Foundations of Physics, Quantum Gravity and new Education Paradigms

higgsContrary to popular belief, the foundations of physics are facing one of its deepest intellectual crisis. Contrary to popular belief, the foundations of physics are facing one of its deepest intellectual crisis. While applied physics experienced a tremendous development, and several new discoveries from the micro- to macro-cosmos revolutionized our understanding of the physical world, the progress in the conceptual foundations of modern theoretical physics stagnated. On one side the theory of relativity, quantum mechanics (QM) and the standard model (SM) of particle physics, showed to be quite successful theories which were proven to be correct by several experiments. On the other side it is now almost half a century that there is a lack of real progress in the conceptual foundations that are supposed to unify them. Relativity and QM both describe efficiently the world, and yet they seem conceptually incompatible. Relativity is a deterministic theory that describes well the force of gravity, but seems to have nothing to do with electromagnetic and nuclear forces. QM instead is a non-deterministic theory which describes well electromagnetic and nuclear forces, and even unifies them in the SM, but refuses to encompass gravity. It is now known that the SM, even though it is an extraordinarily successful and tested theory, can’t be the ultimate theory of matter. First of all because it contains several free arbitrary parameters, apparently fine tuned for the emergence of life just by an extraordinary coincidence. Moreover, astronomers discovered that dark matter and dark energy make up 95% of the universe, but both came as a surprise since the SM accounts only for the remaining 5%. This suggests that the SM isn’t the whole story and we must go beyond relativity, QM and the SM itself.

However, any attempt to do so in the last four decades failed. Physicists worldwide tried to conceive of new ‘quantum gravity” theories, like superstrings, other supersymmetric theories, canonical quantum gravity, etc. But these led only towards an even deeper crises, since most of it are far beyond any possibility of experimental verification or, those which are possible to detect with present technologies, have been ruled out experimentally. In fact, predictions at low energy seem to be disconfirmed by recent experiments at particle accelerators like the LHC and by cosmological observations, which did not find any evidence that supports theories like superstrings and supersymmetry.

Currently there is a plethora of alternative and exotic new theories, most quite complex and mathematically abstract, which try to solve this problem (e.g. extensions of superstrings as M-Theory, AdS/CFT correspondence, the holographic principle, “multiverses”, etc.). But they resulted in even more strange paradoxes (e.g., black hole information loss, “firewalls”) and overall the net impression is that of a great confusion and incertitude, which clearly signals a deep foundational as methodological crises in theoretical physics. Slowly but steadily it is becoming clear that the last 40 years of attempts to establish a new conceptual foundation that could lead us beyond the SM, went in the wrong direction. Huge financial and human resources were invested for the exploration of theories that probably have nothing to do with what really nature wants to tell us. We are not making any tangible progress towards a quantum gravity theory.

There is a large consensus that it is likely that one of the roots of the problem has to be found in an inadequate way of seeing and conceiving the material world (e.g. our notion of what space-time, matter or forces are, and if these might not be fundamental physical entities but emergent properties). Everything indicates that the basic pillars of physics must be modified and a change of paradigm must intervene. New ideas, insights, and original as groundbreaking intuitions are necessary to get out of the impasse. The only way out seems to involve profound revision of fundamental physical principles.

But there is a big hurdle that stands on the way towards this ideal. The problem might not be only technical, but much more of a sociological, pedagogical, didactical and political nature in our universities. Because our post-modern way of doing science is deeply problematic too. We should seriously question ourselves if there might not be something wrong inherently in our modern way of conceiving research and academic education. What is missing in our present social and academic structures are the free ‘seers’ who, like Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Einstein, and many others, understood the fallacies of the conventional thinking and foresaw the new paradigm by looking further. Only then we will be able to go beyond the status quo. But present academic systems are precisely that kind of power structures that inhibit the freedom of the ‘seers’ and refuse them free expression. Present colleges and universities allow mainly for scientists spending their careers making incremental additions and subtle changes to existing knowledge, not new paradigm changes. Our academic system has become increasingly authoritarian and accurately expunged the free ‘seer’ and independent thinker.

We urgently need a university system where students can express themselves, everyone with their own unique potential and which is able to liberate talents, individual freedom and everyone’s “inner call”. A system that has no hierarchical structures and encourages free self-initiative. A platform for a free expression of the individual potential and the development of one’s own personality. A place where new forms of learning and teaching are practiced. An environment for a lifelong learning by doing, where a creative learning by teaching is possible, and where everyone can learn to learn. Which means, that it should be a place without any compulsion to learn, where everyone is free to progress by learning what is felt must be learned, and without an academic path forced onto the students from an advisor, professor, institution or generation old bureaucratic laws (a description in more detail of these problems, and a proposal of what this new type of “Free Progress University” might look like, I have outlined here: link).

Only in such a context new and successful directions of research that could lead us towards more profound insights in theoretical physics can be achieved. We propose the formation of an independent group of student, researchers and thinkers, that will study, discuss and teach themselves and others the conceptual foundations and philosophy of QM, relativity, quantum field theories, the standard model of particle physics, and beyond. A free congregation of physicists, mathematicians, philosophers and historians of science, who will work together, but independently from other departments, research teams, colleges or university structures and far from external pressures. A free research center in the conceptual foundations and philosophy of physics, where everyone can study and work freely by applying new conceptual, pedagogical and didactical paradigms.

Advertisements

Part XI: The didactical foundations for a FPU, long term aims, and conclusions

graphMOOCs2The material concept with its hardware facilities conceives of a residential campus with classrooms, laboratories, an auditorium, a library, exhibitions and galleries, dormitories, a museum, an astronomical and/or solar observatory, a refectory and cafeteria, etc. It should provide state of the art educational technology forming a networked community, based on an open-source ideal, and with free access to MOOCs which will enables students to learn from professors and its courses at any world university.

