Education and free-mindedness

by Coranna Howard in Opinion

Preface: the history of these ~1.4kg of matter

As I write this, I am going through a phase of self-reeducation. My childhood was incredibly wasted, mostly through the lack of sensible guidance and through my own blindness (which can, I think, be excused: the adolescent mind, as I will later posit, primarily mirrors and expounds upon experience and observation — in other words, the mind is almost wholly shaped by its environment: the people ‘teaching’ it and the things it observes and experiences).

To give this article some context and to illustrate why I think certain things are essential, I shall give a brief history of my own childhood.

I grew up in a strict Presbyterian household (though I have little to relate to, I would consider it more or less typically strict) with four siblings: a younger brother, an older sister, an olderer brother, and an oldest sister. My parents switched from some other Christian denomination when I was probably around the age of 8; thus, Presbyterianism is more of my conscious life than any other religion. My eldest sister and brother started in public school but were soon moved to homeschooling for (I am roughly certain) religious and societal reasons (something like “those horrible children in public school will corrupt them!” never minding the deficiencies that could result from peerless lives).

I found the religion's people to often be mindless, scandalous, and quick to judge and anger — unlike their Christ and the edicts of their bible. I find the existence of a god just as absurd as the prerequisites for a certain scientific theory: ultimately, something – a god, a gravitational singularity – from nothing. Neither religion nor science can explain how anything at all could possibly exist in the first place — which is admittedly futile, but there I stand: at odds with the reality of existence.

My parents claim to have developed us as free thinkers (I at least give them an iota of credit for the outcome, something we have achieved by their inaction), yet they never illustrated different modes of thought. Their approach to this appears to be one of ignorance to the concept: fallacies must be smothered; hold stereotypical prejudice against others for their beliefs or ideals; berate offspring for expressing radical thought or being unable to do as demanded; and so on — instead of reasoning against fallacies, teaching objectivity or exemplifying free-mindedness. Truly Christ-like, I contest.

At home we were restricted to some small number of hours for television (thankfully; what a crock of rubbish it is) and around the same for computer use; media ratings were followed by-the-letter with some extra; being up past bedtime was a no-no and we were of course punished for sneaking onto the computers at night (I will talk about these later; having a gravity towards something can lead to good, even if that something is entertainment media — in the least, absorbing culture is generally good, though I offer the distinction to ‘corruption via corrupt culture’). If we refused to get out of bed for church on Sabbath, we were punished by being (figuratively) locked in our rooms all day, prevented from doing nearly anything, and were not allowed to visit our grandparents (visiting was and still is a sort of tradition on Sundays) — which was the only other place we (I, specifically) (sometimes grimly) gained an iota of social experience.

My younger brother and I were educated exclusively at home. Unfortunately, the sciences – actually, all topics – were strewn with misplaced religious justifications and censorship of and adversity to natural knowledge (for example: plain human anatomy and biology — dare they see a naked human body or learn of the functions of their own species!1), which made them an incredible bore (I do not intend to imply that any non-religiously-mangled book will immerse a child, merely that religion detracted immensely from my interest in every one). I was stuck in 3rd-grade mathematics (the same exact textbook) for more than two years simply because I was unable to understand the concepts and my mother and father, both possessing only sullied high-school educations, were unable or unwilling to assist (I remember verbal abuse and fits of rage from my mother due to being unable to progress — due to being unwilling to stare at books I didn't understand). My curiosity was left unsatiated and insulted; my will to learn diminished.

Despite being very good at spelling, I never got anywhere with grammar; I attribute this primarily to the lack of peers with which to communicate. We were given the opportunity to take art classes headed by someone from our church, but it did not interest either of us (I now firmly believe that artistic expression should be required in early education). Music was the same: an expensive offer and – to some little squirts who just wanted to decimate some AI in Age of Empires or build stuff in the woods – it also wasn't very interesting (again: even if it isn't carried on, music should be experimented with to profile the young mind; I now have immense interest in both art and music but no grounds to build on).

Curiosity was not very well tended to, though I imagine it was more so than in most settings. It was not restricted, but it wasn't really facilitated either. From toying with electronics, I learned: what certain chemicals and corrosions smell like and how to use a soldering iron and other tools; from building stuff, I understand: structural integrity and the properties of various materials; from playing with video games and computers, I learned: programming, data forms, the concepts of cryptography and data compression, the methodologies of reverse engineering, networking protocols, and general logic (all of which developed into quite a capable skillset).

