Re: Curriculum Proposal LO3581
Wed, 1 Nov 1995 14:03:59 -0500

Replying to LO3473 --

>>Below is what I'd like you to critique. In 8 or 9 point type, it'll fit
>>on a single page. Every comment will be much appreciated.


Thanks so much for your thoughtful, thorough response to my request for a
critique. Since every word of listserv dialogue, and every matter with which
that dialogue deals, "nests inside" our comprehensive models of reality and
are structured by it, I can't imagine a more important subject.

>Preface: I believe that everyone sees the world holistically (even if
>they are unconscious of it).

I agree.

>However, it is a very personal holistic view that often (usually) does not
take into >account that my holistic view is different from yours and vice
versa. To the degree that >anything makes sense to anyone, it is because we
have each have worked out a >sense of the order of things in relation to
other things and in relation to ourselves.

I agree that no two individuals' perceptions of reality are identical.
However, I'd maintain that those who grow up in, are nurtured by, and use
the language of a particular society will be far more alike than
different, and that the differences between us which loom so large are
really rather insignificant when compared to the ways in which we're
alike. These similarities are what makes societies possible. With their
powerful cultural bias toward individualism ["I am the master of my fate,
the captain of my soul"], Americans tend to resist this idea. However, in
their (our, since I'm one of them) "collective unconscious," "middle"
Americans are very much alike in the fundamentals--are future time
oriented, believe time is linear, assume that change is either a
consequence of human will or of the operation of chemical or physical
forces, believe in dominance over nature, assume that humans are
inherently prone to be selfish, think that one should strive toward
vertical social mobility, etc. Because these kinds of ideas are almost
universally held within a particular society however, most members are
unaware of them. This "blindness" to the basic premises which underlie
thought and action in all societies is, in my view, the most serious
shortcoming of traditional education. At the deepest-possible level, the
"why" of thought and action is being ignored.

>We do not need to start thinking in terms of systems, that is what we do.
>We just need to become aware of this and understand the implications. For
>most there is an unconsciousness of this. Thus they make judgments and
>take actions that often bring them to grief. In other words, we suffer
>the consequences of our misunderstanding of ourselves in relation to the
>world of which we are intimately and inextricably a part. (Of course,
>we'll never really understand it all, so there will always be
>consequences, and thus always chances to learn.)

I think you've responded for me. Yes, we do automatically think in
systems terms, and yes, "we just need to become aware of this." Exactly.
But "becoming aware" necessitates a conscious knowledge of system
elements, and the young don't get that from traditional schooling. My
pointing (at least Western) students to their society's five-part model
for the description and analysis of reality is an attempt to deal with
this problem directly.


>>1. The purpose of general education is to expand understanding of reality.
The >>central question is, "What's going on here?"

>The purpose of education is to help us understand ourselves in relation to
>the world we are part of and help create by our actions. Every discipline
>is an example of how we can categorize and understand the world in
>relation to ourselves. We never explain the world, we only explain how we
>understand the world, which is, quite literally, a function of how our
>brains work. So what we always explore is some manifestation of our
>processes of thought and understanding. And the principles that govern how
>we think also govern the principles that we project onto the disciplines
>we have created to explain the world to ourselves. Thus, every discipline
>is a metaphor for every other and ultimately a metaphor for ourselves. I
>would love for this to be the foundation of education. It is the most
>realistic approach as far as I am concerned. Finally, to the degree that
>our understanding accurately reflects what's going on in nature, this
>means that our thought processes are simply another manifestation of
>nature at work (which I think they are)--meaning, for me, that human
>nature is the human form of nature.

The only observation here with which I'd take issue is the apparent
assumption that the academic disciplines "do the job." I don't think they
do. They took shape at different times, have different objectives, use
different conceptual frameworks, operate at different levels of
abstraction. They generally do a good job with what they do, but that's
all they do. As I think I said later, they ignore vast areas of extremely
important knowledge, make no effort to explain how they mesh with other
disciplines, engage in political warfare for academic turf, display not
the slightest interest in modelling the whole of which they model a part,
etc. The brain is a category-creating organ, and the disciplines deal
with phenomena that certainly appear to "belong together," but for
purposes of holistic understanding, I think they're awkward, artificial,
arbitrary. (This view, of course, is shared by few academics, who're
convinced that, looking out of their particular disciplinary window, they
can see everything there is to see--or at least everything worth looking

>>2. Reality presents itself to us whole, but the educational establishment
considers it >>too vast and too complex to study holistically. It has been
"broken apart" into various
>>specialized studies such as biology, psychology, chemistry, political
science, >>physics, anthropology, etc..

