Sunday 1 October 2017

Grist for Leibniz's Mill (2017)

From The Philosopher, Volume CV No. 2 Autumn 2017

By Danko Antolovic

“What do you see?” I ask a friend who is looking at a tree. ‘I see a tree, of course,’ comes the remarkable reply. I do not actually know what my friend is seeing – I experience only my own perceptions, and those of another could be wildly different – nor do I have any experience whatsoever of my friend's ‘I’, the self-awareness of another.

And yet, the conceptual framework behind this little conversation is so universal that a child would give me the same reply. There is a world out there, and there are individual minds, all of whom see that world more or less the same way, and they all have a direct experience of themselves and of the world. On the surface of it, the minds are immersed in the world and are of one piece with it. All is well.

But how does the mind, immersed in the sights and sounds of the world, actually perceive? We know that perception is mediated by the sense organs, and we can follow the optical and acoustic images of the world into our eyes and ears. We understand how light and sound trigger neural activity in the sensor cells, and how the resulting signals travel into the brain. Once there, following the stimuli becomes rather more complex, but we know, in broad strokes, that sense stimuli give rise to somewhat permanent neural imprints called memories; they trigger bursts of chemical changes associated with emotions; they are fed into decision-making systems and compared with existing memories; and they take part in initiating motor signals which make the body act upon the world.

This modern picture of the mind corresponds very well to what is sometimes known as Leibniz’ Mill metaphor. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, philosopher and distinguished mathematician, proposed this in 1714 in an essay called The Monadology. Essentially, the idea is that should a machine have a mind (or might appear to have one), we should be able to scale it up in size, if needed, and walk into it, just as we would walk into a mill. Inside, we would see mechanical parts pushing and pulling at each other in mechanical ways; the machine could be arbitrarily complex and perform arbitrarily complex tasks, but in all the pushing and pulling we could never find a somebody, an entity aware of itself and of the world. And indeed, even today, all of our understanding of the workings of the nervous system has so far shed very little light on self-awareness: all we see inside are electrochemical signals running around in electrochemical ways!

And so, Leibniz argues, the mind cannot be mechanistic, since it does not arise from the causes and effects of the material world. It is not of one piece with the world at all: rather, it stands outside it. But if that is so, how can the mind perceive the world and act upon it? All interactions in the world are causes and effects, parts of the world pushing and pulling at each other, and an entity not taking part in this mechanism could not interact with the world at all. Leibniz observes, correctly,  that the material world is governed by the principles of conservation, and that the mind acting upon the world "from outside" would violate these principles.

Leibniz resolves this conundrum by postulating that God had arranged the world in such a way that every substance was created, in the beginning, with due regard for every other. In that picture, mind and matter are separate substances, following their separate laws, and in doing so they behave as if they were interacting, even though they are not. Leibniz called his primordial substances ‘monads’, and their parallel coexistence the ‘pre-established harmony’.

A ready objection to Leibniz’ Mill is that it is merely an argument from plausibility. It seems indeed very implausible that a clockwork mechanism from Leibniz' time, with its cogwheels, pegs and levers, could give rise to self-consciousness, but still: if we do not understand the nature of the goal, we cannot know whether it is attainable or not. Do we really know what to look for inside the mill?

Ostensibly scientific alternatives to the mill are occasionally proposed as phenomenal (material) explanations of self-consciousness that would resolve Leibniz’ mechanistic dilemma: quantum mechanics is a perennial favourite, as are things like emergent properties of complex systems. None of them are particularly convincing.

All of our understanding of the workings of the nervous system has so far shed very little light on self-awareness: all we see inside are electrochemical signals running around in electrochemical ways!

Quantum mechanics asserts certain non-intuitive things about the behaviour of matter, but it is fundamentally mechanistic: its causes and effects, albeit understood as probabilities rather than certainties, can be summed up in an equation of motion. It is unclear why quantum mechanics would be a more promising medium in which the conscious self could arise than the clockwork mechanisms of classical physics.

