Nonverbal Education in Aldous Huxley's "Island"
Education is biased and limited
What are the first things that come to mind when you think of the education of young children?
In modern Western society, "getting an education" still primary means learning reading, writing, and arithmetic and then building knowledge on this foundation. All of this is done through the use and manipulation of symbols. In that sense, it's all verbal education.
You might say that we also let kids make art and play music, build things with their hands, exercise, and socialize, and that these activities are nonverbal or at least partly so. This is true, but we could be doing so much more.
We tend to see people in a fragmented way, and while we acknowledge that integration and balance are important, we don't really show children how to be balanced or why it's important. There's still an unnatural bias in favor of intellectualism, as if it's the most important approach to life. The only mention of the spiritual is often in the context of religion, with all of its images, symbols, and dogma.
Are we really surprised that the distorted and confused beings who emerge from years of this sort of training have trouble sorting themselves out and conducting their adult lives?
In his last novel, Island, Aldous Huxley proposes methods for training children in both symbolic manipulation and direct perception of reality without symbols. The education he describes here aims to be holistic without imposing any new conditioning on the children. There's also an emphasis on helping them observe and understand their own minds at an early stage in life.
Huxley wrote about this nonverbal education with a strange urgency near the end of his career. As far as I can tell, these proposals have not received the attention and consideration they deserve, even though people in the U.S. and Europe like to call a lot of his work "prophetic."
A good education may be defined as one which helps the boys and girls subjected to it to make the best of all worlds in which, as human beings, they are compelled, willy-nilly, to live. - "Education on the Nonverbal Level"
Parents (or future parents) who are considering homeschooling and those involved in private education are our ONLY HOPE for any real educational reform, so they should at least be aware of these ideas.
Huxley's ideas on nonverbal education
Island is a story (or as Alan Watts said, a collection of political and psychological essays thinly disguised as a story) of an outsider's visit to a Utopian society on the island of Pala. The visitor, Will Farnaby, becomes fascinated by the islanders' culture and asks to observe classroom activities at the local school for a day.
The Principal of the school tells Will that their process is to begin by observing each child's physical health and temperament, personality and preferences, whether they are easily manipulated or not, what their talents are, etc., and they ask questions like
"how can we educate children on the conceptual level without killing their capacity for intense nonverbal experience? How can we reconcile analysis with vision?"
Their attempt at an answer combines mindfulness with ideas of F. Matthias Alexander, the Australian actor who invented the Alexander Technique for eliminating harmful tension in the body, and John Dewey, who advocated for experiential and hands-on learning. There are some novel techniques as well.
The curriculum is heavy on biology and ecology and uses easily-grasped concepts from these fields to gradually lead into the deeper philosophical questions.
"Never give children a chance of imagining that anything exists in isolation. Make it plain from the very first that all living is relationship. Show them relationships in the woods, in the fields, in the ponds and streams, in the village and the country around it. Rub it in."
Here are a few striking examples of what happens in the Palanese school.
Elementary Applied Philosophy
Will observes a class of adolescents who are "only a year away from childhood." The teacher, a young man, says "symbols are public" and draws a row of circles labelled 1, 2, 3, 4, n on the board.
"These are people," he explained. Then from each of the little circles he drew a line that connected it with a square at the left of the board. S he wrote in the center of the square. "S is the system of symbols that the people use when they want to talk to one another. They all speak the same language - English, Palanese, Eskimo, it depends where they happen to live. Words are public; they belong to all the speakers of a given language; they're listed in dictionaries. And now let's look at the things that happen out there."
He points at the open window, then draws a square elsewhere on the board, labelled E for events, and connects it by lines to each circle.
"What happens out there is public - or at least fairly public," he qualified. "And what happens when somebody speaks or writes words -that's also public. But the things that go on inside these little circles are private."
Next, he asks the class to say the word "pinch" and then pinch themselves. The word "pinch" is public and the same for each of them, but all 23 students experienced a distinct and separate pain. There are "nearly three thousand million" distinct human pains in the world, plus those of all the animals, and there's no way for one of us to experience the others' pain except indirectly, through S.
Why not tell young children and adolescents these basic things about language, and let them mull them over?
We could easily combine this with teaching about the dangers of propaganda through George Orwell's 1984 and other sources. Words allow us to communicate, but are also a potential tool of violent, oppressive regimes. This would encourage healthy skepticism and freedom of thought.
One of the educators in Pala, Mrs. Narayan, explains a lesson on two ways of looking at a flower.
In a class of elementary school students, each is given a common flower like a gardenia and asked to use what they've learned about botany for the last few weeks to "write a full analytical description of the flower, illustrated by an accurate drawing." Then, after a short break, they're asked to consider the Mahakasyapa story from Buddhism. In this story the Buddha gave a "sermon" by just picking up a flower and admiring it. The teachers ask the students to consider what the Buddha meant. Was it a lesson about botany?
Next, the children are asked to look at the flower, not as a scientist and not analytically, but with passive awareness:
"Look at it as though you'd never seen anything of the kind before, as though it had no name and belonged to no recognizable class. Look at it alertly but passively, receptively, without labelling or judging or comparing."
Lastly, they're asked to "do the impossible," i.e., to write down in words what they experienced when they were looking.
This is something parents and tutors could easily experiment with! It would help a child see the huge difference between a word and the thing it represents so that he or she won't assume words and symbols are everything. It has the added benefit of encouraging spiritual or visionary experience without imposing any belief or concept.
Elementary Practical Psychology
There's a class on elementary practical psychology in which the teacher is leading kids in "pretending games." They close their eyes, and she's asking them to imagine various things and manipulate what they're imagining in increasingly complicated ways. When Will asks what the point of this is, she's says it's
"to get people to understand that we're not completely at the mercy of our memory and our fantasies. If we're disturbed by what's going on inside our heads, we can do something about it. It's a question of being shown what to do and then practicing - the way one learns to write or play the flute."
How many educated adults in our societies still act as if they're completely at the mercy of their memories and fantasies?
Experimenting with these techniques would help us raise more balanced and integrated individuals. The understanding that people need to be "well-rounded" is pervasive. Children and teens are told all the time that too much of one thing, whether it's study or socializing, is unhealthy, but being told this isn't the same as seeing it for themselves.
If you liked this post, check out these education and parenting posts by my peers:
My Love Affair With Educational Technology, Teaching, & Homeschooling Part I - Harness Your Creative Energy by @redredwine
The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique - Who was F. Matthias Alexander? (n.d.). Retrieved August 23, 2016, from http://www.alexandertechnique.com/fma.htm
Huxley, A. "Education on the Nonverbal Level." Daedalus 91, no. 2 (1962): 279-93.
Huxley, A. (1962). Island: A novel. New York: Harper & Brothers.
John Dewey, the Modern Father of Experiential Education. (n.d.). Retrieved August 23, 2016, from http://wilderdom.com/experiential/ExperientialDewey.html
Zigler, R. L. (2015). The educational prophecies of Aldous Huxley: The visionary legacy of Brave new world, Ape and essence, and Island. New York, NY: Routledge.