Despite a mild rise in yearly test scores as I completed my canonical education, I never felt as though I'd learned anything from it: I certainly never learnt any of the sciences (my scores illustrated that gracefully), my math fundamentals were never ingrained, and I never grasped the technicalities of English. It felt as though I were remembering particulars simply to pass the test, on which I scored poorly. I've learned far more about language through observation and far more about mathematics through Khan Academy2 than I ever did from textbooks.

In short, my education was a failure; the approach taken and lack of guidance and instruction piled high my disdain for it all. By the time I was into my early- and mid-teens I was consigned to ‘teaching’ myself from books that were higher than my understanding, though of appropriate – or worse – grade level for my age (this is a very bad state which should be avoided: it results foremost in laziness – especially if the student's work is not checked – and a feeling that everything is a Mt. Everest to surmount when nothing is understood). Coinciding with this was an avalanche of introversion (no friends in our elderly neighborhood, and of course no classmates to collude with) and a much slower decline in the anger shown by my parents in all regards (I've seen this curious effect also in their siblings and I might write on it in the future; it may be that they have finally realized the mortality of humanity).

It became increasingly evident that my parents cared little about our education. My work was rarely (if ever) checked, and I devolved into laziness and putting off study since I deemed it all hopeless. I'm fairly certain my brother stopped doing anything for his final two years — they didn't enforce it, became angry when they noticed, and quickly returned to not enforcing it. If knowledge isn't given, it will be sought and found elsewhere — and, for the educator, likely in places and forms he does not think highly of.

Throughout all of this, my digital life and interest in computers grew and grew. Video games were an escape from reality; from the get-go I marveled at their complexity and conceptualized how they could possibly work. This led to data inspection, manipulation, and computer programming, which I dipped into around the age of 13 with BASIC derivatives. In-between the frustrations of life, I would play real-time strategy, role-playing and (once I was permitted to do so) first-person shooter games, reverse-engineer (some of) them, and do mad experiments with code — building my understanding of computer internals and programming (almost entirely with the aid of nary a book3).

I gained (few) friends on the Internet and developed essentially all of my language through communication (mostly textual, though voice chat was often utilized when gaming), reading, and observation (all of which I find to be far more valuable than the cruft in any language textbook).

I am an introvert and can't coherently articulate myself vocally and, in my immediate environment, I learnt early that speaking often leads to more trouble than not speaking — and, because of this lack of social acumen, my words are not often heeded to when they are spoken. I am critical of everything and far more observant to and aware of things which are insignificant or even invisible to others (I generally liken this to hyper-awareness: both a curse and a useful trait). I don't share my projects or ideas with most of my family because of the hyperbole I get in return (positive or negative criticality: detested likewise) and because they rarely understand.

I absolutely do not understand nor accept emotion and it has given way to realism and pessimism (if I am not failing in memory, more than once have I been described as ‘an emotionless husk,’ which is beautifully accurate). I hide behavior which I believe others will be critical of, or simply because I do not want their opinions. I get lost in lengthy musings and what I call ‘net loops’ (like the well-known ‘Wikipedia loop,’ but within the scope of the entire Internet, though it most often consists of staring at IRC or parsing information that I've already parsed; finally beginning to crush this one) — both excellently destructive to productivity and focus.

Most telling is my lack of motivation and deficiency of initiative: I still live with my parents, jobless and higher-education-less (it's truly absurd how expensive this stuff is — and amusingly useless unless you have swimming pools filled to the brim with fiat currency to dish out for the more prestigious establishments, to obtain only a greater title).

My own interest in things not of conventional education is the keystone of what I am today. I adorably made up for lack of guidance with observation; friends with introspection; education with curiosity. It all depends on the Internet and a very narrow path which I could've easily fallen from. If I had taken a single misstep upon that path or taken an even less-guided one, I would be immensely different and likely far worse off. My path is fragile, stochastic, and unacceptable; an unforgivable outcome requiring leagues of remediation.

Introduction

This article is mainly based on my humble ideals and thoughts; only the bits which have actually aided me will I vet as tested and cromulent — the rest are informed conjecture. Since I have experienced more failure than success, I am more familiar with what doesn't work; I find that this makes it easier express and understand both spectra. Following that, I am not the paragon of the ideals I set forth.

