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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.
  • 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.

Getty Images

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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So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

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