MOOCs are a recent development in distance education, and their effectiveness remains to be demonstrated. But it is hard to believe that new technologies might not, in a way or another, become a fundamental infrastructure of new learning methods. What must be emphasized is not just their technical capabilities, but the pedagogical and didactical approach that should stand behind it. x-Moocs, i.e. a professor centered online course are a format that prevailed because it reflects the traditional lecturer to scholar approach. But other forms of online learning with interactive engagements might well change this with time passing by. For example, a department may entirely abolish the traditional format of courses held by a professor. The university may select the best online courses available on the internet worldwide and collect them together in a program which will furnish the same skills and know how that a conventional diploma, bachelor, masters or Ph.D. delivers. Each course could have its set of online lecture. The online lectures can be discussed, with exercises solved in the classroom collectively with the help of the facilitator physically present. The facilitator’s main function would therefore not be that to deliver contents, but to help the students to assimilate and discuss offline that which was previously taught online (and eventually complement it with his/her own content). The assimilation could also express itself with other online courses created by the students themselves, in form of an y-MOOC (you-MOOC). An y-MOOC distinguishes itself from the x-MOOC inasmuch that it is not created by a renewed academic authority which has been authorized by a university, but nevertheless may present new knowledge, understandings or didactical and pedagogical approaches that were previously not known or considered. Everyone of us has some expertise to share with the world, even though that might not imply the possession of a degree or hierarchical position in the system.

A variety of different approaches emerged in the last years which suggest new ways of learning and that could perhaps become the backbone of a FPU .

“Blended learning” mixes traditional classroom activities mediated by technology (student with a tablet or laptop, or small groups working together on devices). Students learn in part through online delivery while still attending a “brick-and-mortar” school structure.

“Peer instruction” is a method which replaces lectures with small group discussions of conceptual questions, followed by whole-class discussions, with mini-lectures between questions. Students first think about and answer these questions individually; then discuss the explanations for their answers with their neighbors and come to agreement.

“Flip teaching” (or flipped classroom) is a form of blended learning in which students learn first from video lectures and what used to be homework (assigned problems) is done in class with teacher offering more personalized guidance and interaction with students, instead of lecturing.

The SOLE method of Sugata Mitra which is based on several forms of blended learning, flip teaching, and DIY U style. It encourages students dynamic interaction to work as a community in groups in order to answer assigned questions or even self-posed questions through online material or else. Again, it was conceived only for children, but there is no rational reason to believe that it can not be applied to adults too, and that colleges and universities must remain stuck to a century old model.

The “barcamp”, or “un-conference” modality might play a role in a future higher education environment also. A barcamp might be defined as an alternative way with which people could communicate their ideas, projects, studies and even dreams. It works as follows. In the beginning all the present people convene in a hall and everyone is allowed to present in a minute his or her session. And “everyone” means just that: everyone. There is no hierarchy of sages, teachers or professors. Also a perfectly unknown could rush in and present a speech. You can propose for instance to discuss with those who like to attend “the future of the MOOCs”, or instead of presenting your own project you might ask for solutions, as “how to find funds to publish a book on hand surgery?”, or discuss how far “didactical and pedagogical optimism is justified?”, and so on. Once you have presented your session, and if among the present there are at least some who rise up their hands showing interest, you get assigned a room at a specific time. The same procedure repeats itself for all those who present a topic. Finally, several sessions have been programmed on the spot, without any previous intervention and or approval by a commission. On a board, in less than a half an hour a huge program of sessions have been set. Then everyone attends those which are considered the most interesting. What follows is not a talk held by the proponent of the session, but only a brief introduction, after which an informal discussion is opened to all the present. And I’m wondering if such a form of communication might also work in a FPU? The idea is that the classical seminar format might be occasionally replaced also by an “un-seminar”. The traditional seminar is not going to die, I believe it will continue to play a role. However, in several situations a barcamp styled seminar might be a better solution. Because seminars are used to convey information. Instead an un-seminar can function as a platform to ask for information. One might have an idea of a research project and wants to hear what other students and faculty members might think of it. Another wants to set up a reserach group and looks for members participating. Another just wants to share opinions and impressions on a new discovery, and so on. What I mean, is that the barcamp, un-conference or un-seminar format might be a great tool for communicating among university members about ideas, projects, findings, news, etc. That would also foster a real socialization and eventually new forms of group work, which are not forced and imposed from above as it is actually.

Spontaneous cooperation should replace the conventional group think and teamwork philosophies. Nowadays almost everyone agrees that young generations should learn more to engage in a collective activity and become fit for teamwork. There seems to be nobody who is in principle against community work and all around we hear that learning to socialize with others and adapt to a team spirit in order to form working groups which strive for a common goal, is one of the most urgent skills the market and future societies need. And yet, several group leaders, teachers, professors and managers express their dissatisfaction for a lack of real progress in this respect. Still too many students and employee conceive schools, universities, research centers and industries as places where to work lonely on the given workload with too weak interaction with colleagues and fellow students. Students are assigned to working groups and asked to collaborate towards a common goal and frequently different forms of encouragement united with forms of coercion are applied to enhance participation and ‘esprit de corps’. Almost all companies proclaim on their websites to value teamwork as a top priority and working method. It has become a fashion, almost a compulsion to highlight one’s conviction in it. Nevertheless, despite many efforts, a cohesive team remains an exception not a rule, reality looks usually very different than the proclaimed intentions.

