A major source of inspiration behind the Four Birds concept was something that I have come to call “holistic education'”. Holistic education is an expansive concept that challenges core opinions many people have about exactly what education is and how education should be approached. The two points in particular that I wish to challenge are, “how should education be approached?” and “can education be unbalanced?” This essay explores these two questions in detail. However, be mindful there is some crossover between these two points as I go into more depth about each one. This essay will touch on existing philosophies, their pitfalls, some solutions, why these solutions are never implemented in government funded schools and concludes with a concise summary of what holistic education is so far as Four Birds Education is concerned.
Skills Sets and the Modular Approach
A PhD student was chatting to me one day and he told me about his project of developing an elaborate system of pigeon-holing knowledge into “skill sets” and then using this to train teachers to do specific tasks to maximise the efficiency of teachers across the education system. I found myself in an awkward position of explaining to this PhD student that this would not work at all because people are not mere computers that behave in regular predictable ways. I pointed out that what he called a “skill set” was conceptually equivalent to a piece of software to download into a teacher’s brain and teaching was merely the installation process. Thus his whole thesis was based on the idea that if one downloads the right software into the brains of teachers they will magically become expert and efficient educators. This PhD student was not an idiot, but suffering from a form of educational imbalance where he was quite book smart, but not at all realistic or aware of the importance of understanding human nature. His scheme was complicated and detailed, however, he needed me to explain to him that teachers will look at this baffling array of skill sets and feel mocked leading them to resist and fight his efforts to increase their efficiency. Often a simpler solution is much better than a complicated one, something people in ivory towers tend to struggle with as they enjoy the challenge of complex ideas.
The concern though is that this PhD student’s approach is not uncommon. Many people in universities, schools and government departments have this view of human beings as being machines that can be simply reprogrammed with the correct training to do whatever one wants them to be or do. This idea is not new, it is part of a body of ideas related to “tabula rasa” or blank slate: the belief we are born into this life a blank slate with no prior knowledge and thus completely dependent on the environment to define our existences. Apart from telling this PhD student that his whole thesis was a waste of time and effort, I suggested that he consider another approach: Change the selection criteria for teachers to find people who genuinely care about education and children. These people will see teaching as a vocation and will spend their own spare time, voluntarily, researching and developing their own skill sets as necessary without having to spend huge amounts of time and money creating elaborate training systems which will be obsolete immediately as there is a market for producing educational materials already and the market will quickly produce better products than anything a single PhD student could ever hope to put together.
This is the problem with the modular approach, it assumes, like all followers if the tabula rasa, people are mindless automatons just waiting to be told what to do. Certainly, some people are mindless idiots, but this is neither natural nor desirable for a person to be this way. In fact, having a poorly developed sense of self indicates severe mental illness as without a sense of self one cannot have any self-esteem. Self-esteem is many things and a big part of self-esteem is being independent and self-reliant. An adult human lacking independence and self-reliance is only a liability to themselves and everyone around them. If your strategy for dealing with people is to train them on how to do everything and not allow them the freedom to decide for themselves, then you are going to need a complex bureaucracy to monitor them and then an even more complex one to monitor the bureaucracy set up to monitor them and so one. The modular approach is about centralisation of control to one single authority, which is how a computer’s operating system does indeed work, however, people are not computers. Computers are slaves to their masters, while human beings are free to choose and adapt themselves to their environments. In order to get a person to do what you want them to do like this, you need to first bludgeon them into submission. Would you like to watch someone bludgeon your child into submission so they will fit some scheme created by a control freak? Or would you prefer that your child was self-aware of their own interests and pursued their own interests independently of anyone else?
This is why holistic education is better to the approach funded by governments in almost every way. The goals of holistic education is to make the teacher obsolete as soon as possible and to foster an appreciation for total learning, not learning restricted to narrow skill sets. People who educate and train themselves whenever necessary to suit their changing needs and interests are the most productive and efficient workers imaginable, they are also the most confident and resilient individuals you will find. They are confident because they do not need other people to guide them or instruct them, they have all the skills necessary to guide and instruct themselves. No government on Earth to my knowledge actually wants their citizens to be this independent. Rather, they want their populations as dependent on the government as possible. Here the interests of the governing classes are not compatible with the interests of the individual.
