19 April 2014

Killing our Minds One Lesson at a Time - Part 1: Participation

This year I wrote an Expository speech for Stoa, you know, the one with the boards and pictures, but unfortunately there was a whopping total of two competitors in Expos for nearly every Washington tournament I went to for the entire year (and that's counting myself) and I only managed to give it in competition twice. But hey, this is what this blog is for anyway, right?*

*namely, to continue rambling about abstract concepts regardless of whether anyone is listening

But I don't like abstract. In my experience, if anyone chooses the philosophical path in life, they will find themselves spending half the time battling intellectual bigots who insist that everything really  important in the universe has to be ten times more complicated than it needs to be, and the other half finding new ways to discover old truths that everyone knows but have somehow managed to forget. Hopefully none the ideas I present here will be lost in Abstract-Land--please let me know if it does.  

The genesis of this speech began with the discovery that the old gut-feeling I had as a kid that education is pointless is actually true.

Yes, you heard me. Education is not only pointless--it's making kids stupider.  From the start we already know the public school system isn't working--we've got bullies and drugs and shoot-ups and drop-outs and teachers going on strike.

But I am not writing this to bash public schools. We can easily blame all our problems on the government, but I think the problem goes much deeper than that. I've been home-schooled for most of my life, with one year of private school, and I'm currently enrolled in Bellevue Community College, which is technically public. I've been around long enough to see that both the home-school and the private school community is equally capable of producing idiots--perhaps a different kind of idiot--the aforementioned intellectual bigots who think they are smarter than the rest of the world because they can do trigonometry and know who-did-what in the war of who-cares-when.  The root problem in Western education encapsulates all communities--public, private, and home. 

So what is the problem? When your kid comes home from his school (or maybe home-school co-op) and tells you he can't see the point in math, instead of just telling him it will be useful later on, stop for moment and imagine what it's like to be a ten-year-old in the 21st century.

Every day he sits through eight hours of fragmented subjects that have no seeming relevance to each other.  What is taught in English is never mentioned in art. What is mentioned in math is never brought up in history. Not only that, but he is rarely given more than thirty minutes of recess and because of the ridiculously exaggerated injury policies he is hardly allowed to do anything active. No wonder he's failing to absorb the sheer mass of information--why should he? As mathematician Dr. Stanley F. Schmidt put it “What are we really teaching our students when we present the world as a bunch of “watertight” boxes? Where is the role model of the well-rounded individual?”

If you catch a child at an early enough stage in her life, you will find that work and play do not, in her mind, exist in two separate categories.  In fact, the concept of "category" is not naturally inborn in the human mind at all--to a child, everything, and I mean everything, participates in a larger whole.

Children crave meaning—they naturally strive to make connections.  My sister's nine-year-old piano student once told her that she was learning about circumference in school. She said she was really confused because she thought circumference was a person. My sister laughed and asked her to explain, to which she replied, “yeah, 'cause you know, ‘Sir Cumference.’” 

We dismiss these stories as cute little things that our kids say, but we don’t realize that humans are born seeking meaning. And if we can’t find meaning, we’ll make it up.  Unfortunately, meaning is not encouraged in Western education.  By teaching our children to separate work and play we render both of them meaningless and their future careers utterly futile. Work becomes in their minds associated with everything boring--numbers, balding white professors, sitting for unbearably long periods of time: in short, everything in store for them in their adult life. 

That leaves "play" as the only thing left they enjoy in life, and yet we tell them that play is unpractical, fun perhaps, but not really important, and therefore also meaningless. Where did we get the idea that work and play are completely incompatible subjects, or for that matter that any two subjects were somehow incompatible?

The more Western education imposes the compartmentalized agenda on this generation, the more children are forced out of their natural desire to make connections and will eventually dismiss all learning as drudgery--and rightly so. The common myth that it's harder to learn things when you get older has nothing whatsoever to do with age and everything to do with the cultivated mentality that there is no overarching meaning in the world. We are killing our minds one lesson at a time, and we call it progress.

