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Philosopher Alan Watts: 'Why modern education is a hoax'
Explore a legendary philosopher's take on how society fails to prepare us for education and progress.
- Alan Watts was an instrumental figure in the 1960s counterculture revolution.
- He believed that we put too much of a focus on intangible goals for our educational and professional careers.
- Watts believed that the whole educational enterprise is a farce compared to how we should be truly living our lives.
A prolific orator, writer and philosopher, Alan Watts was one of the first contemporary figures in the early 20th century to bring Eastern Zen philosophy and thought to a large Western audience. He was an instrumental figure in the 1960s counterculture revolution and continued to write and philosophize until his passing in 1973. His lectures and writings today seem to be seeing a resurgence in popularity.
With countless hours of his lectures sprawled online, sampled into dreamy chillwave music and the likeness of his voice even featured as an advanced A.I. in the movie Her, it seems Alan Watts still has a whole lot to tell us.
Alan Watts' advice on education is more prescient now than ever
In our current age of industrialized mass anxiety, students and educators alike are working more grueling and unproductive hours, while at the same time they're still underperforming when compared to more relaxed and productive educational systems, like those in Scandinavia.
Here is an Alan Watts pronouncement that sums up a large part of his philosophical outlook.
"If happiness always depends on something expected in the future, we are chasing a will-o'-the-wisp that ever eludes our grasp, until the future, and ourselves vanish into the abyss of death."
Taking into account some of Watts' philosophy, we can shift our views on the subject of life, learning and education through a more inspired and whimsical viewpoint.
School’s endless cycle of preparing us for what’s next
Photo: Frederick Florin/Getty
For the great majority of us, our early lives were defined by the ever-increasing grade scales we progressed through, from elementary school into middle school and so on. These were our internal ranking and status symbols as we barreled through our early life's big biological and mental changes, shifting from one well-placed rung to the next and following our teacher's orders if we wanted to keep up with the already-laid path for becoming a successful member of society.
Alan Watts found this idea a strange and unnatural progression of our early lives, and something that was indicative of a much deeper-seated issue in how we view the nature of change and reality. Watts says:
"Let's take education. What a hoax. You get a little child, you see, and you suck it into a trap and you send it to nursery school. And in nursery school you tell the child 'You are getting ready to go on to kindergarten. And then wow-wee, first grade is coming up, and second grade, and third grade.' You are gradually climbing the ladder towards, towards, going on towards progress. And then when it gets to end of grade school, you say 'high school, now you're really getting going.' Wrong."
Whether we consciously recognize it or not, this expectant progressive nature of reality we foster during our school years is something that becomes an undeniable fabric of the way we live and think. It sticks with us our whole lives.
We're constantly moving forward to some goal that's just out of reach—never within the now, always later or after this or that accomplishment has been reached.
Watts believed that this same logic applies to us once we leave the tiered school system. He goes on to say:
"But on towards business, you are going out into the world and you got your briefcase and your diploma. And then you go to your first sales meeting, and they say 'Now get out there and sell this stuff,' because then you are going on up the ladder in business, and maybe you will get to a good position. And you sell it and then they up your quota.
"And then finally about the year 45 you wake up one morning as vice president of the firm, and you say to yourself looking in the mirror: 'I've arrived. But I feel slightly cheated because I feel just the same as I always felt…'"
Have I arrived yet?
Jacques Hoist via Flickr
Here Alan Watts touches on a classical bit of Buddhist philosophy—the idea that there really isn't in fact anything to strive forward to and desire. Watts ties this aspect into the desire of one-upmanship in the educational system bleeding into our professional lives. This is an example of the unending ennui of materialistic pursuit in some form or the other.
Alan Watts goes on to say:
"Something is missing. I have no longer a future.' 'Uh uh' says the insurance salesman, 'I have a future for you. This policy will enable you to retire in comfort at 65, and you will be able to look forward to that.' And you are delighted. And you buy the policy and at 65 you retire thinking that this is the attainment of the goal of life, except that you have prostate trouble, false teeth and wrinkled skin.
"And you are a materialist. You are a phantom, you are an abstractionist, you are just nowhere, because you never were told, and never realized that eternity is now."
Now rather than falling into a passive nihilism (which is where Buddhist thought can lead) Alan Watts instead argues for being within the here and now. Learn for learning's sake! Eternity is now… that is to become fully part of the process—whatever it may be—and do not focus on an ever elusive end goal.
Not tying ourselves to the end result is something most people will never understand because it's counter intuitive. This ideal was a central focus of Alan Watts' philosophy.
In the opening chapter of his book The Wisdom of Insecurity, he coined the term "backwards law," of which he says:
"When you try to stay on the surface of the water, you sink; but when you try to sink you float."
This koan of his illustrates that when we put too much pressure on ourselves to meet some ideal or goal in the spectral future, we detract from the working process at hand. It will never be reached because what needs to be done isn't our central focus.
Conversely, by being completely involved in the present, those elusive goals in the future could one day come to fruition. This is where the concept gets muddled for some.
But it can be simply summed up as follows: not looking towards the future will prepare you for it.
A flawed system from the start
Alan Watts likened compulsory education to the penal system.
Alan Watts felt the educational system failed us by the very way it prepared us to look forward to the rest of our lives. An idealized version he cooked up in his head of what a great educational upbringing would look like can be gleaned from this passage:
"When we bring children into the world, we play awful games with them. Instead of saying, 'How do you do? Welcome to the human race. Now my dear, we are playing some very complicated games, and these are the rules of the game we are playing. I want you to understand them, and when you learn them when you get a little bit older you might be able to think up some better rules, but for now I want you to play by our rules.'
