The Human Condition: What it Tells us About How Children Get “Educated”
What are the features that we all, as human beings, share, and that are key to understanding how we function?
In this essay I attempt to identify those features. Why do I care? Because when billions of years of evolution lead to the emergence of a particular form of life with a complex identity, it makes sense to understand that identity and nurture its particularities if we want it to survive and prosper. We do that with plants and animals; if we want to preserve them, we look for the factors that have made them successful, and try to duplicate them or keep them intact where they still exist. So too with our species: if we want to maintain human life at its optimum functioning, it behooves us to understand and nurture its essential features and, ultimately, to reflect on how we can best realize our full potential as human beings.
One of the characteristics of our minds is awareness—the ability to recognize and record our environment, both external and internal. The environment bombards us with an unimaginably large volume of physical information, which lands on receptors provided us by Nature. This information has to be processed by our mind, which has the amazing ability to process a veritable tsunami of information into patterns that give form to the inputs and allow them to be organized and understood. We do not know how this takes place, but our obvious ability to interact with our environment is evidence that it somehow does.
But we possess an additional factor, self-awareness, that enables us to be aware that we are aware, and thus to think about the things we are aware of. We are constantly thinking about how we perceive and interact with our environment, about the totality of elements that make up the world we experience. This reflection is the core of our existence—“I think, therefore I am”—because it provides us with a way to understand our world, and gives us the hope that we can influence our surroundings to enhance our lives.
The problem is that self-awareness alone fails miserably in its attempt to lead to understanding. You can see this clearly in infants, whose self-awareness is evident almost from birth, but whose struggles to make sense of the endless stream of inputs to their minds are only meagerly rewarded. There are just too many to remember, to sort, to organize, and to figure out.
To overcome this obstacle, the mind has developed the ability to create words, and to organize words into a language. Words are symbols used to represent something we identify as common to a whole collection of experiences1. It is part of our evolutionary heritage to be able to use our minds to form groupings of experiences having something we perceive as common to all of them, and to invent symbols, words, to denote that commonality. The use of a symbol to represent a perceived commonality in a group of experiences is a powerful shorthand, enabling human beings to remember and deal with a vast number of experiences that otherwise tax our minds with an unmanageable amount of separate pieces of information. Each and every one of us does this all our lives with our own individual (and ever-growing) set of experiences, so that every word in our individual languages adds more nuanced references to its meaning as we grow older.
Beyond this, our minds have the ability to place individual words into a variety of groupings that link them, thereby linking the collections of experiences underlying the individual words. So not only do we have words as a shorthand to enable us to cope with a shared aspect of a vast set of experiences, but we have language as a tool to organize those words into an unlimited number of combinations that can represent many different ways we associate those experiences in the course of our lives. You can think of words as building blocks out of which a large variety of structures—sentences and paragraphs and essays—can be fashioned. And just as every person’s words have a meaning unique to that person, so too every person’s language—every person’s rules for combining his/her words—is unique to that person.
Self-awareness, which causes us to think about our environment, and language, which is the tool that enables us to make some sense out of its endless complexity, make it possible for every person to create a representation of his/her total environment, within which that person can function and upon which that person can operate. The particular form each of us thinks our world possesses is our world-view and, in its totality, is specific and unique to every individual. Indeed, the ability of human beings to form world-views is the source of all our power to affect and control our environment.
The process of designing a world-view can be compared to building a housing compound. It begins with the creation of a master plan, which envisions the whole containing a variety of designed parts. Each of these parts consist of a framework (for example, a sketch of a house design, or a layout for the landscaping). Every framework, in turn, is filled in with ever refined detail—the finish work. So too, when we design our world view, our master plan for the world as we understand it, we have to compartmentalize our experiences, group them for further inspection, something we must do if we are to engage the vastness of the cosmos, and each compartment requires the creation of a framework outlining its contents. Each of us designs our own world view, and groups our personal experiences into frameworks that are the key to our comprehension of our environment.
Nothing is more important to human survival and success than the process of constructing frameworks for thinking about our world. Without a framework, the struggle to make sense out of endless, initially unrelated groups of experiences, would present insurmountable difficulties. Frameworks provide initial, tentative collections of groups of experiences. They give us a place within which to fashion the “finish work”—to devise the detailed, day-to-day activities that will constitute our lives.
