Part I: A preamble and introduction

As a personal preamble I will not tell you about my superficial data, but would like to point out why and how my interest in the subject of education came because of my quite disappointing past experiences as undergraduate and graduate Ph. D. student in universities courses, where no place was left for a free intellectual development, no freedom to discover, explore, and where no joy of self-learning was allowed. And it is perhaps because of my innate thirst for freedom and independence since childhood that I can’t remember to have had a much better feeling at school either. Therefore, even if you might not relate it to your youth which was (hopefully) conditioned by more encouraging educational experiences, and even at the cost of appearing the type of guy who seems continuously to feel sorry for himself, let me make a brief summary of my personal experiences from childhood to adulthood.

It all began already short after kinder garden, in the first years of elementary school. I was fascinated about birds. For some reason I felt a passion for knowing everything about their names, life and species. When I asked my teachers if I could make a research and read something about it, I was told that sure I could do so, but I had to wait a couple of years still, while I should learn reading first. “How can you learn something about birds if you even can’t read?”, was the answer. Sure, that sounds extremely rational, doesn’t it? But apart from the fact that I never learned anything about birds, neither the couple of years after, nor during all the time at school, and it became very clear that it was only an excuse, more precisely a lie, told to a child in order to control its innate curiosity and bring him back to obedience, the question is: why not learning to read by letting a child study ornithology? Would that really have been an impossible solution? Bureaucratically speaking it was indeed: the system did not allow for separate paths, everyone had to learn on the same books and in the same way. That is why I had to learn, as everyone else, on extremely boring grammar books with ridiculous dialogues like “Hello, my name is Udo. I am Ina, what is your name? What time is it? Dora drives a car. Peter asks Dora”, and other dozens of similar idiotic phrases, which had to be written down and repeated like parrots by children who, perhaps, could instead have learned all that much better and faster if their inner desire to know much more fascinating things about the world would have been allowed. After all, children learn to speak exercising their communication skills with others and interacting with and in the world. Why is it forbidden then to learn reading by studying something which tells me about the real world, instead of going through abstract grammar books? This was one of the first impressions that left a deep trace in me and marked the beginning of a long journey in an educational matrix, which illusionary and delusionary aspects however revealed itself to my consciousness much later.

In another couple of episodes that remained in my mind I recall what happened in the few occasions in which I was allowed to effectively follow my interests. When I did so, the back-reaction spoke volumes. During a class in geography I was once allowed to investigate about the birth and death of stars. In a rapture of enthusiasm I wrote a report which I read in front of the class about the evolution of stars, from the first collapse of the gas nebulae to the last stages of nuclear burning, which is characterized by that strange dance of contraction and expansion phases. My teacher was shocked. Since she was absolutely ignorant in astronomy, instead of informing herself how things really work, she had nothing better to say that I was fantasizing.

A similar experience happened when for the first time our math and physics teacher dared to open a little door in favor of self-learning allowing everyone in the class to pursue one’s own interest on a topic we could chose. While most seemed to be confused and felt stressed in adjusting to a new (even though only temporary) new ‘learning by doing’ activity, I was all too happy and immediately chose to begin a research on electronic logic gates, i.e. that kind of circuits that are at the base of every CPU in computers. With the NAND gates I then showed how it is possible to build a ‘Flip Flop’, i.e. a bi-stable electronic circuit, or in other terms a single bit of memory. I was fascinated by the fact that computers have a memory, and wanted absolutely to know how it works. I was able to explain this in detail and remember how all the class listened in a surreal silence at every word I had to say, and certainly not because of the content (I doubt they were particularly interested in knowing what an AND, OR, XOR and NAND gate is), but probably they heard in my voice the passion for knowledge and discovery that came from my mouth, even though I wasn’t really aware of it at that time. But for some reason all that was not digested by my teacher, since I “repeated only something already known”, he said. That confused and continues to confuse me until today, and  caused an uproar of protest by my classmates (a rare case of solidarity I was not used too). I certainly did not expected that kind of objection just from an institution which fostered always only a mechanical repetition of notions and always killed every attempt of creative thinking.

