Please pardon the length of this blog today, and most especially if you are a visitor who has already read it. This chapter from my book, BREAKTHROUGH TO BRILLIANCE, is a true story about the most amazing day of my life. (It is just that I am trying to lay some groundwork as a later reference.)
One cold January, many years ago, I had a terrible, feverish case of the flu, two small babies, under age two, and no help. It was on this day that I looked at something “everybody else had seen, and thought something that no one else had ever thought.” (The essence of discovery, according to Albert Szent-Gyorgyi!)
Trying to figure out some way to make it through the day with my two babies, ages 9 months and 18 months (who were used to crawling all over the house) was no small matter. I was truly sicker that I’d ever been in my entire life. My throat felt full of coarse sandpaper and razor blades, my head was pounding, and I was dizzy and nauseated every time I lifted my head from the pillow. Every muscle felt bound with iron cables. It was clear that I certainly couldn’t leave those babies in their beds all day and listen to them cry. Neither could I give them the run of the house. They could easily choke on something or pull something over on top of themselves. Putting them in bed with me was not an option. I was one weak pup.
I finally hit on a scheme. I would confine them to my carpeted bedroom, pile my bed full of every sort of article I could find that was new to them, put those babies on the floor, and see how long I could keep them entertained. Dragging my weak, sick self from room to room with two large laundry baskets, I finally managed to round up all sorts of objects – – everything I could find with smooth edges, interesting shapes, colors, textures and safe moving parts or things that fit together. I searched cupboards, closets, and drawers — everyplace. I finally came up with scores of intriguing things, mostly just common, real, daily life objects and even a few toys (new to them since Christmas).
As I lay on the bed, alternately sweating and chilling, I would select two items, toss one to each and hope for the best. It worked like a magic trick! They quieted right down and went “to work.” After a time, I became mesmerized with drowsy fascination watching them, and tried to predict which object would give me the most time. Things with moving parts won. They also liked taking things apart; then trying to put them back together.
If they had worn glasses and lab coats, I could have been convinced that my babies had become little scientists. Chubby fingers touched every square inch, as big wide eyes examined each object. Sooner or later the thing would be tasted, gnawed, and sniffed. Then it would be squeezed, punched, smacked, and scrunched. Next it would be shaken, listened to, rolled and banged against something else. After that it would be lifted, scrutinized and examined from every angle. If they discovered something interesting along the way, such as a noise it could make, they would shake it over and over again. At last, they would try to take it apart, tear it, or reconfigure it. How hard they were working! How thorough they were in their investigations! How quiet and busy they were! And if they discovered a moveable part, they might spend a long time trying to figure out how to use it. (Yea!) And if they got it figured out, they would just sit there and do it over and over again. Then suddenly, one would be done with an object, throw it aside and start to act restless again. Plop! Down would go another object from my stash and the process would start over.
By sheer coincidence (or divine providence?) the afternoon mail delivered the book EDUCATION AND ECSTASY by George B. Leonard. It was the book club selection of the month.
Never in a thousand years would I have thought there might be a way to connect education (my own had been pretty dismal) with ecstasy. But there, right in the bedroom floor was evidence that ecstasy connected with learning actually existed. Never had my own babies spent such a totally joyous, fulfilling day! They were happy! They were good! They were calm! What a tip-off for future reference! I now realized how many times before they had just been crying to signal mere boredom.
By mid-afternoon, I was wishing I had about another thousand items to throw from the bed. In my feverish state, I imagined my little ones crawling right through the walls and taking up the exploration of the whole world, so they could be happy forever!
One thing I now knew for certain: my babies’ drive to learn was unstoppable, and the key to their deepest happiness. Did you get that? THE DRIVE TO LEARN IS UNSTOPPABLE AND THE KEY TO THE DEEPEST HAPPINESS. Hold that holy thought, for on it hangs the rest of my tale. I now saw them with new eyes. I realized that their chief motivation, drive, fulfillment and happiness in life was to learn and discover. It was natural, normal, totally built in and ready to propel them forward. All they needed was freedom in an environment that supported such exploration to the ends of the earth (or universe).
Was it just a thing in babies I wondered? Did it apply to adults as well? Meanwhile, reading Leonard’s book, between my “toss-overs,” I was becoming more convinced by the minute that true learning was indeed meant to be an experience of ecstasy. His words were falling on wide, alert eyes and a hungry heart. I deeply took in every word I read, agreeing with it passionately. It stirred huge, fresh thoughts in me. I felt like a new part of my brain had been activated.