Balanced Diets, Balanced Education
Would a person who only eats apples be considered healthy? Or one who only eats meat? Would you encourage anyone to restrict their entire diet to just one or two foods? Of course one would not because not one food source contains all of the nutrients a person needs to be healthy. Similarly, your brain is a organ that eats and digests data to create information. To have a healthy mind you need to feed your brain a variety of different intellectual foods: theoretical knowledge, practical knowledge, expressive knowledge and spiritual knowledge. These four kinds of knowledge are symbolised by the four birds and the four elements respectively: air bird, earth bird, fire bird and water bird. Thus holistic education is at the core of Four Birds Education.
By breaking knowledge down into these four quadrants it becomes easier to communicate the worth, and weaknesses, of each form area knowledge. This leads to some important questions: Can a person who only specialises in one quandrant of knowledge actually be considered educated or wise? Why is it important for respect and appreciate all four of these knowledge quadrants?
Well let me start by giving you some examples you have probably all encountered in your day to day lives:
The Ivory Tower Dweller (exclusively Air Bird): have you ever met an academic or politician who tells you of his elaborate and complex plan to fix a simple problem? He simply will not listen to simpler (and better) solutions because he can only see the value in this theoretical approach to solving the problem. He wants to dazzle people with this complex plans rather than actually be a truly useful person. Because he cannot see the value in a purely practical solution he devalues the opinions of less academic types in offering alternative solutions. These people actually have a name in German: luftmensch which means literally “air men” in English; what we would call smart but useless people. Well, it is not a shame that such smart people are wasted like this when they could be putting their talents to a much greater good? These people do have considerable talent, with a little earth they could be engineers and inventors, with a little fire teachers and leaders, with a little water counselors and sages. But without any balance these people are all talk and no action.
The Narrow Minded Pragmatist (exclusively Earth Bird): Sometimes we have the opposite problem where someone insists on doing it a simple but inefficient way, nor refuses to try new approaches or consider the value in thinking deeply about a thing which they do every day. Here we have people needlessly do more work than they have to and are not interested in hearing of other approaches for doing the same thing. The broader theoretical approach to their problems seems worthless to them and so they often fall behind everyone else and fail to reach their full potential. Just as the ivory tower dweller dismisses the pragmatist, often the pragmatist dismisses value of a deeper understanding to an every day activity. I might well have a particular way of peeling my potatoes than I am comfortable with, but refusing to listen to a friend who has a better way to peeling potatoes is just not going to help me in any way. Without any balance these people are set in their ways and inflexible.
Firebrands (exclusively Fire Bird): There are people who are naturally gifted at communication and motivating people. The way they speak, move their limbs and express themselves commands people to pay attention. These skills on their own tend to be used to confuse, exploit and enslave other people. Domineering and manipulative, these people are the con-artists and criminals of society. But temper them with air they become inspirations educators and teachers. Temper them with earth and they become inspiring instructors and defenders. Temper them with water and they become moving poets, performers and comedians. But without any balance these people are the idle hands that do the devil’s work until they find something more in their lives.
Fweelings People (exclusively Water Bird): there are plenty of good people in the world who are so overwhelmed by their own sensitivity that it makes them unable to live their lives productively or enjoyably. These people tend to have strong moral convictions and cry over the smallest thing. They are so sensitive and sentimental it is almost impossible to reason with them because their feelings completely dominate their lives and decision making. They are at once the gentlest but most aggressive people one has to deal with. If anything upsets their feelings you will know about it and the slings and arrows these folk let fly will hurt your spirit more than your body. With a little bit of air they would see the irrationality of their feelings and learn to apply themselves more consistently and realistically. With a little bit of earth and they will release themselves from the exhausting burden of their over charged emotions through the peace of mind physical exertion brings. With a little bit of fire and they will express passion beautifully and inspirationally. Without these they will be weighed down by their feelings into paralysis and depression.
I am not not advocating that people should be experts in every field of knowledge, like the idea of a “general education” but rather people should be competent in at least more than one field so as to be able to appreciate different approaches and learning. In the same way a chef cannot select the appropriate spice if they have only ever tasted two or three spices, a problem solver can not select the appropriate approach if they only value one form of knowledge. Consider a situation where a person is refusing to help, which approach would work best: explaining (air), demonstrating (earth), speaking (fire) or listening (water)? It could be any one of those, but if you only know one approach then you can only solve one type of problem. But if you know all three approaches, you are far more likely to succeed. Thus a holistic education equips a person to deal with any problem they might encounter.
Why Are Some Subjects Occulted?