"Instead of being quite direct with our children, we say, 'You are here on probation, and you must understand that. Maybe when you grow up a bit you will be acceptable, but until then you should be seen and not heard. You are a mess, and you have to be educated and schooled until you are human.'"
He even likened the compulsory educational system as having heavy religious undertones.
"'Look you are here on sufferance. You are on probation. You are not a human being yet.' So people feel this right on into old age and figure that the universe is presided by this kind of awful God-the-Father parent."
Much of this still resonates with us today. Alan Watts' sage advice on education just might be the thing we need to revisit if we're to escape the monotonous reality of modern education.
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Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.
- The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
- The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
- It will feature an artificial moon, cloud seeding, robotic gladiators and flying taxis.
The Red Sea area where Neom will be built:
Saudi Arabia Plans Futuristic City, "Neom" (Full Promotional Video)<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c646d528d230c1bf66c75422bc4ccf6f"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/N53DzL3_BHA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Coronavirus layoffs are a glimpse into our automated future. We need to build better education opportunities now so Americans can find work in the economy of tomorrow.
- Outplacement is an underperforming $5 billion dollar industry. A new non-profit coalition by SkillUp intends to disrupt it.
- More and more Americans will be laid off in years to come due to automation. Those people need to reorient their career paths and reskill in a way that protects their long-term livelihood.
- SkillUp brings together technology and service providers, education and training providers, hiring employers, worker outreach, and philanthropies to help people land in-demand jobs in high-growth industries.
Source: McKinsey Global Institute analysis [PDF]<p>Work in understanding the skills at the heart of the new digital economy is leading to novel assessments that allow individuals to prove mastery to faithfully represent their abilities—but also to give weight and stackability to the emerging ecosystem of micro-credentials that make education more seamless across time and education providers. And we are seeing the beginnings of a renewal in the liberal arts, focused on building human skills in affordable ways that are accessible to many more individuals and far more effective.</p><p>Amidst these dark times, there is much opportunity to refresh the nation's education and training solutions to support the success of individuals and society writ large.</p>
Do we really know what we want in a romantic partner? If so, do our desires actually mean we match up with people who suit them?
- Two separate scientific studies suggest that our "ideals" don't really match what we look for in a romantic partner.
- Results of studies like these can change the way we date, especially in the online world.
- "You say you want these three attributes and you like the people who possess these attributes. But the story doesn't end there," says Paul Eastwick, co-author of the study and professor in the UC Davis Department of Psychology.
Do we really know what we want in love or are we just guessing?<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="204859156383d358652fda6f7eadda0f"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/vQgfx2iYlso?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>More than 700 participants selected their top three qualities in a romantic partner (things like funny, attractive, inquisitive, kind, etc). They then reported their romantic desire for a series of people they knew personally. Some were blind date partners, others were romantic partners and some were simply platonic friends.</p><p>While participants did experience more romantic desire to the extent that these personal connections of theirs (people they knew) had the qualities they listed, there was more to the study. </p><p>Paul Eastwick, co-author and professor in the UC Davis Department of Psychology <a href="https://medicalxpress.com/news/2020-07-romantic-partner-random-stranger.html" target="_blank">explains</a>: "You say you want these three attributes and you like the people who possess these attributes. But the story doesn't end there." </p><p>The participants also considered the extent to which their personal acquaintances possessed three attributes nominated by some other random person in the study. For example, if Kris listed "down-to-earth", intelligent and thoughtful as her own top three attributes, Vanessa also experienced more desire for people with those specific traits. </p>
Does what we want really match up with what we find?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQ0NDA4Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTU5NjM3NzY5OX0.gdUo-UbjYhKUDOL39BDZseRynbwaK2H5dfJtbV0nw8Y/img.jpg?width=980" id="ff376" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="7c1e3a1bb9d576872ef5dce39b2e8e80" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="illustration of a man and woman matching on a dating app" />
What we claim to want and what we look for may be two separate things...
Image by GoodStudio on Shutterstock<p>So the question became: are we really listing what we want in an ideal partner or are we just listing vague qualities that people typically consider as positive?</p><p>"So in the end, we want partners who have positive qualities," Sparks explained, "but the qualities you specifically list do not actually have special predictive power for you." </p><p>In other words, the idea that we find certain things attractive in a person does not mean we actively seek out people who have those qualities, despite saying it's what we want in a love interest. The authors of this study suggest these findings could have implications for the way we approach online dating in the digital age. </p><p>This isn't the first study of its kind to suggest that what we find in love isn't really what we were looking for. The evidence suggests that we really are consistent in the abstract of it all: when asked to evaluate what you want on paper, you are more likely to suggest overall attractiveness in accordance with what you've stated are important ideals to you. But real life isn't so similar. </p><p>According to <a href="https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/meet-catch-and-keep/201506/when-it-comes-love-do-you-really-know-what-you-want" target="_blank">Psychology Today,</a> who covered a 2015 study with similar results, initial face-to-face encounters have very little effect on our romantic desire. "When we initially meet someone, our level of romantic interest in the person is independent of our standards."</p><p>While you might have no immediate interest in John, he may fit your criteria of being kind, loyal, and intelligent. Similarly, someone may be attracted to Elaine even though she doesn't have any of the qualities they originally said were important to them. </p><p><strong>What does this all mean? </strong></p><p>The authors of both the 2015 and 2020 studies say the same thing: give someone a chance before writing them off as a poor match. If your initial attraction is independent of the standards you've set out, the qualities which you've listed as important to you, the first time you meet someone may not give you enough information to make an informed decision.</p><p>"It's really easy to spend time hunting around online for someone who seems to match your ideals," said Sparks, "But our research suggests an alternative approach: Don't be too picky ahead of time about whether a partner matches your ideals on paper. Or, even better, let your friends pick your dates for you." </p>