Complexity, on the other hand, is a vague concept, which can signify various things. There are properties that do ‘emerge’ from systems with many parts, things that are not obvious in the components but become visible in the system's behaviour as a whole. Some examples are ferromagnetism, coherent movements of schools of fish and flocks of birds, and self-organising of neural nets. But all of these phenomena are explicable mechanistically, in terms of the underlying physics, and if awareness ‘emerges’ in this fashion, it must also be so explicable; without a physical theory that could account for the conscious mind (and reconcile it with the known picture of the physical world) complexity alone explains nothing. In my view, interpreted strictly as an empirical observation Leibniz’ allegory of the mill has held out very well over time.

A remarkably factual insight into the question of the mechanistic mind was offered by Roger Penrose in an essay called ‘Setting the Scene: the Claim and the Issues’ (part of The Simulation of Human Intelligence, edited by Donald Broadbent, published by Blackwell in 1993). Penrose argues that human minds are capable of insights which must elude the machines because of the machines’ very nature. The argument goes as follows:

Suppose we wish to ascertain whether an algorithmic calculation, which we can envision as a computer program, stops and yields an answer, or goes on forever. Penrose offers two examples:
1) Find the smallest integer that is not a sum of squares of three integers (including zero). It would be easy to construct a program which, for each integer n, goes mechanically through all triplets of squares not larger than n, and tries to add them up to n. Will that search ever come to an end? If we try it, we find out that number 7 is not a sum of three squares, and, luckily, the program stops very soon.

2) Find the smallest odd integer which is a sum of two even integers. We could construct a simple searching program, along similar lines as in Example 1, but we know in advance that it would never stop: there is no such number, no matter how large an integer we check.
These examples show that the human mind can answer the halting question for some calculations; perhaps not for all of them, but if it can work out an answer, it can do so correctly and in finite time. Suppose now that this ability is itself implemented within the brain as an algorithm, A, which reads and processes any computation, any program, ‘C’, as its input. The algorithm A is required to stop if it finds out that C does not stop, i.e. it must give a correct verdict of C’s not halting. It should be able to read the program we wrote for Example 2, analyse it, and halt with the verdict that this calculation never halts.

It can be shown with a bit of clever and fairly technical reasoning (known as Gödel's theorem, after the logician Kurt Gödel), that, no matter what the actual details of A, it is always possible to find a C, with suitable inputs, such that A equals C, and must report on its own halting! Now, if A halts in this particular case, by assumption it has given the correct answer, and the answer is that it itself does not halt! This is a contradiction, and the only logical possibility is the opposite of our assumption: A does not halt, and therefore cannot give the answer for that case.

So, the proposed algorithmic calculation A inside the brain cannot answer at least that one question. But we know the answer: A does not halt. We have arrived at this answer by the reasoning of Gödel's theorem, and by deriving a contradiction by assuming that A does halt. It is very difficult to disagree with Roger Penrose’s conclusion that the mind cannot be completely reduced to an algorithmic computing machine: after all, we just did something an algorithm mathematically can't do!

Consider again Example 2: we solved its halting problem intuitively, by appealing to the concept of disparate sets (an integer is either even or odd, never both), and to the concept of distributing multiplication over addition. We intuit these concepts as applying to all integers, and we know immediately that we are looking for odd numbers where there can't be any. The very idea of checking every individual number, in a program-like fashion, strikes us as ridiculous.

We could envision adding such higher-level concepts to our program A, to form an enhanced program A*. This program would be able to solve a broader range of halting problems, but the crucial question is: how are the enhancements implemented? If they are implemented in the same algorithmic fashion as the original A, then A* is again fully algorithmic, and cannot answer its own halting question, for the same reasons as A. The human mind can again do so, for the same reasons as before, and we are back at the original quandary.

What can we do to escape this quandary? An informal assertion, known as the Church-Turing thesis (after mathematicians Alfonso Church and Alan Turing), says that all algorithms can be expressed and computed by means of so-called Turing machines. A Turing machine is a very simplified mock-up of a computer, capable of storing, retrieving and manipulating symbols according to pre-set rules. The important point is that it is physically realisable, and that every computing device ever made (or proposed to be made in a non-magical fashion) is functionally equivalent to a Turing machine. There is no a priori requirement that it be so, but no one has made a non-Turing computer yet, following the known laws of nature. Any device or program A, that we know how to make (or realistically imagine), will be algorithmic and land us in the same quandary again.

