What is the best form of education? It lies in how we define our greatest aspirations, as individuals and as a human community.
If we are to have any hope of answering the question, “What is the best form of education?” we have to first ask ourselves something more basic. We need to identify and agree on its underlying purpose. “What is an education for, exactly?” It may seem simple, but it is not, because the answer invariably gets caught up in a too-often heated — and complex — discussion of our values, and our purpose, in life.
First, a history lesson.
Things we have been taught formally over the millennia have followed one of three basic arcs. One of these sought our indoctrination in the name of religion, like early Christian scholars; military prowess, like Spartan warriors; or governance, like communist leaders. Another was committed to building our proficiency in the name of craft, like the medieval guilds; or productivity, like the Industrial Age factory workers. And a third attempted to scratch the itch of our curiosity with critical thinking in the name of inquiry, exploration and discovery — of both our inner and outer worlds — like the constellation of ancient Greek scholars who invented philosophy, dialectics, virtue, and logic, among other things.
Indoctrination led to the widespread adoption of global fictions, such as the elaborate stories we’ve spun about nationhood, divinity, economics, and race. We did this in order to get fast-growing populations of unrelated people to build connection and trust with one another — a prerequisite of collaboration, and peace. Proficiency led to the development of specialization and mastery, which in turn fueled the growth of our cities, ever-more-complex tools, and as a result, our deepening interdependencies. And critical thinking led to the cultivation of non-essential — yet aspirational — fields of human-centered inquiry, like the humanities, the sciences and the arts, as we searched for answers to humankind’s stickiest problems — concepts like the self, physics, relativity and meaning.
Every human development has been advanced by one or more of these three means of exchange. With it, we have created a world of extreme complexity. And while at first glance one seems to have led to the other in an evolutionary trajectory, this is not the case. All of them developed in parallel, and all are alive and well, today — practiced daily, everywhere, to different ends. With that said, not all forms of education are equal, in reach or in value. That’s because while all forms of education are effective, some trade depth for speed, others trade enrichment for efficacy, and yet more trade open-ended inquiry for pragmatic ends. At worst, they are antagonistic about the esoteric, labeling these things elitist, or a distraction, from what really matters. Regardless, none of these models is inherently bankrupt, unless you think we should do away with plumbing and well-made shoes (the products of proficiency), our understanding of the human drive (the product of critical thinking), and moral precepts that aim to keep you from killing your neighbor (the product of indoctrination). They are all facets of (now-)modern life; and the path our educations take is determined by a number of factors, including the era in which we live, our economic circumstances, the laws of the nation, our parents’ influences, the quality of our teachers, and critically, our own self-understanding, which I would argue fuels — and as often limits — all of it.
Let’s look at all three in depth, as they relate to our lives, now.
At its root, indoctrination is about getting people to do what they are asked to, whether that’s farming the fields, enforcing the laws, protecting the homeland or paying the government taxes. It is likely the earliest form of education. What might have originated as coercion became, at some point, formalized, and the method by which the world was largely populated, subdivided and controlled. At large, indoctrination takes many forms, and is still one of the driving forces by which we get strangers to collaborate on a shared platform, or least tolerate one another. The United States is a nationhood fiction built on the idea of self-determination: of the lone warrior battling to stay supremely free, with codified rights that put the ultimate power into the well-armed hands of freedom fighters; and that anything that threatens that sovereignty is worth dying to protect. 330 million people from every corner of the world, reflecting the gamut of beliefs and temperaments, have presumably shed their personal histories adequately to have ‘bought in’ to the American narrative. Christianity is a religion fiction built on the idea that we are here by intention, acting out a well-hatched plan at the hands of an omnipotent, omniscient being that created everything we can see or feel, hear our thoughts, and guide our every action, and yet at the same time, has decided that anyone who strays from the holy script is either doomed to Eternal Hell or presents an existential threat to true believers’ survival, and therefore must be neutralized, preferably through indoctrination, as 1.3 billion people have been, thus far; or else imprisoned and/or killed, if we cannot successfully indoctrinate them. Christianity is the second-most successful fiction of all time. And money — ah, money — is the most pernicious of all fictions. Nearly every human on Earth spends a lifetime gathering universally exchangeable tokens whose value is, and forever has been, entirely subjective, reflective of fleeting emotions, and therefore valueless, per se, but is simultaneously incredibly effective in keeping our other fictions — like our nations, religions, sports teams and corporations — profitably stable. If we were to simultaneously stop believing that the symbols and numbers by which we define money meant anything, we would no longer be able to clothe, feed or house ourselves, without re-crafting every institution on Earth, including what we teach and how, and with it, how we interact with one another, and what it means to live, and thrive.