I began writing this months ago as a letter (perhaps more accurately: a plea to avoid my parents' failings) to a relative, but I decided to generalize and expand it for the perceived greater good; keep in mind that it is aimed towards educators (though not specifically of the ‘I went to school for this’ sense).

I've separated it into four parts:

  1. Fundamentals;
  2. Idealism;
  3. Edutainment; and finally:
  4. Reality

Last but not least, here be the disclaimers: I am neither teacher nor scientist, and I certainly don't know how to deal with very young children (nor very very old ones, for that matter). If you are hoping I will give you a scientific understanding of psychology, emotion, social intercourse, or how humans learn, you are reading the wrong text. Though I do not wish to garner distaste, this article will not respect society's mannerisms; profanity may be present in quotes (for they are merely words, after all), and I may insult some of your own ideals.

Part 1: Fundamentals

Fundamentals in my own words are the foundations of competency; the ultimate shapers of the mind. It can be said that ‘in a typical system, defective input yields defective output;’ likewise, defective fundamentals result in a defective mind. A good analogy would be: fundamentals are to the mind as yeast are to dough — when the yeast is dead or absent, the dough doesn't expand; the resulting mass is hard and unsavory.

Fundamental 1: Freedom

Freedom is what I view as most basic and essential. Children will follow the examples of and strive to be more like the people they look up to (if this fundamental proves anything, let it be that, and extrapolate the rest); therefore, first and foremost, you must be: composed, receptive, and vocal.

Why these things, exactly? I'll tell 'ya.

Composed: anger and lack of resolve have no place in the educator; these elements of weakness are the first to adversely affect attraction, severe defects of which may eventually lead to detestation. If you can't be composed – can't act as you'd like the child to – everything else is of little effect. I know quite well that anger breeds anger: I have a mostly-buried behavior of vocal outburst and criticality in general, instilled by my immediate family and from my childhood.

Receptive: if the child's ideas and questions are ignored, met with chastisement, or unanswered, he will devolve into silence — it will appear to him as if undue trouble is brought (to himself and likely to others), so he refrains from speaking. If you listen to the child and engage with him to cooperatively determine the legitimacy of a theory, thought or question, he will learn that voicing them leads to better understanding the world.

Vocal: language goes far beyond formal education — we are typically exposed to many many facets of language from birth: enunciation, phrase formation, contraction, visual association, cultural quirkiness, etc. Beyond developing the child's language, being vocal will instill enjoyment of expression and a willingness to speak.

Being afraid or unable to express is the greatest deficiency one could have; our ideas are what we make of them, and we oft make of them nothing. If the response to an idea is negative, it will teach a primed mind how to debate and how to improve the idea; if positive, it will teach that expression can result in good and that reward (literal, knowledge, and otherwise) is often received for it.

And here I will introduce our very own devil's advocate; I will call him Ernie. “So, you're saying… freedom as in let them watch rated-R films, live in automobiles and join a gang — anything?” Absolutely not, Ernie; that'd be a complete lack of discipline. The freedom I'm arguing for is only to ensure the child is able and willing to express and to question. It is not mutually exclusive to discipline.

Fundamental 2: Empiricism

Our species has only advanced (first) through observation of our environment and (second) through inference upon those observations; we might as well be brainless meat bags if these capacities become undeveloped. Take, for example, our age but without decades of science and reason — no Galileo, no Tesla, no Einstein, no Industrial Revolution. We would probably still think the Earth is flat, and the stars revolve around us; there would be no computers, and certainly no oil- or electric-powered vehicles — we wouldn't have spacecraft on the edge of our solar system (which launched in 1977)! If I didn't have to argue for freedom (and it's a deplorable fact that I do), the development of empiricism would be most paramount of all.

“But,” Ernie exclaims, “observation and inference come naturally!” Right you are Ernie, but they can be incredibly more acute when coaxed and will flourish especially when the previous fundamental is followed.

Children should be taught immediately to deductively reason and to scrutinize what society has agreed on. Curiosity and understanding can be amplified by asking of them about the world they cannot yet accurately measure — or think they can, but are coming to malformed conclusions.

Perception will always be warped by education, so let the education be as questioning as they are; human nature is to be curious and to infer: don't tear that away from them.