By this point it will probably be clear to the reader that many people are “unbalanced” educationally. They simply do not have the appreciation or confidence in other areas of knowledge to balance them out and make them strong independent individuals. How was this imbalance achieved? Through a process of shaping the curriculum called “occultation”.
Occultation is the process by which one object is hidden by another. In the study of education, this is the process by which knowledge is hidden away and replaced with an inferior lesson. Occultation has been practiced incrementally by governments ever since they established hegemony over education in their countries. The question of why governments would deliberately occult knowledge was answered previously: a population of independent thinkers and doers is a threat to the interests of the governing class whose only interests are to stay in power and exploit the rest of the population. But what subjects have they occulted and why?
There are many subjects not taught in government funded schools today there once were, the most obvious examples that I have found are the following subjects: grammar, logic, rhetoric, history, self-discipline, ethics, politics, philosophy, aesthetics and psychology.
You might look at this list and object stating that many of these subjects still exist, however, in each case the subject in question was once a central component of education which was given prime importance in the educational process but has over the course of a century and a half been relocated to a minor role with obedience training now the central objective of government funded schooling. I will write in more detail about all of these subjects on this website and provide links to each one here when they are published but for now let me just point out the first three subjects on this list and briefly explain why they were occulted.
The first three subjects: grammar, logic and rhetoric are together called the Trivium. If the word ‘Trivium’ sounds foreign to you, then this is proof of how effect government occultation of knowledge has become. If you had a time machine and could travel back 150 years ago, any educated person you met could tell you what the trivium was: grammar, logic and rhetoric in that order. The word Trivium though has not left our language entirely however, we have a word derived from Trivium: trivia. Trivia today means “useless bits of information about a wide variety of subjects.” However, trivia used to mean, “essential information everyone should know.” Thus the trivium is essential knowledge everyone should be taught before they learn anything else in life.
In school, you might have learned English grammar, but the odds are you were not taught anything but the most basic concepts and even then you might have been taught some incorrect ideas like “verbs are doing words”, “‘a’ before a consonant and ‘an’ before a vowel”, “there are only three tenses: present, past and future.” Which is an inferior lesson taught in place of proper English grammar. However, the subject of grammar is not unique to English or languages. Every field of knowledge as it’s own “specific grammar” which describes how knowledge is arranged in that subject and so the Trivium taught “general grammar” which describes how knowledge is arranged in all subjects. An understanding of what grammar is allows learning any new subject from language to carpentry much quicker and easier than any other approach. Why is “general grammar” no longer taught? Because the government want you to only be able to do the things they train you to do. They do not want you doing things for yourself.
Next is logic, if you learned algebra, then you learned a little logic there. However, as grammar is meaning, logic is understanding. Logic teaches a person a reliable method for testing ideas and opinions without having to carry out an experiment every single time. Logic is what many people colloquially refer to as their “bullshit detector”. Can you think of any reasons why politicians do not want a country full of people with well honed and effective “bullshit detectors”?
Finally there is rhetoric, which is the art of effectively communicating knowledge and ideas one has. We all agree the communication is essential in all of our relationships, but why is it so hard to communicate with even our best friends and family, much less colleagues and countrymen? It is interesting that rhetoric used to be a core part of schooling, learning what communication is and how best to communicate with people yet now school is mostly shut up and listen. Rhetoric used to be taught in schools by the following method: classes would be set up with a mixture of older and younger children. The older children were instructed first, then they had to instruct the younger children what they had just learned. Thus in this way a student learned rhetoric and “mastered” their learning through demonstrating an ability to teach what they had learned.
Only teaching specific subjects is a form of manipulation. For example: if I only tell you a few facts, and purposely withhold some I am steering a person towards a predetermined path of my own choosing and denying that person the option to choose it for themselves. By deliberately not teaching certain subjects schools, teachers and parents are exercising a form of manipulation. The government directs this manipulation through the occultation of key subjects like the Trivium and uses it to direct people attitudes, thinking and behaviours that serve the interests of the governing classes but not the interests of the people individually.
So what is Holistic Education?
Holistic education is the fostering of an appreciation of total learning: the theoretical (understanding), the practical (doing), the expressive (communicating) and the spiritual (relational/big-picture). It aspires to teach a child to no longer need a teacher but to take full responsibility for their own education including motivation and goal-setting. It is independent of government funding and influence and seeks to achieve an individual flourishing rather than a molding process of turning a person from an individual into a slave.