Francis Bacon Instauratio Magna frontispiece 1620Are we educating towards conformity of thought, or towards independence of mind? Is our system of education, perhaps our entire approach to equipping ourselves with knowledge, premised upon acceptance instead of challenge, received wisdom instead of discovery?

In the seventeenth century, Francis Bacon wrote “The Advancement of Learning,” in which he noted a lethargically compliant mindset to learning: “If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.”

This was echoed during the Age of Enlightenment 100 years later by Immanuel Kant, who decried mankind’s fearfulness of learning. Man fails to grow up and mature not through lack of intelligence, but because of an unwillingness to think critically for himself. ‘Have the courage to use your own understanding,” declared Kant; “Dare to know!”

That courage to seek knowledge would have been familiar to America’s founders, who would be astonished at their fellow Americans who now, Susan Jacoby observes, “tend to tune out any voice that is not an echo.” Entire cohorts, whether politicians or media executives, exploit this dismaying feature of contemporary society deriving its opinions from sound bites and blogs and in thrall to easy infotainment masquerading as serious thought.

We have arrived at an age when conformity is still an overbearing presence in our learning systems. Sociologist Brené Brown notes that, “Learning and creativity are inherently vulnerable. There’s never enough certainty. People want guarantees.” We are afraid to know. Where this leads is humorously noted by physicist Carlo Rovelli: “Failure to appreciate the value of uncertainty is at the origin of much silliness in our society.” In prizing our view of the world, we ossify it; rendering our physical and interior landscapes incapable of growth, renewal, and insight.

In our fear to inquire, to explore, to be challenged, we develop approaches to disseminating and inculcating learning that revolve around lore, not exploration. We build worlds where students of any age are expected to accept and not revolt. “Curiosity has no important place in my work, only conformity,” despairs noted educator John Taylor Gatto. The desire to control these meager allotments of knowledge extends to how we want others around us to cultivate their own wisdom. In discussing the Common Core State Standards in education, New York Times op-ed writer Jennifer Finney Boylan astutely observed, “It occurs to me that what enemies of a Common Core — by any name — have come to fear is really loneliness. It’s the sadness that comes when we realize that our children have thoughts that we did not give them; needs and desires we do not understand; wisdom and insight that might surpass our own.”

Despite this anxiety, we are creatures designed for learning. As a species, we have through millennia of evolutionary action maintained and honed an innate preference and need for play. In the same section of the New York Times in which Boylan observed the angst of one generation at another’s intellectual development, James Atlas wrote of the proliferation of book clubs, including those that engage professional book club facilitators, even the authors of the works being discussed.

Perhaps there is hope for the curious mind; for the spirit willing to traverse unfamiliar territory, or what poet John Keats described as Negative Capability: “That is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”