>I agree that we experience the world as a whole, and then we abstract our
experience >in terms of thoughts and categories to deal with and understand
our experience. There >is no problem with dividing the world into
categories. It is perfectly natural to do this, >and it is very useful as
well. However, the problem comes from our believing that these >categories
are somehow independent of we who have created them. Referring to 1 >above,
I would say continue to categorize, but realize that these categories are
>just useful metaphors to help us adapt to and create our world.

Again, I agree. We should (in fact, have no alternative but to)
"...continue to categorize..." The question is, what system of
categorization is best for particular purposes?. The traditional
disciplines have long since proved their usefulness for specialized study,
but I also think they're just about a total loss for purposes of general
education. Attempting to use them for that purpose deprives our kids of
an opportunity to build a coherent foundation for understanding the world
around them holistically. The long-term consequences of that I think are

>>3. The conceptual frameworks of these specialized fields cannot be meshed
>>so as to model reality holistically. No current approach:
interdisciplinary, theme, >>topic, social problem, etc.even makes an attempt
to provide students with a >>comprehensive, integrated conceptual framework
for the holistic study of reality. >>Individually and collectively, the
traditional disciplines and other current approaches:
>> Ignore vast areas of extremely important knowledge
>> Fail to show students the systemic, integrated nature of reality
>> Disregard basic principles of learning
>> Lack universal, overarching goals with which instruction connects
>> Fail to disclose the subjective nature of knowing
>> Are bulky, time-consuming and inefficient
>> Are static, with no built-in mechanisms to adapt the curriculum to
>> Emphasize passive information absorption rather than information
>> Are, in varying degrees, irrelevant to and remote from life as it's
>> Provide no criteria for determining relative content significance
>> Sell the human potential for understanding and intellectual growth very

>I would not go this far. The division of experience into many categories
has use, and >again, it is natural for us to do this (or we wouldn't be doing
it). The problem is the >objectification of knowledge as if biology,
chemistry, sociology and so on existed >separate from us. These categories
are helpful when understood in human terms. >They help us gain insight into
ourselves and what we are capable of. The problem >comes because we don't
see that we have created them and that they are projections >of ourselves. If
I can relate engineering to English lit to psychology to Indian mysticism >to
modern physics to my own powers of ratiocination, well, wow! How can I not
be >turned on to learning all this stuff. I am really learning about myself
and what I'm >capable of. The principles of all these subjects are the
same--they all explore >processes and relationships in various contexts
because that's what understanding, as >a process itself, is about (I
believe). Because traditional education does not provide >this more
realistic basis of learning, students get turned off. But I can guarantee
you >that they will get turned on when they can relate this knowledge to
themselves and to >the basic principles of thought and understanding. And
since it all emerges from >within us, why not acknowledge that and build our
education on it? The answer seems >to be that in traditional educational
circles, especially higher education, there is no >payoff right now for this
approach in the short term. That is a pity.

John, we're in about 90% agreement, and that other 10% suggests we may be
in agreement there but are merely talking past each other. Yes, the
categories we use for thinking about reality are arbitrary. Yes, they're
subjective. Yes, we tend to assume that the categories we've invented are
based on THE attributes of reality in which we're interested. I'm with
you on all of that. I think the problem is that you read me constantly
emphasizing the need for a holistic approach to the study of reality, and
think I'm inadequately concerned with the role and function of categories
in our attempt to understand that whole. In fact, it's my belief in the
absolute criticality of the category systems we use that drives me so

Categories? Yes. The traditional disciplines as appropriate categories
for specialized study? Yes. But the traditional disciplines as
appropriate categories for the general education of the young? No.