It will not be the obsessive preaching and continuous call to teamwork that will bring it to life, The question is not if teamwork is desirable, on which all agree, but how it is supposed to be achieved. This is much less obvious and straightforward. It should be clarified what really kind of teamwork we are talking about? A synergic unity of people struggling for a goal is not a modern human activity but old as humankind. It has been extensively applied for thousands of years and meticulously elaborated throughout all cultures and times in the military, in order to drill soldiers to obedience, conformity, and reverent submission. Of course no one would ever admit to conceive of teamwork in these terms. But truth is probably much more subtle. As the century old educational concepts which reverberate in our minds are unconsciously permeated and molded by a Taylor industrial mindset, so is our conception of teamwork which, without having awareness of the underlying cultural influence, relies mainly on a militaristic idea of group efficiency.

If we look instead at this problem with the lenses of the inner inherent freedom of the human being, it becomes not too difficult to understand were the problem lays. Spontaneous cooperation should be based on three basic pillars. First the freedom to ask the question and/or pose the problem. Rarely students are free to learn, investigate and research for the answers they have in mind. The exercise, the homework, the knowledge to be achieved is pre-assigned by the teaching force. Whereas it should be the other way around. Secondly, an individual aggregation freedom to a group or project according to one’s own interest or skills, or even to disengage from group work entirely, should be respected. Again, in standard academia the contrary is true: usually students are not free to chose in which group they may work. They are thrown into one or another set of people who are working on something they may not be interested in, and asked to be nevertheless collaborative. Thirdly, everyone should be free to chose his/her degree of effort in the participation process. This means that everyone can decide how much to be collaborative. I’m quite sure that the best way to incentivize collaboration is that not to force it on the members of a group. Whereas, nowadays one can see that, in order to foster group dynamics, some professors ask their students to asses with grades the other’s group members contribution and group effort. I’m skeptic that that works really.
Therefore, a spontaneous collaboration must be based on a freedom to ask questions, on the freedom to aggregate and the freedom to participate. This could open the way to the synthesis between a team spirit and everyone’s own personalized one-on-one mentoring combining it with self-directed experiential learning.

But the baby should not be thrown out with the bath water. Also some forms of standard lecturing and teaching methods might have a place. The result should be a social learning environment based on a passion-driven educational learning framework. And all these aspects and properties of a FPU should not taken separately from each other but interact inter-dependently as a whole living and learning organism. A FPU can not only adopt some ideals, but also some principles of the administrative structure of democratic schools (or Sudbury Valley schools). Regulatory norms, codes of behavior, conflict resolution and problem solving approaches must be considered. Students and facilitators should have equal voice and right of vote in meetings about appointments or dismissals of staff and facilitators themselves, or any other smaller matters. Whereas committees could be created to solve specific social or bureaucratic issues.

Could these things work? Only future will tell for sure. These are so far the main trends, and frequently the distinction between the one method and the other is not always clear. But what really matters at this stage is to look forward, to begin to have a vision of the future, to experiment, eventually by trial and error methods, with failures and defeats, but at least with an attempt to go forward instead of remaining stuck in the present. The main scope, aim and target should be the liberation of the inner spirit, of the individual potential, of the real Soul in us.

Finally few words about the long term aims. On the long term things should go towards a university which could give students a preparation and qualification that can nevertheless be recognized also outside of it. Something the outside world recognizes and yet has been acquired through a completely different learning paradigm. And it should demonstrate that it is possible to acquire the same quantity and quality of knowledge, and even better, that leads to very different and much more integral perspectives. The level of understanding and competence in a specific subject like physics, biology, medicine, etc. of a student coming from a FPU should be the same and even more integral than those coming from ordinary academia. It is not simply about a university which offers some course as an appendix, as an added chunk of knowledge to students of present conventional universities, but a complete self contained academic structure. Because what is wrong with present university faculties is not so much what they teach but how they force people to study it. A mature full-fledged FPU should be a living example which shows the world that things can be done otherwise and better than in the present learning formats. In this sense it should offer the possibility to students who express the desire to enroll in a faculty, say in some faculty of arts, science, medicine, engineering, philosophy, history, or whatever, the same or similar academic skills. When they graduate, they will have the same or even better preparation with a waster and deeper understanding, and that they can also use in the rest of the world, which might look upon it first with skepticism, but with time will recognize it.

Once this is established and works, this can be proposed as a platform, a laboratory of universal education that the world can look at as an alternative to their present strictly materialistic and intellectual educational systems. A platform where other students, teachers, professors around the world can be invited to experience how it is possible to uplift the present division between learning and self-learning, understanding and intuition, knowledge and inspiration.

Conclusion

This present proposals has to be considered only a sketch, a rough idea for a FPU blueprint, they have no pretension to be neither ultimate nor exhaustive, even not necessarily correct. Apart from the fundamental principles that wanted to express the spirit of a free and progressive education, the details will be elaborated with time, and especially will be dictated by experience. The main aim of the author is just to arise some curiosity on the subject trying to advance some preliminary thoughts. If this will also lead to an action and a change, then the objective of this ‘manifesto’ will have been amply fulfilled.

Those who have read so far and are already engaged with modern alternative forms of pedagogy, might have recognized several aspects and receipts for a progressive form of education already outlined elsewhere. However, the word ‘pedagogy’, usually refers to education in primary schools, sometimes secondary schools, but never to high schools, college and university. If humanity wants to progress towards a society of free minded people and original and creative thinkers, this division must fall. That is one of the reasons why we are still, and have remained for too long, in the stone ages of education. But this is also the fascinating part of all that. Since it means that much more than a reform is necessary and that a revolution is possible. Everyone interested in contributing to this ‘adventure of consciousness’ is encouraged to participate.

