Nonverbal Education in Aldous Huxley's "Island"

in #education8 years ago (edited)

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.

The flower

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:

Mistakes, Discipleship and The School Of Life. [Response to @onetree's post] by @omfedor

I put my son in timeout because I thought it was the right thing to do. by @boxcarblue

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

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

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.


I enjoyed the first two pages, especially. I agree that children could use more lessons in balance and understand how their brain and selves work. I'm not sure how well your proposed ideas of philosophy and psychology will work, but I suppose it is a beginning and better than nothing. Thank you for your post.

I believe science, wisdom of elders or gurus, religion, creative thinking, journal writing, mindfulness, and nature may all provide inspiration for better knowing ourselves.

Yes, I am proposing that parents and other people who care start experimenting with these or similar techniques of their choice. We may discover other approaches that work better but we do have to start somewhere. My first two pages only summarize and complain about the current situation. I think offering solutions is both a lot more valuable and a lot harder.

I wish I had paid attention to my elders and nature more often in the past! :-)

Thanks for responding. Yes, it's easier to complain then offer solutions. It like watching football from above, and say "why did you do that!?"

Lol, nice analogy. Thanks for your comments!

Also ask myself, does the future of our kids is in hands of the teacher? I have this question because teachers now have different way of teaching, they focus more on the brain side of the student and ignoring its morality. I see lots of students who are very good in schools but are very disrespectful.

They were not taught on how to be a good and responsible person.

The way the children are instructed to look at the flower passively without judgment reminds me of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain... looking at an object nonverbally and nonconceptionally.

Right, it's also nonconceptual. I just looked up Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. It looks like a fun book!

This reminds me of the current movie Captain Fantastic, which is about a homeschooled family trying to find this same balance between book-learning and direct experience. They're more focused on the physical and athletic aspects than I remember Island being, though I read it years ago and my memories are incomplete.
I wrote something quick and subjective about CF here:

Interesting. I haven't seen the movie. Maybe I shouldn't read your post yet because of spoilers?

They do some hardcore rock climbing as a team in Island.

I'd say teasers at worst. Nothing that the movie company wouldn't show on its own trailer site.
Maybe I should re-read that one. I'm working on a column about how the education of children is shown in SF generally, and that's a great counter-example.

Ok, thanks. That's a nice idea for a column.

what would you recommend I read first, island or education on the nonverbal level?

I read Island first and just enjoyed it as a novel. I'd recommend doing that and then looking up "Education on the Nonverbal Level" for free on JSTOR and reading the work of R. L. Zigler, who analyzes Huxley's educational prophecies. This depends on your objectives and preferences though, so you should decide!

Sweet, ill check out island first. Is it anything like a brave new world? I doubt ill read R.L. Zigler tbh.

I found it more enjoyable than Brave New World, maybe just because it's more positive, or maybe because Huxley's writing improved. I don't know. It's similar in some ways. :-)

I cant wait now. Thank you.

"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."

Love this - show that everything belongs to the same stream, one affects the other, etc. In the end, its showing children or anyone else for that matter on how to think, and not what to think - and probably the best way to do it is doing it non-verbally.. or discussing stuff at an elementary level. The moral classes that I went through as a kid told me not to kill, not to steal and such, but I've always wondered why they never discussed WHY should we not do this, and that, and open up the discussion. Awesome post - going to check out your post suggestions too :) Thank you!

Precisely. I completely agree. I was told not to kill, steal, or lie, but there seemed to be no way of discussing the reasons for not doing these things that didn't bring in religion and dogma.

I think teachers are afraid of imposing their own beliefs and opinions, and some parents feel they have to express the ultimately correct, or "perfect," set of beliefs to their children, but they don't have it yet, so they avoid these questions. We can show certain things nonverbally and in an elementary way without influencing kids' beliefs.

Thanks for checking out the suggestions. There's some good writing under the education and parenting tags that is being ignored.

I read Huxley's Island in high school. The one thing that stuck out most in my mind was the myna bird that would call out "Attention!" Attention!" and "Here and now!" "Here and now!" I had no concept of mindfulness back then, but I certainly do now. The practice of mindfulness helped guide me into my current graduate school aspirations and my interest in counseling psychology. Huxley was certainly a forward thinking individual. He certainly has made an impact in my life. Thanks for sharing.

That's excellent. I had no concept of mindfulness in high school and wish I had read this then! Yes, he was unusual.

Fascinating post, as always. I absolutely agree that education should be holistic. The ingredient I've looked into is factoring in the fact that all education shapes the structure, size, activity patterns and development of the brain. What I wonder is whether you can, maybe not quite personalize but something close, the experience so that development is also holistic. A well-balanced brain can surely do more with a well-balanced education.

Skipping back in time a bit, to our projects discussion, I'd like to get the router, the GPR and the Mandelbrot software well into alpha, bordering beta, by the end of the year. It might be possible to get one of them version 1.0 by then.

Thanks. I don't know that much about the development of the brain itself and neuroplasticity, but I agree that this should be taken into consideration in education. I feel like what you're wondering about is possible and I'd love to ask a neuroscientist about this. I have a hypothesis that brain patterns that are too solidified are connected with depression and dementia, but this is just because the clinically depressed and demented people I know are extremely set it their ways and rarely leave their comfort zones.

That sounds reasonable. The Mandelbrot software is the easiest to start with since I've built some in the past. :-) How about if I let you know the status of these projects by mid September (say Sept. 15) and then we go from there? I'll let you know if I have questions before then. I am getting married in 9 days, so I can spend a little time working on this now and A LOT of time after the wedding.

Sure, that works out fine. And best wishes on a wonderful wedding and a happy marriage.

Ok, great. Thank you!

Thank you so much for this! I am homeschooling my children as the government system is all about regurgitation, not critical thinking and just passing kids for showing up. Traditional schooling has the basic fundamentals but still is rooted in Christianity. Its hard to get away from some sort of social engineering! This is very interesting and I will be reading Island and then looking up Education on the non-verbal level.

I'm so glad you liked it. I completely agree with you about the government system! Yes, classical and traditional Christian education have good qualities but still involve social engineering.

I was lucky enough to have secular homeschooling parents who thought they could do academics better than the schools and refused to join the local Christian homeschooling organization.

Ah, ur an interesting lady!

"Public" I have related to the word "propriety" which adam smith uses and does a treatise on. It's useful for so many things we might connect on.

Reminds me all of Krishnamurti and his explanation of our conditioning, and whether or not we are born with it, or infused with it so quickly and early in our lives.

I remember when I was young, doing charades at a boys and girls club (sort of after school club for children with broken homes), a boy, even younger than I was started doing his chosen charade, Tarzan, jumping, yelling, etc., none of us could get it.... "everything in the world" he said. I sure learned so much from that.

Orwell for example, warned us of "big brother" but the NEW big brother seems to be cell phone camera lenses, that you can't get away with anything because people will post your misdeeds on line. In this, it is the aggregate of society that is our brother's keeper, or in other word(s): propriety.

Haha, thanks!

Interesting point about the word "public." Yes, this reminded me of what K says about conditioning too. It's not surprising that he and Huxley were friends. I think a lot of our conditioning is infused by education and upbringing early on. I don't know what we're born with, if anything.

Cool story about the boy too. Maybe through training, our minds become more dependent on language and logical thought as we get older. Are kids able to live "in the moment" more easily? Is that why a day seemed like forever when you were young?

The existence of Big Brother is facilitated by technology but is entirely due to people!

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