Jerome S. Bruner of New York University
has suggested that we have a number of ways to know and think about
the world, including doing, seeing and manipulating symbols. What is
more, each of us has to construct our own version of reality by main
force, literally to make ourselves. And we are quite capable of devising
new mental bricks, new ways of thinking, that can enormously expand
the understandings we can attain. The bricks we develop become new technologies
Many of the most valuable structures devised from our newer bricks
may require considerable effort to acquire. Music, mathematics, science
and human rights are just a few of the systems of thought that must
be built up layer by layer and integrated. Although understanding or
creating such constructions is difficult, the need for struggle should
not be grounds for avoidance. Difficulty should be sought out, as a
spur to delving more deeply into an interesting area. An educational
system that tries to make everything easy and pleasurable will prevent
much important learning from happening.
It is also important to realize that many systems of thought, particularly
those in science, are quite at odds with common sense. As the writer
Susan Sontag once said, "All understanding begins with our not
accepting the world as it appears." Most science, in fact, is quite
literally non-sense. This idea became strikingly obvious when such instruments
as the telescope and microscope revealed that the universe consists
of much that is outside the reach of our naive reality.
|Humans are predisposed by biology to live in
the barbarism of the deep past. Only by an effort of will and through
use of our invented representations can we bring ourselves into the present
and peek into the future. Our educational systems must find ways to help
children meet that challenge.
In the past few decades the task before children-before all of us-has
become harder. Change has accelerated so rapidly that what one generation
learns in childhood no longer applies 20 years later in adulthood. In
other words, each generation must be able to quickly learn new paradigms,
or ways of viewing the world; the old ways do not remain usable for
long. Even scientists have problems making such transitions. As Thomas
S. Kuhn notes dryly in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, a paradigm
shift takes about 25 years to occur-because the original defenders have
to die off.
Much of the learning that will go on in the future will necessarily
be concerned with complexity. On one hand, humans strive to make the
complex more simple; categories in language and universal theories in
science have emerged from such efforts. On the other hand, we also need
to appreciate that many apparently simple situations are actually complex,
and we have to be able to view situations in their larger contexts.
For example, burning down parts of a rain forest might be the most obvious
way to get arable land, but the environmental effects suggest that burning
is not the best solution for humankind.
|Up to now, the contexts that give meaning and
limitation to our various knowledges have been all but invisible. To make
contexts visible, make them objects of discourse and make them explicitly
reshapeable and inventable are strong aspirations very much in harmony
with the pressing needs and onrushing changes of our own time. It is therefore
the duty of a well-conceived environment for learning to be contentious
and even disturbing, seek contrasts rather than absolutes, aim for quality
over quantity and acknowledge the need for will and effort. I do not think
it goes too far to say that these requirements are at odds with the prevailing
values in American life today. If the music is not in the "piano,"
to what use should media be put, in the classroom and elsewhere? Part
of the answer depends on knowing the pitfalls of existing media.
It is not what is in front of us that counts in our books, televisions
and computers but what gets into our heads and why we want to learn
it. Yet as Marshall H. McLuhan, the philosopher of communications, has
pointed out, the form is much of what does get into our heads; we become
what we behold. The form of the carrier of information is not neutral;
it both dictates the kind of information conveyed and affects thinking