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The Walls of the Universe

April 1st , 2014

There's an exercise called The Five Whys. You may have heard of it. The aim is to keep asking "why?" until you get back to the root of an issue. It's a good exercise; it teaches us not to accept face value, but it also makes an assumption. It almost makes us believe that we are capable of a broad perspective, that we can fully escape the context of something.

Last week I was in another country, talking to someone about education. I have a lot of conversations about education, some self-initiated, others through no fault of my own. My position on education is pretty clear: I think that school is fundamentally wrong. I think that subjects, lessons, teachers and grades comprise the worst possible way for children to learn.

Most of the time, when I'm talking to people in the UK, I can get this point across relatively easily. Not everyone agrees with it but more people than you might imagine will happily consider the perspective.

Most people in the UK don't realise how easy it is to take their children out of school here. Many don't even realise it's possible. Any yet they're often very quick to accept the fact, and engage with the possibilities.

However, in those countries where schooling is compulsory it's a very different picture. What's most noticeable is that many of the people in those countries find it really difficult to engage with the unschooling perspective on education. It's almost like we hit a wall.

But this post isn't about education, it's about context. What fascinates me about people in places where home education is illegal is that it often seems to define their perspective on it. I'm not generalising or saying it's true of everyone but the conversations I've had, where we appear to reach a limit of understanding, a fundamental disconnect, seem to suggest some hard-wiring.

This will be true of people in the UK on other topics of course. There will be things that are so programmed into us that almost no amount of "Five Whying" will enable us to escape our preconceptions. This seems increasingly the case when we talk about "digital".

Free will is an impossible concept. I was watching my daughter playing Flappy Bird on my phone and thinking about this stupid notion of "Digital Natives". Beyond all the assumptions that Digital is Good and that The Web Will Save Us, there are more damaging justifications around children's relationship with technology.

When we talk about how much children are into screens and technology we forget that we've created this context for them. In many cases screens are thoroughly absorbing for children purely because they're better than the rest of the crap we've made for them. Ask yourself whether you'd rather learn your times tables or play Minecraft. It doesn't mean that Minecraft is the future. It just means that times tables aren't.

So, sometimes we have to remember that we haven't made anything particularly brilliant; we've just created a little escape valve. The things we think are brilliant only seem that way because we mentally can't escape the context we live in. But we do need to escape that context, whether it's there because of society, or law, or our democratic system, or our love of technology. Sometimes it's there just because the alternative is impossible to comprehend, like a universe with no end.