It’d be like the old days.
Institutionalized indoctrination represents one branch of schooling. It goes by many names today, like bible study, MBA, boot camp, the Pledge of Allegiance, and political science, to name just a few. Formalized education is the way a fictional system remains relevant, and grows, building adherents and experts alike, because one needs the other to replenish the well.
Productivity — one of two measures of proficiency, along with quality, has become the primary way by which nearly every human now measures the value of their existence. We do this with our commitments to a forty- or fifty-year-long campaign to earn and amass the greatest number of financial tokens possible, before our deaths force us to give those we’ve not yet cashed in to someone who outlives us. Because we are no longer self-sufficient, thanks to our indoctrination into city- and nation-building — both of which precipitated the subdivision of labor — we are now forced to double down on an investment in our proficiency of, and/or mastery over, something lucrative; because without this means of amassing tokens to exchange for things that are useful, like shoes, food and of course, iPhones (?!), our survival would no longer be guaranteed, or even possible.
The vast majority of institutionalized education today, globally, is aimed at developing our proficiency in one thing or another so that we can be survive in a world that requires us to earn and spend tokens in order to do so. Our proficiency is the proxy currency for our food, shelter, and anything else we decide we want or need in our lives. From the time we are first sent to an institution for non-family members to begin molding us, we are told that the greatest good is to find discover what we can contribute, so that we can turn it into a vocation. Throughout our young lives, then consuming our entire adulthood, we continue improving our capacity to produce things — in quality or quantity; both lead to the same end, which is income — for as long as our bodies allow us to, until they break, or our minds do. We do this so that we can participate in an economy, to be considered productive members of society, so that we can live.
There is no choice of opting out. If any of us chose to disbelieve in our greatest work of fiction — money, and the economy we created to leverage it — and somehow attempted to sit it out, and not participate, we would invariably be punished severely for doing so, because national fictions, like religious ones, require true believers in order to continue existing, and thriving. Heretics who shun proficiency and productivity are relegated to the terrible places our minds and dollars conjured to discourage such non-participation, like homeless shelters, prisons, slums, and mental institutions; whereas the greatest gift of all — access, to the best of everything — is lavished upon our most productive community members who are, as a result, lionized, like demigods. We write about them in magazines. We play dress-up to be like them. We aspire to learn how they did it. And we chase after them, for the chance to meet, in the hopes that doing so results in their favor, and our own increased fortune. Most demigods with outrageous fortunes ultimately use them to collect people — people to whom they outsource their productivity, in order to amplify it; and for the privilege of bathing in the glory of our demigods and doing their bidding, they collect some of the fruits of our productivity.
So, in a very real way, we become productive so that someday, if we are productive enough, we can buy other people to be productive for us, at which point they will worship us for allowing them to take our place in the act of amassing.
We created structures to streamline this process. We call them governments, corporations, brands and churches; and we have a name for when these structures are successful. We call it progress.
Because productivity is the de facto driver of human activity today, most of our education lies in some form of specific training that unlocks and amplifies our capacity to collect financial tokens, whether we do it as plumbers, accountants, lawyers or trash collectors. Nations’ own value is now almost solely determined by the productivity of its members. We call this GDP, or GVA. A country’s GDP is large part determines the internationally comparative value of its own tokens, vis-à-vis competing nations’, and like a puppeteer, each nation pulls strings to coax ever-increasing productivity from its people — strings like inflation and interest rates, or government debt. When a country is in deep enough trouble, or wishes to hedge its bets, it attempts to tie its fortunes to those of another nation it considers good at this game, in a tense courtship called ‘balance of trade’.
Productivity — and its avatar, money — does, truly, “make the world go round”. But if human value were able to be measured by GDP or the size of our bank accounts alone, then there would be no need for anything apart from our indoctrination into one or another system of proficiency creation; and because the global economy has been skyrocketing since the advent of the technology, one would assume that our lives are within reach of Nirvana, by now. Just a little more productivity, and bam! World peace.
If only it were so.
The 1966 Broadway play Cabaret introduced the world to a song many of us remember, called Money. It was a total ‘earworm’, repeating the words “Money makes the world go round,” ad nauseum so a sickly sweet, hummable tune. Some years later, author Paul van der Merwe improved upon it drastically, when he popped open the proverbial hood and said, “Money makes the world go round; however, happiness greases the axle. Without this lubricant, life will seize.” Happiness, van der Merwe proposed, matters, and furthermore, it influences our proficiency. Said more simply:
A healthy psychological state is something that must be nurtured, in order for us to act upon the world in a valuable way.
