|Most traditional cultures haven't set up schools, nor
have they needed to. Children are set up by nature to learn the world
around them by watching adult activity and playing imitation games.
Most of the important things concerning what it means to be a member
of a traditional culture and how to make a living in it are out in
the open enough for children to learn through imitative play.
Dewey pointed out that this is difficult in today's developed cultures
because many important adult activities are opaque or not found
in every home. Montessori thought that children's urge to learn
the world by immersion and play could be powerfully used for 20th
century learning if the children were placed into 20th century environments
and given toys that embodied 20th century ideas. One of her special
insights was that a main task of early education was to reshape
the ordinary common sense that every child picks up into the "uncommon
sense" that is needed as the foundation for many modern ideas,
especially those in science.
Much of today's motivation for the education of children is vocational
-- to prepare children for the job market. More important is the
need to raise voting citizens to join the "big conversation"
with enough background, thinking skills, and points of view to participate
fully in a democracy that -- among other things -- uses the vote
not just to choose political representatives, but to *unchoose*
them (perhaps the most important part of a democratic republic).
Vocational goals argue for fairly early specialization, even in
this changing world. Political education argues for a broader preparation
that includes the world of ideas, both historical and modern. It's
pretty clear that learning some science is quite important for the
latter, even if the student's avocation has no overlap with science.
But there are larger considerations than job and citizen training.
These have to do with actualizing the human possibilities that are
as yet unrealized in children. With this in mind, we can argue not
just for learning to read and write, but for fluent learning , and
to be able to read literature and think and write about ideas. This
gets to some of the older reasons for education. Deep experiences
with deep ideas help grow deep people. And not just deep people,
but people who are less easily fooled in a wide variety of areas.
Shakespeare had Puck say, "What fools these mortals be!"
He meant not so much the modern meaning (that we are idiots and
simpletons), but that we are all too easily fooled about almost
everything. Anthropologists tell us that modern human types have
been around for 40,000 years (perhaps as long as 80,000 years).
But the "real science" that has revealed so many surprising
and powerful things about the world is only a few hundred years
old. We have been fooling ourselves about most things for tens of
thousands of years.
Now theater and other forms of fiction work because we not only
are easily fooled, but we *like* to be fooled. This kind of foolery
can be very rich and some of it is very important. It would be a
mistake to form children in such a way that they automaticallly
resisted all attempts to fool them. But it's important that children
are able to decide when they are going to allow foolery and to have
the discernment to make these decisions wisely.
For example, a theater is a dark place with lots of other people
watching good looking people on stage say good sounding words, hearing
good sounding music, and able to pretend that the scenary is not
cardboard and that they are really immersed in "somewherewhen".
But we are also describing a political rally! And here, the audience
had better have a completely different stance about what they are
willing to go along with.
"Theater" is a good metaphor for human consciousness.
The world isn't inside our head. Only representations of various
kinds, most of them language like. We can believe many more things
than "reality is". That is, language is "bigger than
the universe" -- for example, we can describe inverse cube
laws of gravity, but all careful probing of the universe only reveals
inverse square laws. This is what makes fiction possible.
A trickier notion is that even when we are describing "reality",
we can at best make a kind of careful map. This is in part because
we have to make the map from something that the reality being mapped
*isn't*. We can describe language in language, and mathematics is
the rich art form for this. So Euclidean Geometry can be completely
consistent about spatial relationships of rigid bodies, but we now
know that as long as our universe has one blip of massenergy, space
will not be flat and Euclidean Geometry will not be "true"
-- only "close" -- to being an accurate map of the real
Another good metaphor is Marshall McLuhan's: "I don't know
who discovered water but it wasn't a fish!". He meant we are
the fish and the water is our beliefs/assumptions, most of which
have been with us so pervasively as to have disappeared from view.