I was about 15 years old and the desire to learn new things was not only always there but, worse, it directed its attention to more complex topics already at the college or university levels. But that tendency was crushed quickly and efficiently, not by imposing rules, but triggering the fears and inexperience of a timid and unsecure teenager. “You are too young. You cannot understand”, was the usual argument. How many youngsters that dare to go beyond the rigid delimitations of the pre-assigned learning path get to hear this? My family members were not particularly authoritarian, but even not supportive either. I remember what happened when I insisted in reading a book on the theory of relativity: from my father came the same objection and my uncle, whenever he saw me with one of Einstein’s popular book in my hands, began to shout as obsessed “he can’t understand, he can’t understand”. And indeed I could not understand where the formulas Einstein wrote in that booklet came from (Lorentz transformations), believing that they must be just obvious and intuitive to everyone, except me (only later I realized that Einstein didn’t make it clear that he just wrote them down omitting the proof, and which can be found in every textbook).

During the pre-college school I could remember dozens of other similar anecdotes, but the real impact with the dry and encrusted education system came with the enrollment in the first years of my physics university studies. Destiny kindly (and nowadays I don’t say that completely with irony, but perceive the real ‘kindness’ in that) assigned me the most authoritarian professors, who imposed their own topics that were almost useless for a real understanding of physics, and that were making part of a cast of untouchables that could make whatever they wanted without any risk of legal consequences. I have gone through them all. The worst case scenario seemed to be accurately designed for me. For instance, my professor of calculus I, did not allow for questions being made during or after lectures. After having gone through an awful set of sterile notions throwing it on the blackboard in an incomprehensible way, if asked for clarification by students, his answer was: “You don’t understand? Study!” I spent a year in studying exclusively point-set topology, without learning nothing about derivatives, or integral calculus. A huge waste of time which could have been much more fruitful if I could have followed my intuitive feeling which suggested me to deepen group theory, and which indeed could have been much more productive for me when studying quantum mechanics. Calculus II was not much better. I had the honor of being a student of a professor who decided that never ever would more than 10% of his students been allowed  to pass his exams. You could answer all questions correctly, but if more than 10% of the students did too, you could be rejected according inscrutable selection criteria. The course in linear algebra was all about projective geometry, quadrics and conics, indeed a nice topic, but almost devoid of all the other important notions of linear algebra a physicists badly needs. They called this ‘freedom to teach’, but no one considered a legitimate question if there should also be a freedom to learn.

But what struck me more than anything else was how I had to go through the full immersion of the so called ‘shut up and calculate’ philosophy. That kind of climate I could live and breathe in every cell of my body. It is that kind of cultural and epistemological attitude in modern physics which avoids the ‘framing of hypotheses’, as Newton used to say (but secretly used to do so continuously, as lots of historical documents clearly show). That kind of thinking which refrains from questions of ‘why’ things are as they are, and avoids any deeper philosophical research for meaning. What only matters is that to become able to make calculations and faithfully to reproduce complicate sequences of equations which are supposed to describe the physical world. No wonder that theoretical physics nowadays finds itself stuck into a Platonic hyper-uranium which seems to be unable to go beyond the standard model of particle physics. What I felt in all my university path is that the ‘shut up and calculate’ attitude negates at its very core an aspect of the human nature itself. Sooner or later we have to pay a tribute for this mistake. It was for me quite obvious that if you look at the world from the perspective of a machine, you will end up like a machine, and find yourself bumping your head against an impenetrable wall of mysteries, like those we are facing with modern quantum gravity theories and which are showing up to be a failure after another. During my studies I had to lose an incredible amount of time in concentrating on useless stuff as distributions (generalized functions), whereas I wanted to learn about tensor analysis, Lie algebras, and differential geometry. But I wanted especially to deepen my knowledge about more philosophical issues as the relativity paradoxes and the foundations of quantum mechanics. But for that a course neither in the physics nor in the philosophy department existed. My attempt even to timidly discuss these issues was branded as an uninteresting time loss. It was another time, another era, before the quantum computers mania, and fortunately today the atmosphere changed. But I felt violently forced into learning exam after exam mountains of concepts that for me were useless and indeed an unimaginable loss of time, because almost nothing remained in my mind.

The day arrived where I could no longer bear it. I left university for several years and went to work as a dispatch rider, or as a popular science lecturer in a city planetarium (the only job I ever enjoyed, even if underpaid), or even as a paperboy, and survived in one way or another. But finally an inner call, a spiritual longing, a thirst and a doubt continuously was present in me. I felt dissatisfied, out of place. On one side I learned to hate the academy, on the other I love what it studies. This inner tension reached a new, almost schizophrenic  breaking point, so that I returned back to university. With a distressing but constant rhythm I gave one exam after another on subjects that I felt having nothing to do with what I had in mind to do in physics. From being forced to build a radio in our electronics course to learning chemistry (does it really make sense to impose chemistry to every physicist?), whereas I wanted to build a seismograph (“that’s not allowed, we are democratic here, everyone must do the same”, they told me) or, in chemistry learn something about biophysics.