Frameworks give us stability in an ever-changing world. If we have confidence in the usefulness of a particular framework, it is relatively easy to introduce within it new details, discard old ones, or re-arrange existing ones. But we rarely discard an entire framework, lock, stock, and barrel, and create a new one with a different overall structure. It is a task of too much complexity and cost to contemplate, unless driven to it by some extreme internal or external necessity. We do everything we can to fit new experiences into our existing frameworks, and our existing frameworks into our overall world-view. We tinker here, adjust there, make allowances, look for ways to adapt—but it is rare for us to throw out what we have developed and start all over with a wholly new concept of how the world is organized.
Our ability to cope with the world is inextricably tied up with our skill in devising frameworks that provide us with a basis for actions that we find useful in the conduct of our lives. The better we are at inventing and manipulating frameworks, the better the odds that we will be able to lead successful and meaningful lives.
How does a person develop the skills needed to build useful frameworks for reality? After all, this requires monumental creativity on an ongoing, life-long basis—to design them, modify them to meet ever-changing circumstances, and occasionally consider re-constructing them from the ground up. Yet, this is the creativity with which all of us, all human beings, are endowed from birth, and which guides our activities constantly. The wisdom everyone gains with age is precisely the increased adeptness at examining a situation and placing it in the context of a framework that we have steadfastly worked on all our lives.
We know that, in general, the key to developing and advancing people’s creative abilities is to give them the opportunity to exercise those abilities as often as possible—the more, the better2. Since the conscious construction of frameworks is the creative process that holds the key to our ability to survive effectively in our environment, and since every human being is naturally endowed with the ability to carry out this process, one of the basic needs is the need for opportunities to practice it, in order to constantly improve at the task. It is not enough to be born with the ability to design frameworks for ourselves; we must also be born with an innate passion to constantly practice this process.
To put it into more dramatic language: every human being is born with an exceptional natural capacity to be an artist of design, and every human being is born with an unquenchable thirst for practicing that art. That’s why people engage in so much play, all their lives.
To understand this critical role of play, we first have to look at the variety of experiences to which that word is applied, and seek what feature they have in common that the word “play” represents. Here is my partial list. I chose to include concrete instances rather than generalizations, but it is easy to generalize from these instances:
- to play with blocks
- to play basketball
- to play with a new idea
- to write a play
- to play with one’s hand or fingers
- to play the piano
- to play a role
- to play dead
- to determine what’s at play in a given situation
- to play video games
- to play war games
- to play the stock market
These examples are nothing if not diverse. They apply to situations that can involve people of all ages, in all sorts of settings, in groups or singly. Significantly, the list makes it clear that there is little basis for the widespread notion that play is removed in some way from “real” or “serious” life—that play is frivolous or trivial. Lots of the instances mentioned in the above list describe activities that are obviously quite serious and real.
So what is it that these activities have in common? It is this: every one of them involves practicing the art of framework design—either building frameworks, manipulating them, or figuring out how to negotiate life within them.
For example: When one plays with blocks, writes a play, one is creating a new framework. When one plays with a new idea, one is contemplating an existing framework, sometimes with the result that it has to be modified or replaced. When one is playing basketball or playing a role, one is figuring out how to act effectively within an existing framework. If you examine carefully any instance in which the word “play” is used explicitly or implied, you will fine the practice of framework design and manipulation embedded within it.
Moreover, if you look carefully at play activities of any kind, you cannot help noticing how seriously the participants take what they are doing. That is why they are so focused, so passionate, often so seemingly “addicted” to those activities. They are concentrating on figuring out what makes that particular activity “tick”, how it really works, how it is constructed, so they can figure it out and successfully negotiate it. They are looking to spec out the structure, so they can operate within it.
Aristotle was the first thinker we know of who placed at the forefront of his thinking the idea that “human beings are curious by nature”. But he did not delve into a deeper question: why are people curious? Why did Nature make them so?
One of the curious things about human curiosity is that it is quite focused. It differs from play in its total lack of randomness. With play, just about anything can be turned into a “game” if one wants to; one instance of play is no more useful than any other in its helpfulness at practicing framework maneuvers. But curiosity is not random.
Any example illustrates this fact. I am not curious about anything and everything. I don’t want to find out how many chairs exist in homes and businesses in Massachusetts, or what the density of deciduous trees is in Wyoming. I am, on the other hand, curious about what kind of activities promote enrollment at Sudbury Valley School, or where the nearby locations are to get a good, inexpensive meal out. Mind you, if I wanted to start a furniture factory, the chair question might be of great interest to me, and if I were an environmental ecologist, the tree density question would intrigue me.
