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10.5 Explaining and Understanding

When I, as a teacher, ask myself - What am I doing here?, I have until recently answered that I am passing on the operating manual for species homo sapiens. Here's the argument. Education is the process in which a person acquires the operating manual for our species. When I got my car, I got an operating manual; when I got my computer, I got an operating manual; when I got my brain (the most complex and mysterious system in the universe), there was no manual. I kept waiting for it - thinking it had been issued by another department and got lost by British Post. Halfway through my life, I realized that it was a do-it-yourself job. So I've been writing my own operating manual. It is based on the assumption that a brain is a brain is a brain. The difference between Margaret Mead and Albert Einstein (or whoever you think has most fully realized the human potential) and you and I is that they acquired a better operating manual. Since, as a teacher, I must plan my own obsolescence, I'm trying to pass the manual on to my students.

Education can best be considered as the acquiring of the Operating Manual for Species Homo Sapiens. The only sub-system which can be "operated" is, of course, the nervous system. That is where you live. That is why people talk to your eyes rather than your ears or your elbows - your pupils are the only places where your nervous system is exposed. Or consider the implications of a brain transplant. Is it the recipient or the donor who survives? Acquiring the manual is largely a matter of learning how to use tools (the word "acquiring" is judiciously chose to stress the fact that it is an inside-out job). As the wonderful genetic potential - given to all members of our species as a conception gift - unfolds, we reach out for tools which help us realize this human potential. There are extragenetic tools (outside the genetic code) and there are extrasomatic tools (outside the body). The computer is the latest, and most dramatic, extrasomatic tool. It extends the function of the brain as the telescope extends the function of the eye and the car extends the function of the leg. To refuse to use this tool is to try to outsee the telescope and to outrun the car.

One very important set of tools is media. Indeed, education could be viewed as the process of using media to expand on our genetic information, or, in more conventional terms, of acquiring certain communication skills. As we have seen, media can be considered as falling within four generations, based on whether the storage and the transmission of information is extragenetic or extrasomatic. Human progress has been a result of thinking outside the box of the brain using extragenetic and extrasomatic extensions of it. There are also a set of meta-tools for organizing information at the source for effective transmission (heuristics) and for organizing information at the destination for effective reception. The full set of explaining and understanding skills are diagramed in Figure 10.1.

After writing this book, I now prefer the less mechanistic metaphor of helping my students unwrap the conception-day gift. The first generation of media - Memory and Speech - is clearly part of the conception-day gift. However, the other generations of media piggy-back on this gift. Over historical time, brilliant members of our species have discovered much wisdom that is contained in this gift but must be unpacked. We do not need to re-discover the various wheels that have already been discovered. By passing on this wisdom, I help my students unpack the gift and see what footnote they can add to our accumulating human wisdom.