Part X: The structural foundations for a FPU

In the following we would like to name those aspects that should be abolished entirely from the modern educational machinery. It is summarized by the following set of proposals which elucidate what new forms of teaching and learning could be introduced in a FPU.

Abolition of

Proposal

Exams

Effectuation of a system that fosters/guides free knowledge and self-directed learning. Free choice of performance in front of the community.

Grades

Non quantitative judgment but qualitative advices by facilitators and students on how to proceed.

Degrees

Certification of attendance and productivity, eventually only with qualitative not quantitative assessment if necessary.

Admission requirements

Everyone is allowed to participate.

Huge tuition fees for being allowed to submit oneself to a ‘via crucis’ with the prospect of a degree.

No, or as low as possible, admission costs. The FPU student does not pay for a degree but, if at all, for a chance of self-development.

References

A tutor who needs second hand judgment and isn’t able to recognize the skills of a student should quit the job.

Traditional student-teachers-professor pyramidal hierarchies

No ‘pyramids’ of ‘teachers’ or ‘professors’ exist. Only ‘facilitators’ and students that interchange their roles by exchanging knowledge.

Organized team work

Spontaneous and flexible cooperation among individuals.

Curriculum

Facilitator’s freedom to structure any kind of syllabus they desire.

Student’s freedom to refuse it and re-structure it accordingly to one’s own skills.

Race, gender, age or physical criteria

If selection rules must be applied, then, as far as possible, without age, gender, or handicap disclosure.

Physical separation of department buildings and offices

All students and instructors of all disciplines should share the same campus structures (classrooms, office buildings, refectory, etc.)

First of all, the elimination of exams from a new college and university educational system is of paramount importance. Exams have always been a mean of submission, fear and even political power, not a tool which fosters real learning. Because real learning is not made of a repetition of concepts regurgitated in an academic course. Real learning can only happen through self-acquirement of notions, the deeper understanding through direct experience, the enfoldment of the spirit in learning, instead of the repression of creativity by reiterating a litany to an instructor who looks at the student from above and menaces retaliation with a bad grade. The compulsion with grading has its roots in the obsession for an enumerative knowledge where everything must be quantified. Because of this obsession for the quantitative assessment of things we have lost our innate ability not only to appreciate the qualitative aspects of the individual, but also became unable to see the strengths of people (and this has led to the US ‘No Child Left Behind’ law, which is now under severe criticism for this reason, among others). In some sense we might say that in schools and universities there has never been real learning.

Moreover, grading inhibits the trial and error method which is extremely important in a process of discovery, since it enhances the fear of failure, while failure itself should be honored as the master in learning. As Churchill used to say “success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm”. Grades are mere etiquettes which represent the most extreme form of reductionism since they are supposed to describe what we know and what we can in few numbers or letters. While the best knowledge and best skills are not imposed but are self-acquired through a passionate fearless learning by doing things while following one’s own inner need for knowledge and curiosity. It is about learning and doing research as long the student or researcher discovers where the strengths are, and once found, go for it. Grading is a form of, not so subtle, degradation. The reasons why things like passion, creativity, initiative, or curiosity are not considered is that there is no way to quantify them and, as a reflection, they are considered of less importance.

In present educational systems students pay for a degree, not for an education. They are so focused on acquiring the degree, possibly with high grades, that there is virtually no time left to follow someone’s own innate interests. In a FPU there won’t be exams, grades and certificates, but a regulated system which certifies that a student has attended the school for a specific time, did produce and present some research or intellectual work, and submitted it to a commission (e.g. peer-reviewed papers, a thesis, a dissertation, presentations, talks, a book, realizing experiments in a laboratory, and so forth), with a ‘passed’ or ‘put on hold’ evaluation. What we need are not reformations of the actual primitive examinations, grading and degrees systems, but an upgrade of the system itself.

Another aspects that vitiates present academia are admission requirements. We always tend to elaborate an analytic formula or imagine a concept which (usually in a quantitative manner) tries to assess who is ‘admissible’, and who is not. Again, tests and grades are distributed and which are supposed to determine who is the ‘right one’ for attending the courses, and who is not. But truth is that there is no such selection rule that is capable to measure skills which result from an inner fire for perfection and aspiration for knowledge and action. All these selection criteria have too often shown to obtain just the opposite of what they were designed for: the de-selection of those who later turned out to be the most gifted ones, but were not recognized by a society which itself did not live up to the call of its time.

A FPU should be tuition free for all, or at least be as cheap as possible. In the standard financial college and university paradigms students have to pay huge fees in order to be allowed to attend, being drilled, submit themselves to an authoritarian and stressful academic path, with the aim to obtain finally that piece of paper, a certification. In a FPU fees must be kept as low as possible, ideally it should be completely free, and the aim is not a certification but the self-development on a self-directed learning base.

Also references in form of letters of presentation should be banned altogether. The point is that these are a mean of perpetuation of the system. Not the best students, but the most servile and adapted ones are facilitated in obtaining references form their tutor. Those who have developed a more critical sense, and might not be docile workers who please the hierarchy or less skilled with political games, will find themselves more isolated having more difficulties in finding one, two, or even three professors willing to write something in their favor. This is again another absurd custom that is only useful for molding obedient soldiers, not independent thinkers. Therefore, in a FPU there should be nothing such an admission requirement or need for references and letters of presentation. In case the number of students must be limited exclusively because of logistic or financial reasons, then the ‘first come, first served’ rule should be applied. It is simple as that.