Imagine education as a wine glass. Then imagine that the glass was broken, and every subject is one of the shattered fragments.  A shard of glass is useless—it cuts your fingers and its’ rightful place is in the trash. It’s absurd to study it for its own sake. The only way it can serve any use is if you are studying it for the purpose of reassembling the original glass. If we really wish to teach this generation anything, we must first teach them that every subject works together--you cannot compartmentalize them or take anything out. Education, as we will see, was not always compartmentalized, but rather was based off of a phenomenon which I am going to call "participation". You guys already know what the word participation means, but I'm using it as a philosophical term.

par·tic·i·pa·tion (noun) 


:  the act of participating
:  the state of being related to a larger whole
That's what we're looking for: The state of being related to a larger whole, or, more specifically, the act of restoring fragmented thinking. It's the art of putting the glass of reality back together. When I say that such-and-such is "participatory" I mean that it and everything it affects is happening perfectly within natural order. Think of participation as a well delivered joke. You know that guy who just tells jokes day in and day out and everyone's sick of him because he probably just stays up at night memorizing joke books. Even if he happens to stumble across the most brilliant joke in the world (An Irishman walks out of a bar) NOBODY is going to laugh. They just want him to shut up.
But the heart of comedy is finding that sweet spot--finding just the right time and place to deliver your punch line. Sometimes it doesn't even have to be a joke. Factor in the time of the day, the mood of your subject, their past experience, what they ate for lunch, etc. etc. and--BOOM--you can drop one word that can send them buckling over in laughter. You know what I'm talking about.  That's participation.

I draw the parallel between good jokes and participation because participation often makes us laugh. I don't blame my friends in Chemistry class for giggling at my random questions in Thermodynamics like "if nothing in the universe can be created or destroyed, then when Jesus was resurrected, where did all the sins go?" I get these whims every once and a while and I can't help from wondering about. (More on that later.) In fact, as I talked about in an earlier post, when the Disney artists study the art of "appeal", they are actually unconsciously studying participation.
Participation is all the mechanics of the universe working together exactly how it should be. It is what motivates us laugh, cry, dance, sing, explore, discover, and exist. It is what makes us human.
The word "participation" was first used in this context by the theologian Thomas Aquinas and later picked up by the scholar Owen Barfield and his fellow Inklings, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.  It’s the theory that everything in the universe was, at one time, perfectly unified.  The theory goes further to state that such unity has been divorced. Someone, or something, has broken the glass. And over the course of history, humans have made several attempts to restore that divorce. Let me show you what I mean:

Do you recognize this?

Today, musicians call it the “Common time signature”—the equivalent of four beats per measure.  But in fact, the “C” didn’t always stand for “Common”. It didn’t represent a “C” at all—it represented a half-circle, and at that time, was called “tempus imperfectum”—the imperfect measure. 


Why was it considered imperfect? Because the early Christians believed that all music ought to reflect the Trinity: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Therefore, a full circle was the equivalent of three beats per measure, known as “tempus perfectum”.


Now do you understand what’s going on here? This is an example of a time when music and theology were connected. That may seem strange to the modern mind, but it’s nothing new to the great geniuses of our time. You may know Albert Einstein as a scientist, but he was also a musician. When he got stuck on a math problem, he’d run to the piano, crank out a few tunes, then say “There, now I’ve got it” and run back to the blackboard. Some people thought that eccentric, but to him it was the most natural thing in the world. Well, the ancient world had the exact same idea—to them, music and theology were inseparable subjects.   If Einstein was born some 400 years ago he probably wouldn't have suffered in school—a system which forced him to think of music and physics in two separate categories. To him, that was ridiculous: they were part of the same world.

There are countless more historical examples of participation besides that, however. In Part 2 we will explore some more of those examples.

-The Minstrel Boy

P.S. Please let me know I am not talking to the wall by commenting and telling me what you think.


  1. That is so freakin cool. Where did you learn all that music stuff? I'd love to read more about it ^_^

  2. Oh, I learned it in my music theory class, on the beginning of the year on the first day in a brief five-minute introduction on the history of music :P There have yet to be any books written about it..

  3. This. is. awesome. Seriously, you've put words to something I've only vaguely begun to feel... looking forward to part 2!

  4. Heather - try "A History of Western Music." I've been taking pre-1600s music history, and while I haven't read much of it since it's not required for the class, I know it's got a lot of good things on the history of music notation.

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  6. So this is sort of anti-post-modernism: there's a narrative to everything.

    Minor correction: Einstein did not fail at school, at least in either science or math.
    source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_misconceptions#Modern_history

    1. Thanks. I was speaking in vague terms: Einstein did not like school, nor did his teachers like him, and it was more because he was ahead rather than behind--and kept on making connections in places that supposedly did not exist. Which is why he was taken out at an early age.

    2. I dunno man. I see what you're saying, but there may be better examples, possibly (the much reviled) Thomas Edison, or this nineteenth century scientist guy whom I forget (sorry). It sounds like Einstein did just fine. I don't think he started really questioning the establishment till he was at least done with primary education.

      On the other hand, anyone this swaggin' was probably not well liked by his classmates:

      (pardon the name change; I don't use blogger much)

    3. Oh. Weird. I don't know where I read the thing about leaving school early.