The highest education is that which does not merely give us information but makes our life in harmony with all existence.
Life at university, with its intellectual and inconclusive discussions at a postgraduate level is on the whole a bad training for the real world. Only men of very strong character surmount this handicap.
They teach in academies far too many things, and far too much that is useless.
Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe
I’ve heard it said that deep within the halls of academia, Ph.D. doesn’t really stand for "doctor of philosophy." Rather, it stands for "Piled Higher and Deeper."
It’s a funny quip, a splash of dark humor usually uttered by disgruntled graduate students who find themselves mired in an impossible and possibly irrelevant project that threatens to drag on until the end of time.
But this phrase is more than just a throw-away line for frustrating moments in grad school. It’s actually a disturbingly accurate description of a culture that buries itself in mountains of abstract information while simultaneously ignoring the basic fundamentals of living. It’s a reflection of the fact that, in our headlong pursuit of higher knowledge, we’ve lost sight of an even more important priority: the health and education of the human body.
When academics talk about piling it on, higher and deeper, they aren’t kidding. The mountain generated by modern universities has become so immense that it threatens even the imagination itself. Abstract, specialized knowledge is multiplying faster than anyone, even Google, can track, and most of it has little or no relationship to the art of living.
So what exactly are the abstractionists putting in the pile?
Well, lots of data, numbers, clinical observations, references, footnotes, narrow specializations and filler. Anything that will be accepted by a journal goes on the pile. It’s "publish or perish," so everyone scrambles to get something, anything, into print. It’s got to be important, it’s got to be significant, but most important of all, its got to be high and its got to be deep.
The pile has all sorts of pieces to it, but in essence, most of it consists of material generated by non-participating consciousness. If you want to get published, you’ve got to step back from the thing you’re describing. You’ve got to get your body, your emotions and your passion out of the picture. You’ve got to pose as an unbiased, independent and completely objective viewer of the thing in question. The body is an irrelevance at best and an impediment at worst. Tissue is not to be trusted.
Descartes would love our pile, of course. After all, he was the one who started the whole thing. Cogito ergo sum: I think, therefore I am. Over the last few centuries, the mind has become our cultural identity and the presumptive solution to all our problems: I generate immense amounts of data and abstraction, therefore I am. No matter how onerous our predicament, we can think it all out. Give us a problem and we’ll apply the force of rationality and reduction. Have a problem with the body and public health? We’ll figure that one out as well. We’ll grind away on the problem and it will eventually yield to our intelligence, our computers, our administrations and our spreadsheets.
For the most part, modern universities treat the body as if it was simply a locomotor device for transporting brains from one computer terminal to another. If we could simply dispense with bodies entirely, we’d do so in an instant. If we could plug our brains directly into the net and suspend our bodies in a vat of nutrients, we’d make it so. Judging from our priorities, we don’t care about a wit about the body, its experience, its joy or its fate.
deal with the devil
As a culture, we’ve created a system that leap-frogs the fundamentals of human living. Consequently, we’re raising an entire generation of human beings who know almost nothing about how to live in their bodies or in this challenging world.
We know to program in HTML, Java and Windows, but we don’t know how to cook or eat.
We know how to ace an SAT, but we don’t know how to move our bodies functionally and gracefully.
We know how to set up a wireless network, but we don’t know how to rest.
We know how to use a social networking site, but we don’t know how to hold an actual face-to-face conversation with a live human being.
We know how to give a PowerPoint presentation on particle physics, but we don’t know how to breathe.
We know how to install a clever ring tone on a cell phone, but we don’t know how to manage stress in our lives.
We know how to design and market biomechanically correct shock-abosorbing shoes, but we don’t know how to walk barefoot on the earth.
The Greeks would be appalled at our inverted sense of priorities and our blatant disregard for the basics of healthy living. So would the ancient Chinese. So would any primal people.
For the Greeks and the Chinese, higher education was supposed to be an extension of lower education, a complement to the health of the physical body. It was never meant to be a substitute for human physicality or real-world knowledge. They had a sense of proportion in education; we do not.
We see the proof of our inverted priorities in the grim statistics on the state of the human body and the immense toll of highly-preventable lifestyle disease: According to the World Health Organization, at least 1.9 million people die each year as a result of physical inactivity. In 2005, more than 35 million people died of non-communicable diseases including heart disease, diabetes, stroke, etc. Deaths from non-communicable disease are projected to increase by 17% between 2005 and 2015. The human body is disintegrating before our very eyes.