Then we have to entirely reconsider the relationship between the teacher or professor to the student. The idea of an adult that is at the top of a pyramidal hierarchy that knows better what is good or bad for a young learner must finally be surpassed. Nothing can be taught really. One can only guide or help someone else to find out the truth and knowledge by and in him/her-self. Learning must no longer be a systemized machinery of notions and stuff imparted by someone who is supposed to know, but an activity which arises by a free choice of the student who will teach him/her-self. Teachers and professors must learn to forget this character and become facilitators who follow students in their learning path, only if requested, and should take advantage of the possibility to learn themselves. Facilitators should learn too by their activity and accept also that the rules might be exchanged: the student can equally well teach the facilitator. Everyone should be allowed to become a facilitator, for example by proposing a course, even first year students, if they feel to have a sufficient preparation and skills. The basic idea should be that once new knowledge and skills are learned, they should be transmitted as soon as possible, without the necessity to wait until promotions and academic titles. The strict division based on an authority who knows and has power over a class of students that have to absorb, has to be abolished once and for all.

In a FPU teamwork will remain an essential ingredient of interaction between every individual. Of course being an effective group member is a necessary skill that young people have to develop to confront with the challenges and working environments of the new world. But the question is no longer if, but how these skills have to be developed and set into place? For example, despite what we like to believe, in most of present research centers there is no real and true teamwork at all. In a certain sense it is a modern myth. What is called ‘teamwork’ today is the distribution of tasks inside a larger project area. It is the result, not of a real team, but of a collection of individuals who are ordered to work together on a common goal. First of all, this serially lining up of working labor is usually forced upon people who could neither chose their working or study collaborators, which frequently leads to a lack of inner psychological accord, nor could they express a preference for the activity they have to focus on. Most times the goal needs an execution of an enormous set of complex tasks which necessarily assigns to each individual a different one. This leads to a fictitious teamwork, because while a whole group of people work to achieve a common goal, rarely they truly work together on the same task. What is even worse, is that the execution of these tasks is set under pressure of deadlines and strict controls. The result is that finally everyone works without freedom to express a real inner potential, not rarely conflicts brake out among the members because of the clash of characters, and de facto everyone has to do a job alone (the managerial mindset sometimes deludes itself in believing that this state of affairs can be remedied by calling for permanent and endless group meetings, but it doesn’t work). Conceiving teamwork as a sort of military activity, which aims only at the interests of the collective without taking into account also those of the individual is an extremely limited form of cooperation. A true teamwork, as it should be in a FPU, is an allowance of an educational self-organization, it must rise from a spontaneous congregation of people, each with their own talents and abilities, which is not dictated from a director or an authority. Students should be left free with whom to work and study with. There should be no a priori fixed task appointed by someone else, but a free choice of the student to pursue the common goal which emerges by choosing their own task, as far as possible in friendship with someone else. Only in this context we can begin to speak about real collaboration and spontaneous teamwork.

About curricula the following might be said. There are essentially two schools of thought about the subject. The first one, i.e. the traditional point of view, is that there is a basic set of knowledge that everyone should and must learn, willingly or not, because, this is the belief, the inexpert mind of a novel student can’t know what really should have priority. For example, in physics, every student with no exception, is supposed to learn about the principles of mechanics, thermodynamics, electromagnetism, and so forth. The opposite point of view affirms that this is nowadays an anachronistic model of teaching since, due to the explosion of disciplines and discoveries of the last centuries, the so called ‘general knowledge’ is no longer possible and, at any rate, if someone wants to acquire an intellectual expertise in some subject the internet is such a powerful knowledge tool that nobody really needs to follow a preordered academic curriculum. In a FPU this apparent dilemma is reconciled again taking the freedom of the soul as the guiding principle. In a FPU there should be the freedom of the facilitator to express some line of thought and content organizing it in a more or less articulate syllabus and course structure, but on the other side there should be also the freedom of the student to accept it, or eventually reject it partially or entirely, focusing the attention towards other directions if the class isn’t considered satisfying or interesting. This saves both perspectives, a school can offer a full fledged academic path, yet everyone is free to chose according to the choice of the inner being.

In a FPU there should be no admission rules for students altogether. However, due to technical or financial reasons a selection and admission of some sort might nevertheless be necessary (e.g. facilitators, and the technical stuff which is responsible for the didactical and technical maintenance of the institution, might be required to show their ability and preparation). Modern schools and societies advanced in the recognition of human rights, have realized the importance of preventing sex, race, physical and age discrimination. However, fact is that it is considered completely natural to ask for gender, ethnic origin, age or disability in an application for an admission as undergraduate or a position at college. This opens the doors not only to a willed and controlled discrimination during a selection process but, even if these information are supposed to be used for proper purposes, it still can influence a commission that has to judge one’s skills. Of course, during an interview the physical aspects can hardly be concealed, but a FPU should do its utmost to disclose them as late as possible during the selection process (for example to accept only CV without photographs and physical data of the candidate).

Also the architectonic disposition of modern colleges speaks volumes about the lack of an interdisciplinary mindset. Every department has its building. The architectonic compartmentalization is a reflection of the cultural compartmentalization. This division may have practical advantages, but there is an unnoticed drawback in this. Philosophers of science rarely share their time with scientist outside seminars for the simple reason that they are physically separated. The same can be said of physicians and biologists, or artists and scientists, etc. But a real culturally dynamic environment should not have these artificial segmentations. We should recall how the great philosophers and natural scientists of ancient Greece considered it a perfectly natural fact that artists, philosophers, scientists, etc. had to talk, interact and exchange their knowledge and experience among each others. In a FPU the office of a physicist should be just near that of an artist, or philosopher, or a biologist. The interaction between very different people and academic backgrounds can ignite such a diversity of ideas and new forms of collaboration that are actually rendered less probable by this physical separation.

Part IX: The pedagogical foundations for a FPU

What follows is a list of proposed actions to be taken for a free progress education clarified by comparison with the ordinary education paradigm.