There is a striking similarity between Leibniz’ allegory of the mill and the Church-Turing thesis. Leibniz observes that all the machines we know how to make are mechanistic devices, capable only of mechanical functions. The Church-Turing thesis observes that all the computing machines we know how to make are Turing machines, capable only of algorithmic calculations. Where Leibniz asserts that a mill cannot have a mind, the more precise analysis by Penrose says that any known computing device, which is always a Turing machine, fails to match all the capabilities of the mind. Neither the mindlessness of the Leibniz’ Mill nor the Church-Turing thesis have ever been proven, but nor have they ever been contradicted. They seem to hint at a fundamental limitation on what can be expected of the phenomenal world as we know it.

Where does this leave us, regarding self-awareness and subjective experience? We have shown that there exists mathematical reasoning that no Turing machine can perform, but a mind can. This reasoning is itself wrapped in a larger experience of the self – it is I, a self-aware entity, who is doing the reasoning – and it is difficult to see how an algorithmic device could generate the conscious understanding of a process which it cannot even perform. Unlike the halting problem, awareness is not a concept we know how to define in precise terms, so we cannot prove or disprove its computability. Nevertheless, the above analysis of the limits of algorithmic computation strongly suggests that awareness is not such a computation.

But let us carry this a step further. Let us suppose that (some portion of) the brain is a non-Turing machine, based on some still unknown, non-algorithmic physical laws. Penrose speculates that that may be the case, and his supposition is a rather appealing way out of the halting-problem quandary. This hypothetical machine performs broadly conceptual reasoning, and it makes it possible for the human mind to solve the halting problem of program A. We don't know what its computational limitations might be, but the interesting question is: does it imply awareness?

Is self-awareness necessary in order to arrive at Gödel’s theorem and the solution of the halting problem? Or could a hypothetical non-algorithmic robot reach the same results, without any awareness of itself and of what it is doing? We are inclined to think so: after all, the self-aware human mind can run through algorithmic computations just fine, and understand what it is doing (for example, multiplication by hand), yet its self-awareness is immaterial for the computational process, and such tasks are routinely handed over to non-aware Turing machines (pocket calculators).

Furthermore, we could ask whether the emphasis on computation in the theory of mind is altogether misguided. Setting aside the mathematical arguments for a moment, we can ask ourselves what self-awareness feels like. At the risk of generalising on flimsiest grounds of introspection, it feels like the presence of a being – my own. Likewise perception, once all its neural mechanisms and signal processing are accounted for, feels like the presence of another being, presence of something that is.

In contrast with this immediate experience, what is computation, really? In the physical sense, it is a chain of events in which phenomenal objects undergo distinct changes, regularly and reliably. Such is a computation on a pocket calculator (or a supercomputer): electrical contacts being closed by the keypad buttons lead to switching of electrical circuits, resulting in light being emitted from the LED display. All of that is something more than a mere physical happening, such as wind or rain, only because the human mind interprets the inputs and the outputs as very good approximations of an abstraction. We think of pressed keys and displayed light patterns as numbers and arithmetic operations, and it is this interpretation that gives meaning and relevance to an otherwise indifferent physical process. It is the same interpretation that adds three pebbles to five pebbles to make eight of them, even though a pebble is not a number, but a piece of phenomenal world, immersed in the world and changing with it with every passing moment.

Physical computations of this kind need not be human-made, and can exist independently of any minds. For example, genetic code is a fairly crisp and unambiguous mechanism by means of which intricate molecular structure is maintained and propagated within unconscious matter. It precedes the appearance of the mind, and in the physical sense it does not differ from the wind and the rain: it became a ‘code’ in the human sense, i.e. an embodiment of an abstraction, only retroactively, by being understood by the mind.

