Friday, 17 February 2012



Education and The Immune System


At least three of our body systems involve communication and information as a means of maintaining a healthy relationship with the world.  These are the nervous system, the immune system and the endocrine system.  The nervous and immune systems at least illustrate interesting parallels between state education and healthcare systems.

The nervous system allows someone to adapt, coordinate and record, store and relate information.  Success and survival depend on being able to orient satisfactorily to a constantly changing environment; the brain and spinal cord receive information from the senses, sorts it and directs it to the different channels, resulting in responses favourable to the organism, and, given that we are social animals, ideally to our community too.  Finally, we gain a fund of experience which influence future reactions to environmental changes.

Just as an aside, one of the salient features of this system is that it helps us cope with change, and so optimal learning means optimal flexibility, anticipation and versatility.  I’m also aware of the coldness of the language i’m using here.  In my relationships and practice, i’m not like this, but i’ve chosen to be analytical here in order to make things clear.  Plenty of passion is expressed in connection with these issues, and that’s highly appropriate, but my aim here is to drain that passion and make the same argument without appealing to the emotions.  There’s a strong rational case to be made for the approaches taken to education and health.

A child’s environment should optimise the functions of the nervous system because they are part of human nature in a biological sense.  This is the kind of animal we are.  Like other primates, human behaviour depends more on past experience than that of most other animals.  Less of what we do is instinctive.  Nonetheless we have certain instincts, one of which is the instinct to learn.  One of the problems with empiricism is that a newborn baby seems to have to pull itself up by its own bootstraps intellectually, since it has no innate ideas in that model.  A possible solution to that is that it has a learning instinct, and that seems to be borne out by an adult’s observation of a child.  It’s hard to imagine that a species which depends so much on learning would not to some degree learn autonomously, without conscious intervention from others, though it might also be expected that as social animals, other individuals around us share that learning – we instinctively want to help our companions learn and they want to help us.  Moreover, we have an aptitude for doing so, in-built, which may not always be nurtured but at least manifests itself at some point in our lives.  Introspection strongly suggests that this exists in me and my empathy suggests the same is true of others.  Having said that, we are likely to learn well in a rich and varied environment.  Travel, for instance, broadens the mind.

In order for that environment to be rich and varied, different approaches might be taken, one of which could be to provide a fixed location which is varied and stimulating.  This would not necessarily depend on conscious intervention or planning, but strongly suggests that the more versatile and imaginative those who influence that environment, and the more self-sufficient it is, the more complete and versatile the learning which takes place there will be.

Much has been written about reclaiming the home as where the heart is. and clearly more trust should be placed in parents and the home than the trend seems to be.  I don’t want anything i say to contradict that.  In the meantime, homes and schools can share certain features which may not aid learning.  They can lack a strong connection with their environment.  For instance, a school might have a nature table, which has positive aspects, but for that to happen, items are removed from their surroundings and placed in different circumstances where connections may be unclear or manufactured by others even if valid.  Similarly, schools often have catering facilities and libraries.  While catering is part of the school environment, it tends to stand apart from the life of the pupils and from the likes of home economics, biology, mathematics and the rest of the curriculum while conveying implicit messages about knowledge and food.  Pupils are rarely expected to manage the purchase, pricing, stock control, nutritional balance or preparation of the food presented, but all of those activities are covered in classes at the school without exploiting the resource in their midst, wherewith they come into contact daily.  There is little integration.  Likewise, school libraries are valuable resources whcih are, however, located within school premises rather than the neighbourhood, and the wider neighbourhood usually lacks access to them.  This encourages the impression that learning takes place in a specific location specialised for that purpose, with the corollary that other places are unsuitable.  Moreover, the separation of school libraries from the community is a form of segregation which prevents much informal learning, such as how to cross roads, features of the local area, the changing seasons and the like.  The kind of learning taking place outside these places is more accidental, immediate and relevant and the kind of learning which we primates are wont to acquire, just as we would in the rainforest or on the savannah.

As well as a nervous system, we have immune and endocrine systems.  The immune system is frequently conceptually pruned down to an artificially specific immune response rather than its broader function being recognised in the barriers and flow of the body.  The skin and mucous membranes, as well as firmer and less obvious barriers such as the ethmoid bone, which separates the brain from the nasal cavity, stop microorganisms from being where they would impair the function of the body, and the flow of blood, sweat, tears, urine, mucus and other fluids, all of which we tend to associate with tabus as part of the psychological, nervous-system based immune response, wash away the hazards and the potential hurt, moves them to places where they can be dealt with or dilutes them.  Stagnation within us is a risk, examples being the development of infections in the urinary or gall bladder due to stasis or the likes of blood clots in the veins of stationary limbs, and the breaching of barriers is similarly a hazard, such as the insertion of a urinary catheter, abdominal surgery, grit in the eye or a splinter in a finger.  It’s interesting to speculate whether this more general view of immunity can be applied to the nervous system:  is there wider, systemic learning in the same way as there is wider, systemic immunity?  Nevertheless, there is such a thing as the specific immune response, where the body resists and responds to specific antigens when it detects them.  This response has much in common with learning as it involves long term acquired change as a result of earlier external environmental factors.  The body “remembers” the antigens it encounters.  Just as learning can be inappropriate, such as learned helplessness in depression or a tendency to place the wrong kind of value on conformity, so can the immune response, through hypersensitivity states and autoimmune conditions.  Examples can include asthma, eczema, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.  These maladaptive responses might be expected to take place where the presentation of information to the system is inappropriate.