Ordinary education

Progressive education

The teacher/professor tells what should be learned. Motivation is fostered, if at all, by extrinsic means. The facilitator helps the student to discover what his inner being wants him to learn. Intrinsic motivation has precedence over the extrinsic one.
The choice and quality of the content to be taught has paramount importance. The quality of the facilitator is much more important.
The aim is to become fit in being competitive in the modern world and chose a career. The aim is to discover what your purpose in this life is, give it a meaning, and the means to pursue it.
The school sets fixed learning times Everyone has his own time of growth!
Analytic-rational exercise Contemplative approach
Learn by imitating what has been done. The institution sets the goal. Learn by doing what your inner call suggests to do. The student selects the goal.
Everything is focused on forming knowledge and production. Focus on understanding and doing following your own call.
Works on the weaknesses.
A lot of emphasis is set on acquiring so called ‘basic concepts’.
Works on the strengths.
Who decides what is ‘basic’? There is something in us that knows much better than anyone else what is ‘basic’ for us.
Fostering skills, speed and efficiency in reproducing specific tasks. Fostering interest, talent and inclinations.

Time has come to say clearly and without fear of the future to take the risk of change, tell what is no longer tolerable, detach from the present system and power yoke, but on the other side propose what is necessary to do instead. Before outlining the bureaucratic and structural foundations of a FPU we have to keep in mind some core ideas which may serve as indicators for a free and progressive new pedagogy.

The traditional idea of the teacher or professor is that of an authority that has competence in a specific subject and whose main responsibility is that to transfer this knowledge from his/her own brain into other brains (with more or less authoritarian methods and threatening means like exams and grades). In the new educational paradigm only the student alone is responsible for his or her self-education. The choice of the subject to study, the learning methods are completely free. What has to be learned must be determined from a desire to learn, a curiosity to know, from an inner authority. There is no longer someone who ‘teaches’, but only a facilitator who suggests (and only when asked for a suggestion), helps if asked for help, eventually lectures but only to rise curiosity, spirit of inquiry, but nobody should pretend a blind repetition of his syllabus. The main purpose is to guide the student to self-discovery. The professionalism and preparation of a facilitator will be judged from the pedagogical skills and the understanding of the essence and motives which stand behind a progressive ideal, not for the intellectual knowledge of a subject which should become secondary.

But what about the reasons for pursuing a study? We are accustomed to think of education as a learning practice that should prepare us for the professional life and for making a living. But the main aim of a free progress education is the liberation of the inner spirit, the finding of our own direction, the freedom to be intellectually and spiritually what we really are. Career and financial perspectives must be subordinate necessities, not the decisive factor. The dictatorship of time and deadlines must fall. Who teaches me how to take my time to let flourish my intuition, insight and wisdom? Where is the time for contemplation? Those who are marathoners that learn slowly but might become able to dive more deeply in the subject should not be pressured as if they are sprinters. Whereas, sprinters should let be free to finish earlier their studies than the official academic rules foresee for their academic path.

The standard learning paradigm is focused on an analytic understanding. While the rational approach should continue to maintain its place as a tool of knowledge in every human activity, it should at the same time not be detrimental to other forms of gnosis. Great intellectual achievements have frequently as their basis inspirations coming from a contemplative dimension. The dreamer, the seer, the real independent thinker is not, or not necessarily, always guided by a strictly logical theory made of inferences and deductions. A FPU should open itself to contemplative and intuitional methods which foster inspirations and revelations (e.g. by self-mastering the mind and body with meditation techniques, or reconsidering complementary approaches like Goethian science).

In our present culture “learning” is associated with a measurable acquisition of notions and facts, possibly without failures, which the student must be able to reproduce. The direct experience as such with all its mental, emotional and physical content is not considered learning, as long as it doesn’t produce tangible results in form of new intellectual insights that answer precise questions. At best it is felt as an enriching playful activity, just a game, but not as a possible learning experience. Only the result of a successful experiment or investigation which produces knowledge that can be translated into a set of analytic concepts, possibly with potential outcomes useful for a future career, is considered real learning. This is a deeply rooted idea in our culture and mentality. And yet both history as cognitive sciences tell us that most of the skills are acquired at stages of activity where failure, doubts and unanswered questions are still predominant. The doing in itself, as such, eventually without results or even with failure, is a learning process too. This means that, contrary to past didactical approaches, in a FPU learning does not occur by imitation (typically, by repeating the lecture or solving preordered exercise), but exercising one’s own skills in practice. There should be no preconceived program and timetable which dictates the content and pace of the learning process. The student alone must know, feel, and perceive it inwardly, and therefore left totally free to act in this regard (practicing theory vs. experiment, focusing on one or another approach or procedure, choosing different textbooks than suggested by the facilitator, taking the short or long path, etc.).

However, having placed the emphasis on the practical learning, it should be clear that any form of learning or academic research should not be judged or evaluated according to its practical potential. Present academia inoculates some skills which are supposed to be useful for your future job which the state or community will (hopefully) offer you. In a FPU, the philosopher who asks about the essence of the world should not have less chances to express an inner thirst for pure knowledge than the pragmatist who is interested in developing a new hardware for the industry and the market. Studying, learning, and doing research should no longer be so tightly bended neither to its potential to produce material wealth, nor to the actuality of the current research trend or paradigm. Again, it’s the student or researchers choice in which direction to move, no committee of sages or higher hierarchies should have any saying. Education should prepare us first of all to discover and develop our inherent skills, independently from its potential practical applications.