As for non-algorithmic ‘computation’, such as proving a theorem, this usually begins with a specific, outstanding question; the question may be pressed by material reasons (for example, a technological advance with the prospect of marketable products) or emotional ones (professional prestige). The entire body of accepted mathematics stands available as the starting point, and the reasoning process links mathematical concepts, according to accepted rules of logic, into the chain of proof which, hopefully, ends with an answer to the stated question.  Deciding which concepts to consider is, of course, the core of the mathematician's talent, and that selection is often guided by an ‘intuition’, that is to say, by the ability to recognise similarities with past mathematical problems. Our intuitive solution of Example 2 illustrates this process; a conceptual solution of Example 1 is also known, but is far less obvious.

There is an overall similarity between algorithmic (Turing) computation and conceptual reasoning: both manipulate given inputs according to set rules, and yield a result. We accept the possibility of a non-algorithmic (non-Turing) component of the mind, even if it is far from obvious whether and how this component could be implemented in non-aware robots. However, nothing in the conceptual reasoning seems to indicate that self-awareness is a necessary component of it. In order to solve the halting problem in Example 2, a robot would have to manipulate the concepts of arithmetic, instead of following a Turing-like program that was built on these concepts. A large step for a robot, perhaps one relying on new and still unknown physics, but it is not self-evident that the robot would have to be aware of itself in order to take that step.

In fact, it is very difficult to see how these chains of symbol – and concept – processing operations could produce, or, in contemporary parlance, compute that ‘presence of a being’ which is the subjective experience. Insofar that they are of relevance to the conscious mind at all, they require purpose and interpretation that are extraneous to them, and which are given to them by the very same self-aware agency they are supposed to be the foundation of. They differ little in their nature from a mill, a machine made for the extraneous purpose of grinding wheat. And in the absence of a mind to call it a machine and envision a purpose for it, the mill, too, is just another indifferent manifestation of the phenomenal world.

With an eye on David Hume's wise admonition that all generalisations are only habits of the mind, we are reluctant to preclude in advance a phenomenal explanation of the self – perhaps there is one, hidden in the unknown depths of the phenomenal world. Still, at the present – and foreseeable – state of our understanding, all we can realistically hope to find in the neural labyrinths of the brain are Turing machines and more Turing machines. And these clockwork-like gadgets can't even match our capacity for mathematics, let alone loop back onto themselves somehow, and give rise to self-awareness.

It is possible that the Church-Turing thesis is saying something fundamental about the structure of the phenomenal world; or, perhaps it merely expresses an incompleteness of our knowledge of that world, a limitation that could be overcome in time. As things stand today, however, we cannot casually dismiss Leibniz’ insistence that the self, that one thing each of us knows truly is, must be something irreducible, a monad, and not an agglomeration of moving parts. Mindful of the questions which this leaves open, we conclude with Leibniz’ own words:
‘That which is not truly one being is not truly a being either.’

Read more:

Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm. The Monadology, 1714. Translated by Robert Latta, 1898,

About the author: Danko Antolovic is a scientist and technologist. He is the author of Whither Science? a collection of essays on the present and future of modern natural science. He has also written for The Philosopher in the past (Descartes’ Menagerie of Demons, Volume 103 No. 2, September 2015)

Address for correspondence: Danko Antolovic <>

Vital Education (2017)

From The Philosopher, Volume CV No. 2 Autumn 2017

At sunrise you start to look at the shape of the ocean. (Photo courtesy of the Polynesian Voyaging Society

By Andrew Porter

It would be fun to be light and breezy about the topic of education, but it seems an increasingly stiff breeze confronts us, with battleship gray clouds to windward. While some in response merely button up their jacket to the chin, others are setting about putting in a reef, and taking another look at the chart. The education world presents to us the sky in two directions, one the dark squall line of bad sailing in one direction, and the bright blue sky off in the other direction. On our boat in the middle, we consider the ideal blue out there to leeward and are not at all sure the squall will slide by us. We share thoughts about it with our boat-mates.

We like the idea and fact of education because it offers lavish expansion. We sense only the elasticity of the current lineaments, but foresee that it may, this decade or this century, show itself to be a good water-field for sailing instead of a very poor one. It may reveal itself of such expansion that our ignorance finally comes to light. 