Happiness, unlike Gross Domestic Product, is not measured by any nation apart from Bhutan. In 1979, the then-king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, said, “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product.” This statement is encoded in the Constitution of Bhutan, and sets the tiny nation at odds with how every other nation on Earth measures its value. Scholars believe that the values underpinning GNH are distinctly Buddhist. These include:
- Sustainable and equitable socio-economic development
- Environmental conservation
- Preservation and promotion of culture
- Good governance
You can see why this is at odds with most of human productivity, which values economic growth above all else. There are less costly, more productive versions of all four activities that could amplify quarterly GDP.
Or so we think.
Still, the idea that there is more to humanity than its ability to perfect individuals’ empirical proficiency begs the question, then, about what it is to be human, and what constitutes a valuable, and therefore happy, life.
Which brings us to the third type of education.
Most often, critical thinking is the only form of educational investment whose primary goal isn’t to amass tokens, either directly (via proficiency) or by proxy (via indoctrination-fueled participation in wealth creation). Even in a world driven by progress, whose educational systems are honed to create armies of ‘working stiffs’, there is a small subset of humans for whom an understanding of our internal and external worlds — in the name of personal meaning-making, as well as for that of our families and/or communities — is a bigger priority than amassing tokens or coercing others to do amass them on our behalf.
You know, like in Bhutan.
Without critical thinking, our world and our activities would be static. We would live in a perpetual Groundhog Day, recycling the same ideas and producing the same widgets day in and day out, refining or honing the known, without consideration of the potential unknown. There would be no innovation, apart from that which makes us more productive. There would be no debate, apart from the best way of improving GDP. There would be no poetry, or music, or arts to help us connect to our emotions; and no soul-searching or dialogue around intangible things like happiness, meaning, virtue, fulfillment, and belonging. Who would have time for it?! Meaning doesn’t matter to belt buckles. Only the cost per unit and the number we can sell in a quarter are measured.
So by ‘critical thinking’, I’m not referring to the innovation of Velcro, or suspenders, or a drawstring, or four-way stretch. All of these innovations kill the belt buckle. I’m speaking of the intangible — the things about which some of the most lucid and powerful individuals on Earth have devoted their lives to advance our understanding; that which guides and grounds us, from within.
You can call it the ‘why’. Simon Sinek does, brilliantly. And he’s one of them.
An education in critical thinking has just one aim: to pick our heads up out of the weeds so that we can see over them. If we see several things at once, we are better equipped to see the relationship between things of importance — how they connect. It is a meta-education: the thing that makes all other things more valuable, even though to many, pondering the mysteries of the universe seems to be a waste of time, when we could be building proficiency, and adding tokens to the national coffers.
In my adolescence, there was a one-panel comic strip called The Far Side. The illustrator, Gary Larson, projected anthropomorphic qualities onto animals. In one memorable panel, a flock of sheep is pictured, and in the middle, one is standing on its hind legs, shouting, “Wait! We don’t have to be just sheep!”
It was brilliant.
The critical thinkers, like that sheep, are the ones who ask themselves ‘why’. Why do we do what we do? If we can answer that, perhaps we can find a better way of doing it, or create a better ‘thing’ in and of itself. We can’t do that until we stand on our hind haunches, able to see over the other sheep. This is the principle of a critical education. The Ancient Greeks thought that things we now consider wasteful, or worse, elitist, were paramount to creating successful humans — that is, foundational to their education. They captured the idea in the word “arete”. Arete referred both to general ‘excellence’ as well as to ‘moral virtue’. To the Greeks, morality and virtue were as important as mathematics, because they expanded the mind, and therefore, its capacity to lead us to a life of strength and excellence.
I have often accredited my own successes as an architect to my unusual experience in architecture school. The reason I do is that my alma mater, Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) did something akin to what the Greeks did: they focused on the development of our mental faculties to imagine, explore and test ideas. It made sense in an art school. The curriculum plumbed the depths of our psyches to produce value. The word ‘why’ was central to our creative process. Why are you acting? Why are you making the decisions that you are? What do you hope to achieve as an outcome, and for whom? How will you measure success? If we weren’t able to answer the ‘why’ of our work effort, then there was no way for a teacher to interact with us, because it would reduce the discussion to a matter of preference and taste, and we would never be able to measure our success, because we wouldn’t know what it was we were measuring it against. ‘Why’ is extremely important. Why are we here? Why are we working? Why is choice X better or worse than choice Y? Why do we think the way we do? Why, for that matter, do we react the way we do? Then there are ‘whats’ and ‘hows’ that arise from all the ‘whys’. What should we be doing with our lives? How are our choices impacting our own wellbeing, and that of those we care about? How can we create a better baseline? What is the greatest good? What is the purpose of working? How can we reach farther together, rather than competing against one another? What would ‘equitable’ look like? How could something be good for us and for those outside of the ‘club’? What is the best form of education?