Several pedagogues have questioned if it is more sensible to focus on the weaknesses or strengths of a children or college student? The former approach rests on the standard assumption that everyone has to learn the same basic concepts and all must acquire a set of fundamental notions. The latter assumes instead that the idea of a general knowledge for all is surpasses and that each of us has some strengths, not just because of a coincidence, but because every soul has an existential program which serves the development of the individual, as that of the community. This existential program encodes already the strengths which should be used to manifest our life mission. The weaknesses instead are not a capricious joke of nature, but less developed skills which are less necessary for our enfoldment, and it would be therefore a waste of time and energy to insist of the weaknesses instead of anybodies strengths. In a FPU the emphasis is set on cultivating the strengths, and a facilitator should primarily encourage the further development of it. However, sometimes weaknesses are also the sign of undeveloped or wrongly developed skills due to past wrong choices or bad experiences. There is no dilemma. The solution is, as usual, in freedom. It should be left to the free choice of the student eventually to focus the attention on the weak aspects of the character. But this choice should come from within, not from a forced superimposed ordered from someone who does not know the real inner causes and motives of these weaknesses.

Today schools, and even more universities, measure the skills of their students with essentially few parameters: the amount of information encapsulated by the brain, the time needed to reproduce a task based on that information (typically there is a strict time limit to solve an exercise, while an oral examination needs an immediate feedback), and the amount of correct answers which finally determine the grade. But this means to measure what we know, not what we can. The insight, intuitive understanding and the result of a passionate study which needs more time and an inner perception of the work to be done, are considered inessential. In a FPU, where exams and grades are abolished, these superficial evaluations play a secondary role. Of course students have to take their responsibilities. The (self-) assigned task has to be completed in reasonable times, the quality of the work done must be reviewed by a commission (which includes students and judges without grades), codes of behavior must be respected, and so forth. But the rules imposed must have a twofold complementary function: guarantee not only the collective quality of the institution but also the total freedom of expression of the individual.

Part VIII: What a Free Progress University might be good for

createBut the question at this point is what can be done now as a first step towards this vision? After the author’s personal disappointing experiences in several study and working environments, a vision came into being: something which conceives of a learning center at higher education levels and which gives people the possibility to self express themselves, practice self-learning and grow by means of an intellectual and intuitive learning process that the standard educational paradigm does not consider, and even openly discourage. A place where they can free-style their path to knowledge, study what their inner being suggests in complete autonomy, and not what the faculty imposes. A place where all can pursue their own research lines and even exercise intuitive approaches which in nowadays institutions are strictly forbidden.

But is a FPU good only for seers and artists, but not for engineers working in an industry or managers? According to Tony Wagner, an Innovation Education Fellow at the Technology & Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard, there are seven survival skills as defined by business leaders in their own words: critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration across networks and leading by influence, agility and adaptability, initiative and entrepreneurship, effective oral and written communication, accessing and analyzing information, curiosity and imagination. Each of these can be addressed easily in a free progress perspective considering that present institution (indirectly or even directly influenced by the business world), while advocating it, do however not allow these skills to develop individually and grow freely. because, if problems are imposed without the allowance for individual question solving, it is then quite obvious that students lack of critical thinking. And how can you learn to lead by influence and not by authority if the environment you were grown up is essentially an authoritarian system? Moroever, it is useless to call for adaptability to change when the schools, we have been drilled in, obey themselves a century old order without questioning it. Why should someone who has never, or scarcely been allowed to take initiative at his/her own risk and responsibility, suddenly become a self-directed and creative individual? Where from should passionate communication skills come from when any passion was killed long ago by the very same who now ask for it? How can information processing become effective when you have been raised in a place where it has always been pre-processed for you? No wonder that a research by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, [1] which used survey responses and standardized assessment measures, reveals that 45% of students attending US higher education institutions don’t learn anything in their first two years and demonstrate no significant improvement in a range of skills as critical thinking and complex reasoning. No wonder that a research and book by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, [27] which used survey responses and standardized assessment measures, reveals that 45% of students attending US higher education institutions don’t learn anything in their first two years and demonstrate no significant improvement in a range of skills as critical thinking and complex reasoning. And it is now wonder either, that Arum and Roksa, were criticized for their understanding of what at all ‘learning’ means. This was to expect in a society that slowly but steadily begins to understand that the ‘reduction ad numerum’ of human’s cognitive activity is untenable. Finally, as to the seventh point, that on curiosity and imagination, it comments itself.

Therefore, there are good reasons to believe that a FPU is not just for eccentric humanist who crave for more freedoms, but it might well prepare future business leaders even much better than any traditional institution which tries to imbue skills by a mechanical compulsion into young brains.

Bibliography

[1] R. A. a. J. Roksa, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Part VII: Towards liberation from ordinary education

Breaking the chains of ordinary educationIt is time to look further for an independent place where a type of free progress approach in education can emerge and can serve a new kind of society. Not so much because there aren’t people capable to put forth this project in the present ordinary conventional academia, but because the present academic system is intrinsically designed to refute this alternative since it is based on a machinery that appoints at the top of the hierarchy just those who are alien to this educational conception and naturally de-selects those who are.

We expect institution to be guided by the best minds, i.e. the best former students. But who are actually meant to be the ‘best’ in present schools and universities? They are not those who have shown skills of creativity, originality or intuition. They are, on the contrary, just those who managed to be best in adapting themselves to the preordered classical intellectual or political system, and those who were more successful than others to adjust their character to a “Taylor minded” institution, and perform its assigned tasks faithfully. These are rewarded for their loyalty and will be those who climb up the ladder of the hierarchical structure. And from there they won’t be able to do nothing else than perpetuate exactly the same system. It is in their intrinsic education and character, they can’t do otherwise. If you are a sheep, you will always behave like a sheep, and once you will become the head of the flock, you will again maintain a system for sheep. Expecting a reform from the inside of this environment is vain, it can’t emerge, or if it does, it will take centuries. The change can only come from the gorund up. The economic and personal interests which stand in the way are much too powerful, fear of change and innovation is too strong, and a blind pragmatic conception of education itself is much to engraved in the mind of those who would have the power and authority to make these changes happen. One has to offer an alternative system of knowledge acquisition as an alternative that students can follow without any need to enroll in present academic institutions (even though student internship and exchanges should remain a normal practice).