And finally I made it. After about 15 years (yes, 15….), I graduated with a thesis in astrophysics. That was one of my rare occasions where I could really express myself, and enjoyed learning and studying, since I was relatively free to make my own research. In fact a couple of articles were generated from that research on the Oort comet cloud dynamics in a galactic potential. But graduation did not make me happy, quite the contrary. How was it that it took so long? Why did others succeed much better and many of them managed to be hired by important international institutions? I felt unworthy and depressed. And especially old. A 35 years old graduate is considered by academic standards an old wreck. I had already lost the train, and all the possibilities to make a career. As someone confessed me during an application process, my CV was trashed on the spot without further reading only for that reason.

So I renounced again for a career in physics. Lived for another six or seven years as a nomad, an academic scrap good for nothing, doing the most boring works, from private lessons, or reinventing myself again as popular science speaker, or becoming a programmer for psychology Ph.D. students (ironically doing for them what they were supposed to do, and permitting them to become what I wanted to be). The cycle repeated itself, the story was already seen and lived. And yet my passion for science did not diminish. During these years I had several ideas of mathematical physics that were developed and even published in peer reviewed journals. I found myself doing a job I officially didn’t have and yet dreamed of: doing research and publish. What a pity tough that some journals don’t publish if you don’t have an affiliation, and when I asked it to some of my former professors they refused it because of fear that they could be blamed by the faculty hierarchy. I published nevertheless, with fake affiliations.

But it became clear that this could not be my life. It makes no sense to live as an almost full time researcher, to publish papers, and yet remain outside universities. Again my mind focused towards academy. What about a Ph.D.? At 42? Useless to say that the chances of success were extremely low. And in fact, despite the several papers published, and having shown to be fit in different areas from astrophysics, through statistical mechanics, to mathematical physics, a skill you will rarely find in young applicants, all attempts to get enrolled in a Ph.D. were rejected. I was too old. Period.

In one application, for six free Ph.D. positions, I ranked 12th over 25. Well, not so bad after all, but not enough. And yet destiny sometimes comes to rescue. Because the other six before me left for one reason or another. Suddenly I was projected into a new world of sympathetic youngsters. “I would have certainly preferred someone younger, but that’s the law, I’m forced to accept you”, was the warm welcome I received from my new Ph.D. tutor. The time passed as graduate student  wasn’t that great either. Again I was forced to study a subject I wasn’t interested in, silicon nanophotonics. However I’m quite adaptable and flexible, sometimes I learned to enjoy it, but it was not the kind of study about the mysteries of nature and the cosmos I was looking for. I told myself that it was better than nothing. My dream to pursue a Ph.D. in physics became reality and it would have been silly to throw it away at this point.

So, while I dragged myself through other three years of study and research into something that was not desired, one day I came across a book of Lee Smolin entitled “The trouble with Physics”, which describes not only the scientific, but also the political, sociological and pedagogical reasons of modern failures in physical science. It was like a fulguration and a revelation of something I deeply felt to be so true. It gave me the understanding of the profound uneasiness and dissatisfaction I always had with modern universities and education in general. This gave me also the inner power to resist and go through the process. Through what I began to realize might not have been a cruel destiny, and not (or not only, and not simply) the manifestation of my weaknesses and inaptitude, but a preprogrammed path and process which intention was to mould, form, shape and prepare me inwardly, psychologically and in character for something. I have been shown in every detail what education should not be in form of several personal lived experiences. It slowly became crystal clear what all the problem with education is. I began to understand the social dynamics and unconscious pedagogical and didactical processes which underlie learning in several schools and universities, but that others find mysterious and puzzling, or even are mostly not aware of. But not because I have read it in a book, which was only a catalyst, a spark which lit a fire, but because I finally realized how I lived it personally day after day in reality, as if something wanted to show me this state of affairs in all its aspects and facets. Possibly this is not a coincidence.

The day of the doctoral thesis came. It went all smooth, normal, and quite. But those three years were particularly instructive. While I was not directly involved in industry, the working climate was pretty influenced by that kind of mindset. The research I was involved had only practical aims, it was that kind of research an engineer might like to pursue (micro-resonant silicon optical circuits for future applications in the electronic industry), certainly not something what a theoretical physicist dreams of. My boss (aka, “tutor”) was the typical authoritarian guy who believed that efficiency must equate with working under pressure in multitasking. Overall that also opened my vision onto a world I scarcely realized since then.

