January 3, 2009
Why We All Need More School
The Edge Annual Question — “WHAT WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING? / What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?” — is here. The usual suspects give their often-too-usual answers, and I (as usual) am taking about a week to read and process it all.
However, I’m already charmed by “Never-Ending Childhood,” the entry from UC-Berkeley psychologist Allison Gopnik:
Humans already have a longer period of protected immaturity — a longer childhood — than any other species. Across species, a long childhood is correlated with an evolutionary strategy that depends on flexibility, intelligence and learning… We start out as brilliantly flexible but helpless and dependent babies, great at learning everything but terrible at doing just about anything. We end up as much less flexible but much more efficient and effective adults, not so good at learning but terrific at planning and acting…
Recent developments in neuroscience show that this early plasticity can be maintained and even reopened in adulthood. And, we’ve already invented the most unheralded but most powerful brain-altering technology in history — school… School lets us all continue to be brilliant but helpless babies. It lets us learn a wide variety of information flexibly, and for its own sake, without any immediate payoff. School assumes that learning is more important than doing, and that learning how to learn is most important of all. But school is also an extension of the period of infant dependence — since we don’t actually do anything useful in school, other people need to take care of us — all the way up to a Ph.D. School doesn’t include the gradual control and mastery of specific adult skills that we once experienced in apprenticeship. Universal and extended schooling means that the period of flexible learning and dependence can continue until we are in our thirties, while independent active mastery is increasingly delayed.
So, in the information age, the longer our immaturity, the more time we have to learn, the more things we can learn, and the better we will be able to handle the new stuff the universe is throwing at us. So far, all good.
Child-like brains are great for learning, but not so good for effective decision-making or productive action. There is some evidence that adolescents even now have increasing difficulty making decisions and acting independently, and pathologies of adolescent action like impulsivity and anxiety are at all-time historical highs. Fundamental grown-up human skills we once mastered through apprenticeship, like cooking and caregiving itself, just can’t be acquired through schooling. (Think of all those neurotic new parents who have never taken care of a child and try to make up for it with parenting books). When we are all babies for ever, who will be the parents? When we’re all children who will be the grown-ups?
These are troubling questions — and they all point to a single, albeit uncomfortable answer:
- 2001: A Space Odyssey.
- Dr. Strangelove.
All of these suggest that human indecision, innocence, immaturity, and ambivalence can be maintained and preserved with the aid of one or more robots with the executive capacity and strength of will to do what needs to be done.
We build the maturity and all of its benefits in — it’s part of the robot’s program. The perfect adult, unchanging, unyielding, using only its most essential neural circuitry.
And us meatbags — we can all live like Buster Bluth.
Wouldn’t it be nice to think so?