We have made a deal with the Cartesian devil and the bill is coming due. By elevating the mind and devaluing the body, we’ve created a situation in which both are at risk. A sedentary, neck-up education doesn’t just create atrophy in the body. It also makes the nervous system vulnerable to the effects of stress. Overworked, inactive bodies don’t learn very well and are less resilient under pressure. Atrophy in the body leads ultimately to atrophy of the mind.
In his legendary TED presentation, creativity expert Ken Robinson described the modern school system as an assembly line for turning students into college professors. Each school is a prep for the one that comes next in line, the penultimate goal being a Ph.D. No one questions the trajectory of this system. We take it as a bedrock truth of educational culture; the whole point is to climb the ladder of abstraction. But in the process, we bypass the very things that might save the human body from its current spiral into heart disease, obesity, diabetes and physical unhappiness. We leap-frog over physicality, movement, nutrition, cooking, conversation, story-telling, rest and creativity. If you long to become a Cartesian college professor, the system is ideal. But if you want to stay healthy, you are going to have to look for something lower, much lower.
welcome to lower education
Lower education is alive in some places, albeit on life support, usually in the form of non-profit or no-profit organizations. Boy Scouts, adventure schools, experiential education, some martial art and yoga schools offer hope for the human body and the human experience. These programs tend to be body-friendly and offer practical instruction in life arts. But still, these efforts are almost always labeled as "alternative," thus diminishing their value. They are considered "elective," or "enrichment," not really an important part of our cultural identity. They are beside the point.
So it’s time for an excavation. It’s time to dig down to the base of the pile and recover what’s been buried for far too long. So imagine if you will, an Institute of Lower Education, an educational program in the fundamentals of physical living. What would the curriculum look like? How would it conduct its mission?
The course catalog would include subjects such as "How to live in your body," "How to prepare and eat real food," "How to walk, run, dance and move," "How to sit still, breathe and manage stress," "How to hold a conversation, tell a story and hold a dialogue," "How to build a sustainable lifestyle," "How to understand and live in the natural world," "How to create community" and "How to heal your body."
Not only would Lower Education offer instruction and experience in the fundamentals of physical and social living, it would also bring a completely different philosophy of education to bear. In "higher ed," every action is plotted on a premeditated, scripted timetable, with courses and exams scheduled according to administrative calendars, not the pace of actual human learning or environment. In essence, higher education is a race with the calendar. Exam preparation resembles nothing so much as a cognitive speed-eating contest in which contestants gorge on textbooks and lecture notes until their brains are ready to burst.
In contrast, Lower Education would also be a form of Slower Education. Many of us are familiar with the Slow Food Movement, the cultural movement that began in Europe, a philosophy that emphasizes quality ingredients, pleasure and community. Some people have even proposed a Slow Fitness movement that would embrace similar principles.
Similarly, Slower Ed would move at the pace of the human body, the seasons and the environment. This is not just a romantic, hippie notion about rejecting modernity and returning to the earth, although that might very well be a good idea. Modern discoveries in neuroscience tell us conclusively that learning works best in oscillation and in harmony with circadian cycles. Instead of lunging desperately towards exams and cramming short-term memory to maximum capacity, Slower Ed would seek to synchronize instruction with both internal and external physiology (the environment).
a both-and solution
Ultimately, Lower Education seeks to put the body on equal footing with the mind and in the process, rebalance our educational culture. For the Cartesians, this is a radical, counter-cultural proposal and objections will be swift and furious. Administrators will protest a lack of resources, a lack of funding and a lack of time.
On a policy-making level, our proposal looks like a zero-sum game. If you want more time for PE, health and community, its got to come from somewhere and that somewhere would be our Cartesian subjects. At first glance, it looks like a classic "either-or." Either we educate the head or we educate the body. Choices will have to be made. There are only so many hours in each day and so many days in a year. Giving to the body will mean taking away from the mind.
Nevertheless, there is a win-win here. If we start giving the body its due, the mind is going to work even better. Give the body what it craves, give the human nervous system a chance to absorb the mountains of data we try to stuff down its throat, and cognition will improve. Allow the body to flourish in relationship to the natural cycles of the environment and all sorts of good things will start to happen.
Thus our plea: give the body a place in this world. Honor it in schools and in the workplace. Allow it to move and rest and explore and play. Give it a chance to thrive in harmony with the natural world. If we can do this, we might not have to pile things on so high and so deep. And then, we can relax and live.