Spontaneous cooperation vs. teamwork

Working_Together_Teamwork_Puzzle_ConceptI believe 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. “Teamwork problems” is the first set of keywords that Google shows up.  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. Again google images for “teamwork”, and not surprisingly lots of military pictures show up. Of course no one would ever admit to conceive of teamwork in these terms (well, some do in fact). 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.

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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 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.

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.