Fundamental 3: Morality

“How exactly do we teach morality to a free mind?” You don't, Ernie; it's not something that should be taught. “That makes no sense.” I will elaborate: it is a fabricated concept of society which is, for a truly free mind, irrelevant — an intrusion on the mental capacity of the mind. When the mind is free, right and wrong must ultimately be determined by the individual; the arguments of peers are merely points of data in the equation. Everything you teach the child should allow him to define his own morality, rather than it being defined by his generation's culture at every turn.

“Okay; why then is this a fundamental?” To further illustrate a point: that one should facilitate the capacities to come to conclusions – to debate and question – rather than institute ‘this is wrong; this is right; do as I do’.

Part 2: Idealism

“I'm raising my son to be a doctor because I'm a doctor and because doctors make lots of money and heal people and stuff.” You disgust me, Ernie; have you learned nothing? “I just want what's best for him!” No, you don't; you want to mold him into something you admire or want for yourself. You are selfish and a perfect example of what's wrong with our culture. “My pleasure.

If you spawned the child, that doesn't mean you get all the rights to his course of life. If you do it all wrong, he may even despise you for spawning him in the first place. That's really critical, but I hope you understand what I'm trying to illustrate. Why should your ideal life plan be any better than the child's desires? He knows what excites him better than anyone else; allow him to decide his course of life — after all, isn't that what free-mindedness is all about?

Sure, I have my own ideals – this article is basically one big ideal – but I don't try to force others into accepting them; I try to use counterpoints and logic. Perhaps your ideals are formed around your own knowledge – for example: you know so much about something and want to teach the child about it – that's excellent and I wholly encourage it (as long as they are interested), but don't do it in the hope that he will one day share your profession, do it to increase his knowledge. That is what every educator should strive to do.

In short: I'm not saying you should throw away your ideals, just don't take away their choice of path.

Part 3: Edutainment

None of that ‘education software with game-like crap tacked on’ silliness. I'm talkin' about real video games and other entertainment media being educational and beneficial. I'll start off with something Mike Krahulik said in response to a question about sharing game culture with children and the joys thereof:4

My oldest son is 7 now, and he's 100% hooked on Minecraft. [...] He was playing the other day and he'd built a lighthouse with a glowstone on the top, and I said “Well, that's pretty cool; is there any way that you could make it turn like a lighthouse?” — that was my sort of challenge to him. He was in there for a couple of hours and when I came back in [...] he had created a system where there were pusher blocks [ED: pistons] in each corner that would push the glowstone from side to side. Each time it went to a different corner, the next block would push it to the next one [and so on]. And it was all built with redstone and trigger plates. ... And I was like, Jesus Christ. I mean, you hear about people saying “Oh you have to limit the amount of time these kids play,” but.. he built a fucking lighthouse! There's no way I'm going to limit that time; absolutely not.

There is a lot to be gained from this which might not be immediately evident: trial and error; understanding of state and continuity; understanding and combination of different materials; etc. And this example only involves the creation of something using game mechanics — it can go far beyond that: the oft-present numbers meta-game (determining which equipment and abilities will give you the upper hand against a particular opponent; choosing the right group of enemies to fight for the maximum yield – gold, equipment – with the lowest cost and difficulty; etc.); in player-versus-player games (especially), prediction and adaptation; devising the technological concepts of the game's innards (this sort of thing came naturally to me after I started programming); and so on. Anyone who has played a game knows how this works or can at least fathom its reality.

I am not advocating limitless entertainment – which is ultimately what it is – and I don't believe Krahulik is either — he is actually distinguishing between worthwhile and extraneous entertainment. Massively multiplayer online (MMO) and FarmVille-esque games (Ernie may argue that it could teach economics or management skills, but I refuse to give it anything) are perhaps the most destructive and wasteful of all, but plenty of dialogue-driven, sandbox, and (actual) puzzle/puzzle-adventure games are incredibly educational. There are certainly many other important things, gaming just shouldn't be tossed aside as the bad apple. A game should be likened to a textbook: only so much can be learned from it; once it has been fully absorbed, others should be used. It is a balancing act.