Hence there are two similar situations, one involving the nervous system and the other the specific immune response.  Both concern inappropriate encounters with information which fail to integrate well with how that information is presented in a less formal and more widespread situation.

Now, taking this out of the abstract, a parallel emerges between mainstream consensus on health and education when considered in this way, both rather contentious.  With education, there seems to be a presumption that information is best assimilated when taken out of its environment, modified and presented to the child’s central nervous system in an artificial context.  With health, the same situation occurs when antigens are thought to provoke an appropriate immune response when removed from their environment, modified and presented to the specific immune response.  These processes have much in common.  They are both institutional processes of abstraction of information which strike me as inappropriate because they are likely to lead to poor fits between the human being and her environment.

More specifically, excessive hygiene and immunisation, like schooling, can involve the inappropriate presentation of information to the organism.  Excess hygiene is like sensory deprivation or boredom.  The long-term response can be surprisingly maladaptive.  It has unforeseen consequences such as self-defeating attitudes to learning and conditions where the body overreacts to otherwise harmless stimuli such as nuts.

Another system left out of this is the endocrine.  Like immunity and learning, this keeps us healthy inside through the transfer of information, and it too can “learn”.  The question arises of whether there are similarly inappropriate institutional factors which influence the endocrine system.  One might be the over-prescription of steroids.

One final comment.  Although there is much overlap, plenty of people who oppose vaccination send their children to school and plenty of children who don’t go to school have been vaccinated.  Clearly parents have made decisions in both situations which they regard as appropriate and were taken in good faith.  Even so, the parallels are interesting and suggest links between health and education which may be positive or negative.  However, it’s important to acknowledge that the connection exists, and that it may apply elsewhere.  I also wonder if the mutual hostility between the pro- and anti-vaccination camps, which is as big a problem as the issues themselves, is echoed in mutual hostility with respect to education.

Monday, 6 February 2012



A Delicate Matter


First of all, to avoid annoying a lot of people i’m going to add a whole load of caveats to this, possibly to the extent that most of this entry will end up consisting of them.  Here we go.

I’m aware that people’s main concern is with their own families and that they understand their needs better than we do, “we” being those of us who are not them.  There are lots of different “wes”.  Moreover, we all have limited time and need to do various other things with our lives than sitting in front of anything as two-dimensional as a monitor or an inked sheet of paper.  Origami and paper aircraft, or making paper oneself, are of course completely different concerns.  In fact i have so much sympathy with this view that we dispensed with the television set as a distraction several years ago and it is also for this reason that i only reluctantly upload educational videos aimed at children on YouTube, although of course ones aimed at adults are another matter since we’re all past it and many of us have had our brains scrambled by schools, through no fault of the schools themselves of course.  There are many appropriate ways of learning.

Now for the more annoying bit.  Some of us are committed to autonomous education and many of us to the idea of encouraging independence in children.  It would also be nice if there was an attempt to address bias in subject matter.

Now, a few years ago, i started a home ed wiki with the following quote, often erroneously attributed to Nelson Mandela, on the home page:

We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

Incidentally, i fully acknowledge the theistic sledgehammer in the middle of the passage which, if i could be bothered, i would attempt to rephrase, but i think most people can look beyond this to a more agnostic or metaphysically realist reading.

I proceeded to produce a series of passages, sheets and the like on various subjects on which i was confident enough to feel i was able to make a positive contribution to education, such as various crafts, classical languages and the rest.  After making quite a few contributions, i became aware that i was the only person doing this.  This is a big problem for a wiki, since it’s supposed to be collaborative, and the bias present on that big Wiki is partly down to particular people not contributing to it.  Consequently, i deleted all of the content, as it was seriously biassed towards my perspective.

And the thing is, yes, people pay lip-service to the above inspirational quote, and may live it elsewhere in their lives, but they don’t seem to do it much online.

This is what i mean:  i often see people ask for links, or sharing links, to educational resources which other people have produced.  There is a place for this, and in some people’s approach to children’s education it can be appropriate, but do we really believe we are so inadequate and ignorant that we have to keep doing this?  We function in everyday life using the skills and knowledge we have learnt through our lives.

I would personally consider it a bad example to my children to rely largely on other people’s educational input because of the surely widely-held attitudes expressed above.  We often personally try to be autonomous, but also have more widely shared beliefs, probably at least explicitly expressed by others’ actions with their children, that we want them to become autonomous themselves.  If we provide resources ourselves, apart from it being intrinsically positive as a form of skill-sharing, there are a number of other positive results.

  • We demonstrate to our children that it can be better to do things self-sufficiently than to rely on others for information, which may or may not be accurate.
  • We address a bias in subject matter which may exist due to other people whose skills are in other areas contributing when we don’t – this is a major problem on Wikipedia, where for example faux scepticism tends to dominate in a number of areas.
  • We demonstrate to the world that we are a competent and positive learning community.

I understand that other messages are also important, such as asking for help when you need it and relying on others being OK, and also that many of us are under-confident in certain areas where there is no practical need for us to be, and i am as guilty as anyone in some of those, for instance poetry, knitting and driving are “beyond me”, with the emphasis on the quotes, but if we are to overcome this we all need to get out there and make our own resources.  We are all experts in living and that’s what we’re trying to help our children to do.  We need to be the threat of a good example to schools.  Maybe if we are, those who are involved with schools will see our stuff and recognise its quality, and the truth that almost all families home educate will become manifest in a broader sense.