So what are the things each of us is actually curious about? They are all matters that relate to the frameworks within which we conduct our lives. They provide the myriad details that give content to our framework. They are the equivalent of the finish work that completes the building of a new house, and that takes much more time and effort and fine tuning than the framing did—but cannot occur if there is no frame. They are, in short, the finish work in constructing a world-view. And since we never stop working on perfecting our world view, we are always curious about where and how we can uncover additional information that will contribute to that activity.
Outside of frameworks, human curiosity does not operate. Without curiosity, the frameworks are not nearly enough to provide a world-view. That’s why Nature made sure that built into our very essence is an insatiable curiosity, a curiosity to never cease searching for instances that will enrich our picture of reality.
Certain activities are just plain fun for people. They make people feel good. They are sought after and engaged in with pleasure and enthusiasm. As Dr. Seuss impressed on generations of children, “it is fun to have fun”.
But why are certain activities fun, while most of what we do isn’t? In the answer to that question lies the key to one of the most inventive aspects of evolution: Nature makes all activities that are essential to our lives fun, so that we will want to engage in those activities.
We realize this with the act of reproduction—it’s too obvious to miss. But now we find that Nature has done the same thing with respect to all the essential human factors that I have been discussing in this essay. We enjoy thinking about all sorts of things. We hate it when we feel our mind is a “blank”, when we feel “bored”; we always want to have the wonderful experience of active self-awareness, of our minds delving into some aspect of our experiences. We love to talk and, if we can’t talk, we write or text or read or find words for our thoughts. We have fun thinking about how the world works, here, there, and everywhere. That’s why we watch TV shows, travel, challenge ourselves—fiddling with our world-view is a fun activity (although we rarely use such high-fallutin’ words as “world view” to describe it). We love to play, to practice and improve our ability to build frameworks. And we love to poke around and explore new aspects of things that catch our attention and impinge on the reality of our world-view. In order to encourage people to engage in all these activities, Nature has made them fun. That’s why we seek them. That’s how Nature encourages us to do the things that will enhance our chance for surviving and living a good life.
Think of all the activities that you can symbolize by the word “fun”. Then, try to figure out why they are fun, why you as a human being are being told by Nature that these activities are important for you to pursue. You will come up with some valuable insights into aspects of human existence that may not be totally obvious in our culture3.
VII. “I” and “We”
There is one other feature common to all people—one that is directly related to all those listed here: the simultaneous desire for association with others, and disinclination to be connected to others. If we are to comprehend the human condition, we have to understand this paradoxical human harboring of conflicting emotions.
One of the earliest manifestations of human self-awareness is the realization that “others” exist who are like us, that there are other “selves” in addition to our own. It doesn’t take long for two other realizations to manifest themselves: that finding ways to get those other human beings to collaborate with us will make it easier for us to succeed in getting what we want; and that, since others share all the features we have, they may have succeeded in building world views that could contribute to our own efforts in that direction if we could learn from them. The advantages of collaboration with others surface early in our lives.
But just as these advantages quickly become manifest, so too do the drawbacks to such collaboration. If I am to partner with someone else in an activity and ask that other person to be useful to me, then the other person must be thinking the same thing. So I have to be useful to him/her. This could mean that one or both of us has to give up some of our self-centered independence of action for the sake of collaboration. In addition, it doesn’t take long to discover that, while mutual assistance may help each of us in one particular area of our lives, the divergence of interests that is inevitable between two individuals might lead to conflicts in other areas—conflicts that emerge as we connect with each other.
And so emerge the problems inherent in the relationship between the “I” and the “We”. Individuals strive to connect with others, but the tension between the “I”s of each of them and the requirements of the “We” that they have set up is unavoidable. That tension inheres in every human relationship, and, as such, is an essential feature of the human condition.
VIII. What’s the point of all this?
We are now at the early stages of an era in world history where the crying need, heard from all quarters, is for people who can realize their full potential in life, whatever that may be. And everyone realizes that to achieve this ultimate goal, it is necessary to begin early in life, and find ways to make it possible for children to grow up with the feeling that at each stage of their development, they are pushing to achieve their full potential. Only that way can they become adults who, through direct experience, know what this striving means, how good it feels—indeed, how much fun it is.
The environment in which children grow up should thus be designed in a way to maximize the opportunities for all these key human features to flourish in every child. That environment includes the home, the community at large, and schools, which are for the time being the places where almost all children spend a good part of their days until they reach adulthood.
Looking at the features which I have been discussing, it should not be hard to discern that the model of education practiced at Sudbury Valley School, and at similar schools throughout the world, is eminently suited to provide such an environment. All of the activities that exercise those features take place all day at Sudbury Valley, without exception.