Therefore, only a university which bases itself on the principles of a free progress of the inner being, which allows for an external expression and development of the personal true and genuine inner indidvidual character, can offer a valid alternative, and the possibility to grow further. It is about building an institution which fosters a free self-designed progressive learning and an waster knowledge paradigm. A place where young people are not pushed into it, as it is nowadays, but pulls them at it. A great cultural concentration point where knowledge, timetables, curriculums, systems, etc. are not forced upon minds, but that attracts minds by motivation. Because it is only in such a condition of an expanded freedom of expression that the human being can flourish and express itself. Because it will finally be the inner drive which will suggest the true way to follow. If this is not done, and so far it isn’t,  the rest can’t follow.

At this stage, it is not only about finding funds for building new school, universities, new laboratories or about some new technology that is supposed to allow for more freedom and self-expression. Probably we are still not aware enough of how the ideas about education, and which have their roots mostly in the first educational reforms of the 19th century, are deeply engraved in our minds. Otherwise we would not speak about reforming but about abolishing something. Could slavery and the apartheid be ‘reformed’? These things could not be ameliorated or regulated by better laws. They had to be abolished entirely. Was it morally conceivable to maintain child labor by making it more ‘civilized’’? Nobody would put it in these terms nowadays. Everyone would agree today that it has to be eliminated. After all, enlightenment did not arise from a reform of the church’s inquisition which controlled the culture and academia in the middle ages and which imprisoned Galileo and burnt Giordano Bruno on the stake. It was a radical departure from traditional structures which ignited the scientific revolution in Europe. What is needed is not a reform but a revolution.

One might object that comparing the actual educational system to past forms of slavery goes too far. But the real difference is not qualitative but experiential. Slaves knew to be slaves. Most of modern students and teachers are enslaved too, but we are so accustomed to the present system and give it for so granted that this is the only and most natural way to acquire knowledge and express expertise, that we have only a vague sense of being imprisoned by a mental construction, perceiving an inner uneasiness and dissatisfaction, but did not reach a real awareness of the illusion of the ‘Matrix’. We even do not have any understanding what at all a different approach to teaching and learning could be. But the time will come where future generations will look back at our educational institutions like institutionalized forms of repression, and the actual primary school system will be placed at the same moral level as we consider today child labor.

But what stood, and still stands, behind all that resistance to change? It was fear. The fear of losing power and wealth, the fear of innovation, the fear of the consequences of what a new conception and perception might cause. Nowadays this fear expresses itself in the “what if” instinctive mental and emotional reflex. What if we change this or that aspect of education? What if we switch from a generation old system to a new and unexplored methodology? What if we spend money on a new project which outcome is unpredictable? If things go wrong we might have to justify our failures, we might lose our prestige, or we even might be fired and lose our job. And so, even if a timid attempt of innovation surfaces from time to time, we feel nevertheless more comfortable in maintaining everything as it is, and the system continues to hold its grip on our consciousness perpetrating itself ad infinitum.

This can be seen, for example, even in modern industrial and educationally advanced nations as in Germany. The attempt to reform a tripartite schooling system which categorizes, and consequently stigmatizes, 9 years old children into the ‘good’, ‘average’, and ‘bad’ ones, assigning them to the ‘Gymnasium’ school (those who will be prepared for academic learning), the ‘Realschule’ (the middle class school, mostly for technicians), and to the ‘Hauptschule’ (the lowest level schools, mostly visited by immigrants from poor families), met onto extreme resistance. The ‘basic instinct fear’ of the rich and educated families to send their children to schools where they have to mix up with those coming from lower social classes, has met on fierce opposition and prevented any attempt to reform an elitist and archaic educational system, which however is deeply engraved in German’s society mindset, and is almost taken for a normal natural selection process.

Another more mundane, but nice modern example of the ‘what if’ fear instinct, seems to have occurred with “Google’s 20% time” rule, which was an intuitive (probably unconscious) understanding of human’s personal inner potential. The famous search engine company once encouraged its engineers to take 20 percent of their time to apply their passion on independent projects (needless to say that a FPU will apply the 100% rule). Indeed several Google products were born in this way (e.g. Gmail, Google News). But nevertheless, Google clamped down this practice since its managers, once the company and its projects grew larger, feared that this rule could hamper the productivity of the projects established with the very same rule.

But, what if a new mindset, reform and a revolutionary idea becomes a success?

The final aim/vision/ideal would be that of an independent university campus where students are free to grow inwardly by liberating their inner soul and higher mind which manifest in a natural talent and an inner power that expresses itself in research, learning, inquiring. A place that has no financial ties or political and bureaucratic connections to present institutions and where they could learn what they want, can do research in the way they feel.

However it is, it is very unlikely that the change will come from within the present system. Those who made it through the hierarchy, no matter how much they complain privately, are forced to remain institutionally conservative. Because most are quite comfortable with their actual position and tend not to support fundamental reforms out of fear and incertitude about the future that what comes after might also be even worse. The school system is rotten from within to the core. The hope that more money, more staff, more hardware and more reforms will make things different is only a self-induced delusion which tries to hide the fear of real change. Only completely alternative institutions, funded and governed independently from the existing system, will have a chance to do so.