Around sunset, I stood looking out my bedroom window, thinking how grand it would be to have a perfect place for my children to keep on safely exploring everything on the planet. The thought of this incredible drive to learn ever being squelched now seemed Tragic with a capital ‘T.’ Knowing that within a few years they would be confined to desks in a classroom left me incredulous. I had seen something so amazing, so precious, and so hard to believe that I wanted to shout it from the rooftops.
Not only that, but after observing them, I realized that all babies have the same miraculous and glorious potential, the same beautiful drive to learn. Suddenly something seemed terribly wrong, like a Christmas tree with all its twinkle lights disabled. My babies were in a world that didn’t recognize or accommodate this glorious power. The realization of this piercing fact left me shaken to the core.
“Oh dear God,” I prayed, as I stood looking out across the cold, grey landscape, “what IS the answer?”
Was it the sudden shaft of misty, golden light in a darkening winter sky, or was it an effect of my feverish brain (and thus my over-stimulated imagination) that made me think I was receiving a divine revelation? I don’t know. But at any rate, I saw, as clearly as I have ever seen anything, an amazing place, perfectly prepared, and open for all to learn about everything in the world. There, before my eyes, was the perfect learning environment. I stood transfixed at what I gazed upon, noticing every detail. What a beautiful place it was! It was a bit like a shopping mall: there were people strolling, seeking, exploring, and learning as they went. They were not shopping for merchandise, but instead, they seemed to be seeking experiences that helped them discover and understand new things. All ages were there, from babies to senior citizens. Everything was very orderly. It seemed both intricate and simple. It was a magnetic place, compelling to the senses. There were no teachers, no classrooms, and no textbooks and yet it was obvious that true and deep learning was going on everywhere. Everyone seemed totally free, extremely happy and intensely motivated. I wanted to see more and more, even go there myself, but soon the vision faded, darkness came and the realities of my life came back with a thud.
The vision left me dumbstruck. It was so “beyond words” that I literally couldn’t talk about it for years. There didn’t seem to be any adequate vocabulary pertaining to “education” that expressed how it made me feel in my heart to see people of all ages so happy, so absorbed, so transformed.
Friends and relatives wondered why I wanted to talk about “education” all the time. It was the only word I knew that seemed related to the visionary learning place. After all, hadn’t Mr. Leonard connected this word with ecstasy? (Oh, if he had only known how he, by using the word “education,” was throwing me off the track and would cause me to wander in the wilderness for decades!) I felt propelled to do something so I decided to try to change “education.” For many years, I basically went about doing all manner of foolish and useless things. I earned a masters’ degree in School Administration and Supervision, driving ninety-five miles round trip every day, until I finished with a 4.0 average. I then undertook an extensive door-to-door canvas to assure myself, with documents and questionnaires, that the community heartily endorsed my plan. Soon after, I became the first woman ever elected to public office in my small southern county. I served on the school board and managed to convince the town to build a new “open space” learning facility.
Working hand-in-hand with the supervisor of instruction, I proposed a hands-on learning scenario, which became tagged as “The Practical Arts Program.” This actually won national awards, causing people from Washington D.C. and around the country to visit it. I fervently worked in all sorts of capacities at the local, regional and state levels. Some people actually thought I was making progress and doing a good job. I received awards, accolades, publicity and congratulations.
But I knew the truth. Something was wrong, terribly wrong. There was a monstrous gap between my vision and what was actually going on, and I couldn’t figure out how on earth to fix it. I didn’t run for re-election to the school board after my six-year term, but instead turned away from trying to reform “the system.” I focused on enriching my own children’s learning, but I also began to go up all sorts of blind alleys looking for venture capitalists, “angels,” and philanthropists to help me make my dream come true. Most of those people and organizations, however, were still thinking “inside the box.” But several of those who “got it” actually tried to “appropriate” the ideas you’re about to read, and so I was encouraged that perhaps I really was “onto something.” I learned to keep most of it “under wraps.” Frankly, nothing I did truly advanced the cause. After my children were grown, I decided to explore my own learning potential and discovered that, just as I suspected, I actually had plenty of it (just as we all do). I taught myself to play a musical instrument, traveled and hiked all over Europe, learned to paint, researched human capabilities, studied ancient history and biophysics, read extensively and joined mind-stretching discussion groups.
Since then, countless brief incidents and divine glimpses into the learning power of children would cause my heart to skip a beat. Again, I felt the keen sense of tragedy about how their potential would be ignored. Finally, urged by friends and relatives to write a book, I decided to just throw it all “out there.”
Strangely enough, it was only in doing so that the real truth finally became crystal clear to me: Traditional education has a fatal flaw. The harm it is doing is inestimable, and much to blame for many of the planet’s ills. The bad news is that all efforts to fix it have been, and will continue to be, in vain. The good news is that we can simply side-step it. We no longer have to believe that it can reform itself, nor wait for this to happen.