Education in theory offers power to our potency. Full potency, as the germination of seeds teaches us, is in the living—a joining of the actual and potential. We learn from the green, organic world that potentiality and actuality never live in separate camps, nor separate tents, and if in separate but close bodies, well, there’s a lot of potential there.

What is it we shall call this singularity, this complete and thorough integration? We currently call it life, which we imagine as a kind of replete vitality, burgeoning and strong, delicate and assured. Inside becomes outside, outside becomes inside—and structures and timely processes, in the growth toward maturity, hold. What is this astonishing dance with resilience and reason, this sobriety with such elastic abandon? Life would not be life without continual potential. And education is meant mainly for performing this ceremony between the actual and potential.

The reason Finnish schools have become a model of sanity, balance, and education done right is that they pay attention to body, mind, and spirit. They do not let any of the three wander off and be left to its own devices. The ideas behind these schools and others like them are about the whole person, the whole teacher, and the whole community.

This wholeness suggests that fullness might come from education. How we might creatively craft it seems like an old question, but it is fresh as can be. What other models do we have that might serve to guide us in good directions?

 A Polynesian navigator sailing with Captain Cook could tell, at any given time and thousands of miles away, what direction Tahiti was. Such a traditional navigator, practicing his skills in the modern day—2500 miles away from Tahiti—says to those who would learn from him on the canoe: keep the vision of the island in your mind—if you lose that, you are lost. As he utilizes the stars and waves and sun and color of the sky, he conceives of pointing the canoe in a certain direction and bringing the island to the canoe. The parallels—or pontoons—to our lives and our voyages, whatever longitudinal position we are in, are obvious.

Polynesian wayfinding has a corollary in the navigation of education, which, we might say, also ‘involves navigating on the open ocean without sextant, compass, clock, radio reports, or satellite reports’. (According to Education, for teacher and student, is non-instrument navigation, and the preparation is not for the current materialistic world, but for some depth of life. Are we developing the skill to navigate life, with its vast reaches of water and its beautiful small islands, by natural means? What are the parameters of this wayfinding? This is the perennial question.

‘The wayfinder depends on observations of the stars, the sun, the ocean swells, and other signs of nature for clues to direction and location of a vessel at sea. Wayfinding was used for thousands of years before the invention of European navigational instruments.’

Has education gotten to the point of sincerely believing that the dome overhead will provide the most significant answers? Does our philosophy of education need to consult something, or will it always be adamant that it will rely on the non-natural? Is it only a question of memorising where the stars come up and where they go down?
‘The star path also reads the flight path of birds and the direction of waves.’
We read ourselves into the environment in the process.

 In life as in canoe voyaging, ‘you cannot look up at the stars and tell where you are. You only know where you are (in this kind of navigation) by memorizing where you sailed from. That means constant observation’. Mau, master non-instrument navigator as well as mentor and teacher, says you must compact ‘every time you change course, every time you slow down’ into a mental construct that allows and creates a continuity with integrity. You may be even now in the ‘box’, among a shield of islands, from which Tahiti is only 170–180 miles away.

Latitude matters. What will tell you? The stars. Education should awaken us to see them.
‘How do you tell direction? We use the best clues that we have. We use the sun when it is low down on the horizon. Mau Piailug has names for how wide the sun appears, and for the different colors of the sun path on the water”. And sunrise, as they say, is the most important part of the day. "At sunrise you start to look at the slope of the ocean—the character of the sea. You memorize where the wind is coming from.’ 
To his young students, Mau  says, ‘Everything you need to see is in the ocean, but it will take you twenty more years to see it.’ One student says that Mau ‘can be inside the hull of the canoe and just feel the different wave patterns as they come to the canoe, and he can tell the canoe's direction lying down inside the hull of the canoe. I can't do that.’

Education, as a reflection of the world, too often foists the non-natural on us, even as a goal, but we are all students — are we open to better outcomes? In the course of life, do we know the signs? Birds, at dawn, go ‘about 130 miles out… but when the sun goes down, [they] will rise up from the water so [they] can see, and will go straight back to land… The flight of the bird is the bearing of the island.’ 