What of other media? Traditional comics these days are disgraceful (I'm looking at you two, Marvel and DC), but swaths of web comics – the works of independent artists – are amazingly imaginative. A similar trend is found with the massive film and video game publishers: they suffer sequelitis and aim for capitalization. They are no longer imaginative and innovative, instead opting to make the quickest and biggest buck, pumping out stale, boorish, malfunctional products every morrow. Independent artists and game developers are often the only ones pushing their mediums, reflective of the dull culture and coming generation of the US; they yearn for better, so they craft it with their own hands.

Part 4: Reality

I said in the preface I would posit that the adolescent mind “primarily mirrors and expounds upon experience and observation”. I do believe that and I think I've argued my points, but there is more to it. The mind isn't entirely shaped by its environment — I believe there is still some level of innate ability which science cannot yet explain definitively. Leonardo da Vinci would probably have been as awesome as he was regardless of his path, but we might not have known about him in some of those paths. Perhaps there's an alternate universe where he kept entirely to himself, but had the same ideas: all of that knowledge, all of that genius would be lost. Perhaps he made money by baking the bestest bread in all of Italy instead of painting and inventing.

The state of education in the US is atrocious. The nation is deeply ingrained with fallacies and every facet of the culture reflects that. We are spending billions, even trillions of non-existent money on futile war, and our states are instituting absurd legislature5 — instead of improving the education of our offspring. Our elected officials toy with the media for their own gain6 and consistently show how conflicted they are with their own promises.

The reality is that we can't really predict what our offspring will invent, think, or express; we can only prepare them for the magnificent and horrific world as best we can and hope they make better of it than we have. After all, the future is far more about them than it is about you or I.7

If the human race is to survive into the future, to push the frontier, it needs to be unafraid to see and say it as it is; it needs a strong constitution and a more logical mind. We're doing an incredibly horrible job of planting and cultivating those seeds.

Admittedly, we're not left with much to work with here. If the schools aren't teaching properly, and if homeschooling requires well-versed instructors to be effective, what course can be taken? Society isn't going to instate proper leaders … well, ever, and education is going to take a long time to improve, if it ever will. You'll have to do the best you can with the resources available.

If you're able to devote all of your energy to educating the child, you should look into homeschooling and perhaps have other well-versed persons teach him in the areas which you're not knowledgeable enough — just don't forget social interaction, and don't take a hands-off approach when using tutors. I am inclined to recommend public school over all other just because the child will gain social acumen and about as much education as in any other setting — and, assuming you do everything else right, he will be as free-minded as he ought to be. If the school sucks at teaching in particular areas, they may be remediable with at-home teaching.

Failing all of that, you could move to Finland…8

Closing

I think this will do as a summary: teach objectivity, question the mind about the world, don't restrict the mind, don't penalize the mind for out-of-place thought and, finally, don't screw up the whole ‘education’ thing — it's amazingly easy, apparently.

NB: This was never meant as a blight against my parents, and I still hold some respect for them for not destroying all chance of remediation, and for not disowning me. I'm sure I've managed to overstate something; years of introspection are bound to modify memory.

Anyhow, thank you for reading. Oh, and Ernie says goodbye.

Notes

  1. Quoting this because I can:
    You cannot teach kids about sex by telling them not to have it.

    — Adam Savage from a speech served much accolade at The Reason Rally on March 24, 2012

  2. Education of the future, calling it now: Khan Academy.
  3. Okay, maybe one. In the beginning my father bought (at my request) a programming book for me, but I only ever skimmed it and played around with the source code on its CD (which was awful code) for a brief period of time. He bought or borrowed some others for me (not at my request), but they were wasted: I did not peruse them. I used some online resources (such as forums or tutorials), but I cannot recall anything too grand. Community forums were probably the most useful — these days we have Stack Overflow, which is excellent.
  4. Quoting from the “Penny Arcade - Make a Strip!” panel from PAX East 2012, April 7; around the 02:00:50 mark from this recording.
  5. North Carolina “Considers Making Sea Level Rise Illegal”. As of this writing, the legislature has been approved by the NC Senate Committee.
  6. The Obama administration makes Bush's reign look almost childish: “How the Obama administration is making the US media its mouthpiece”.
  7. Another quote, because you can't stop me:
    Kids are never the problem. They are born scientists. The problem is always the adults. They beat the curiosity out of the kids. They out-number kids. They vote. They wield resources. That's why my public focus is primarily adults.

    — Neil deGrasse Tyson responding to a question on his November 2011 AMA on reddit

  8. Because they're ridiculously good at education.

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