Later I spent a year in France and another in Germany as postdoc. But again I was thrown into a working environment that did not furnish much intellectual perspectives and felt like a fish out of water. I had to obey to the dictates of an industrialized hierarchical structure where everyone is only a little puppet that gets assigned a research, the order in which it has to be executed, the method that must be employed and obviously the deadline before it must be finished. Great discoveries in the history of science did not occur by imposing such a preprogrammed working style. But most people are happy with that. Most of my colleagues seem not at all dissatisfied, it is considered a normal state of affairs. The ideal of the researcher who is free to think about a scientific project and frees his passion and creative potential making new experiments and discoveries in a laboratory revealed itself only as a modern myth that has no grounds in reality, at least not for the vast majority of postdocs. The point is that after that you have gone through high school, graduated and got your MD, worked through a Ph.D., what one is allowed to do as a postdoc is substantially that of playing again the same game you were allowed to play in primary school! It is all the same system, the same matrix, but most adults self-delude themselves in believing that they are free. If the question arises what the alternative could be they have no idea and therefore think that after all they are lucky with what they have, with things how they are. It has always been so, why complaining?

But I don’t blame anyone. I’m the sole responsible for how things worked out for me. Because I didn’t compromise, did not accept the status quo, felt myself uneasy where most of those who found themselves in a similar situation where perfectly happy with. Obviously it is something in my character and in my inner and emotional attitude that prevented me to brake the barrier to become free. I don’t want to make responsible anyone for my personal state of inner dissatisfaction. This responsibility rests solely upon me, and I consider the past a closed chapter. A remembrance for which I don’t have regrets or bitterness (I once used to, but it is futile). On the contrary, I realize it today how it was a school of life that I had the honor to go through and that gave me the possibility to make extreme experiences that rarely others have. This made it possible to understand the state of affairs of our modern pedagogy, didactics and its corresponding working environments, with exceptional clarity and depth of vision that I believe, almost no other had the opportunity to be delighted with. And what emerged from all that was a desire in me to focus my coming years on an analysis of our present educational system and a research for a real remedy for its shortcomings. What I’m dreaming of is a new university, a new structure which liberates the spirit and allows future generations to have what the present ones are not allowed for.

The ideal for a new type of academy came from the dissatisfaction for the lack of time for contemplation beyond the strict path put forward by the professor’s syllabus with no attempt to look further, for an intuitive and integral knowledge. I fully experienced an environment where students are judged for the speed with which they graduate, the speed with which they show to be able in making calculations, and not for their aspiration and creativity. I had to discover that the instructor’s possibility to change the system from within is strongly limited too by institutional demands and rules. The advantage of having gone through this state of affairs is that it made it crisp clear in what decaying state conventional education is today. From this experience and insights grew a desire, the dream to initiate something that should begin to lay the foundations for some structures which offer to young generations the possibilities they still don’t have. It became a permanent thought that led me to think over new forms of education, learning and free inner growth.

Moreover, what is felt actually lacking is that almost all the science of education which goes under the name of “pedagogy” is almost exclusively focused on primary and secondary school, or at best high school levels, while too scarce attention has been laid on possible forms of new concepts and educational methods for under-graduate, graduate students and beyond. Still strongly engraved is the belief that after school, once young people enroll in college and universities, there has to be no further reflection on possible alternative ways to learn and apprehend knowledge than the present given one: read, exercise, repeat the lecture, take your exam and hope for the best grade. I’m firmly convinced that sooner or later this kind of higher educational academic system is doomed and will crumble under its own weight and finally will fail, as dictatorships, monarchies or theocracies did.

This set of posts which describe the core ideas of a FPU in eleven parts is organized as follows. First the main problems of the pedagogical approach in modern academic environments is explained, analyzing the detrimental effects that a managerial and industrial mindset has had on the education and intellectual growth of several generations, taking as an example the deficiencies of the so called “big science”, i.e. of the modern large scale scientific initiatives. Then a very different pedagogical perspective is introduced and justified as the necessary condition for a “Copernican approach” to education, and as a possible solution to the present state of intellectual stagnation. In the last part some preliminary practical proposals are put forward of how a FPU might look like and what the first steps for its realization might be. 

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4 thoughts on “Part I: A preamble and introduction

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