Mau, correcting a student’s course north to the opposite direction, south, says to ‘wait one hour and you will find the island you are looking for’. After an hour, Mau ‘gets up on the rail of the canoe and says, “The island is right there”.’
‘And we all stood up and we climbed the mast and everything and we just couldn't see it. Vision is not so much about what you do—but how you do it. It is experience. Mau had seen in the beak of a bird a little fish. He knew that the birds were nesting, and they were taking food back before they fed themselves.’

Education, perhaps, is like being a loggerhead turtle hatchling, under the cover of sargassum, growing and learning. What is all this development for? we might ask. For holistic and intellectual development, we say, to prepare young people for all aspects of life—the working world, the culture, society, and individual interests. But to the extent education is meant to prepare them for society, I still ask: you mean the current mode of society or for an imagined society vastly improved, on the other side of a revolution? Isn't education the crux of the conceptions that would underpin going far beyond current society, which would surely be a Tahiti?

Present conditions in the world proclaim they are master, and we are serving slaves. Things as they are assert their claim to adamancy and dominance. But we must, to break our subservience, have the last word with them, as well as words with them before. Education, from whatever end it is engaged in, is worse than substandard if it is not such a chrysalis. Education should be a process of becoming more discerning, at current society's expense — more savvy to connect only with the world as fully vitalized by nature and by the fullest, most ethical forms of humanity. If we shirk responsibility on this issue our education fails appallingly.

Imagine preparing students for an improved world that doesn't, by most standards, exist — how wonderful! Butterflies flutter and live by innate powers; we must summon ours, yet with a similar naturalness. I want to be principally educated in the depths to which nature is illuminative about my best self, and how collective selves fit into that. It is a rich and far-reaching field of study. Present conditions — some tawdry, convoluted, lifeless, some wrong, ugly, and unawake — wither and desiccate in such learning.

You may agree that education is too vested and invested in society. Education’s particular duty is not only to be a retreat and respite from vicious, ignorant, or inertial societal ways, but an entire denunciation and demolition of them. It may be, however, that the prominent voice is: ‘Society is a mess and we know it. Nobody expects it to be redeemed, but we will deal with it the way it is. It's downright annoying, I know, but we've gone well past trying to change it for the better; our motto is: deal with it or get out of it.’

Education can properly do neither. Education that lives up to its name is a radical idea that does not ‘deal with’ society and its foibles any more than does a splendid, singular individual whose shadow society, later, partly becomes. Education also cannot retreat completely from society, but must articulate society's complete renovation, which is, on the scale from mild reform to radical revolution, four-fifths of the way to the latter. 

If education, then, is to guide us and free us, let it be for what we wish we did find, and will, because of the thoroughgoing sincerity of our wish. This aspiration may involve comedy or tragedy, but the process of education rightly involves renewal and regeneration of high aspiration grounded in nature’s potency. 

There is nothing more important in education than educating young people in what power properly is. It is to exercise freedom through the power of rightful wishing. Power is not, as some would have it, making everything conform to your life; rather, power is making your life conform to everything real, sound, and natural. Education has the chance to teach us that if the world knew what power is, it would be saved. The current forfeiture of power is sad and even terrifying. If education were geared to this one life-lesson, that a tool is best when power is equal between you and it, between human and nature, between freedom and order, everything efficacious would flow from it.

But as it is, the realm of education seems to feel itself largely powerless.

 Are the great majority of schools, we might ask, educating students away from their proper education? Education today is not a Shaolin temple, with master and pupil talking about the ripples on the water to learn intimately about flow and constancy and the exigencies of life. But isn’t education capable of riding youthful wonder better, of lighting a view of, say, environmentally responsible living, and thereby being a revolutionary force? 

Plato says in the Laws:
‘Education is the way to produce good men, and, once produced, such men will live nobly…’ 
– but I feel a slight chill in the spine, caused by fear and hope, when I read him say:

‘When [education] takes a false turn which permits of correction, we should, one and all, devote the energy of a lifetime to its amendment.’ 

