; to take one example, a very large number of mathematicians will freely admit that they pursue their craft because they find it to be fun. The will to play does not cease upon adulthood, but rather is transformed.

These ideas suggest that letting the child be directed by his or her own curiosity and will to learn is the most foundational aspect of an objectively good education, in the sense of forming a person with the greatest possible ability to live a fulfilling life from cradle to grave in a free society. It follows that any suppression of or interference with these natural drives is destructive to education, and it so happens that this very suppression is rampant in the bureaucratic institutions that supposedly provide education, namely schools.

In schools, a child cannot follow his or her own curiosities and desires, but rather must learn what the teacher, or more usually and worse still nameless and faceless bureaucrats he or she will never meet, wants him or her to learn, at the time and place of someone else’s choosing. The hidden or implicit curriculum teaches that there is something wrong with the child’s own curiosities and desires, because the suffering inflicted by grinding through undesired material or being denied desired material is said and believed to be for the good of the child.

The recognition of this reality is at the heart of “unschooling”, which is usually and to some extent correctly associated with rejecting all formal education, but actually as a pedagogy rejects only education that is not self-directed, whether formal or informal. Many children and grown men can and do derive great benefits and pleasure from attending classes offered by schools on particular subjects they actually want to learn about. Much greater benefits may be achieved with one-on-one lessons or tutoring, which is far more efficient, with all concentration upon a single student, and customizable to the student’s own goals and desires.

Raising a child in this manner may lead to gaps in knowledge in adulthood compared to their schooled peers, but the faculties nurtured during their education make it comparatively easy for them to rectify on their own any such gaps that impede their goals in life. On the other hand, a man raised to just learn what he is told to learn and has come to associate learning with suffering will find it much harder to use independent judgment or learn new material when it is inevitably demanded in life, which presents us with many novel situations.

While freedom in education is thus paramount, it leaves open the question of what should be done with that freedom. Children don’t know as much as adults do and nature in its beauty accounts for this in the natural drive children have to be guided by those who care for them, normally their parents; children will follow parental suggestions unless their experience forms a contrary opinion. Nature intends children to look up with their cute little eyes toward their mothers and fathers and ask “where should my mind go?” Here I will offer some suggestions for what the answer should be.

Art

The core of most curricula today is English and mathematics, perhaps due to them being the most scrutinized subjects in high-stakes standardized tests. While there is nothing wrong with either subject, I do not believe they should be at the heart of education. Visual art and music are often rightly cited as being marginalized by the focus on math and English, but even more marginalized are dance and drama, the two other core components of an artistic curriculum.

In my view the arts should be at the center of the curriculum rather than the periphery; they are often overlooked due to their seemingly frivolous nature, but the very drivers of its seeming frivolity, its high-level, abstract, and playful nature, make it unmatched in its power to illuminate the human condition and the world around us, not to mention more enjoyable for children. Artistry nurtures the creative power within each of us, which is of paramount importance if the culture we are raising our children in is to grow and advance in the future.

Dance and drama, in particular, should be the focus. Dance is interesting since learning how to dance increases your ability to learn any other subject, a benefit not bestowed upon you by English or mathematics. All they help is at best learning more of the same subject. If the objective of education is to learn how to learn, as is often supposed, then frame and footwork would do better than addition and subtraction.

Dance has also been found to ward off dementia in old age, further evidence of its mind-sharpening qualities. Dance is also a very physical activity, and evenly conditions the whole body to be fit all over, making it superior to conventional exercise, not to mention much more fun. All these qualities help ward off a sedentary lifestyle, one of modernity’s worst plagues. It’s also worth mentioning that dancing well is one of the most sexually attractive characteristics a human being can possess; these boys and girls will later find themselves set for a romantic and pleasurable life as men and women.

Drama also has great benefits and is very fun for children and adults alike. Acting out scenes and creating stories and settings exercises a wide variety of human faculties, including those related to language. In both the creative and execution phases of drama mathematics may also play a role, as many of those involved in the art of worldbuilding can attest. Indeed, drama can encompass and unify a wide variety of art forms, perhaps even all of them, a concept that Richard Wagner called the Gesamtkunstwerk (complete work of art), realized most completely in his opera cycle Der Ring des Niebelungen, perhaps to date the high-water mark of the Western artistic tradition.

Applying the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk concept to education would imply unifying an entire curriculum within opera, which while highly unorthodox to say the least would appear to be feasible. Opera and drama, in particular, incorporate the visual arts and music into themselves, and dance often plays a central role in operas and musicals. Children usually like singing and dancing, after all, as all the playful motions of the small human body and all the mothers who soothe and please their children through song can attest, not to mention the great aid to recall and memory music grants. Musicality is so universal and impactful that some scientists speculate singing predated speaking in human evolution.

Making music, acting, and singing help to hone what is called “active literacy”, usually associated with writing and speaking, as opposed to reading and listening, which is “passive literacy”. There is an interesting tendency for active literacy to be emphasized in more elite schools, passive literacy in less elite schools. Actively creating content, as opposed to passively consuming content, is surely the best way to attain the ability to shape the world around you, instead of being shaped by it.