>>4. Holistic study, by its very definition, requires the use of a SINGLE
>>conceptual framework encompassing all knowledge. (This framework will
>>include, but not be limited to, the conceptual frameworks of the academic
>This single framework is what I have been discussing so far, so I agree
>with you.
>>5. Such a framework need not be invented. It already exists, is in
>>constant use, and is familiar to all, even small children. However, its
>>very familiarity makes it difficult to recognize, and, if recognized, to
>>appreciate its inherent sophistication.
>That's true. The framework is, for me, processes and relationships
>(another way of saying time and space, I suppose). Of course that's not
>so unrelated to what systems thinking is all about. And that's no
>accident. The reason we are moved by the systems paradigm or metaphor is
>because we resonate with it. It helps us more realistically understand
>ourselves as we interact with the world. In other words, we can say it
>works. However, lest we get in trouble by somehow taking systems thinking
>as truth, let us remember that it is just a useful metaphor that we create
>to help us deal with ourselves in relation to the world of which we are a
>part. (I always have to say "of which we are a part" so we don't think of
>the world as separate for ourselves.)
>>6. The framework has five major components. All comprehensive
>>descriptions and all analyses of reality, all histories, research studies,
>>news stories, diaries, memories, crime reports, predictions about the
>>future, dreams, fantasies, etc. are constructed of the five. They are:
>> (1) a physical location or environment
>> (2) the participant actors or objects
>> (3) the action, state, or condition of the actors or objects
>> (4) the cognitive states/mental models of the actor(s) or observer(s)
>> (5) the time dimension
>>Example: Soon after midnight (5), the angry (4) crowd (2) stormed (3) the
>>jail (1).
>>Example: Volcanic eruptions (2) occur (3)(5) where the earth's crust (1) is
>>thin (4).
>For me, this is a breakdown for understanding the relationships and
>processes of any situation and what is happening in that situation.
>Further this breakdown can provide us with information to help us make
>useful and sometimes even accurate guesses about why.
>>7. Each of the five categories has a vast, elaborating conceptual
>>substructure, the general features of which are familiar to, and are
>>constantly used by, all members of a society. In describing or analyzing
>>an aspect of reality or a human experience, the useful elements of these
>>conceptual substructures are those which relate systemically to that which
>>is being studied. In other words, those elements of a particular aspect
>>of reality are important which, if different, would cause other aspects of
>>that particular reality to be different. (To illustrate, play with
>>alterations in individual elements of the above examples.)
>OK, I'll buy into the idea that they are useful. If not, they would have
>no appeal to you or me. In fact, it would be unlikely you would have
>thought of them if they were not useful.
>>8. The five should be thought of as distinct disciplines, but as
>>disciplines so interconnected they must be studied simultaneously. All
>>are essential. However, (4) above (the cognitive configuration/mental
>>models of the actor(s) or observer(s))is primary. And of this cognitive
>>configuration, the major elements of a society's "collective
>>unconscious" (it's shared assumptions about time, the individual, others,
>>nature, causation, the good life, the supernatural, etc.), have the
>>greatest explanatory power for human affairs.
>I'll buy that about collective unconscious, but that's because by the way
>human thought processes operate, these are a useful way to make sense of
>how we understand anything.
>> Making these assumptions explicit should be the overriding purpose of
>>every society's general education curriculum. All else is support (How
>>did these ideas originate? How translated into action? How transmitted
>>integenerationally? How evolving? With what consequences? Etc.)
>OK. This is a valid way to rationalize your ideas and their value.
>>9. Individual and collective knowledge grows primarily through the
>>exploration of relationships between various aspects of reality.
>>Instruction should help students make explicit as many elements as
>>possible of the implicit conceptual framework they share with other
>>members of their society, and facilitate their exploration of interactions
>>within and between these elements.
>OK, again it sounds like you want to explore relationships and processes.
>I like that.

Absolutely! Ultimately, the exploration of relationships and processes is
what the expansion of understanding of human experience is all about. You
can take every single matter explored on this listserv apart and that's
what it finally comes down to. All I'm trying to do is help the young
acquire a conceptual framework for thinking about the world around them
that helps them see what ALL the usefully relatable elements of their
experience might be.

For that purpose, I reject the traditional disciplines. Even if
collectively the disciplines didn't suffer the problems I've indentified,
their individual and collective complexity makes them totally unmanageable
intellectually by adolescents, which is the latest age at which we should
begin helping students build the conceptual frameworks they'll take
through life.

>Finally, since I like to study about the brain and how it works, I like to
say that every >discipline, every enlightened sense of human nature is really
the brain explaining itself >to itself, using the metaphors of its

Nicely put.

>P.S. Forgive me if (1) I made any typos or (2) I have gotten too abstract.
>It's late and here I am writing this off the top of my head in a kind of
>stream of consciousness, though these are ideas that I have been playing
>with for a long time. And since I did spend a reasonable amount of time
>writing this, I hope I will get some response from you, Marion Brady. JW

John, thank you again--for staying up late, for thinking well about really
significant questions, and for being willing to share your thoughts. If
just a small percentage of the movers and shakers in the educational
establishment (or, better yet, a few movers and shakers in THE
ESTABLISHMENT) were involved in this sort of dialogue, I'd be a lot more
optimistic about the future.

Marion Brady