Well, to answer that last one, we’d need to engage in critical thinking. We can’t get there by doubling our production line of belt loops, or by indoctrinating twice the number workers. Something has to aim them. If indoctrination gets us to pay attention, and proficiency is the capacity to deliver on a promise, then critical thinking is the force that aims the capacity of the people. It is the driver.
Critical thinking gets at the ‘why’ of an act. And it’s here that most of our education fails. But not all of it.
Here are some innovative things being taught around the world.
In Denmark, empathy classes are a significant part of the educational curriculum. The Danes are not only taught how to help their classmates, they compete against no one apart from themselves. This is a heretical idea; competition is the entire basis of capitalism, and its extreme end, Libertarianism. “Let the market decide!” is another way of saying, “fight it out to the death.” Voting with our dollars is more efficient than letting a Caesar decide with his up- or downturned thumb. Danish empathy training starts at six years of age, and continues throughout their schooling. Because of this, bullying between students is drastically lower, according to iheartintelligence.com. Danes are taught to plumb their inner worlds and learn to discuss what troubles them, whether or not it’s related to what happens in school, building closeness and community. Through their empathy training, children are made aware of the impact their actions have on others.
It’s entirely likely that this phenomenon contributes to the fact that Denmark is voted, year after year, one of the happiest places on Earth.
But is it productive?
The IMF lists Denmark as the 16th highest GDP/capita in the world, out of 200-ish countries. The World Bank ranks it 12th, because they have different means of calculating it. Either way, in a 200-nation world, we could safely say that the Danes’ focus on community and empathy hasn’t adversely affected their proficiency or productivity, which lags behind the world’s reigning capitalist nation — the US — by just a handful of spots.
Not so for happiness. There, according to the World Economic Forum, Denmark is the second happiest place on Earth, while the US weighs in at number 19, just ahead of the Czech Republic, and six places behind Costa Rica. These funny statistics take us back to the ‘why’. If acceptance, belonging and happiness are central life goals, and we (mistakenly) believe that money is the means by which we get there, then why doesn’t our curriculum teach these directly, at least as much as they teach us subjects that focus on our productivity?
Inc. Magazine reviewed a Harvard study of 4,000 millionaires. These mega-rich concluded that if they wanted their heirs to be happy, they needed to give their money away to other people, so that their heirs made their own fortune. Ok; fair enough. That still suggests ‘money makes happy’. But if that were the case, then giving their millions to their heirs would give them a leg up in happiness, no? They’d already be happy, and could only get happier, as they added to their wealth.
They found — as Dan Kahnemann did before them — that beyond about $75,000 in annual income, the more you had, the less happy each incremental increase made you. It was, they said, “a law of diminishing returns”. And in fact, the single greatest, and most consistent, boost to their happiness came from giving their money away. They wrote:
“Andrew Carnegie [one of the greatest American philanthropists] came up with one solution: He donated the vast majority of his fortune to charities, foundations and universities during the last few years of his life, keeping it from his heirs in an apparent effort to lead them to useful, worthy lives. And his solution has greater wisdom as well: Because research shows that giving to others leads to greater happiness than spending on oneself, Carnegie was also employing his wealth in a manner likely to maximize his own happiness.”
In other words, to be happy, he supported his (national) community. 150 years later, The Giving Pledge was created by Bill Gates and Warren Buffet — two of the wealthiest humans on Earth. So far, they have signed 170 millionaires and billionaires on to do the same as Carnegie (and the Rockefellers) did before them.
What they and the Danes have in common is pretty clear: the sense of doing good by their fellow man — of contributing to the greater wellbeing of their communities — gave them a ‘why’. In fact, their greatest gift to their children was to give them the ability to create their own ‘whys’. That’s because indoctrination and proficiency are great when they’re aimed at something outside of themselves — to philosophical and moral ends. It’s why music moves us, whether or not it’s profitable. Ditto art, or a hug, or a pair of ears, or an understanding of one another, borne on the development of our psychological make-up.
So with that said, I would posit that each human is best served, per se, by a form of education that is tailored to their unique qualities, driven by a deep dive into critical thinking, the way the ancient Greeks approached it. We are each comprised of a different mix of things. Ideally, our education would flexible enough to allow our self-discovery, insofar as understanding where our impact can be greatest, and most aligned with our values, aspirations and talents; injected with a healthy dose of community- and empathy-building.
