top of page

More Garden. Less Lab.



Back in the stone ages when I was an infantryman in the U.S. Marine Corps, I attended a specialized course in which I learned to climb mountains and buildings. Think rock climbing, but with guns and the wrong footwear.


The first couple weeks of the course we spent running up and down mountains carrying ropes and learning to tie what seemed to be approximately 1 million knots. To pass the course we had to tie these knots perfectly in a matter of seconds, with no crosses in the line…blindfolded.

Thanks for reading Adam's Curse! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.

Ever notice the amount of friction a rope zipping through your hands can create? Mine felt like fire after a week of handling the ropes every day for hours.


Just recently I was teaching my nine-year-old son a few of the knots, and we came to the prusik. This knot is as close to magic as I’ve ever seen. Pushed slowly up the rope to which it is tied, it slides easily. But as soon as you exert sharp downward pressure on it, the knot tightens and grips the other rope, arresting movement entirely with friction. Nudge it in the original direction and again it slides easily. Amazing. There are many uses for the prusik, but climbers use it to ascend ropes or to self-arrest.


Now, my son already knew what friction is…theoretically. But when he proudly demonstrated the prusik’s amazing arresting ability all that afternoon, he came to know friction more intensely, thoroughly, and memorably. The best learning is always like this: not just an idea or principle encountered in isolation or argument, but a lesson earned in the constant stream of experience.


The 19th Century philosopher and psychologist William James in his landmark book The Principles of Psychology, famously described his vision of human consciousness as a stream.

“Consciousness, then, does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Such words as 'chain' or 'train' do not describe it fitly as it presents itself in the first instance. It is nothing jointed; it flows. A 'river' or a 'stream' are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described.”

Rather than each thought, feeling, and moment occurring in syncopated progression, as if an individual’s consciousness was a road corduroyed with rumble strips, or a chain of connected pieces, James points out that thought, feeling, and time overlap and interpenetrate in a continuous progression, like the water in a stream that flows together. The direction of the current is similar to the linearity of time, and like a stream, consciousness itself is full of inlets and eddies in constant motion.


Often, and for good reason, we seek to isolate some part of consciousness from the stream. In education or argument we do so for the sake of clarity and simplicity, preferring to handle a discrete object rather than an integrated whole. It is a necessary approach—this analytic capacity—and it needs cultivation, but it is not itself sufficient in education, nor in political discourse.


Students who are trained and drilled in analysis, disassembling objects for study, without the reparative work of synthesis, are in danger of developing a fragmentary intellect that fails to see the connections between things. Missing the forest for the trees you might say.


Analysis breaks things down into parts and makes distinctions between them. It is typically considered the proper function of reason and beloved of pedagogues. Like Charles Dickens’ character Mr. Gradgrind in his novel Hard Times, analysis is all about the facts and most at home in the classroom. His student Bitzer defines a horse satisfactorily as: “Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.” Bitzer wouldn’t recognize a horse if he saw one, but he will graduate at the top of his class.


Synthesis, on the other hand, places things into relation with one another, makes connections, and integrates. It is chiefly a function of the imagination.


Metaphor and analogy are examples of synthesis: two unlike things are brought together to illuminate some truth. For example, “lion” and “heart” are just two nouns. One an animal, and one a body organ. But brought together to describe someone, they communicate attributes that neither one of them does on its own, and it communicates them more richly and memorably than an analytic effort to approximate “lion-hearted” with other words like: brave, courageous, magnanimous, royal, fierce. “Lion-hearted” is all of these at the same time.


A quick review of most modern school curricula and teaching approaches, both public and private, reveals that education today is chiefly an exercise in analysis. It is rare to find integrated approaches to education and rare to find schools or homeschools that intentionally afford opportunity for synthesis.


Our curricula organize subjects each in its own silo. Take for example this list of AP courses. Every subject is neatly packaged as discrete from the others despite the obvious overlap between, say, “Human Geography” and “Literature and Composition.” Of course, I understand that there has to be an organizing principle behind a curriculum and that this kind of topic list is useful organizer. My point is that this approach, which is thoroughly analytic, is so dominant and unquestioned that we struggle even to recognize the other possible ways to organize education which might work better for some students.


Not just topics but faculty too are sequestered from one another in separate departments. Even the physical environment of many schools reflects an emphasis on analysis rather than synthesis — the tools of each discipline are restricted to the room and time designated for that particular purpose. Music happens in the band room rather than the English class. Physicality happens in the gym (often in a series of isolation exercises) rather than in history or geometry.


But if James is right that consciousness is not a set of still-frames, but more like a stream, then synthesis in education is essential in order for that education to affect students and properly cultivate their humanity. So, instead of a topic driven approach, what about an experience driven approach? I’d propose that a savvy educator can take one experience and turn it into a hundred lessons drawn from different disciplines, and further, that mining lessons from experience erodes misleading barriers between the disciplines and allows students to integrate their education more fully. Integration, by the way, is the key to retention—lessons earned though experience are lessons remembered.


So what are we to do? The first step every educator should take is to plant a garden.


Gardens are making a comeback in many schools, but labs are still more common. An educational garden combines lessons in nutrition, biology, chemistry, art, physics, poetry, and character development with a multiplying effect of each on the others. In the garden, the gym teacher, literature teacher, and the biologist can share a classroom as well as a rich fund of experiential knowledge accruing in their students.


Keeping synthesis in mind, no more will education be a series of trees — this one history, that one physics — but instead a forest full of meaning. No more can students level the deadly question at hapless teachers, “When am I ever going to use this in real life?” In the garden, with its cycles of birth, growth, nourishment and consumption, students learn real life itself.


Yes, analysis has its place, but synthesis needs to reclaim its central role in education. As the poet Theodore Roethke wrote: “Things shed light on things, and all the stones have wings.”


This first appeared in the Dallas Morning News

Comments


bottom of page