It is against this background that the exceptional value of a Sudbury education should be measured. The question that anyone pondering the future of schools should ask is simply: does Sudbury Valley in fact deliver on its claim? Our experience, and our studies, show that it does. And if this is so, then it is only a matter of time before its value will become the standard by which other schools are measured as well.
Why does our culture frown on, and diminish in importance, activities that are fun?
As I have explained elsewhere4, self-awareness has led all humans to seek meaning in life, in addition to the primary goal of sheer survival. Since survival has been a difficult matter for the overwhelming majority of human beings from the dawn of our appearance on earth, only a few people could allow themselves the luxury of allotting significant portions of their energy, time, and resources to what the Founding Fathers called “the pursuit of happiness”. As Aristotle put it, a society could produce all the trappings of what we label “culture” only when it had enough excess wealth to allow a few of its members to be free to create things that were not essential to survival—“luxuries” such as philosophy, art, literature, science, etc.
This did not mean that the masses of people desisted from seeking meaning in life. Religions provided meaning for them, without sacrificing the daily grind that kept them alive. It is no accident that religion—holding a set of beliefs that transcend daily human experience—has always been part of the human experience, as it serves a noble purpose of providing meaning even to those who can’t seek it outside their struggle for physical survival. And, consistent with what I have been proposing, it is no accident that all religions are laced with activities that are “fun”—enjoyable, pleasurable, sought after. The fun part makes people, who otherwise would be bereft of the opportunity to satisfy their need for meaning, seek out and find satisfaction in religious experiences.
Before the modern era, society was permanently stratified into a few wealthy persons, and a host of people who could barely sustain their existence. This state of affairs had existed from the dawn of human existence, and continued unabated until about five hundred years ago. During all that time, the wealthy could have fun in all the ways Nature provided in order to enable them to build a wide variety of lifestyles within an equally wide variety of individual frameworks for reality. Wealth and fun were accepted as partners. By the same token, the rest of humanity had to hastily build whatever world views they could during early childhood, and pretty much stick with them throughout their hard struggle for survival.
Things shifted in the modern era, when a middle class of some size came into being, consisting of people with some wealth, and hence some opportunity to take part in the creation of culture. The explosion of new frameworks, new world views, during the past five centuries that resulted is certainly the most notable feature of the modern era.
A dramatic turn of events happened with the appearance on the scene of the Industrial Revolution, which vastly increased the excess of wealth over subsistence and provided an abundance of what would earlier have been designated as “luxuries”. In industrialized countries, the percentage of the population that could now have meaningful lives as the creators and bearers of the culture increased dramatically. But the Industrial Revolution, paradoxically, increased the need for a huge percentage of the population to exist at the edge of survival, since machines were no less demanding of tireless labor than subsistence farms were.
The social difference, however, between Industrial times and earlier eras was this: before, the poor accepted their lot in the order of the universe (“The Great Chain of Being”) as inevitable, not to be challenged. The Industrial Era introduced the hope, indeed the ultimate promise, that the entire population could come to enjoy the luxury that only a few had previously possessed. This created a substratum of dissatisfaction in the poor that had to be combated by the more privileged culture-bearers.
The latter came up with a brilliant solution to this problem: the denigration of “fun”. The concept of a work ethic was born; there was no need for such a concept before, as everyone knew you had to work hard to survive. But now, with abundance on the horizon, the creative elite introduced the notion that great value is to be placed on hard work that was repetitive, robotic, and inimical to variation or creativity—work that was in no way “fun”, because it contributed nothing to satisfying human needs beyond sheer survival.
Which is why industrial societies increasingly removed fun from the daily lives of the substratum that supported those who could afford luxuries. And it is why, in addition to religion, the culture creators provided a variety of experiences that purported to provide meaning in addition to religion, and were promoted as fun for all: the modern equivalent of the Roman “bread and circuses”.
Fortunately for the human race, the Industrial Era was short-lived, a mere blip of time.
1. I use the word “experiences” to include things that happen to us, activities we undertake or observe, and objects we encounter.
2. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, discusses this at length, in particular in the chapter entitled “Ten Thousand Hours” (citation).
3. In an Addendum to this essay, I discuss why so many people in our culture today take a dim view of fun.
4. The Meaning of Education (The Sudbury Valley School Press: Framingham, MA, 2014), Part I (pp. 1-28); see especially Chapter 8, pp. 23-4.
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