Critical thinking — that is, a clear thesis — a ‘why’ — has always been the differentiator between a follower and an innovator; or a productive member of society and a hero.
It’s not only the Danes.
In Lagos, Nigeria, the Floating Makoko School teaches resilience by literally floating on a lagoon whose water levels fluctuate wildly, thereby mitigating the risk of damage or non-access. One can imagine what is learned when one’s place of learning lives with nature’s cycles, not fights them.
The Nigerian school made me think of a National Geographic issue I read when I was just 10. In it, I saw a photo of the arresting mosque at Djenne, in Mali. The caption went, “In Mali, architecture is a verb, not a noun.”
Even then, it blew my mind.
The Egalia Preschool in Stockholm is a school without gender, race, disability or other label, in which no one is differentiated from one another on any basis other than their deeds.
In Cambodia, the Sra Pou Vocational School is a school in which the architects taught the educators how to build more schools themselves, thereby empowering them to empower themselves.
Taking a different tactic, the Women’s Opportunity Centre in Rwanda was built by women seeking shelter from husbands who battered them, and found empowerment in the form of creating their own safe haven, and in the process, perfected a brick industry (the centre’s construction material) that gave them financial independence.
The Search for Self
And at the Steve Jobs School in Amsterdam, students not only don’t compete with one another, they each have a different curriculum. Each one develops their own plan, and their ‘coaches’ (they don’t call them teachers) tailor their feedback and curriculum to allow them to develop at their own pace.
There is innovation in the United States, too. Brightworks, in San Francisco, makes a curriculum out of the things that most parents tell their children are dangerous, like taking chances, literally playing with fire, and taking apart appliances, all to tap into children’s creative sides. The program coordinators write, “The world needs more people who see the hardest challenges as interesting puzzles and have the creative capacity, skills and tenacity to make change happen.” They go on, “They are people who enjoy contributing instead of consuming, participating actively in the world, and who empathize across social and economic boundaries.”
Gever Tulley, who created Brightworks, has a five-point plan for children:
1. Let children be co-authors in their education.
2. Trust children more.
3. The default answer is yes.
4. Focus on habits and character.
5. Agree that everything is interesting.
It sounds to me a whole lot like the ancient Greeks; and these days, the Danes.
There is much room for our education to grow, as we move from an Industrial Age widget-making, human-as-producer mentality to a dynamic, network-aged, empowered one in which once again, qualities of human connection and meaning — our ‘why’ — can drive inquiry, and contribution. The idea that we are there to make someone money has driven most of human education and thus activity, for millennia; but it has also not made us happier, but arguably less happy; and one could further argue that one reason is because we have been so narrowly aimed to produce that we lost our humanity in the trade. Today, innovative schools, the product of high-level critical thinking, may show us the way toward a better model — or models — of education.
Pamela Abalu — a former architectural colleague of mine turned co-founder of Love and Magic, which co-creates organizations with entrepreneurs, built around intention — was recently interviewed by WorldWebForum, with her partner, Chinedu Echeruo. She provokes us by asking, “Imagine, when you were in school, instead of being asked, ‘What job are you going to have, what role are you going to have,’ you were asked, ‘Who are you going to help? What problems are you going to solve?’, but not just that; how are you going to tie this in your own superpowers — your own interests? For us, the opportunity to work, is the opportunity to show up in purpose.” She adds, “If we’re not preparing the future world, who is?”
The answer to the opening question in this article — what form of education is best — is, in my view, inextricably linked to our values and purpose, in life. Like the ancient Greeks, and now the Danes, the Swedes and (one group of) San Franciscans collectively believe, a broad ‘moral education’ grounds us. Questions like ‘who are you going to help’, or ‘what problems are you going to solve’ ground us in meaning. Like the great philanthropists believe, too, money delivers the greatest dose of happiness when it is used to do the greatest good, for the most people. The Greek philosophers, and the Age of Enlightenment ones, too, all believed that a deep understanding of one’s unique self was — as Pamela provoked — a superpower — one we could aim in service of acting on our inherent purpose.
All of these things must be learned; we are all students.
How it is that these forces don’t drive our education at least as much as rote learning that leads us to build proficiency within a system, I don’t know. But I do know that if we hope to find meaning in life, a good place to start is with a dose of empathy, the courage to explore dangerous things, the exploration of self, the experience of giving to others, and coaches who recognize the value of all of it.
Just imagine a world empowered by shared empathy, open-mindedness, courage and community, aimed at solving the world’s stickiest problems.
The mind reels.