How shall we assess the current schemes of amendment; do educators at all levels retain the ability to see what a true turn would be? Education can be started afresh, even, or most particularly, for ourselves. What else but the Good in some form is the end which children’s education seeks to fulfill in phases? What else could we possibly allow to be the means? 

What is all the education worth if you cannot recognise the good? Is education to make us savvy to the fact that there are competing goods? Are the long-extended roots and branches of the good outside the curriculum? Then education is outside itself.

 Education should not be afraid go to the roots of what it is hoping to inculcate. It should ask the big and basic questions: What is the end we seek? Do we distinguish between a straight-cut ditch and a meandering stream? What is the capacity of a human, and for what? Where and when students — which we all are — will receive beneficent influences is hard to reason out. We know the general scope of productive influences but we tend not to know where they will alight upon us. Look how students have different interests and bents at different ages. Has their wonder become lost?

The great force of intuition, as Emerson says, is too quickly channeled into tuition. How can a sound first instinct change properly in the process of learning and experience, and how can further experience suggest a new intuition?

 An ideal education, perhaps, says:
‘Follow your early intimations. Spend time on the suggestions of your wonder. Time and life, like fruit, are perishable. Appreciate the day with those early insights. Let your imagination play with its newly-sprung intimations, and run with their morning aspect. Let them lead you. Strengthen your legs in walking with them, and feel the flexible vitality of life.’

As education seeks to stimulate and extend natural development, it can have, as an objective for its students, wonder as a state of being. Wonder tends to see equally well within and without, and sacrifices neither the material nor spiritual. Wonder is nixed at too great a cost. And the most educated will tell you that learning tends to happen most powerfully in the various legitimate ways of being glad to be alive. This wonderment engenders the capacity for being further clued in to the richness of life, that amalgam of innocence and experience. One is not able to be fully glad to be alive without intellectual honing, familiarity with value, and realisation of connection. 

A colleague at school told me his opinion that kids are winding up not sufficiently educated. Alienation, lack of values, and unconcern for reality are, alarmingly, on the increase. What happens to the richness of life in this? Can the necessary and desirable aspects of living be deepened in a ‘dumb’ education system? For instance, if it is crucial that we alter education to guide people in living much more ecological lives, in tune with the health of the planet, don’t we need to start with vision and passion? What will bring about a series of curricula to vastly improve our relationship with the Earth? If we believe with Henry David Thoreau that ‘in Wildness is the preservation of the world’, how shall we understand or assimilate to that capitalised term?

Becoming in tune with reality, near and far, is perennially the boiling away of a number of illusions. The fullness and freedom of life depends on education, crucial in refining what is best to learn. A more sustainable, organic, and ecological life presents itself to the wise as highly desirable; how is education adept at crafting this both practically and theoretically? Education is an expeditious way to get to the most savored moments. Life seems to indicate that it wants to see itself in its most salubrious and complete form.

A former academic dean told me she said to a student that the purpose of education is neither to go to college nor to get a job, but to deal with life when a safe falls on your head or you have a withering disease. I added that education has great meaning not just in bad circumstances but in good ones too. If, without education, I said, you can only go to one-tenth the depth of happiness and understanding, you are as bad off as if you can't cope. 

Education at its best makes you glad that your capacities are taxed to be equal to what it illuminates. Greater savvy in distinguishing between what will be good and what will not be good is worth the price of admission. A safe falling on your head is only the half of it. What about when the safe of truth falls three feet from your head into the soft sand, and opens to reveal ingots of potential happiness, diamonds of ready understanding, and emeralds of latent life? That is when education, properly called, wells up and out into being, achieving equilibrium with goodness. 

So education is Janus-faced, looking to the dark gray sky to windward and to the cerulean blue to leeward. An ease of the sheets will send us more toward the lofty lighter end of things. Then there is one face, sunset-lit, letting the storm clouds, perchance, slide by. When the stars come out and the sky is clear, that face will front light still, reflecting the sparkle aloft in its own orbs, dreaming of tomorrow’s compelling breeze.

Andrew Porter is an experienced educator in the United States, and has taught English in both private and public schools.

Address for correspondence: Andrew Porter <>