Learning to Learn or How to Replace Old Minds with Sustainable New Ones

I know you are thinking no one would really say that but they did. In fact the book we talked about in our last post Management for A Small Planet even has a chapter called “We Are How We Think” that quotes a 1989 book by Population and Environmental alarmist Paul Ehrlich. Ehrlich wrote “there is now a mismatch between the human mind and the world people inhabit”. To properly deal with the environmental threats he saw everywhere, people “need to replace our old minds with new ones.” How? By changing the learning process itself. Now before I explain how in ways that will build on things like the SEL, values, communitarian ethos, and higher order thinking we have been talking about, I want to talk about Ehrlich’s dispute and bet with economist Julian Simon over the future. And whether to be optimistic or pessimistic.

Now I am not going to explain the wager itself. It is too easy to search the phrase “simon ehrlich wager” and get the details. It is Simon’s vision of humanity and education and the economy I first want to talk about. His vision reflects what most of us think we are getting when we pay property taxes to fund schools or write that tuition check or take out a student loan. If our education spending is based on obtaining Simon’s vision for the future but we are unwittingly buying Ehrlich’s desire for reframed new minds instead, I think it is past time we recognize that difference. Especially if Common Core and the related reforms of higher ed are about to really impose the Ehrlich/Small Planet mental vision.

In 1981 Julian Simon wrote a book The Ultimate Resource that rebutted all the doom and gloom about the scarcity of energy and natural resources and the “perils of overpopulation” that people like Ehrlich or groups like the Club of Rome had been pushing throughout the 1970s. Simon argued that it is the human mind that has made natural resources of value in the first place. He believed and argued persuasively that the ultimate resource on Planet Earth is the human imagination of creative, knowledgeable people when combined with a determined human spirit. That combination is what literally creates civilizations. At least it can when it is combined with a political-social-economic system that provides personal freedom from government coercion.

What Simon points out (pages 11 -13) in the 1996 reissue called The Ultimate Resource 2 is that if you look everywhere in the world where widespread prosperity and human progress has ever appeared you find important commonalities in the story:

“Skilled persons require a framework that provides incentives for working hard and taking risks, enabling their talents to flower and come to fruition. The key elements of such a framework are economic liberty, respect for property, and fair and sensible rules of the market that are enforced equally for all.”

Now Simon’s definition of “skilled” is not the generic 21st century skills designed to be accessible to anyone drawing a breath. He meant education that actually increases the “stock of useful knowledge,” not paper credentalling for all in the name of social justice. As Simon says (I couldn’t help myself but this really is not a child’s game): “minds matter economically as much as, or more than, hands or mouths.” Now here is the critical point where Julian Simon is precisely right but it is diametrically opposed to the Sustainability vision of the future economy:

The essence of wealth is the capacity to control the forces of nature, and the extent of wealth depends upon the level of technology and the ability to create new knowledge.”

That is the opposite of the Small Planet/Sustainability/UNESCO vision of the future. That new knowledge is created from a solid foundation of the transmitted knowledge of the Ages that the Common Core and OBE and the UN’s Education For All generally refuse to allow. With the regional accreditors on board to act as enforcers for this Ehrlich/Small Planet quest for new minds.

So Simon won the wager and Ehrlich paid him. But Ehrlich’s economic and environmental vision is what has been and is being unwittingly adopted globally through Outcomes Based Education grounded in authentic learning and emotionally engaging pedagogies and ecological/cultural approaches to curriculum. A classic example of winning the battle and losing the war. And mostly out of sight as taxpayers believe they are getting consistent content requirements state to state in case they ever need to move. Other countries got similar Bait and Switch programs. The solution to the created problem in education ends up being a more extreme version of what created the problem initially.

Authentic learning (ATLAS) came to Australia officially about 2001. In the US it is a part of the Common Core implementation. The idea is to “investigate real-world topics and solve real-world problems.” Students are to “demonstrate their understanding by applying what they have learned to new and challenging situations.” Ehrlich’s new minds (he has plenty of company from our previous posts) then are supposed to come about through double-loop learning processes. Yes that really is italicized just like that on page 95 of Small Planet just after the new minds quote. I have a feeling all that data and feedback we keep hearing about will be very helpful to this aim of altering mental frameworks.

So basically you take those authentic, challenging real-world topics and complex, largely insoluble, social problems and have the students reflect and inquire.¬† Teachers and other students examine the underlying assumptions, values, experiences, and social norms that frame each student’s expressed beliefs. The double-loop aspect focuses on the systems structures that supposedly “address the underlying causes of behavior.”

And that fundamental personal reexamination process and inquiry into a real world that the student is unlikely¬† to have much factual knowledge about (content no longer being the main point of school) is officially called “learning to learn.” And it is regarded as a terrific foundation for modifying how people think. To get them to see the world in terms of dynamic interrelationships.

And only in terms of their own physical interactions and experiences and emotions. How politically useful but so mentally confining. Makes you want to rebel and go read a book just for spite.