When we are "being rational", most of the time our logic
is quite narrowly tied to invisible contexts. There have been many
rational attempts to explain the world we live in, but only in the
last several hundred years have techniques been consistently used
to make the contexts visible enough to be avoided. Then, almost
suddenly, we found that we live in a completely different world
than most rational views proposed. Moreover, this completely different
world came with newly discovered powerful "handles" that
enabled us to harness energy, build better artifacts, deal with
deadly diseases, make molecules that we need, and much more.
A new art form with new important ideas for thinking about the
world -- called "Modern Science" -- was born.
In the dawn of the 21st century, Science and its knowledge have
become extensive. A professional scientist learns only a very small
part of what is now known. But all scientists learn the powerful
deep ideas of Science. These are the ones that have to do about
how to avoid being fooled, how to find out something with some level
of confidence, how to criticize (especially in a helpful way) proposed
These "metaskills" of Science are important for all humans.
For vocational reasons. For reasons of citizenship. For health and
nutrition reasons. For artistic reasons. For becoming a fully vested
person in the 21st century.
As Frank Smith has pointed out, where there are important ideas
being discussed and a writing system, a literature arises. In our
history, the ideas and the writing system have often coevolved.
For example, having a writing system makes it possible to discuss
things in a way and "at a length and depth" that oral
communication finds difficult to impossible. Having a printing press
allows more complex arguments and expositions to be formed than
handwritten manuscripts permit (because the galleys once proofed
will be printed with verbatim accuracy). And the press allows the
ideas to spread much more widely and increases the probability that
they will get to someone who can take them further (or show why
they are not well founded).
The 17th century brought in the start of "Modern Science"
and its new ways to look at the world, probe, and discuss it. The
printing press was critical for the viability and spread of this
new process. Here we had new important powerful ideas and a writing
system, and a literature did indeed spring up. In the 18th century,
it was as important to read Newton's Principia Mathmatica (about
gravity and how the solar system works), as it was to read Shakespeare,
Fielding, Johnson, and Paine.
As C.P. Snow pointed out in his "Two Cultures" lecture,
this deteriorated even (and especially) in academia -- into the
"Two Cultures" of old style "letters" (literature
which included fiction, essays, and classical and modern thought,
but not science) vs. the new ideas and processes of science. He
also noted that it was far more likely that a scientist would be
quite conversant with old-style literature than an old-style literati
would be conversant with science.
In American schools today, parents and school boards would fire
any teacher who was found to be illiterate (though they don't try
very hard to find them), but are quite happy to have their children
taught by teachers who don't understand even one important idea
of mathematics and science. In part, this is because American parents
and school boards are mostly composed of citizens who are the product
of American education and have no strong background in areas that
were poorly taught when they were in school. And the teachers are
also mostly a product of this poor education process, so most of
them have no idea of what is being missed. And so on, generation
There are books about how to learn all this in the thousands of
free libraries in the United States. But if you haven't learned
the discernment to use libraries and don't have a hint of what you
are missing, you have to be a pretty special type to find a way
into these ideas by yourself. The Internet is now starting to bring
the libraries of powerful ideas into the home, but most people will
still need the discernment and the hints to provide the motivation
for exploring ideas that require some effort to learn.
The most important thing about powerful inexpensive personal computers
is that they form a new kind of reading and writing medium that
allows some of the most important powerful ideas to be discussed
and played with and learned than any book.
This is what our work and Squeak is all about. We are interested
in helping children learn to think better and deeper than most adults
can. We have made the Squeak medium to serve as a new kind of electronic
paper that can hold new ways to represent powerful ideas. We have
written examples of this new literature and they are published over
the Internet for children and adults to "read" and play
with. Readers can also become writers, because "authoring is
always on". In fact, much of the learning of this new way to
represent and think is best done by "authoring along with the
author" in what we call "active essays". To try one
of these out right away, look at "Methinks It Is A Weasel",
an active essay about one part of Evolution. To go to a "home
project" to choose from a variety of essays into this new literature,
go to Active Essays.