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.