All that said, education needs to be more than a raw exercise of creativity. Newton said if he saw so far it was by seeing on the shoulders of giants; if we are to advance and make genuinely new discoveries we must learn what those before us discovered. This is particularly obvious in the case of science, but is also true in the arts and humanities as well. This is achieved by immersion into the best of what has been done and said, the common repository of intellectualism and artistry that defines the core of a culture’s heritage; this is called “high culture”, which is neglected in modern curricula, excepting the growing classical education movement.

While Western civilization courses and curricula are often derided as being “Eurocentric”, everyone comes from a heritage, an ancestry, and a culture; understanding one’s culture empowers a man to contribute to and shape its future. Ignorance of that culture denies these abilities. For those of us whose culture came from Europe that culture is that of Western civilization.

Western culture in particular is defined by “the classics”, which are written in Greek and Latin, the two “classical languages” associated with Western civilization. Arabic, Sanskrit, and Chinese are the only other languages with comparably rich literary traditions, the five together forming the world’s “classical languages”. The benefits of a foreign language education are well known, and immersion in an environment where it is spoken and written is the best way to learn any language. Historically the classical languages were taught by laborious translating and studies of grammar, but much better methods are now known, and are sometimes practiced for learning Latin and Greek, albeit by very few people to date.

This form of language learning could best be accomplished through students learning in Latin and Greek, both in their formal lessons, their artistic projects, and the resources they learn from informally. The same techniques could be used to teach “heritage languages” to people with immigrant backgrounds whose families assimilated and lost their ancestral language. It would help greatly in teaching people foreign languages that are relevant to them, and renew ties to others of their national origin.

Given the time that it takes to learn a language to fluency assuming a few hours a day of immersion, the learning of three foreign languages and one’s native language might be accomplished in childhood without putting too much a demand on children’s time. Latin, Greek, and a heritage language could fill these three slots. That would be a very heavy focus on languages, but this could easily be merged into the dominant artistic components of the curriculum.

Nature

All this dancing, language learning, drama, and high culture should be conducted in a natural environment. Green space has many health benefits; even looking at green verdant nature outside a window improves mood and health. The mind is also sharper in green space, and it stands to reason education would be improved in a natural environment. This is the idea behind outdoor education, where instead of the deadening fluorescent-lit artifice of most classrooms, the invigorating sunlit nature of the outdoors is used as the learning environment.

This is most pleasant of course when temperatures are mild, the bugs are not out, and it’s dry, but men, women, and children alike may learn in any weather conditions excepting the truly severe if they have appropriate clothing and equipment. At the very least ventilation blowing in fresh outside air to buildings that are lit with natural sunlight, such as through skylights, and made out of natural materials, with abundant plant life kept inside, could be employed to mitigate the indoors’ adverse effects.

Dancing, drama, musicals, and opera, not to mention music and the visual arts, are usually performed indoors, but there is no particular reason why these subjects could not be learned outside in a natural environment. Some equipment and sets might be sensitive to rain or wind but they could be protected, or perhaps dismantled and moved indoors when not in use. The facilities that need an indoor environment could be hosted in buildings that employ the aforementioned mitigation measures.

Conducting all these activities in nature will have a very positive effect upon the learners. Thinking about the dancing again, there are many exercises that improve dancing ability. This is particularly obvious and well known in ballet, which has inspired popular ballet workouts, but there are also exercises in other traditions such as ballroom. These emphasize flexibility and reach, like yoga, and indeed there are popular yoga regimens targeted toward dancers.

These flexibility exercises could be combined with the other lessons; the students could do stretching exercises as they listen, read, speak, or write. Listening might be able to supplant reading to a large extent in the form of audiobooks delivered via earbuds, which would help to maintain more physicality while learning. Walking around exploring the natural environment could also be combined with their lessons. In this way the students’ bodies would be kept moving throughout their day, which would be very healthy. Posture exercises could and I would say should be combined with this program, as should massage, which has many health benefits.

Conclusion

Let’s put it all together. Children, united by level of and lust for knowledge rather than being the same age, walking around, dancing, and doing flexibility and posture exercises in wild nature, breathing in the fresh air as they learn about a topic they have real interest in, heavily through media such as opera, perhaps with the language of instruction being a foreign, heritage, or classical one, getting massaged to de-tense themselves after a strenuous but satisfying session of learning.

The same model of self-directed education, with ad-hoc classes and personal tutoring supplementing independent study, can see someone from the earliest years to beyond university level. Even if it falls far short in practice, graduate school is already supposed to be an apprenticeship in the faculties needed to generate new scientific and scholarly knowledge and discoveries. A worthy goal would be dis-intermediating and de-bureaucratizing the higher educational and scientific training system, replacing it with a system where scholars and researchers can work and train others independently; even if some resources, such as expensive laboratories and particle colliders, need to be centralized, that is no reason to erect barriers to entry across the entire system.

We have it in our power to build step by step, pod by pod, learning circle by learning circle, an educational culture that is free, not oppressive; enriching, not soul-deadening; personal, not bureaucratic; human, not institutionalized; and healthy, not sickening. For ourselves, our children, and all those around us, we must get started building this future.

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