Element 22:

Why There Is No Personal Meaning in Education

“Purely from a scientific point of view, I am against the Machiavellian, mechanistic, Newtonian, behaviorist learning systems that are devoid of personal meaning and propelled by an uncaring, unfeeling, authoritarian juggernaut bent on serving the masters of good grades and high accreditation, while ignoring the flame of meaning and spark of creativity that burns in every soul.”
– JW Wilson, Advanced Learning Institute

handslight[1]From a scientific perspective, personal meaning is the primary basis upon which all new information is selected into our long-term memory banks (see “Meaning – the Holy Grail of Learning” and “‘No Meaning, No Learning': The Meaning Network” for more on the importance of personal meaning). The question then arises: How is it then that the learning systems employed in scholastic, government, and corporate institutions operate as if personal meaning is inconsequential to the learning process rather than the foundation of it? The answer, as we will see here, in future newsletters, and the book Cracking the Learning Code, is that by relying on concepts put forth by Aristotle, Machiavelli, Descartes, Newton, Locke, and the school of psychology called behaviorism, our schools, governments and businesses have wrongly embraced the idea that external motivators in the form of rewards and punishment are superior to personal meaning and intrinsic motivation in the process of promoting learning, creativity, and behavioral change.

Read on to learn more about why personal meaning is ignored in our learning institutions

Aristotle Started It!

The person who could arguably be called one of the most important in shifting the emphasis of education away from personal meaning was Plato’s famous student Aristotle. All learning systems today that value pouring facts into a learner’s brain in a linear fashion without regard to the meaning those facts have to the learner have their genesis in the way the ancient world viewed Aristotle.

aristotlebust[1]This 4th century BC philosopher is probably best known for helping foster the stand-and- deliver lecture format of education implemented at his academy and for developing the theory of logic used in every school system in the world. This theory demanded that each question could have only one possible right answer, a philosophy that the new sciences of complexity, chaos, and quantum physics have recognized as flawed. But the real power of Aristotle stems from the fact that, up until the 1700s, the rate of information acquisition was so slow that intellectuals, philosophers, and theologians believed that the amount of knowledge in the world was static and finite. Aristotle was such an omnipotent force because for almost 2,000 years his works and the works of a few other “authorities” were believed to contain the sum of all human knowledge. To become an educated person then, an individual did not have to go out and experience the world for himself but only needed to memorize the words of the “authorities.”

Scholastics Embrace Aristotle

The first extensive effort to set up an organized school system in Europe was started in the 11th century by the Roman Catholic Church. The goal of the church school system was to ensure that the information in Aristotle’s and other authorities’ works were poured into students’ heads. This effort came to be known as the scholastic method of education and was spearheaded by the prince of the scholastics, St. Thomas Aquinas. The scholastic school system dominated Europe until the 18th century, and the majority of all our 21st century scholastic and corporate educational systems are based upon it. In the scholastic system, if you wanted to know about bees, you did not go out and study them but only read what Aristotle or other authorities had to say about them. Historian Richard McKeon comments, “If you wanted to know what the culture of the 12th century was, you could list let us say 3,000 quotations that any intellectual would know… You could tabulate it.” In the scholastic school system, personal meaning had no place in the education of students, and the job of a teacher was to simply have the students memorize the information contained in the authorities’ works.

The next historical happening that helped squeeze personal meaning out of the organized school system was the publication of The Prince in 1532, by the most significant political and military philosopher of the Renaissance, Niccolo Machiavelli. Machiavelli maintained that as long as leaders believed what they were doing was right, they had the moral position and therefore the justification to use whatever form of reward or punishment (carrot or stick) was appropriate to accomplish their goals, even if the methods were themselves amoral or horrific. The phrase “spare the rod and spoil the child” has its roots in Machiavelli. From the 1500s until the 1980s, the liberal use of physical punishment on students in secular and religious schools, such as paddling behinds and smacking the backs of hands with rulers, can be directly tied to Machiavelli’s efforts.

Newton’s Mechanics Helped Kill Personal Meaning

One hundred and fifty-five years after Machiavelli’s Prince, the man who would replace Aristotle as the most dominant scientific thinker in history, Sir Isaac Newton, published what many scholars believe to be the most significant scientific work ever conceived. The Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica not only provided the scientific underpinnings for the industrial and technological age in which we are now living but laid the foundations upon which today’s mechanistic educational school systems are built.

peoplecogs[1]The sheer simplicity of Newton’s mechanistic laws of force and reaction created a world where society could achieve any goal if you just applied the right amount of force in the right place at the right time. Principia had a devastating impact on society. Before this work, God’s plan and the guardianship of the angels were seen to have drawn the universe into a smooth working whole. But after Principia, Newton’s model forced society to regard humans as, at worst, cogs in the machine, or, at best, small automatons controlled by a larger force. In the mechanistic force paradigm, human values, emotions, and personal meaning became irrelevant. Virtually all traditional leaning systems that devalue personal meaning take the Newtonian view of the student as robot.

In the book Cracking the Learning Code and in future newsletters you will discover:

How John Locke, the primary philosopher of the late 1600s and early 1700s, described the brain as a blank state (tabula rasa), which helped cement the “memorize for the test” model of education.

How, in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, students came to be seen as pieces of the nationalistic machine, whose lives took on purpose in terms of the manifestation of national success.

How the shift from church to state education helped ensure that the Newtonian force model would be brought into every educational system in the West.

How in the middle 1800s, in an effort to create the more efficient “units of production,” the Prussians developed the first conveyer belt model of education.

How the long assault on personal meaning in education reached its zenith with the advent of the 20th century’s most prominent form of psychology: behaviorism.

How behaviorists believed that a human is only an “assembled organic machine.”

That behaviorists maintained “perception, image, desire, purpose, thinking and emotion” play no part in the effort to control human behavior.

How mechanistic educational systems interfere with the teacher’s effort to foster the maturation of a pupil’s most precious asset – her connection to her soul and what really holds meaning for her.

How the first modern scientific studies in the early 19th century helped establish a precedent: Learning and memory research should be conducted devoid of meaning.

How the work of concentration camp survivor Victor E. Frankl was the first to open up psychology’s eyes to the importance of personal meaning in creating learning and sustained behavioral change.

How recent advances in neuroscience have discovered that, when parts of your Meaning Network are compromised by stress, trauma or disease, learning, memory and behavioral change are inhibited.

To help you understand more about why there is no personal meaning in education, click on other Elements:

Meaning – the Holy Grail of Learning

“No Meaning, No Learning”: The Meaning Network

No Learning Without Emotion

No Learning Without Feedback From the Body

Working Memory – Where Emotionally and Somatically Tagged Information Gets Prioritized

Addicted to Meaning

The Motivational Problem

Breeding Out Personal Meaning by Extrinsic Motivation